Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Books That Inspired Me as an Author and Journalist: Guest Post by Peg Tyre

I am always attracted to writing that deals frankly and in an unvarnished way with what it means to be human. I am compelled by characters who have lofty dreams, and who are rocked by dreams dashed. I like characters who understand the madness and the glory of it all but don’t hide the gristle. I like characters with a certain level of alienation. 

Characters like this keep me tethered to the world. I recognize them like my long lost sisters and brothers. I think we would understand each other in real life– which is a crazy and somewhat nightmarish notion, really. Imagine meeting fiction characters in real life. We like them because they surprise us, and sometimes not in a good way. Probably best to keep them within the pages of a book, or trapped in your Kindle. 

Strange as it may seem, the best in class for this, to me, and one who first inspired me as a writer, is Edith Wharton, a 19th century novelist of manners. She did not write crime novels. She wrote largely about New York’s elite but the heart of her books are as black, hard and unflinching as history books about the scourges of war. She knew her crowd. She knew that money, and the comfort money brings, meant everything to them. She wasn’t afraid to write about that. 

On the other side of the socio-economic spectrum and forward in time 80 years, sits Pete Dexter’s books, especially his first and unsung book, God’s Pocket, which most people have forgotten about I guess, but is worth a read. In the way that Edith Wharton wrote about the sustaining and corrosive effect of money, Dexter wrote about the impact of violence. And trying to understand violence was a task laid on me when I was pretty young. Later, when I became a crime reporter for a New York City daily newspaper, I made it my profession. The genius of that book, to me, is that it captures the hum of danger that exists just under the surface of so many lives, especially among people who haven’t had a lot of advantages. Being attuned to that hum is an element I tried to capture in my first novel, Strangers in the Night, which I am delighted to say is being republished by Dead Sky Publishing. My paying job at that time was trying to understand violence – where it comes from, how it is expressed, what the impact is on a person, a family, a community and a city. Crazy as it sounds, day to day, I drove my big baby blue third hand Ford Fairmont to crime scenes– homicides mostly – and tried to piece together what went down there as best I could. Then drove to a newsroom and wrote a story that could well be the front page the next morning. Then I went home at night and wrote Strangers. Dexter, whose book Paris Trout won a National Book Award, was a journalist first, and then a novelist. His books and his career gave me a lot of hope. 

The author who blew me away, though, and made me try to write better was John William who wrote the actual Great American Novel called Stoner. I knew I could never write with anything like William’s power, and emotional precision, or ruthlessness. Honestly, Williams sets the goalposts so high. For the squeamish among you, who are revolted by Dexter, be assured, there is absolutely no violence in it, beyond the slow inexorable crushing of a human spirit. Brutal. It is about coming to terms with what is, and the struggle of amor fati or loving your fate. And that, of course, is the story contained in every essay, novel or work of journalism you’ll probably ever read, or write. 

When I was writing this book, I was inspired by a lot of my colleagues too– hard bitten hacks who were funny, cutting and vulgar and could write paragraphs with enough poetry in them to make you weep. Back then, before the newspaper business cratered, there was a whole tribe of people in Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan, Queens and Hoboken, who made their living in the writing life. Authors, editors, newspaper people, magazine writers. Every one of us hustled to make a living, Except for an heir or two gone bad, it wasn’t a tony crowd. We worked too hard. We dressed like slobs. We didn’t sleep much. We did battle with our limitations at the keyboard and when we prayed, oh we prayed to be able to express it better – to have our words reach out and touch others. We talked about books like sports teams –haters and devoted fans could argue for an hour. It wasn’t all great. The drinking– ugh. And we had a bit of reverse snobbishness. When the few that had trust funds, or pedigrees or higher aspirations got out early and moved to the suburbs and found something easier to do, we all sort of nodded. Figures, we scoffed. I’m a bit embarrassed about that now. The men were characters, and to be honest, sometimes a bit limited. (In general, too much drinking doesn’t tend to make you a very nice person.) But the women in that tribe were something else: fierce, ambitious and brave. We came from all walks of life and many ethnicities. We were daughters, mothers, sisters. We could talk to anyone, anywhere and often did. We had a strange sort of sorority, goading each other on, bringing each other into interesting projects, or sharing ideas. I tried to capture that life in Strangers in the Night. I’m glad I did. We were there to tell the stories that poured in on us from every neighborhood, precinct, and parish. We thought it would last forever but of course, it’s gone now. My book is a window into that time. 


Peg Tyre, the bestselling author of THE TROUBLE WITH BOYS, was, until recently, a senior writer at Newsweek specializing in social trends and education. She has won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Clarion Award, and a National Education Writers Association Award. She lives in New York City with her husband, novelist Peter Blauner, and their two sons. Her novel, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT, was recently re-released by Dead Sky Publishing. Connect with Peg at pegtyre.com.

No comments: