MIND MELD: The Non-Genre Influences of Genre Authors
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Usually when ask genre authors about the influences on their work we are expecting, and usually get, responses that name other genre authors. This week’s question, as suggested by an SF Signal reader, explicitly asks about non-genre influences. We asked our panelists this question:
This question is almost impossible to answer; I wonder if we ever know, or whether literary critics with a little bit of distance from the subject could best intuit how admiration for certain works inevitably leads to unconscious imitation. I doubt anyone writes novels thinking they will write like someone else. But you’re asking for influences, which is more subtle, and all the harder. This is especially a tough task since fantasy and sf books have always been my focus. However, here goes:
I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and feeling a sharp ache for what she had accomplished with language. The novel remains seared in my mind, but this was well before I thought that I would be a novelist. Still, I admire her work so thoroughly that I would be surprised if she were not an influence. I value wordsmithing. She is a master at this. Her environmental motifs went straight to my heart. Also: Early on Marge Piercy was a favorite of mine. Gone to Soldiers. Woman on the Edge of Time–although that last one must be considered science fiction; still, she is primarily a literary writer. Her feminism appealed to me, and the woman’s point of view presented with such stark emotion. The emotional dimension is a focus of my work. Writers like these likely showed me the depth that was possible. I’m always aiming for that depth.
I’ve been equally impressed with the big storytellers, especially James Clavell. Some of his books I wished would never end: Tai-Pan and Shogun, especially. The exotic locales of these books tied in to my love of strange worlds in science fiction. As it happens, worldbuilding is the feature most critics mention about my work. I always wonder at that, because I thought I did characters best. It’s a goal of mine to do both, like Clavell, but of course you always fall shy of your heroes.
At first blush, this question looked easy. I know the books that have affected me; all I needed to do was list a few and tie them to something in my work. But then I made the fatal mistake of looking at some of my stories – especially my recent collection of flash fiction, Flashes of Illumination – and found myself thinking “where the hell did that come from?”
It’s not that I don’t believe my stories have been influenced by the work of others; it’s just that I read a lot and observe a lot and all those things jumble around in my brain and sometimes a story comes out. I suspect a scholar would do a better job of figuring out the influences than I can.
But there are some obvious exceptions. A novella of mine (still unpublished, but I have hopes) is a rewrite of As You Like It, with a little bit of Robin Hood thrown in. So I’ve been influenced enough by Will Shakespeare to steal from him. Of course, I changed a character’s gender, not to mention the ending, but there’s no real point in blatant rewriting without changing something.
The story “A Mere Scutcheon,” which appears in my PS Publishing collection Conscientious Inconsistencies, is an intentional re-telling of part of The Three Musketeers, with a woman as D’Artagnan. I even think of it as the Musketeers story. So Alexandre Dumas certainly influenced me.
Those stories came from direct, conscious theft, but looking over some of my longer stories, I see a recurring influence: adventure stories of all stripes.
I spent my teenage years curled up in an easy chair reading mysteries, spy thrillers, war novels, classic exploration tales – anything in which the hero took chances and put his life on the line, usually for some higher purpose. Some were exquisitely written tales of moral uncertainty (books by John Le Carre and Len Deighton), Others were entertaining fluff (Leslie Charteris’s Saint stories). Some had characters who stalked the dark streets of American cities (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett), while others told war stories from an earlier age (C.S. Forester).
There was just one thing wrong with all these stories: The heroes were never girls.
Some of the heroes had girlfriends and most of them had sex with one or more of the women in the story. Sometimes the women were plucky and knew how to use a gun. But the story was never about the women.
I didn’t want to be the hero’s love interest – the one genre I rarely read is romance.
I wanted to be the hero.My first published story, “Change of Command,” was about a woman soldier who ends up in command of a small troop during a losing battle. I could probably go through that story and find all the influences, including the ancient device of a soldier saved from death by something in her pocket – in my story, a deck of cards, not a Bible. But basically, I took classic adventure story tropes and simply made the hero a woman.
My heroes continue to be women. That’s a counter-influence from all those adventure stories.
I used to joke that what I wanted from fiction was a moral dilemma and a fight scene. I’m not as enamored of the fight scene as I used to be – 30-something years in the martial arts will eventually teach you that while fighting can be fun, there are better ways of resolving conflict – but I still think the moral dilemma is a key element.
