A list “Favorite All-Time Writers” is kind of a hard to assemble. I suppose you could base it on writers you’ve liked for a long time. Moving along with that premise, my list would be impossibly long. I’ll start off listing a few of the authors who inspired me, whose work I love to read (and reread), and who are no longer with us. That way, all my current favorites can be glad they’re still around and continue hoping they don’t make this list any time soon.
I have to start with the man who probably influenced my writing more than anyone else. John D. MacDonald was the author of more than seventy books and is probably best known for his Travis McGee series. I was first introduced to McGee as a teenager when I picked up a copy of Darker Than Amber and read it through while visiting my grandparents in Florida. McGee lived in Fort Lauderdale on a houseboat called The Busted Flush. He’d won the boat in a poker game and made his living doing “salvage consulting work.” If you lost something valuable, McGee would get it back for you, minus fifty percent. But McGee was far more than a run-of-the-mill adventurer. He had a unique philosophy about life and a code of honor that was forged out of his own personal experiences. After I finished Darker Than Amber I ran to the Farmer’s Market in West Palm Beach and bought as many other paperbacks in the series as I could find. I read them all, and MacDonald’s series eventually became so well-regarded that they began releasing the novels in hardcover and he shot to the top of the bestseller lists. MacDonald was a working-man’s writer who pursued his craft with vigor and professionalism. For a generation of young writers, he was the idol, the man we most wanted to emulate.
Although he wasn’t nearly as prolific as MacDonald, James Dickey is another “automatic” on my all-time favorite’s list. Although he started out as a nationally recognized poet, he came out with his first novel, Deliverance, in 1970. The book, which was a thriller, was an immediate bestseller and was released in paperback and made into a highly successful movie. Some high-brow critics at the time blasted Dickey for not writing a more literary book, and dismissed Deliverance as a “male fantasy.” I don’t know if Dickey ever forgave those critics, but I’d like to meet a few of them now and ask them to step outside to settle the issue. Not that Dickey would have needed my help. He was an enormous man who fought in two wars and could no doubt handle himself. On an interview on a talk show actor Burt Reynolds told a story about just how physically imposing Dickey was when they were in Georgia filming the movie version of Deliverance. Reynolds told about a minor confrontation in a bar where Dickey stood next to him and looked as “big as a house.” He only wrote two more novels (Alnilam, and To the White Sea), but his prose sang with a poet’s voice. Some of the descriptions of the rural country along the fictional (and mythological) Cahulawassee River will leave you breathless.
I’d be remiss if I left Raymond Chandler off my list. I was introduced to Chandler (and his peerless private eye, Philip Marlowe) in my teen years as well when they started rereleasing his work in paperback form. I found a copy of The Big Sleep in a used bookstore. The opening line, It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills,” was so perfectly written that I immediately bought the book and began reading. It wasn’t until after I’d finished it that I began watching for reruns of the old movie versions on the late, late shows. Who can forget Bogart as Marlowe being teased by the prodigal daughter, Carmen, in the foyer of her daddy’s big mansion? “You’re not very tall, are you?” she quips. “Well, I try to be,” Bogie replies with his trademark grin. The screenwriter, William Faulkner, adjusted the line slightly from Chandler’s book to allow for Bogart’s shorter stature. Chandler only wrote seven novels, but had an extensive array of short stories and novellas, most of which he “cannibalized” to get material for his Marlowe books.
Like Dickey, Chandler had a problem with booze. There’s no telling how many more books these two would have produced if they hadn’t been alcoholics. Whenever I think of Chandler and Dickey together I’m reminded of one of the last disagreements I had during my grad school experience. Each member of the class had to pick a novelist for an oral and written presentation and I stated my choice was James Dickey. “No, no, no,” the professor replied. “Dickey was a poet. This is a novelist class.” I reminded the professor that Dickey wrote three novels in addition to his poems, but the professor waved at me dismissively. “He’s primarily known as a poet. Pick someone else.”
Now I admit I thought about handling this situation as Dickey might have, getting up and walking over to the professor as I said, “I’ve already made my choice.” But I didn’t. I quickly said, “How about Raymond Chandler?” The professor agreed. The next few choices went to obscure authors and I sat in a huff until one of my classmates chose J.D. Salinger. “Excellent choice,” the professor cooed. “Hold on a minute,” I said. “Salinger only wrote one novel, didn’t he? How come it’s okay for him to choose an author who wrote one book and I can’t have my first choice of James Dickey when he wrote three?” The professor made some fluttering motions with his hands and went into a most unsatisfactory repetition of Dickey not being a true novelist. I couldn’t help but wonder if this prof was a kissing cousin to one of the ones who’d jumped on the anti-Deliverance bandwagon back in the day.
In the end I did the presentation on Chandler and it turned out well. This was one of the last classes I took on the road to get my master’s, and was one of the cornerstones for my pledge never to set foot on a college campus again after I’d graduated. (I’ve since relented and even teach a few college courses now.) But I’ve digressed from our topic a bit, haven’t I? Perhaps therein lies the problem of trying to assemble an “all-time” list of favorite authors. There’s so much extra baggage accumulated along the way that list becomes too cumbersome to handle.