One of the great challenges in writing May the Road Rise Up to Meet You was to find the narrative voice and perspective of four quite diverse main characters. I sought, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, a “portal of discovery” into each of them, linking my own passion, heartbreak and triumph to theirs through great and small characteristics alike. But even then, my own life’s experience could provide only so much insight, only so much inspiration. Reading provided the invaluable bridge between my life and theirs, and these five works were particularly influential in the writing of May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, as well as in forming my own vision of the world.
1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This master work of fiction was profoundly influential to me in writing the character of Micah and I can think of no novel I have read in my life that was more of a revelation to me at the time I read it. Mr. Ellison’s protagonist embarks on a journey from the segregated south to New York City, finding that, despite outward appearances, the inherent racism and exploitation in both worlds is essentially the same. Similar to the unnamed narrator in Invisible Man, Micah would go through various stages in his search for liberation, first working “within the system” and through the proper channels afforded to him, then becoming broken, tamed, by the soul-crushing realities of slavery. As he plots his own dash for freedom, his view of his fellow slaves and the complacency among them so cheaply bought by their slave masters is very much informed by Mr. Ellison’s main character.
2. Trinity by Leon Uris
This epic novel was an awakening for me, an introduction into my Irish heritage that three generations of Americanization had diluted down to corned beef and cabbage every March 17. Spanning the period from the Great Hunger to the Easter Uprising of 1916, the struggle and spirit of a people oppressed by colonial masters was brought to life in a way that made me feel like I had lost a dear friend when the story came to an end. The intended psychological impact of an inherently unfair social and political system was not unlike that experienced by the main character in Invisible Man, and the seed of the relationship between Ethan and Micah was planted within me after having read these two novels.
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This wonderful novel was influential in writing the character of Mary both in terms of style and spirit. The protagonist of The Color Purple, Celie, faces a childhood of separation and traumatizing abuse and, though beaten down by life, manages to endure through her correspondence with God and then her lost sister through letters she secretly writes. Some of that experience is formative in Mary’s struggle, and her correspondence with Gertie, consisting of prayer-like whispers answered in the form of her dreams, is similarly a source of relief and instruction.
4. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
I knew from the beginning that I would seek to write characters that were imbued with a sense of hard won self-reliance. Indeed, all four of them are self-made in one way or another, defying stereotypes and the constraining roles that society would appoint them. My own belief in our ability “to affect the quality of the day” was first planted by reading Thoreau’s Walden, a transcendentalist manual on living deeply and with purpose. It is part epic poem, part philosophical guidebook, and as meaningful a read as I have ever known.
5. i thank you God for most this amazing by e e cummings
Each of the four main characters in May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is an artist in some way, possessing the unique ability to see life through a deeper and more meaningful prism than the “realists” surrounding them. Indeed, the metaphor of the entire book, expressed in Gertie’s “frontsways” story in the prologue, speaks to the gift of seeing life for all that it represents, all the tragedy and beauty somehow stitched together in the final picture that will be all that was our lives and all that we will leave behind. The poetry of e e cummings, and particularly “i thank you God for most this amazing” was inspirational and instructional in seeing not only my characters lives, but my own, through the eyes of gratitude.