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Who are your heroes?

I stumbled upon a truism today that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s that you can learn a lot about someone by knowing who their heroes are.

The more I thought about it, the more these names kept popping up. Sure, I’m a fan of Shakespeare, and Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, or Amy Winehouse and Erykah Badu, or just my older brother, Kirk, or my grandfather.

There are everyday heroes, in life, sports, or pop culture. But as a writer, for me, there’s these three. I guess they’re my literary heroes:

Harlan Ellison

To avoid the stress of my job and the struggles of my unhappy first marriage, I’d escape to a local bookstore that stayed open until midnight. While some guys drown their sorrows at the corner pub, I’d hit the bookstore and drank hot chocolate with mint, reading Harlan Ellison until they kicked me out. I’d discovered his seminal short fiction years earlier, but in my late 20s, I stumbled upon what I would argue is his best work, his non-fiction, his collections of essays (rantings, ramblings, spleen self-extractions—choose your own descriptor) that ran in the LA Free Press.

His voice, his rage, his humor, his…utter vulnerability, was unlike anything I’d ever read. These stories were unprocessed. Unvarnished. And as a young man I had struggled with my own inability to keep quiet—to fit in. Because of this, I found fellowship in Harlan’s writing.

Sure, when I finally spent time with Harlan, I told him it was his writing that made me want to become a writer, but truth-be-told, it was his honesty that made me take the blinders off my own life.

Sherman Alexie

The one comment that follows a lot of my book gigs is, “You were so funny!” 

I guess this is a surprise to many people because my writing (admittedly) is rather melancholic and also because most authors are expected to be as dry as a stale slice of unbuttered wheat toast—like an uninflected NPR announcer, droning on and on and on and on and on. Sadly, many are like that.

And I had the same reaction the first time I heard Sherman Alexie give a talk. He was so irreverent, and charming, and hysterically funny, it gave a whole new layer of authenticity to his writing—because I’m a firm believer that humor comes from emotional pain. Suddenly I saw the non-fiction roots of his made-up tales.

I’m funny. But Sherman is hilarious.

Pat Conroy

Conroy once said, “The greatest gift a writer can ever be given is an unhappy childhood.” If you’ve ever read The Great Santini, or My Losing Season, or The Prince of Tides, you’ll know that Pat was indeed a gifted child.

In my own case, I lost both of my parents in my early 30s—that alone was painful. But long before they passed, whether by sins of commission, or omission, they managed to leave cracks in my foundation that I still struggle with to this day. That Pat turned so many perceived weaknesses into strengths is a wonder to behold.

Okay, that’s me. Who are your heroes?

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Reader Comments (10)

Hi! I just want to let you know that you're one of my favorite authors. I enjoyed Hotel on the Corner or Bitter and Sweet tremendously. Pat Conroy is also one of my all time favorites. His books are amazing. I'm an avid reader and I'm so thankful for talented authors such as yourself. Hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.
November 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenn
Two authors, one of them an artist. Perhaps you fit into that category as well? Nick Bantock is the first. You're the second. You tell a wonderful story with words. And indeed, you are funny. Didn't realize that until I attended a book club event where you were the main attraction.
November 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave Dubé
Love this post, Jamie.

I don't know who my literary heroes are... I have favorite authors, but I don't think that's quite the same. And I'm not the type of reader who goes through one writer's books voraciously, so I don't know if I'm familiar enough with any one author (except maybe Amy Tan?) to connect with them the way you did with these guys.

I will say, though, that I too admire Alexie and find him hilarious.

I'll give this some thought, though, because I think it's a good question.
November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristan
Great Choices Jamie. Now I need to read some Pat Conroy. Your assessment of how funny you and Sherman Alexie is true. I would say your humor is more understated. Both of you are heartfelt and vulnerable which makes for great readings. I would say that at readings Sherman is more of a teacher and you are more of a sharer. Both strengths!
November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Malcomson
Jamie --

Yours is certainly a list of superb writers that I admire greatly. Here's mine:

-- Ivan Doig, who does extensive research to get the facts right and then spins great stories.
-- Barbara Kingsolver, who I think is America's greatest living writer. Her prodigious range and moral compass elevate us all.
-- Wallace Stegner, a master teacher whose students have dominated American literature for decades, and whose own work--fiction and non-fiction--elucidates the human condition.
November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterM. Mark Miller
JK Rowling - I adore her works and she's inspired me to do what I want to do regardless of the obstacles laid upon you.
My boss - He knows what he wants and he won't stop until he gets it. I still wish I have the energy that he has.
My parents - They always think of us, their children, first before anything else. They work hard and they don't want stop us from doing what we want that's why I was so inspired to really work hard not just for myself and my future but for them as well.
I hope that gave you an idea about me.
December 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNatasha Tygart
I admire the writings of JK Rowling! but I enjoy reading Sherman's pieces! He made me really laugh out loud and release my tensions in my body!
December 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerard Brightman
What a wonderful post Jamie. I only think of two people: Stan Lee and Stephanie Meyer. Stan is the creator and author of my most favorite super hero which is Spider-man while Stephanie's works which include the successful Twilight series are my greatest faves.

- Dylan
December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrochure Printing

I'm afraid that I haven't read much about the lives of the writers I favor, I guess you are the one I know most about and I am eagerly awaiting your next book.

Sherman Alexi, Adrian Lewis, and James Welch are high on my favorites list for their insight into Native Americans. I am also a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver for the way she reminds us of a past that our highschool history classes and politicians failed to tell. I have also become an avid fan of Elizabeth Kostolva and her books, The Historian and The Swan Thieves.

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January 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeoNext bad reviews

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