There’s something else that shows up in my fiction regularly: My hero is generally an outsider of some kind. My characters rarely become the ruler or the general; sometimes they’re lucky to get away with their lives. Occasionally my outsiders compromise their principles to survive in their world, but that compromise haunts them because they are, by nature, moral and anti-establishment.
Realizing that, it becomes obvious that two major influences on my fiction were Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and their classic, tough-but-honest private eyes. Women show up in these roles today, with Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski stories being among the best, since Paretsky not only keeps the iconic detective going, but writes beautiful stories with complex plots. So why don’t I write mysteries?
Feminism. I wanted to write adventure stories about women, but I didn’t want to spend time – as Paretsky does – writing about how they were able to overcome the sexism of their culture and the conditioning of their early lives. In science fiction – and even in fantasy, if I create a world that is not an earlier version of our own – I can make up the rules so that no one questions why a woman would be a warrior.
I’ve spent too much of my life running into “girls can’t do that” to want to spend time writing about how an individual got around that rule.
I don’t think most of the feminist influences on my writing came from fiction; if they did, though, it was from feminist SF and so doesn’t fall into the non-genre category. Some of that influence probably came from non-fiction, but to tell the truth, I think the strongest feminist influence on my writing was all those times someone told me, “You can’t do that; you’re a girl.”
I may be a girl, but I bet I can kick your butt. And if I can’t, I guarantee you my characters can.
Faulkner was a major influence on me when I was younger (he’s doubtless to blame for my occasional run-on sentences). I read the Snopes trilogy as a teenager and it really expanded my sense of how it was possible to tell stories.
I learned a ton about depicting the interior states of characters from Virginia Woolf’s work, especially To the Lighthouse, a book that also taught me a lot about how you can get away with a very weird structure, if you’re careful. (The “Time Passes” section of that book is a marvel of audacious, compressed transition, and I’ve ripped off Woolf’s approach a few times in my work.)
Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is also a book I think back to a lot. It was actually the book that softened my atheistic heart toward the
importance of ritual. It doesn’t matter if there are *actually* gods looking down on you or not — rituals and rites of passage still have an immense social and psychological value, and that’s an understanding that I’ve embraced in my fantasy writing.
Non-genre writers who influenced me would include Irma Bombeck (for humor), Kon Tiki and other Thor Hyerdahl travel books, many biographies and autobiographies of writers, artists, film makers, an entire library full of UFO BOOKS (pseudo-non-fiction that tickles the “what-if” nerve), and of course archeology, chemistry, biology, linguistics, and physics, don’t forget physics!, and even history both in fiction and nonfiction — Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries, and Miss Marple, well of course Sherlock Holmes in all incarnations by all the writers who tried their hand at his character. And Psychology, Jung etc. read all the library had on the topic of psychology.
Maybe the most influential non-genre reading I did growing up was Encyclopedia Britannica (which now doesn’t publish on paper!) And the Dictionary (any dictionary!) I just loved knowing things and finding nice WORDS. And in as many languages as possible. Most all the writers I know somehow just read the Encyclopedia for light reading and fun. Too bad it’s so short.
Theodore Bikel was a huge influence as he did many albums of folksongs in dozens of languages and I had to learn the words to all of them (and still know them). Bikel played Worf’s father on Star Trek, so everyone knows who he is. But few Trek fans know he’s a singer of international folk — now ALL OF IT is on MP3 on Amazon and who knows where else! I just re-bought all his music for my iPod and I’m making Playlists. His website is bikel.com
Know what? All in all, Genre is the biggest influence on me. I currently watch and am inspired by White Collar, Burn Notice, Warehouse 13, Royal PAins, Eureka — the Syfy channel stuff, all the TV teen-angst Vampire stuff — all genre, all influential. And I’ve started watching Downtown Abby using Amazon streaming video (I put my TV onto my home network so I can watch vimeo, netflix, etc).
Oh, yeah, remember Columbo and Perry Mason on TV? Genre, but very influential. And don’t get me started on Westerns – from The Lone Ranger to Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Paladin, and Superman, Batman, Lois and Clark, Smallville, oh, that’s genre too! — heroic figures.
Anywhere you find heroism, you’ll find me! And where do you find heroism the most? Genre!!! Don’t forget war stories. Saving Private Ryan. Casablanca. The Day The Earth Stood Still. (is that a war-story? Well, depends on your point of view, I guess.)
