MIND MELD: Which Authors and Books Have Most Influenced Your Writing?
Authors often inspire us. But who inspires authors? We asked several of them the following question:
Within science fiction, my influences are standard for my generation of writers — Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke. Others would be Sturgeon, Le Guin, Simak, Kuttner/Moore, Farmer, Dickson, Ellison. The two Bester biggies.
Outside of science fiction, it’s more of a headscratcher. Hemingway is the only writer I’ve studied in depth, and I think he would count as an influence, especially the short stories. Steinbeck as well, I suppose. Many of the writers whose work I admire and seek out don’t write at all like me — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jane Austen, Flann O’Brien, A few of the writers I studied with at the Iowa Writers Workshop were influences — mostly Ray Carver, but also William Price Fox, Stanley Elkin, and Vance Bourjaily. (Not John Cheever, who was a kindly fellow but seemed to live on some other planet.)
I wrote and read a lot of poetry before I started writing fiction, and my influences there are standard. Shakespeare, of course (the poetry more than plays), and Milton; the Lake poets and Romantics. I wore out several copies of Palgrave’s from about age nine through college. Some moderns, Cummings above all. I discovered Billy Collins when he’d just graduated from chapbooks, and forgive him his success.
In no particular order: Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith, Eric Frank Russell, Randall Garrett, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, T.E. Lawrence, Basil Liddell Hart, Peggy Liss, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Mark Aurel Stein, Lady Murasaki, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Van Gulik, Rudyard Kipling, John Keegan, James H. Schmitz, Etsu Inagaki Sugamoto, Ivan Morris, Alexander Dumas, Gordon Hall Gerould, Agricola, Benvenuto Cellini, Barbara Tuchman, Fritz Leiber, William Shakespeare, Thomas B. Costain, and, all right, Heinlein and Asimov.
I’ll start with the books and stories that made me an SF reader: the Heinlein juveniles, the Asimov Foundation and Robot stories, and the Groff Conklin golden-age anthos. That reading didn’t only bring interest in SF — it instilled a love of science and a (first) career in physics and computer science. Let’s hear it for a well-stocked school library!
My reading broadened over time, of course. Within the genre, I’m most influenced by hard SF (also the majority of what I write). I’m loath to name living authors, because surely I’ll leave some out. That said, I must mention Larry Niven and especially his Known Space future history. My appreciation of those books and stories led, eventually, to a thriving collaboration: two novels so far and a third in progress. Many of my other stories are computer science-intensive. That part of my work is heavily influenced by the works of Vernor Vinge and David Brin.
Finally, there’s Analog and its long-time editor, Stanley Schmidt. I’ve subscribed to Analog since roughly forever. Stan has been a major influence, especially while I was mastering the craft of writing. (I guess the lessons took, because he keeps buying my stuff. Thanks, Stan.)
My father was an SF reader back in the 30s and 40s, so when I was growing up I read Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. Other significant early influences on me were Blish (Cities in Flight) and White (Sector General). As a teenager I got hooked on Niven, Pohl, and Alan Dean Foster (who is actually a much better writer than all those novelizations would suggest). From these Golden Age and Golden-Age-influenced writers I learned that stories should have a problem that needs solving, in an interesting science-fictional or fantastic situation, and that the problem and its eventual solution should both arise from the situation. Characters? Not so much. With the exception of characters that are, in effect, part of the setting (such as Asimov’s robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw, White’s alien medic Dr. Prilicla, and Niven’s warrior kittycat Speaker-To-Animals), I doubt I could name you a single character from any of those books I loved so well. When I’m not watching carefully, my own writing tends to drift toward the Golden Age, focusing on the worldbuilding and the problem and leaving the characters behind.
My more recent reading tends toward Iain M. Banks, China Mieville, and Christopher Priest (and I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that those are all Brits?), all of whom combine the gosh-wow-sensawunda worldbuilding of my childhood heroes with more modern artistic sensibilities and levels of craft. I really want to be Iain Banks when I grow up, and when my first novel seemed to want to have a really strange structure, I went for it — despite the advice of many of my peers — because I was so wowed when Banks pulled a similar trick in Use of Weapons. (I think perhaps my talents at the time may not have been up to the challenge, because that novel hasn’t sold. Yet.)
I should also mention authors who have influenced my writing process, if not my prose. Pat Murphy (one of my instructors at Clarion West), Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch (hosts for many a writing weekend at the Oregon coast), and prolific bloggers Jay Lake and Elizabeth Bear have all been there with advice, encouragement, and especially examples of how to live the writing life, remain productive despite the obstacles of Real Life, and conduct yourself professionally.
You want the long answer or the short answer? The short answer is CJ Cherryh holds the number one spot, followed by Barbara Hambly. But that leaves out a whole lot of whys and wherefores, so the longer answer needs to be addressed as well. See, this is a question I get asked a lot (as do most authors) and because people keep asking it, I’ve started to give it more thought. And while, yes, Cherryh still ranks up there, the reality is pretty much every book I’ve read has influenced me in some way.
I’ve been a book junkie most of my life. Escaping through written adventures is my poison of choice. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a favorite read of mine since I was a pre-teen. I adore PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh character and love both of Anne Perry’s series: Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, and the William Monk books. I think Perry is a master of the art of pacing and the art of the red herring.
One of the books that early on opened me to the joys of good, snarky dialogue was a little Harlequin romance novel by Lass Small. I have no clue as to the title. But to this day I remember the author’s name because her dialogue was just so good.
