Literature is a lonely art, but writers keep company with the heroes on their bookshelves. We asked five Festival of Books participants to pay tribute to authors who inspired them.
I was 16 years old, and Shirley Jackson was my escape hatch. A cross-country move had pulled me from the performing arts magnet school I loved, the only place in the world where a teenager’s social status could be improved by moderate skill on the violin. I found myself floundering in an academically rigorous high school with research-ready chemistry labs, a weirdly competitive marching band and a trigonometry class that I swiftly failed.
In those first lonely months as the new kid, I spent a lot of time in the school library, spending most of the lunch hour hiding under a desk. By the luck of the shelving system, the school’s Shirley Jackson collection was near the floor, giving me the chance to work through “The Lottery,” “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and “The Haunting of Hill House” without moving from my spot.
The loners in her books appealed to me, the fragile and friendless women in worlds built to appear ordinary that always revealed a more sinister nature.
In addition to the bigger Jackson books, the library — which really was a great one in hindsight — also had “Just an Ordinary Day,” a collection pulled together posthumously from odd places (half a dozen were found in an old barn in Vermont). But I wasn’t into reading introductions and so came upon all of it without context, finding the stories even stranger and funnier than those I’d already read, some with really curious characters and writing techniques I’d never known before.
This was at a time when my English classes were preparing me for English classes in college with Chaucer and Milton, and I pictured writing as some lost alchemy performed more or less by wizards. Soon enough I started writing stories of my own, following the strange path that Jackson and a few others had cut through the woods.
I’ve heard stories about her since, here and there. I heard that she would crank out mystery novels when she was younger without knowing who committed the crime, and when it came time to write the last chapter she would put all the characters’ names in a hat, choose the murderer at random, and wrap the whole thing up around the random choice. I heard she bequeathed small shards of her bones to close friends.
I don’t know if those stories are true, but they had a strong and lasting effect on how I felt about art — it was bodily and visceral, it was an experiment and a game. Though I had read plenty before, Shirley Jackson felt like my first example of a real writer, and that reality was passed on through her stories.
Gray will appear at the Festival of Books on April 19. She has written four books of fiction, including the novel “Threats” and the story collection “Gutshot,” published this month. She lives in Los Angeles.
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