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Richard Scarsbrook: The Authors That Made Me Want to Write

Book Cover Rockets Versus Gravity

Richard Scarsbrook's latest novel is Rockets Versus Gravity. He tells us about the books he read in school who taught him how to write. 

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Students and interviewers often ask me to list the books that have influenced me the most as an author, and this is always one of the most difficult questions for me to answer, because everything I’ve read has affected me in one way or another, and if I try to list all of the writers whose work I currently admire, I’ll inevitably forget someone and feel badly about it later.

So, instead, I’ll name some books that I was required to read during my formative years, books that also made me want to write (although I suspect that I am still in my formative years; I’m still learning, anyway).

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Book Cover Alligator Pie

When I was in elementary school, I became obsessed with creating my own illustrated rhyming poems and stories, and one of the books responsible for this was Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie (“If I don’t get some, I think I’m gonna die!”). Although I don’t illustrate them anymore, and they rarely rhyme now, I still love writing poetry now as much as I did then. 

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Book Cover The Hockey Sweater

Another book I really enjoyed as a kid was the English translation of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater—not because I was particularly into hockey at the time, but because I always felt like the kid who got sent to school in a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey when everyone else was wearing a Montreal Canadiens sweater. But we creative types often tend to march to the beat of our drum anyway, so it worked out in the end. 

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Book Cover Owls in the Family

In middle school, one of my favourite authors was Farley Mowat. We read Owls in the Family in Grade 4, and in Grade 6 I did an independent study of Lost in the Barrens. I learned a lot about how to plot a story from these books; they are real page-turners! Also, I once met Farley Mowat at a book signing at the Coles bookstore in Windsor when I was 12, and when I told him that I thought I might want to be a writer someday, he said something like, “Don’t wait until someday; start now!” And so I did.

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Book cover This Can't Be Happenin

Also in Grade 6 (an important year for me as an author), I read Gordon Korman’s This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall, and its sequel Go Jump in the Pool! I enjoyed these books immensely, and when I discovered that Korman wrote these books when he was just 12 years old himself, I felt like maybe I could do it, too. It took me a bit longer than him to see my first book in print, but I’m still grateful Gordon Korman (and Farley Mowat) for making 12-year-old me feel like I could become an author, too.

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In high school, I enjoyed all of the “Can Lit Classics” that we were assigned to read.

Book Cover The Handmaid's Tale

I loved Margaret Atwood for her gutsy, fearless, thought-provoking themes (and also for her gusty, fearless, intelligent public persona). I was assigned The Handmaid’s Tale in my final year of high school, and I’ve re-read it every decade since then; it’s the sign of a truly great book when the same story reveals more of itself to you at different stages of your life. I’ve read almost all of Atwood’s work since then, and if you are a high school student now, you should read Oryx and Crake as soon as possible. It’s brilliant.

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Book Cover The Stone Angel

I also loved the “other Margaret,” Margaret Lawrence, for her well-defined and complex characters. I learned much from our assigned reading, The Diviners, but I really admired The Stone Angel; the main character, Hagar Shipley, remains one of my all-time favourites, and she certainly influenced my own obsession with creating (and trying to understand) “difficult” characters.

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Book Cover Fifth Business

Robertson Davies is still one of my favourite writers. I particularly enjoy his “plain style” of narrative (as he calls it himself), and his winking, self-reflective narrative voice (which is something I tried to emulate in my own way in my first couple of books). We were assigned to read Fifth Business, which remains one of my favourite novels ever, and I went on to read the rest of The Deptford Trilogy, and then Davies' Cornish Trilogy, and then pretty much everything else he ever wrote. 

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Book Cover the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

I also loved Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, for many reasons; Richler’s brand of dark humour certainly made its mark on me, and the book’s examination of our society’s obsession with materialism at all costs is one that permeates my own work. Reading this book in high school also led me to read Richler’s hilarious earlier novel, Cocksure, and his later masterpiece, Barney’s Version, and I’m grateful that I did.

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Book Cover Runaway

I also learned a lot about how to write a compelling short story from reading fellow Canadians. I learned much about crafting the short story from the subtlety of Alice Munro’s work. I was (and still am) amazed at how she can conceal an iceberg of a story beneath the seemingly calm surface of her settings. I read The Lives of Girls and Women in high school, which eventually led me to Runaway, one of my favourite short story collections ever.

