5 books that inspired Michael Winter to become a writer

Michael Winter is the author of Minister Without Portfolio, which will be championed by actor and former WWE wrestler Adam Copeland on Canada Reads 2016. Winter has enjoyed a long and successful career as a writer, but in honour of this year's theme, "starting over," he took us back to the beginning, when these five books pushed him into the writing life.

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I wouldn't say any book changed my life, but there have been books that encouraged me to get involved in the writing life. The first being my sister Kathleen Winter's novel Where Is Mario?. You can't find it now - only about two hundred copies were ever made on Jeff Cuff's small press in Bonavista, Newfoundland. But I was about twenty when Kathleen wrote it. I think there is supposed to be a question mark at the end of the title, but I argued back then - and still think I'm right - that it's better without the "?". I saw my sister's book get made and then a copy of it found its way under the Christmas tree. I cherish it. I'm not sure I could read it now, or be interested in the story's youthful yearning, but no book ever was more pivotal in my understanding of artistic creation and imagination and how a person very close to me could articulate certain desires and turn them into words for an anonymous world.

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Another book, with a similar effect, would be my friend Lisa Moore's first collection of stories, Degrees of Nakedness. Recently, I had to comb through some old files and discovered early versions of Lisa's stories. I'm probably the only person who has them. I'm amazed at how different these early drafts are from the stories that were published. I knew Lisa when she wrote those stories - we wrote together, not more than three hundred feet away from each other, talking on the phone through the day, offering encouragement: "How's the writing going, Lisa?" "Not bad, Mike, how's it going for you?" I could see her head, bent over typing, from my window at the top of Long's Hill as she sat at her desk at the bottom of the hill. I was there in her house the afternoon a box of books first arrived and she tore open the cardboard flaps and out popped this beautiful new first edition and she immediately signed a copy over to me, to her friend, the guy who knew what she'd had to do to make these stories come alive.

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The first real seasoned writer I ever met, Norman Levine, came to St. John's to do a reading and I had the nerve to ask him if he would meet me for an interview. I was about twenty-four. My friend Larry Mathews much admired Levine's stories but I had found them slight and plain. You're not paying attention, Larry said. And then I noticed that, while I thought I didn't like the stories, I was still thinking about them weeks later. I particularly liked his novel From a Seaside Town and I modelled my own first novel on his. Levine, when I met him, said St. John's was a small place and I could stay here and be a writer only if I had interesting friends. Did I? Oh yes, I said. The blend of hindsight, dramatic incident and interior thought that Levine injects into his fiction, that was something I haven't ever felt a need to shake off as an influence.

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A popular book I read every ten years or so is F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. Each time I read it I can hardly remember the story at all and I have a suspicion that the publisher, under Fitzgerald's deathbed orders, quietly collects all copies and destroys them and reissues a new configuration. I am happy to be the first to finally cotton on to this scheme. There's always something new to be bowled over by in that book. When I was in my twenties, I enjoyed the scene where Dick Diver is making a bet that a man in the hotel restaurant will touch his face. And Dick and his friends all wait and, eventually, the man reaches up from his newspaper and places a finger on his lip. I found this fascinating, that Fitzgerald would be so absorbed in the manners of people - and I promised myself that, like Dick Diver, I would never touch my face in public. More recently I discovered a new scene that I'm convinced the publishers have just inserted - in the midst of several 1930s French provincial bacchanals, a troupe of revellers, hungover, head out to the Somme and visit the "memorial to the Newfoundland dead." Something on the statue of the caribou makes Rosemary weep. I wanted to find out what that thing was, and perhaps I agreed to write a nonfiction book about Newfoundland and World War One just so I'd have an excuse to visit Beaumont-Hamel and read this text myself. I won't tell you what Rosemary read, you'll have to go yourself. But that park - a visit I undertook because I read a novel - made my knees buckle.

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When I was in university I did a degree in economic geography. As far as I can tell, that area of study is all about why you situate a pulp mill at the mouth of a river. Anyway, that is what I am legally trained to do, and I was conducting research on road salt distribution and its environmental impacts. Back then, in the pre-computer era, every book in a library was written on a cue card and the cards sat in drawers in a heavy piece of furniture on the first floor of the library. You looked books up alphabetically and found their Dewey decimal location. I pulled out the SALT drawer and found "SALTUS, EDGAR: A Transient Guest, a novel." Then I looked up Transport Canada's role in salt dispersion, as roads are a combination of provincial and federal jurisdictions - dear reader, you are probably sensing my despair at the essay I'm having to write. But Transport Canada made me hit upon "A Transient Guest, a novel by Edgar Saltus."

So I had to look this novel up. I found it, a little green book which I still have (I stole it), and it begins "When the king of the Dutch East Indies left Batavia, the golden ferrule of his stick touched the golden cicatrices, making the sky an even more torpidly blue." You can imagine my joy at such a purple sentence after a day researching road salt. I quickly dropped any notions of becoming a city planner and headed towards the life of a writer.

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