I read two excellent posts a couple of days ago concerning questions posed by literary agent Donald Maass in his book Writing the Break Out Novel. Jodi Cleghorn, contributor to the excellent Write Anything site, and Holly West, blogger and writer at Adventures in Bedlam, both discussed an exercise from Maass’s book that can help a writer develop greater awareness of their own writing through the asking of three simple questions. 

The three questions from Maass’s book they discuss are:

What are your top three novels?
What do they have in common?
What do you bring into your novel from your top three favourites? 

Reading their posts it is clear both Cleghorn and West discovered something interesting and new about their own writing by tasking themselves in this way. Which brings me to this post and my attempt to uncover something about my own writing that I may have previously been unaware.

My top three novels (after much deliberation):

Cormac McCarthy – The Road
Maggie Gee – The White Family
John Irving – The World According to Garp

What they have in common:

On the surface these books might seem massively different. ‘The Road’ is a brutal, apocalyptic vision, ‘….Garp’ is a lively and comedic portrayal of the writer’s life, while ‘The White Family’ tackles the difficult issue of racism, particularly subconcious racism, through the eyes of an average London family. It is when I consider what brings me back to re-read these titles that their common ground becomes clear. At the core of each book is a strong focus on family relationships, particularly those of a father with his children.

‘The Road,’ for all its chilling imagery and devastated landscape is the story of a father’s desperate quest to secure a safe future for his son. The story is told through the eyes of the father as he struggles across the harsh environment under the weight of serious illness, his every thought and effort focused on the protection of his son.

Irving’s character of T. S. Garp, for all his story descends into farce at times, is a father who, remarkably for the time of writing, becomes a stay at home dad to his sons, Duncan and Walt. It was Garp’s relationship with his family, particularly his boys that drew me to this novel when I read it in my early twenties. Funny that now, over fifteen years later, my life as a fiction-writing-stay-at-home-dad with two young sons imitates Irving’s art.

The serious issues of Maggie Gee’s novel never overwhelm what is really a stark portrayal of a contemporary white British family. The theme of racism is a key to the book, but it is deftly handled by Gee through the eyes of her multiple narrators. Alfred White, the head of the household is openly rascist. He is also a father who loves his wife and his children dearly. The family life of ‘The White Family’ is what makes it feel real, much more so than the real life social issues it deals with. The fact that, in spite of his faults, Gee can make Albert a sympathetic character is due entirely to how well she crafts her characters and the relationships between Albert and his family.

What I bring into my novel from my three top favourites:

It’s clear from the above that I am interested in the relationships between a father and his children. While two of my choices are books I have read for the first time relatively recently (‘The Road,’ ‘The White Family’) one of them (‘……Garp’) I first read when I was twenty years old and ten years away from being a father. So this interest is clearly not as new as I thought it was when embarking on my novel.

My novel is the story of a man struggling with the idea of fatherhood, while also dealing with the death of his own father a few years before the novel opens. I always knew this story was influenced by my own experience (my father died in 2001) but to see that my interest in this relationship dynamic stretches back to my young adulthood has actually made me start to reassess why and how I am writing this book. My aim while writing it will remain unchanged though: to try and create truthful characters whose family relationships are as believeable and compelling as those in my three favourites.

Those are my answers, what are yours?

Related blog posts:
Jodie Cleghorn – Common Threads In Reading And Writing
Holly West – Three Favourites ‘Of All Time’