The Abbey/Asprin Thieves’ World anthologies were a staple of my reading for years. There I had a smattering of authors to choose from – it may be where I first read Cherryh, but I’m not sure. Thieves’ World felt real to me and that kind of texturally rich setting slathered with equally as interesting characters was something I try to work into my own books as well. But at the time I started reading it, I had no clue I’d be writing fiction professionally and there’s no one spot in any of my books I can point to and say: “I learned to do this from that.”
More: I love JD Robb’s Dallas and Roarke series and at some point I may try to analyze how she does characters so well. Or not-maybe it’s just better to enjoy things. I love Elaine Corvidae’s deep, rich settings. I totally love Lisa Shearin’s “Southern-fried Elf” in her Magic Lost series-and Lisa’s a recent find but rocketed to the top tier of my list. And I really enjoyed Peter David’s Star Trek: New Frontier books because his sense of humor is so delicious. Then there’s Carole Nelson Douglas, Laurie R King, Randall Garret, Susan Grant, Robin D Owens, Robert Silverberg, Suzanne Brockmann, Marianne de Pierres…I think you’d better order another beer. The list goes on.
Authors who have the most influence on my writing and career are Jack Williamson, Algis Budrys, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, James Patterson, Clive Cussler, and Fred Pohl. There aren’t enough words to thank them for their help with my writing, not counting the wonderful books they have written that I enjoyed and treasured.
If I leave Tolkien off this list (and I’m going to), it’s only because every imaginary-world fantasist has to be assumed to be under Tolkien’s influence–whether they liked him or not (e.g. “No Tolkienian elves in my world!”).
After Tolkien, I’d put Leiber. He did lots of great work, but it’s the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories that I reread most often. He showed me that fantasy can be written in a distinctively American style (or set of styles), and also that it’s the personal stories which matter. When Leiber puts his heroes on a bigger stage, as he does occasionally, he deliberately exposes the stage machinery, emphasizing the theatricality of the plot. It’s the little things that loom large in these stories: getting the money, getting laid, getting hurt, getting away. And in everything he wrote, he shows a great skill for merging the mundane and the fantastic: a walk down the street in NYC becomes a trip through parallel worlds (“Catch That Zeppelin!”); an ex-drunk finds that a book-binge can be as deadly as a drinking binge (Our Lady of Darkness); an actor looking for a quick score becomes Death the Liberator (A Specter Is Haunting Texas).
Then there’s Le Guin. She’s the most gifted stylist of sf/f, and her worldmaking has tremendous integrity and power: a story told in one of her worlds belongs there, and nowhere else. But I put her a little behind Leiber because she seems to me increasingly dogmatic in her storytelling. (“Said the Duchess, ‘And the moral of that is…’ “)
Also, I like epics–by which I mean actual epics, not overstuffed Tolkien-imitators. With all due respect to Homer and Vergil (and that’s a lot), my favorite epic is Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It’s a huge, complicated story with an immense cast of characters and Ariosto juggles all the elements with skill and a certain amused detachment. There are big splashes of fantastic imagination, too–one character vists Hell, and later flies to the Moon on a hippogriff. Some of the best fantasy isn’t strictly genre.
A lot of my influences are poets, since I started out as a poet and only later moved into fiction. Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Federico Garcia Lorca, Diane Wakoski (especially Medea: The Sorceress) , Anna Ahkmatova (especially Poem without a Hero), Karl Shapiro, Rimbaud (especially A Season in Hell), Baudelaire, Walt Whitman, and Anne Sexton.
In fiction, I adore Anais Nin (House of Incest, the Diaries), Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring), Clarice Lispector (Agua Viva), Milorad Pavic (Landscape Painted with Tea), Italo Calvino, Jeanette Winterson (GUT Symmetries, Art & Lies), Jeff Vandermeer (City of Saints and Madment), Theodora Goss (In the Forest of Forgetting), A.S. Byatt (Posession), Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Lewis Carroll, Jack Kerouac (Dharma Bums), Sonya Taaffe, Paul Verhelst (Tonguecat), and Virginia Woolf (The Waves). John Crowley’s Little, Big remains my favorite novel of all time and sits at the bottom of my heart like an anchor. Tolkien was the risen god of my childhood, and I still think as a stylist he is deeply underrated.
I also think it’s important to point out that in a visual culture such as ours, movies and graphic art have enormous stylistic influences on writers. Dali, Magritte, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Hieronymous Bosch, Frieda Kahlo, A.R. Menne, Kelly Louise Judd, Claudia Drake, and Jennifer Parrish have changed the way I visualize the world, and the films of Peter Greenaway, Julie Taymor, Jim Henson, David Lynch have profoundly influenced the way I understand narrative.
Two part answer:
- Whatever and whoever I read last. I have sponge-like urges, compulsions toward mimicry, against which I must exercise constant twelve-step vigilance. If I read an author with a particularly strong or showy style I can find myself trying to write like him/her or sometimes even speaking that way for weeks. No choice sometimes but to let it out onto the page and hope to catch it in re-write. (“That’s a John Crowleyism! That’s a bad William Vollmann impersonation! Out!”) This may be a sign of immaturity as a writer or indeed as a person. Maybe everyone does this? I don’t know.
- As to the deeper influences, who knows? What it means for an influence to be properly an influence and not just someone you can’t quite resist ripping off is that you’re not fully aware of it. Books/writers that I would like to think count as influences in some way, either as to style or tone or subject-matter, include (quickly and off the top of my head) things like Gormenghast, Dancers at the End of Time, Gravity’s Rainbow, Little, Big, Borges, Lanark, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, The Man Who Was Thursday. But maybe not. I find these lists quickly become sort of aspirational.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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