Today marks the nineteenth anniversary of the first scene in my novel The Bookman’s Tale. As I have traveled to bookstores, libraries, and bookclubs since the novel’s publication, I am often asked about what books influenced my writing. It’s a tricky question, because I try to make my own work original, but I am also influenced by every book I’ve read—some of which model good writing and some of which show me what not to do. But here are some of my favorites which seem most connected to my work on The Bookman’s Tale:
Possession, A. S. Byatt
I’ve been a fan of this book since the first time I read it shortly after it was published in 1990. Like The Bookman’s Tale, it features a combination of a contemporary story and a historical mystery. As a book collector with an interest in the Victorian period, I was drawn to the idea of the literary mystery in Possession—that is, a mystery about literature. I’ve read a lot of books that fit into that category since then—from The Thirteenth Tale to Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop, but Possession was my first. It was the novel in which I started to see how my various passions—rare books and manuscripts, English literature, the English countryside—could work together. I wasn’t consciously thinking about Possession when I wrote The Bookman’s Tale, but afterwards I can definitely see the influence of Byatt and those who followed her into the world of mystery with a literary setting.
What’s Bred in the Bone, Robertson Davies
This is the second book in the Canadian writer Davies’ Cornish trilogy, and my favorite of his many novels. What intrigued me about this was its theme of forgery and the nature of art. The hero spends part of the novel spying on the Nazis working undercover as an art expert. He produces two paintings in the style of the Renaissance and when these are discovered years later they are hailed as the brilliant work of a previously undiscovered master. Cornish’s paintings are, in fact, too good for him to claim credit for them. In addition to Davies witty style and great story-telling ability, what drew me to this novel were the interlocking questions: What is art? What is forgery? When does one become indistinguishable from the other? Again, while I wasn’t thinking about Davies when I worked on The Bookman’s Tale, I can’t help but recall What’s Bred in the Bone when I read a line from my novel: “Peter wondered if there was someone out there in rare-book history who had achieved what Hofmann almost did—if there were forgeries sitting on the shelves of the Devereaux Room that were so perfect they would never be detected.”
London, Edward Rutherford
I have read most of Rutherford’s multi-generational epics and while Sarum was my favorite (partly because I love Salisbury and its cathedral so much) London was the one I returned to when I was working on The Bookman’s Tale. Rutherford does such a wonderful job of catching the details of life in time periods from the pre-historic to the recent past. When I was working on the Elizabethan and Jacobean sections of The Bookman’s Tale I reread the section of London set during that period, simply to put myself in a sixteenth-century frame of mind. After reading Rutherford, it was easier to enter my own world of historic London from the raucous back room of the George and Dragon Inn to the Globe Theatre to the private library of Robert Cotton.
Interred with Their Bones, Jennifer Lee Carrell
I’ve read several mysteries that involved, in one way or another, William Shakespeare (Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows is another good one), but Carrell’s is my favorite, so I was thrilled when she agreed to contribute a blurb to the back of The Bookman’s Tale. Carrell’s story of the search for a lost Shakespeare artifact has page-turning excitement and is just enough within the bounds of reason that we believe it really could happen—a delicate but necessary balance for a book like this. One blogger described The Bookman’s Tale as “Indiana Jones for booklovers.” Whether that’s true for my book, it’s certainly true for Carrell’s.
Foolscap, or The Stages of Love, Michael Malone.
I found this book a delight on so many levels. Malone combines wit with literary intrigue and a skewering of American academic life. There’s a literary mystery, a brazen bit of forgery, and a fictional North Carolina university—all elements that also come into play in The Bookman’s Tale. I’ve seen this book described as a comedy of manners, which may be right on the mark and part of why I like it. It has elements that inspired me as a writer—that fictional university (mine is part Duke, part Davidson, and part Wake Forest) and the exploration of forgery—and the style reminded me of works I love by authors such as David Lodge and P. G. Wodehouse.