People are always asking writers about their influences. Well, not me, but famous writers. And it’s a good thing nobody’s asked me, because before today I wouldn’t have been able to point to a specific influennce. I’ve never had a mentor (just a few editors I’ve admired over the years), I certainly didn’t have any teachers guiding me during high school, and my parents were science people, not literature people. But as I’ve worked to promote Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, I’ve realized I do have an influence after all. But it’s not a person.
I became a writer because of a store. Specifically, the New England Mobile Bookstore in Newton, Massachusetts. Except I didn’t know that was its name until I was an adult. As a kid, it was just “Louis Strymish’s,” a giant industrial-type building with a somewhat creepy side door that opened onto the literary equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It was vast and full of books. That’s all. Just books. And it smelled just as good to me as a candy store might to a normal kid: ink and paper mixed with some unnameable scent (distilled creativity, perhaps?) that made me want to inhale deeply through my nostrils again and again. About twice a year, my Rhode Island-based family would drive ALL THE WAY to Massachusetts to to go Louie’s. (This was probably combined with a trip to see the Boston relatives, who didn’t actually live in Boston, another misconception I held until adulthood.) I grew up thinking that Louie, who I remember as very gruff-voiced, was a family friend, which made his store seem even cooler. But I don’t think he was. Once inside, my parents would just let me go. I would walk up and down the many long, narrow aisles grabbing every paperback that appealed to me, then sit on the cement floor in the kids’ section and read the backs. They weren’t necessarily classics, just paperbacks that looked good. Summer of My German Soldier. Adopted Jane. All of a Kind Family. I’d collect a giant pile of novels, and my parents, who weren’t the type to give me everything I wanted, would buy all of them.
I’d start reading as soon as I got into the car, often laying on my stomach in the way back. But it wasn’t just the authors who inspired me. It was that store, big and quiet like a plain, where I was free enough to figure out who I was supposed to be.
I still go to that warehouse, which I now call by its bulky real name, and it’s still one of my favorite places to buy books, but it’s not quite the same. I think that magic scent can only be detected by children.