When my oldest children were very young, I used to read to them, but when they got old enough to listen to stories more complex than little picture books, I only read to them from stories that I wanted to experience again, as an adult.
One of them was National Velvet, the wonderful novel by Enid Bagnold, which people think of, if they think of it anymore at all, as a book for girls in eighth grade who love horses.
Of course, it is that, too.
But it also is one of the most beautifully written and evocative stories of courage and motherhood perhaps ever set between two covers. It is a story of ordinary women who do great things. Here’s just one place, Amazon, where you can buy it.
For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s set in the 1920s in rural England, where 14-year-old Velvet Brown is growing up dreaming of horses. Ultimately, on the horse she got in a raffle on a shilling ticket, she impersonates a boy and wins the Grand National Steeplechase. As a girl, Velvet’s mother, Araminty Brown, was a world-class athlete who swam the English Channel. Mi Taylor, the son of her mother’s coach, works for Velvet’s father and helps to train the girl and her horse.
I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve read this book.
This is a paragraph from it, which describes how Velvet dreams of racing.
A landscape glittered behind her voice. There were icicles in it and savage fields of ice, great storms boiling over a flat countryside striped with white rails – a chessboard beneath a storm. Horses were stretched forever at the gallop. Tiny men in silk were brave beyond bearing and sat on the horses like embryos with their knees in their mouths.
Years ago, I was reading this book to my sons, now grown, who were at the time maybe 12, 9 and 7 years old.
They were attentive. I was delighted. My own first novel had been published not long before and a few times, I’d taken the boys with me to library events where I’d read aloud from The Deep End of the Ocean.
In other words, although they hadn’t read my novel on their own (and 20 years later, I might add, they still haven’t) they’d heard some of the words.
After I finished the chapter from National Velvet, my middle son Dan said, “You know, the writer of this book really copied you, Mom.”
I confess I was pretty flabbergasted. Until then, I hadn’t realized how very much, down to my molecules, I’d been influenced by Enid Bagnold (who also wrote other books, notably The Chalk Garden).
For a moment, I felt abashed.
Then I thought, if anyone ever says that my writing sounds like a writer I admire so extravagantly, I’m going to own it and be proud of it.
After all, everyone imitates those they admire. I imitated the pasta sauce my Sicilian godmother used to make. I imitate the way my middle daughter puts on her eyeshadow.
Paul Gaugin was influenced by Edouard Manet; Bob Dylan was influenced by Johnny Cash.
I was influenced by Enid Bagnold and Truman Capote and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Portis and Betty Smith (especially Betty Smith) … and am now by Ann Patchett and Ramona Ausubel and Rebecca Makkai and Jean Kwok and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Influence me. Make me better. Make me more like you.