Mentors, Muses & Monsters

30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives

Edited by Elizabeth Benedict

Subjects: Memoir, Literature, Autobiography, Biography And Memoir
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438443508, 293 pages, February 2012

Table of contents

Preface to Paperback Edition
Part I: People We Encountered
Elizabeth Benedict: “Why Not Say What Happened?”: Remembering Miss Hardwick
Robert Boyers: Imagining Influence
Jay Cantor: Fathers
John Casey: Mentors in General, Peter Taylor in Particular
Maud Casey: A Life in Books
Alexander Chee: Annie Dillard and the Writing Life
Jonathan Safran Foer: The Snow Globe
Julia Glass: When Julie Met Deb…
Mary Gordon: The Tiger and the Pelican: Mentors Elizabeth Hardwick and Janice Thaddeus
Arnon Grunberg: The Moment
Margot Livesey: Only Plump the Pillows
Sigrid Nunez: Sontag’s Rules
Joyce Carol Oates: In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters: Notes on Writerly Influences
Carolyn See: The Scholars and the Pornographer
Jim Shepard: “But What I Really Love About This Is This Amazing Game That You’ve Invented”: An Appreciation of John Hawkes
Cheryl Strayed: Munro Country
Evelyn Toynton: Mother Country
Lily Tuck: The Seducer
Edmund White: Harold Brodkey
Part II: Books We Read
Michael Cunningham: Company
Samantha Hunt: Five Million Head of Cattle
Denis Johnson: On Fat City

ZZ Packer: Mad Hope and Mavericks
Anita Shreve: Getting it. Deeply immersed. In awe. Learning. Reading Ms. McDermott. Appreciating beginnings. Still appreciating beginnings. Nailing it.
Martha Southgate: Paper Mentors
Part III. Times of Our Lives
Christopher Castellani: Coming of Age at Bread Loaf
Neil Gordon: Please Don’t Write
Dinaw Mengestu: Storying
Caryl Phillips: Growing Pains
Jane Smiley: Iowa City, 1974
Author Biographies

Thirty writers look back at the the people, events, and books that launched their literary lives.


In the rich, impassioned essays collected here, thirty of today's brightest literary lights address the question of mentorship and influence, exploring those times in their development as writers when a special person, a beloved book, or a certain job gave them the courage to take a bold chance on their own gifts. For Jane Smiley, the turning point was the support of her fellow classmates—not her teachers—at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop. For Jonathan Safran Foer, it was a brief encounter with Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. For Michael Cunningham, it was an illicit cigarette break with a tough-talking teenage girl at Hollywood High who challenged him to read Virginia Woolf. And for Elizabeth Benedict, inspiration came after writing an essay about her Barnard mentor, Elizabeth Hardwick, after she died in 2007.

In drawing together these essays, Benedict found dozens of writers eager to tell the stories of their own influences. As most of these encounters occurred when the writers were young—unsure of who they were or what they could accomplish—many of these essays radiate a poignant tenderness, and almost all of them express enduring gratitude. Rich, thought-provoking, sometimes funny, and sometimes heartbreaking, these portraits of the artists as young men and women illuminate not only the anxiety but the necessity of influence—and the treasures it yields. Thirty essays—and thirty dazzling paths to creative awakening and literary acclaim.

Elizabeth Benedict, a graduate of Barnard College, is the author of five novels, including Almost, The Practice of Deceit, and the National Book Award Finalist Slow Dancing, as well as The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. A widely published essayist and journalist, she has taught fiction and nonfiction writing at Princeton University, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute.


"These inspiring essays are written by some of the most brilliant literary figures today … It is always interesting to read about the influences that make a person go down a particular path, and with these thirty writers, it is a most interesting journey and a great compilation for the literature lover. " — San Francisco Book Review

"Irresistible . .. these exceptionally animated essays feel as though the writers couldn't get the words down quickly enough. And what an array of experiences and voices. " — Booklist

"Highly recommended. " — Library Journal

"A mesmerizing book of essays by famous pens who themselves were once helped—or hurt—by established talents as they tried to climb their way up the literary ladder. [Mentors, Muses & Monsters] beautifully captures the experience of being a literary aspirant—wide-eyed, enchanted by words, and eager for the tutelage of a mentor —one who's already scaled the temple wall and emerged, shining, in a turret. " — Christian Science Monitor

"This anthology is that rare gem, a collection whose whole is greater, even, than the sum of its parts. Where else could you read musings-about-muses, accompanied by juicy tales from deep inside the writing life, by 30 of the best minds of our generation, all between the covers of one book?" — San Francisco Chronicle

"Michael Cunningham relates his discovery of Mrs. Dalloway, the happy result of failing to impress a girl during high school . .. Joyce Carol Oates tells us that she had no mentor but books . .. And in terrific essays on the New York Review of Books and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Neil Gordon and Jane Smiley give us a sense . .. of how institutions conspire to turn ordinary human beings into award-winning authors. " — Bookforum

"Every essay here—from Benedict's own remembrance of Elizabeth Hardwick to Christopher Castellani's 'Coming of Age at Breadloaf'—is wise and full of heart. " — Chicago Tribune

"Deliciously rich and illuminating . .. Each writer shades in the nuances of character and experience that make his subject come to life, and each reads like a short story. " — Martha's Vineyard Times

"A unique collection of essays about the infinite varieties of literary mentoring…" — The Writer

"Margot Livesey, Jane Smiley, Denis Johnson, ZZ Packer, and Jonathan Safran Foer are among the stellar cast that weighs in on good, bad, and ugly encounters with, and advice from, their influences. " — Elle

"… a treasure trove of a book: every essay is charged with a young person's determination to be a writer, persisting often through hardship, but gaining in assurance as one reads, and before the end confidently displaying real talent. A true satisfaction!" — Peter Pouncey, author of Rules for Old Men Waiting: A Nove

"Writers work alone more often than not, but their heads are full of people: imagined, remembered, waiting to be born. The ingenious, grateful, and often moving essays in this book evoke a certain class of these people, the alliterating authorities of the title. Words like 'rescue,' 'permission,' 'save,' 'changed,' 'devastating' appear in these pages, suggesting effects a good deal more immediate than anything called up by 'model' or 'influence. ' Do writers really need rescuing and the rest? Read and see. This is a wonderful book about what writers have found necessary, not what they thought they might need. " — Michael Wood, author of The Road to Delphi and America in the Movies

"Whatever justified, or deluded, fascination these writers have toward their teachers, and however much or little reciprocity is granted, they weave riveting tales of their own evolution, sometimes outstripping their mentors. " — Mopsy Strange Kennedy, The Improper Bostonian