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Book Cover Shoeless Joe

I found W.P. Kinsella’s stories, in collections like Scars and Dance Me Outside, to be funny and masterfully paced, often revealing a perfect (and often darker) critical detail right at the story’s end; “Cardamom” is one of my all-time favourites for this. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe is also one of my favourites, so it was an incredible thrill for me when Kinsella later wrote a very positive review of my first novel, Cheeseburger Subversive, for Books in Canada.

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Book Cover Let Us Compare Mythologies

Since I began this list with some poetry, I will end it that way, too. Studying Leonard Cohen’s work definitely had an effect on the style and subject matter in my own poems, and reading Cohen’s poetry aloud also had a positive influence on my love life. Try it sometime! Start with Let Us Compare Mythologies, and finish with The Book of Longing.

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So, hey, you want to be a writer, kid? Step one: get reading! Read frequently, widely, deeply, and enthusiastically. The CanLit Classics that your teacher just assigned are a good place to start.

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Book Cover Rockets Versus Gravity

About Rockets Versus Gravity:

Trajectory. Declination. Impact. Escape Velocity. These are rocketry terms that could also describe aspects of the human experience.

A lumberjack obsessed with space travel loses four different wedding rings, and each of the lost rings symbolizes something different to the person who finds it.

There are the members of a rich family whose dramas overlap with those of the homeless people living right next door, under the bridges of the Rosedale Ravine. The wheelchair-bound teen who declares war on a man parking his luxury car in the handicapped parking spot. The would-be rock star selling insurance, whose terminal diagnosis sets his life on a new and dizzying path. 

And many others. Every person is connected to every other—genetically, coincidentally, necessarily, or randomly. Every action has a consequence, seen or unseen, from the sublime to the catastrophic.

September 26, 2016

Books mentioned in this post

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Rockets Versus Gravity

by Richard Scarsbrook
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: literary, sagas

A National Post Bestseller!
A multi-faceted story that explores how small actions and changes can give rise to startling and unintended consequences.

Trajectory. Declination. Impact. Escape Velocity. These are rocketry terms that could also describe aspects of the human experience.

A lumberjack obsessed with space travel loses four different wedding …

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Alligator Pie Classic Edition

by Dennis Lee, illustrated by Frank Newfeld
edition: Hardcover
  • age: 4 to 7
  • Grade: 2 to 4
tagged: humorous

"You can almost hear the skipping rope slapping the sidewalk,” wrote Margaret Laurence of Dennis Lee’s timeless poetry collection Alligator Pie. One of the first illustrated books published about Canadian children and featuring Canadian place names, Alligator Pie established Dennis Lee’s reputation as “Canada’s Father Goose” and has sol …

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The Hockey Sweater

by Roch Carrier, illustrated by Sheldon Cohen, translated by Sheila Fischman
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover Hardcover
  • age: 7 to 9
  • Grade: 2 to 4
tagged: hockey, classics

In the days of Roch’s childhood, winters in the village of Ste. Justine were long. Life centered around school, church, and the hockey rink, and every boy’s hero was Montreal Canadiens hockey legend Maurice Richard. Everyone wore Richard’s number 9. They laced their skates like Richard. They even wore their hair like Richard. When Roch outgro …

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Owls in the Family

Penguin Modern Classics Edition

by Farley Mowat
edition: Paperback
tagged: literary, humorous, animals

Every child needs to have a pet. No one could argue with that. But what happens when your pet is an owl, and your owl is terrorizing the neighbourhood? Owls in the Family is a delightful treasure to be read again and again.

In this exciting story for young readers, a boy's pet menagerie, which includes crows, magpies, gophers and a dog, grows out of …

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Lost in the Barrens

Penguin Modern Classics Edition

by Farley Mowat
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
tagged: literary, action & adventure, coming of age

Winner of Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature
As thrilling to read now as when it was first published, this is Farley Mowat's bestselling tale of danger, survival, and companionship in the far North.
Awasin, a Cree Indian boy, and Jamie, a Canadian orphan living with his uncle, the trapper Angus Macnair, are enchanted by the magi …

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Macdonald Hall: This Can't Be Happening!

by Gordon Korman
edition: Paperback
tagged:

The book that started it all, written when Gordon Korman was only 12!