Our family library was full of British whodunnits and spy novels. I was delighted by smart and saavy characters like The Saint (Leslie Charteris), Norman Conquest (Edwys Searles Brooks), and The Toff (John Creasey). Later, I discovered Alistair MacLean, who showed me characters of great determination and will (who suffered, my goodness, but prevailed). I went through a mystery phase for several years, which definitely taught me that if you put a strange box on a table in chapter one, it better matter. Rex Stout and Ellery Queen stand out. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course (huge Sherlock fan). Westerns came along in the mix. I read a great number by Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’Amour. One book, in fact, I reread before writing my latest fantasy. The Last Chance by Frank O’Rourke. There’s a bit in it about a gambler/gunslinger who starts a new life by buying a dilapidated farm and learns many things about cleaning. One of my main characters goes through something quite similar.
Looking back over all the above, I’d say the writers who appealed to me most not only wrote tight and interesting plots in very little space, but also gave me memorable characters who used their heads, did the right thing in desperate situations, and had a sense of humour about themselves and life. I like such those people and stories. I hope their influence shows in my work.
I confess a fondness for classics (I blame the English Lit degree). Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad have a sense of place, description, and character that I’ve learned from. They also manage a sense of humor that I’ve always liked. They taught me that you can be dark and funny at the same time, and that dark and funny together is better than either one on its own. I’ve recently been reading and rereading all of Jane Austen. After a bad experience with Pride and Prejudice in high school, it’s taken me many years to appreciate her writing, but I do. That really biting satire that takes a couple of minutes to realize is there — I want to learn how to do that. I have a bunch of favorite Victorian authors that you might arguably call genre, but only because they were some of the writers who helped define it: Wilkie Collins, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen. Because they were writing when genres like fantasy and horror weren’t so well defined, they pushed what we would consider boundaries, and it’s useful going back and looking at that. Lastly, I’m going to put in a plug for Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar, just because it’s a book that meant a lot to me when I was a teenager who really wanted to write and didn’t know at all what I was doing. It was the book that said, “You’re not alone,” and I needed that.
I would say that the writer who most affected me was Chaim Potok with My Name is Asher Lev. Although I come from a different religious tradition, I had to make the wrenching choice on whether to accept the restrictions on both my freedom of expression and my life choices, and I chose to be true to myself, even though it meant walking out on everything I had been taught. I met Mr. Potok when I was a graduate student, and I wanted to tell him “thank you”, but I was crying too much.
Other writers who influenced me in terms of seeing how much beauty could be present in words well-written include Joan Didion, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever and Edgar Lee Masters. And of course, Edgar Allen Poe (do we count him as genre?). A YA book (long before we technically had “YA” books), Farewell to Manzanar, was the first step to turning my political views 180 degrees from how I’d been brought up. Alan Watts for his introduction to Eastern spirituality. Patricia Clapp’s Jane-Emily for the first “gothic” story I’d ever read. So many more books and I’m out of room!
Jane Austen has had an enormous impact on my writing, well before I started writing historical fantasies. I learned more about horror from her than anyone else. Her attention to detail and the way that she can convey the emotional significance of a glance or of something unsaid, is amazing. She taught me that the key to dread was not a giant pile of body parts, but an understanding of what is important to a character, and the impact that the tiny detail will have.
As a young person, I was a voracious, omnivorous, and (little-c) catholic reader. Obviously, one of the things I read was the dictionary (seriously!)–but I also read everything else I could get my hands on. (I still do.)
Probably one of my strongest influences and greatest sources of inspiration is and always has been nonfiction, especially ethnography, history, and science. Isaac Asimov’s The Universe; an ethnographic book on traditional life among the Inuit whose name and author I no longer recall (it was red, and talked a lot about coping with killing cold and with food preservation… or the lack thereof); Borges’ The Book Of Imaginary Beings. These are only some of the books that I read–quite literally until the covers fell off–while still in grade school.
I didn’t make any distinction between speculative fiction and other stuff as a kid. And I still read a ton of nonfiction. Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook is one of the best things I’ve read. Jack Weatherford’s Secret History Of The Mongol Queens was a heavy and obvious influence on my own current Eternal Sky trilogy, of which the first book (Range Of Ghosts) just came out.
