In Print : Inspiring people
"Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives," Elizabeth Benedict, editor, Free Press, 2009, $24.99.
As her latest project, best-selling novelist, National Book Award finalist and former Vineyard resident Elizabeth Benedict is the editor of "Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives," a collection of original essays by writers such as Michael Cunningham, Mary Gordon, Joyce Carol Oates, Edmund White, and Jane Smiley.
Sometimes writers are inspired by authors of books they love but whom they have never met; sometimes they are coworkers or people in writing programs. Most often it's a person -- teacher, family member, or other awe-inspiring individual. Not all of them were benevolent in the ordinary sense. Yet as Ms. Benedict observes in her introduction, they seem to share "a yearning to acknowledge and to thank the people who had made a landmark difference in their lives."
Ms. Benedict's connections to the Vineyard remain strong. She lived in Vineyard Haven for four years and has returned frequently. She based her popular fourth novel, "Almost" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), on an island very much like the Vineyard. I met her on the Island, reviewed one of her novels, and became a friend as well as a fan of her writing. In this fractured age we live in, it is a pleasure not to feel compelled to march through page after page of "Mentors, Muses & Monsters" but to wander around from person to subject to theme. The patterns among writers and influences emerge regardless of the order in which the essays are read, and I confess I haven't finished reading all the essays. In truth, I am reluctant to complete it, so deliciously rich and illuminating have I found each offering. I suspect any writer or serious reader will feel the same way.
As Ms. Benedict explains, the writers address the task at hand by telling stories about how they met their mentors or muses or encountered the monsters who set them on the often bumpy road to becoming an author. The essays are not simply worshipful tributes to literary lions. Each writer shades in the nuances of character and experience that make his subject come to life, and each reads like a short story.
Ms. Benedict herself found that Elizabeth Hardwick, for whose children she babysat while a student at Barnard, gave her the encouragement she needed, even though Miss Hardwick "liked but did not love" Ms. Benedict's work.
When Dinaw Mengestu, the award-winning author of the novel "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," failed to sell his first novel, he took a job in a Harlem after-school program. Despite his fondness for the students he tutored, his failure there, too, convinced him that he must re-commit himself to the life of the writer.
Each writer demonstrates his and her own inimitable style. Jane Smiley writes a sentence, then follows it with another that is entirely unexpected. In his selection, Caryl Phillips captures an entire lifetime of influences in 10 microcosmic chapters.
For the reader aspiring to sharpen his own craft, gem after gem emerges from this book's pages. In describing novelist Alice McDermott's powerful influence on her, Anita Shreve also explains how changing the sex of the protagonist from female to male enabled her to write her first novel.
For serious readers, clues emerge about stylistic parallels with other writers. Michael Cunningham talks about how he happened on Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" at age 15 and later took Woolf's first title for his own book, "The Hours," in sentences as fluid as his mentor's.
As a surprise benefit: Readers can generate their own list of to-read authors and books from the pages of "Mentors, Muses & Monsters" out of the names and titles that prove unfamiliar.