When Zenobia takes control of her own fate, will the gods punish her audacity?
Zenobia, the proud daughter of a Syrian sheikh, refuses to marry against her will. She won’t submit to a lifetime of subservience. When her father dies, she sets out on her own, pursuing the power she believes to be her birthright, dreaming of the Roman Empire’s downfall and her ascendance to the throne.
Defying her family, Zenobia arranges her own marriage to the most influential man in the city of Palmyra. But their union is anything but peaceful—his other wife begrudges the marriage and the birth of Zenobia’s son, and Zenobia finds herself ever more drawn to her guardsman, Zabdas. As war breaks out, she’s faced with terrible choices.
From the decadent halls of Rome to the golden sands of Egypt, Zenobia fights for power, for love, and for her son. But will her hubris draw the wrath of the gods? Will she learn a “woman’s place,” or can she finally stake her claim as Empress of the East?
Wow... 2015 is nearly over, and what a year it has been. I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve worked harder than I worked this year, but I can’t recall a time when I’ve enjoyed life more, either. My good friend Devin, who lived for years in Scotland, gets a little teary-eyed whenever she hears the song “Auld Land Syne.” As 2015 comes to a close I might join Devin and indulge in a nostalic mist-up as I look back over the years.
I am certainly not a world-famous author, but my career has taken enough leaps and bounds over the past twelve months that I feel a sense of division from my recent past. Someday when I’m old, I’ll look back over my writing career and everything that came before 2015 will feel separate, as if this year was a gulf or a mountain range, a physical barrier which I have crossed (stumbling, blundering, bruising myself plenty along the way.) I can look back over that barrier and observe from a distance the years that came before. But I can never go back to those years, for better or for worse.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. But it was twenty years before I got serious about it. I didn’t really put effort into my writing until 2008, and that year was another mountain range—a separation from my past that compelled me to push on toward the future.
The period from 2008 to 2015 was neither auld nor lang syne. But that valley between two mountain ranges still makes me feel a little nostalgic as I turn and look back. So in honor of those roughly eight years when I fledged my career, I’d like to give a shout-out to the eight writers who influenced me the most while I machete-chopped my way through that valley—and share what I learned by immersing myself in their works.
8. Vladimir Nabokov
I read my first Nabokov novel, Lolita, when I was in high school. And for years afterward, I read almost no one else. I honestly tried to find more authors who could capture my imagination, but no one else could match the sumptuous bounty, the rich feast of word, sound, and emotion that Nobokov spread on his table. He reined nothing in—not his frank approach to the most unappealing parts of human nature, and not his flaming crescendos of symphonic wordplay.
In 2008, when I knew the time had come to put up or shut up, the first thing I did was run back to Nabokov. Although by that time I’d come to appreciate authors who worked in more subtle tones, Nabokov’s lush, almost-overwhelming linguistic style still thrilled me more than anyone else’s. I binged on his complete works, absorbing the rhythms and patterns of his language. I’ll never be as great a stylist as Nabokov, but dang it, I’ll always try. And that, I hope, will make all the difference.
7. F. Scott Fitzgerald
Like most American high-schoolers, I read The Great Gatsby, thought it was “pretty okay,” and dutifully wrote an essay about it. Then, in 2010, when I was thirty years old and going through a divorce, I read Gatsby again at the rather forceful recommendation of a friend.
Oh my God.
The Great Gatsby takes on whole new layers of meaning when you are thirty years old and going through a divorce. It rose in my esteem from “pretty okay” to “one of the best books I’ve ever read, or ever will read in all my life.” Fitzgerald taught me that honesty about human nature is a rare and beautiful thing, even though human nature itself is often unforgivably ugly.
6. Hilary Mantel
Readers hate present tense, you say? Readers hate vague, confusing pronouns? Major literary awards hate historical fiction, which is too “genre” to be taken seriously? Brits hate Thomas Cromwell, and can never find him sympathetic? The market is done with Tudor fiction; everybody hates it?
