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Richard Scarsbrook: The Authors That Made Me Want to Write

The books we read in school prove excellent authorial inspiration. 

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. 


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).


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. 


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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