Photo by Kristina Sherk
I don’t know any author who is more quotable on the virtues of reading—and the struggles of writing—than Stephen King. “Books are a uniquely portable magic,” King once wrote.
Like the best sentences, that one packs a lot in. As a kid, moving every two years—from Japan to England to Hawaii to remote military bases across the United States—I discovered this portable magic. There are few things that could be more lonely for a young person, particularly before the internet and social media, than moving to a new town in the middle of summer. So I had my books.
I don’t remember precisely when the obsession began, but I think it was when I smuggled King’s The Dead Zone from my father’s bedside table when I was ten. Novels kept me company, transported me, let me see the world through the eyes of people unlike myself.
At the time, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. But to trot out another King quote, if you don’t read, “you don’t have the time or tools to write.” I think turning to reading during those periods—the four high schools, the many goodbyes, and my admittedly misspent youth—helped in developing the tools I needed for my job.
That’s not to say my style is anything like my favorite authors. I love The Great Gatsby, but the world of Daisy Buchanan, Nick Carraway, and the denizens of West Egg is far afield from the thrillers I write. There’s no action on page one in Gatsby. And F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrical prose is nothing like the Strunk and White “omit needless words” approach I use to try to get readers to turn the page.
Still, the books of others find their way into my novels. In Every Last Fear, the college student protagonist and his father bond over The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece with its memorable lines (“If he is not the word of God God never spoke” “You have my whole heart. You always did.”). In The Night Shift, a character is named Atticus, a tribute to his father’s favorite novel. And in my latest book, What Have We Done, a pivotal scene is at a public library, a place where the main characters—teenagers of an abusive foster home who reunite 25 years later to uncover why someone is trying to kill them—found refuge.
Whenever I sit down and start to get lost in a great novel I think of those early days where books were my refuge. As Fitzgerald wrote in Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Alex Finlay is the author of the March 2023 thriller, What Have We Done, and his novels have been translated into 19 languages. His novel Every Last Fear is in development for a series on a major streaming service. Finlay (a pen name) is also a prominent Washington, DC, lawyer who has represented clients in more than 40 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He lives in Washington, DC, and Virginia.