Best friends Bruno Walton and Melvin "Boots" O'Neal love sharing a dorm room at Macdonald Hall. But their practical jokes get out of hand, and Headmaster Sturgeon -- they call him The Fish-- separates the buddies. How will Bruno and Boots get back together?

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Macdonald Hall: Go Jump in the Pool!

by Gordon Korman
edition: Paperback
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
tagged:

When Bruno and Boots learn that Macdonald Hall is about to lose some of its best students to its arch-rival, York Academy, because th eHall doesn't have a swimming pool, they go on the warpath, determined to save the school. But their fundraising schemes turn to hilarious chaos!

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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood
tagged: dystopian, contemporary women, feminist

An instant classic and eerily prescient cultural phenomenon, from “the patron saint of feminist dystopian fiction” (New York Times). Now an award-winning Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss.

In this multi-award-winning, bestselling novel, Margaret Atwood has created a stunning Orwellian vision of the near future. This is the story of Offred, one …

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Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged: literary, apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic, genetic engineering

Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future.

Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of ans …

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The Stone Angel

by Margaret Laurence
tagged: literary, classics

The film adaptation of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, starring acclaimed actresses Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Page, and introducing Christine Horne, opens in theatres May 9, 2008.

This special fortieth-anniversary edition of Margaret Laurence’s most celebrated novel will introduce readers again to one of the most memorable characters in Canadia …

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Fifth Business

by Robertson Davies
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged: classics, magical realism, world war i

Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernic …

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Cocksure

by Mordecai Richler
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback Audiobook (CD)
tagged: literary, humorous

In the swinging culture of sixties’ London, Canadian Mortimer Griffin is a beleaguered editor adrift in a sea of hypocrisy and deceit. Alone in a world where nobody shares his values but everyone wants the same things, Mortimer must navigate the currents of these changing times. Richler’s eccentric cast of characters include the gorgeous Polly, …

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Barney's Version

Penguin Modern Classics Edition

by Mordecai Richler
tagged: literary, jewish, humorous

Ebullient and perverse, thrice married, Barney Panofsky has always clung to two cherished beliefs: life is absurd and nobody truly ever understands anybody else. But when his sworn enemy publicly states that Barney is a wife abuser, an intellectual fraud and probably a murderer, he is driven to write his own memoirs. Charged with comic energy and a …

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Lives Of Girls And Women

by Alice Munro
tagged: literary

Lives of Girls and Women is the intensely readable, touching and very funny story of Del Jordan, a young woman who journeys from the carelessness of childhood through an uneasy adolescence in search of love and sexual experience.

As Del dreams of becoming famous, suffers embarrassment about her mother, endures the humiliation of her body's insisten …

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Runaway

by Alice Munro
edition: Paperback
tagged: short stories (single author), family life, contemporary women

The incomparable Alice Munro's bestselling and rapturously acclaimed Runaway is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises. In Munro's hands, the people she writes about—women of all ages and circumstances, and their friends, lovers, parents, and children—become as vivid as our own neighbours. It is her …

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Cheeseburger Subversive

by Richard Scarsbrook
edition: eBook
also available: Paperback
  • age: 13 to 18
  • Grade: 12
tagged: coming of age

This compelling coming of age story will leave older teenage boys alternatively snorting with laughter and silently shivering in recognition at the strength and power of bullies. Dak Sifter grows from a bright, 12-year-old beginning to notice how men treat their sons and wives, through the suicide of an abused friend, to buying his first car, writi …

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Let Us Compare Mythologies

Poems

by Leonard Cohen
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged: canadian, love

Published in 1956 to immediate acclaim, Leonard Cohen’s first published book contains poems written between the ages of fifteen and twenty.

Now, new generations of readers will rediscover not only the early, though no less accomplished and passionate, work of one of our most beloved writers, but poetry that resonates loudly with relevance today.

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Book of Longing

by Leonard Cohen
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged: canadian, love, inspirational & religious

Leonard Cohen is one of the great writers, performers, and most consistently daring artists of our time. Book of Longing is Cohen’s eagerly awaited new collection of poems, following his highly acclaimed 1984 title, Book of Mercy, and his hugely successful 1993 publication, Stranger Music, a Globe and Mail national bestseller. Book of Longing con …

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