Books·My Life In Books

6 books that inspired Frances Itani to grow as a writer

The award-winning author shares some of the books that have influenced her over the course of a successful career.
Frances Itani is a three-time winner of the CBC Literary Prizes. (Norman Takeuchi)

Frances Itani is the award-winning author of 18 books. Her body of work ranges widely from historical fiction to children's books and poetry.

Her novel Deafening, which won a Commonwealth Prize for Best Book, was translated into 17 languages, was shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awardand and was a contender for Canada Reads 2006. Its follow-up, Tell, was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She is also the author of novels The Company We Keep and That's My Baby.

Itani told CBC Books that literature has defined her life as both a reader and student of the writing craft: "I think back over the books I've read — I've kept a list of titles since 1964 — and each book reminds me of a particular place where I was living and/or studying at the time. Each book releases an accompanying explosion of memory-images stored while I was working at becoming a writer." 

Itani won the 2021 Matt Cohen Award. The $25,000 prize honours a writer for a lifetime of distinguished work. 

Here are six books that have helped shape Itani's career as an author. 

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

This 1939 novel was the inspiration for stage and screen musical Cabaret. (Wikimedia Commons/New Directions)

"I read this in 1964, the year I visited both east and west in that divided city. I was living in London and had written only a few poems at this stage, but I was watching how Isherwood used place, background tension of pre-war Germany, and multiple layers of detail with his characters. I went on to read all of Isherwood's books over the years. Film has always informed my work as a writer, and Fosse's Cabaret, based on Isherwood's book, is one of my favourites (along with the film All That Jazz)."

Wild Flowers of Canada by Molly Bobak

The visual work of Molly Bobak focuses on how humans interact with the environment. (Library and Archives Canada/Pagurian Press)

"During the 1970s I studied in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick. In the latter province, while doing graduate work, I met Molly, who subsequently illustrated two of my books. I was so taken by her wildflowers book, not only because of the wonderful paintings, but because of the accompanying text. Molly wrote exactly the way she talked. She was a great raconteur and I learned from this fine Canadian visual artist that a wonderfully relaxed and conversational style could inform the voice of a narrator, the strong voice in a book. She made this look easy. I learned a great deal from Molly. Once, while I was visiting in Fredericton, she took me up to her studio and showed me some paintings that had been stacked against a wall. She flipped them forward one at a time. 'First draft, second draft...' she said. We both loved how we could talk about either art and completely understand each other."

The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll

This collection by Heinrich Böll proves he is the master of the short story form. (Wikimedia Commons/Melville House)

"I lived on the outskirts of Heidelberg for three years during the 1980s and studied the language and read German literature pretty continuously while there. This complete collection along with Böll's novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine are my favourites of all of his work. He was a masterful storyteller and some of his stories are profoundly moving. I still remember entire scenes; I recall tone, mood, emotion from the pages of his books. I learned about storytelling from this man's work. And met him, oh so very briefly, at a conference in Germany about two years before he died."

Station Island by Seamus Heaney

Published in 1984, Station Island represents the further growth of Heaney as a poet, and the pilgrimage thus far. (Faber and Faber/Wikimedia Commons)

"During the late 1990s, I began to learn American Sign Language at the outset of my six-year journey while researching and writing my World War I novel Deafening. I happened to be reading the Station Island poems. In the third section, three of Heaney's lines helped to clarify for me what I was trying to do thematically in my own book — and this at a very early stage of the writing of Deafening. "I thought of walking round/ and round a space utterly empty/Utterly a source, like the idea of sound….' I began to think of sound as source. The idea of sound. And its opposite: the idea of silence. I was so affected by those lines at that particular time during the creation of one particular novel."

The Old Filth Trilogy by Jane Gardam

The Old Filth trilogy is a deeply humane and often comic portrait of the ageing process. (Victoria Salmon/Europa Editions)

"This trilogy is a masterpiece of writing — not an overstatement. I reviewed Last Friends for the Washington Post and was sorry to turn the last pages when I finished the novel. Gardam is witty, wonderful and oh, so wise. One technique she manages very well is how to share out information about a character. Bit by bit, by way of multiple other characters, each supplying some clue about background or situation or history. In her case, she carries details from one part of the trilogy to the next, until, finally, we have the entire story. She is the best, by far, of any writer, to build her memorable characters slowly, carefully, enticingly. What a writer! And her earlier novels, her earlier stories, are equally good."

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

The Edna O'Brien masterpiece is remarkable and meditative in scope. (Eleanor Wachtel/CBC)

"O'Brien's early stories were brilliantly written. This latest novel is beautifully measured, brutal at times because of situational events, and astonishingly moving at the end. Moving because O'Brien writes about the hurting people in our world today. This novel makes one wonder if there is any other topic, really...."

Frances Itani's comments have been edited and condensed.

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