Hilary doesn’t care. Get out of her way, because this woman knows the meaning of the modern- day adage “haters gonna hate.” Hilary’s going to do Hilary, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not hers.
Mantel’s fearless approach to writing remains one of my greatest inspirations—for her bold, dignified-yet-saucy attitude as well as for her jaw-dropping skill with words. In defiance of all the things “everybody knows” about the historical fiction market and novels in general, she has steam-rolled her own path to success by trusting her gut (and by writing really, really, incredibly, mind-numbingly well.)
I regularly re-read her books because I find new things to study each time I visit Mantel Land. My husband Paul knows when I’ve got Mantel playing through my ear buds, because I’ll stop in the middle of whatever household chore I’m doing, squeeze my eyes shut, shake my fists toward heaven, and groan dramatically, “God…!” He will calmly reply, “You’re listening to Wolf Hall again, aren’t you?” And I’ll answer, “If I live to be a thousand years old and write every day of my life, I’ll never be this good. Never.”
But I’ll always keep aiming for that Mantel-gilded ring, no matter what the haters might think.
5. L. M. Montgomery
I believe Lucy Maud Montgomery was one of the best English-language writers who has ever lived. Sure, her Anne books are greatly beloved, but she’s always shuffled off into the realm of the not-serious, the silly and cute, because her best-known works were for children.
But of course, children deserve serious, though-provoking, vocabulary-challenging stories, and Montgomery gave them that. She wrote so much more than just kids’ books, though. Ladies (and gentlemen) in your late twenties or older, I dare you to try to get through the first couple chapters of The Blue Castle without wanting to rip your heart out from the quiet yet inexorable force of its gorgeous, soul-shattering, humanity-connecting despair. Go ahead. Just try.
Montgomery was a complicated woman who, in the midst of the fame she received for her sunny, optimistic girls’ stories, lived and died under the weight of personal tragedy. Her beautiful, vivid writing was borne out of the kind of insightful observation one really only finds in the midst of grief and pain. But in spite of the pain she felt, she shared what beauty she could with the world.
She taught me that “genre fiction” has the power to touch hearts and inspire generations of readers. She taught me that even works that seem simple can have layers of emotional complexity. And she taught me that it’s readers who determine whose legacy will live on, not publishers or book sellers or even the jury panels of major literary awards.
4. Chris Onstad
Who’s Chris Onstad, you ask? He started a web comic called Achewood way back in 2001. Today, Achewood is sporadically updated, but for many years, including much of the time I spent hacking through the valley, its installments were regular and always compelling.
Achewood’s style is absurdist and rather weird. It follows the adventures of a handful of stuffed animals and pet cats in a fictional American town. At first just cutesy and nonsensical, the strip’s characters soon evolved lives of their own, and the storylines took surprisingly profound turns. Achewood dealt with such important topics as depression, unrequited love, the dissolution of relationships, and the peculiar pain of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. These serious themes, treated by Onstad with the greatest of respect and the purest truth, took on, via their juxtaposition with crudely drawn animal characters, the kind of polish and refinement one usually only finds in great works of literary fiction.
Chris Onstad and Achewood taught me that genre doesn’t matter—and neither does the medium of your storytelling. Fiercely real characters, universal truths, and the unique beauty of damn good writing aren’t restricted to literary fiction, or even to books. They can occur anywhere an artist finds a canvas—and as long as your characters are true to themselves, your story will move those who find it.
3. Michael Ondaatje
Everyone knows Michael Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, and although it is a fantastic novel, it’s not why he will rank forever on my list of most influential writers. It’s Ondaatje’s poetry that has influenced my life and my career.
In 2011—one of the toughest years I’ve ever lived through—I was getting ready for the weekly meeting of my writers’ group when I realized I hadn’t finished the poem I’d planned to bring to the meeting. Cursing myself and glancing at the clock, I grabbed a poetry book at random from my bookshelf and flipped through it until I found something that looked interesting enough to read and discuss. The book was Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler and the poem was Heron Rex.
