The best novels about creativity, self-discovery, and (re)invention

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by our creative urges and ambitions, and by what makes us who we are and why we make the choices we do. While I’m interested in many aspects of human experience and psychology, from the mundane to the murderous, I’m especially drawn to narratives that probe our deeper psyches and look, particularly with a grain of humor, at our efforts to expand our understanding and create great works—or simply to become wiser and more enlightened beings. What is our place in the universe? Why are we here? Who are we? The books I’ve listed explore some of these matters in ways both heartfelt and humorous.

I wrote...

In Search of the Magic Theater

By Karla Huebner,

Book cover of In Search of the Magic Theater

What is my book about?

In Search of the Magic Theater, narrated alternately by the twentyish Sarah and the fortyish Kari, begins as something of a female version of Hermann Hesse’s renowned Steppenwolf. Why, the rather staid young cellist Sarah wonders, should her aunt rent their spare room to the perhaps unstable Kari Zilke? Like the nephew in Steppenwolf, Sarah finds herself taking an unexpected interest in the lodger, but Sarah is unable to stop at providing a mere introduction to Kari’s narrative of mid-life crisis and self-discovery, and develops her own more troubled tale of personal angst and growth, entwined with the account Kari herself purportedly left behind.

The books I picked & why

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By Hermann Hesse, Basil Creighton (translator),

Book cover of Steppenwolf

Why this book?

Like many readers of my generation, I discovered Hermann Hesse when I was in high school. I think my favorite back then was his Narcissus and Goldmund, but Steppenwolf was the book that really stuck with me, with its portrayal of midlife anxieties and grumpiness paired with wild yet strangely wise youth—both somehow seeking enlightenment. When rereading Steppenwolf as an adult, I also began to realize the extent to which it is a novel about the Weimar Republic, set during that brief, culturally vibrant period between postwar economic disaster (Germany suffered hyperinflation of approximately 29,500 percent in 1923) and Hitler’s rise to power. The generational fears and hopes, and morose “Steppenwolf” Harry Haller’s curious redemption or rediscovery of self through sex, jazz, and drugs, eventually inspired my own novel.

Lady Oracle

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of Lady Oracle

Why this book?

Lady Oracle was one of the novels I read in the several years after first having the vague notion that I might like to write a novel akin to Steppenwolf but that would be set in the approximate present day and have a female protagonist. As Lady Oracle’s main character is a writer who, after periodically reinventing herself, now fakes her own death, flees her intellectual, non-dancing husband, and holes up in an Italian village, I saw possible avenues for my own husband-leaving Kari. Would Kari flee to another country? Would she have secret lovers or a history of being fat? Would she, too, fake her own death? Kari ultimately didn’t follow many of Joan Foster’s paths, but she might have.

The Lyre of Orpheus

By Robertson Davies,

Book cover of The Lyre of Orpheus

Why this book?

I’ve been a devotee of Robertson Davies since my early twenties, when my alternately terrifying and delightful supervisor at the Pacific Lumber Company recommended Fifth Business to me. While all of Davies’s mature novels (the Deptford trilogy and the Cornish trilogy, as well as The Cunning Man) have commonalities with my own novel in their explorations of creativity and the psyche, here I’m recommending The Lyre of Orpheus. Why? It tells the simultaneously comic and deep story of a group of foundation directors who find themselves sponsoring and even helping script an opera begun by E.T.A. Hoffmann, now to be completed by their protégé, a brilliant but obnoxious and somewhat gender-ambiguous young composer. Davies’s account of the opera’s genesis and production helped me create my characters’ own theater piece.


By André Alexis,

Book cover of Pastoral

Why this book?

Pastoral is one of my favorite recent discoveries. It’s one of a quincunx of novels linked by exploration of five classic literary genres—in this case the currently unfashionable pastoral. Newly ordained priest Christopher Pennant isn’t greatly pleased that his first parish assignment is to a rural town where sheep are numerous. He assumes he’ll be a suitable shepherd to the humans, people he expects to be simple and straightforward. Of course, they aren’t. They’re not only as complex as people anywhere else, but very unexpected. Father Pennant not only finds he has a self-appointed cello-playing chef as rectory caretaker, but he witnesses three possible miracles. Or are they trickery? I love the depth and gentle humor in the priest’s attempts to understand his parishioners and himself. And nature, too.


By Jacob Needleman,

Book cover of Sorcerers

Why this book?

Sorcerers is the tale of teenaged Eliot, who’s growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and strives to learn magic. Let’s not confuse this with the magic found in Harry Potter, the Narnia books, or in any of today’s fantasy worlds; Eliot studies basic stage-magic tricks and gains entrance to the Sorcerers, a club of aspiring teen magicians. Some Sorcerers are adept and elegant; others graceless gawks. As the novel develops, there's mystery, and to everyone's surprise, some of what might be termed "real magic" and strange power. This is a bildungsroman about human possibility, which is what prompts me to recommend it here. It's subtle and unusual, with a deep understanding of humanity and spiritual development. I've not encountered many novels that attempt what this one does. 

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