In terms of fiction, I love and always have loved good mystery novels, especially the sort of historicals that have a solid grounding in place and time. Some favorites are Ellis Peters, Barbara Hambly, Dennis Lehane, Barbara Neely, early Elizabeth George and Patricia Cornwell. I like smart thrillers, and often borrow their plot structures. Daniel Silva is a particular delight.
…I am suspicious of advice that begins “should,” but I do think every writer should read as widely as possible, in and out of her own genre.
When thinking of non-genre influences, Charles Dickens is the first author to come to mind. I try to emulate his treatment of characters, his ability to describe a scene, and his bent towards social justice. I also love E. M. Forster, although loving an author and being influenced by one might be two different things. Still, he addressed many social issues that are relevant today.
Gail Godwin has always impressed me with her subtle emotional moments. The quietness of her pivotal scenes seem to increase their impact. I also find the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez emotionally evocative, creating a strong sense of longing and sadness in me. I would love to be able to write to the heart so well.
Kazuo Ishiguro is interesting to me because he will never tell you what someone is feeling or thinking (and because they are often unreliable narrators, they might lie about it). I like to sit there and puzzle over a word or gesture and figure out what it meant in the scheme of the novel. I’m afraid this type of internalized mystery is for advanced writers, since my attempts to create something similar have not been successful.
Finally there is Tolstoy. For some reason I never forget in Anna Karenina that Vronsky had this terrible toothache. I don’t know what it symbolized, so don’t ask me—but I think about it often, how all these events occurred, but he still ended up with a cavity, because we all have bodies and they all deteriorate. Even in grief he had to deal with the physical pain, and that’s such a human thing that I could never forget it. I’d like to put something like that toothache in a book of mine, someday.
As a kid who read everything in sight, and I mean everything, and as a girl who was steered away from science fiction toward the nurse books and the horse books (I got around that by having my brother borrow the sf books for me), I spent many, many hours prospecting through the library shelves. Even a short list would take over this Mind Meld, but here are a few that shaped my future:
Mary Renault’s Alexander books, especially The Persian Boy. Gorgeous writing, exotic setting, and a viewpoint character like none I’d ever seen before. I became an Alexanderphile through these books, and eventually wrote my own.
Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars. This book turned me into a medievalist. It began as an introduction to a book about medieval Latin lyric poetry, but she had so much to say that she ended up turning it into a book. It’s not so much a work of scholarship as a passionate piece of worldbuilding: the Middle Ages as seen through the eyes of a complete and unabashed partisan. Oh, she loved those love songs, and she built a whole structure of setting and characters around them.
Of course I grew up and got educated and learned how it really was (and how much of herself she put into her view of the medieval world), but if it hadn’t been for Professor Waddell, I might never have known what I was missing. My first three novels in many ways were a tribute to this book.
Both of these authors taught me something essential: that worldbuilding is about more than racking up the bibliography or drafting the maps or inventing the timelines and the history. It’s about immersing yourself in the world, living and breathing and believing in it. You learn to think as people thought, whether it’s a historical period or a different culture or, for that matter, an alien species. It’s writing from the gut as much as from the head.
There’s another book I loved, as well, that taught me how to think about characters–nonhuman as well as human–and how to write about them without falling into the anthropomorphic trap: Alois Podhajsky, My Horses, My Teachers. Human-alien interaction on quite a deep level, written as a memoir, and full of chewy historical goodness–but not perceived as history. It was the Colonel’s life, as he lived it. As a baby writer, I found this fascinating, and took a great deal from it to my own human and alien (and of course animal) characters.
And finally, this is actually fantasy, but it’s nineteenth-century and classic and much of it is poetry, so does it count for the Mind Meld? I loved all of Rudyard Kipling’s books and poems, but especially Puck Of Pook’s Hill and Rewards And Fairies. There’s another author who can evoke a whole world in a few words. I’ll never forget the Roman soldier or the aging knight or the prehistoric tribesman, and I certainly won’t forget Puck, who is as alien as can be, and yet he’s completely of Earth. When I write or think about magical worlds, he’s sitting in the background, delivering a running commentary. (He also lives in my horse barn, but that’s another story altogether.)
Tagged with: Carrie Vaughn • Elizabeth Bear • Gail Z. Martin • Jacqueline Lichtenberg • Judith Tarr • Julie Czerneda • Kay Kenyon • Mary Robinette Kowal • Mazarkis Williams • Mind Meld • Nancy Jane Moore • Tim Pratt
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