As I pack books, I’ve been mulling a question that stumped me on my Lake & Prairie Book Tour last summer.

I had just given a presentation and read from my memoir, The Same Moon, in front of a packed house — at least 90 percent friends and family — at my hometown bookstore, the Fargo Zandbroz. Having lived in Washington state for 18 years, it was a remarkable homecoming.

We had moved into a Q & A, which was a ball as I fielded questions from former teachers, classmates and friends of my parents.

Then a woman who I had never met raised her hand. She asked, “What authors do you consider your major influences?”

I looked at her. She looked at me.

The word that comes to mind is “mashiro.”

In Japanese, mashiro means “pure white,” and it is what I heard friends say in moments when their minds went blank, which was exactly where mine went at that moment as everyone waited for my answer.

Clearly I should have prepared for such a question. I am not one of those literary types who carries lists of best-loved novels around in their heads. I have always loved reading, but as I’ve grown older, I tend to read for information over recreation … although a well-written read on people’s eating habits or ways to address parenting issues can feel like play to me.

Even as a child I knew I was more writer than reader, creating a neighborhood newspaper while I was still in my single digits. In college, I convinced a literature professor to allow me to do my own version of the final assignment for her class. While my classmates wrote analyses, I wrote an alternate ending to Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Cafe. (I think my logic was, “Hey, I’m a biology major, and this is my last semester. I don’t really need to learn how to write an analysis of literature.” Right. Flash-forward a decade and I was learning how in the midst of an MFA program. I didn’t see that coming.)

Anyway. The truth is my writing — and thinking — has been deeply influenced by many writers, and as I pack my books in preparation to move, these are a few that I am especially thankful for, along with their first paragraphs:

Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The way she made her family’s story, her story, read like a novel … her amazing, fantastical voice …

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Her amazing life, which she describes in such detail that somehow I enter her world, and my reaction evolves from shock to wonder to appreciation.

What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas

The way she writes as a writer is instructive and demystifies the process while she weaves a touching, thought-provoking story.

Leaving Home by Garrison Keillor

The way he captures my homeland, Minnesota, and builds personalities and lives around his characters, causing me both to laugh at and sympathize with them, and always love them.


Sarah Coomber is the author of The Same Moon, a memoir about what happened when she abandoned her wrecked Minnesota life to spend two years teaching English in rural Japan.

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