I hadn’t given the poem sufficient thought before the meeting, so I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I read it. Ondaatje’s cutting observation and mercilessly accurate language ambushed me almost at once. My years spent working as a zookeeper flooded into my head and my heart. Any readers out there who have worked as keepers know what I’m talking about: the awful, searing mixture of love and guilt, the devotion and pain that never leaves you, the self- loathing you feel in the midst of the magical connection you make with your animals. What was worse (or better?), the realities of keeping and Ondaatje’s words seemed to reflect, in that moment, every emotion I’d ever had throughout my first marriage and subsequent divorce.
I paused mid-poem, looked around at my friends in the writers’ group, then put my head down on the table and sobbed for at least five minutes, right in the middle of the bar. Nobody in the group knew how to react. I couldn’t express to them what Heron Rex was doing to me, the way it had looked directly into my heart and reflected years’ worth of big, imposing feelings with a light so bright it was blinding.
Ondaatje’s poetry showed me the power of personal truth. The right combination of words, the right image, can reach individual readers in ways nothing else can. Most authors will never know if they manage to find that place in a reader’s heart—the place Heron Rex found in mine. But the mere possibility that I might one day do for someone else what Michael Ondaatje did for me is a great motivator and an inspiration.
2. Joyce Carol Oates
A masterful storyteller who never shies away from the gritty and the profane, Oates will never receive the kind of recognition she deserves. She writes at a pace that frightens publishers and critics. (I do, too.) In defiance of common belief that writers can’t be both fast and good, Oates is a well-respected author of boundary-pushing literary fiction and she writes like her face is on fire.
Her command of language is as fine as any well-respected author’s. The truths she tells are just as pithy, her modes of expression are just as beautiful, and she has been called a genius (deservedly so) by several respected reviewers. Yet it’s likely that she’ll never win any major awards simply because she writes a lot. A good many misguided people think that anybody who writes as much as Oates does can’t possibly be saying anything worth listening to.
But does she care? Evidently not. In response to critics who have taken her to task for her ever- growing body of work, Oates has said, “I have more stories to tell.” Who cares if the literary world might never acclaim her as a “serious” novelist? The lady has more stories to tell, and by God, she’s going to tell them.
JCO’s words themselves are worth learning from, but it’s her dedication to telling all her stories, and to hell with the consequences, that inspires me. I’ve got a lot of stories to tell, too. And I don’t care who doesn’t like my speed. You only live once, and if you’re going to cram all that writing into one short lifetime, you’d better get to it.
1. Neko Case
Some might find it odd that a musician tops my list of most influential writers. But Neko Case has been a double inspiration to me, so she stands at the top of my heap.
You won’t find lyrics more lush and evocative than Case’s. She’s like Michael Ondaatje and Vladimir Nabokov and Hilary Mantel set to music. Her word-imagery shakes and shocks me, surprising me with its inventive twists and thrilling me with forceful honesty. Whenever I’m going to start a new book, I spend a couple of days walking my favorite trails, listening to every Neko Case album. When my heart is brimming over with her haunting images, I know I’m ready to write, and write well.
But lyrics aside, I think I’m most inspired by Neko Case’s tremendous success as an independent artist. Her career motivated me to strike out on my own, self-publishing my books and building my career on my own terms. I reasoned that if one artist out there—Neko Case—could pursue her art solely on her terms and still find commercial success, then it was posible for me to “make it,” too.
Case’s inspirational career pushed me toward artistic independence. And it was that independence that led me to 2015, my busiest but most exciting year to date. I wish I could thank all the writers who have influenced me, but unless I become a time-traveler and/or the world’s most fancy socialite, it’s never going to happen.
Thank you, Books à la Mode, for indulging my maudlin look back at the past eight years. Now everybody sing it with me: Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind...
About the Author
Libbie Hawker writes historical and literary fiction featuring deeply human characters, with rich details of time and place. She is the author of ten novels, most of which take place in the distant past among ancient civilizations. She lives in the beautiful San Juan Islands with her husband.
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