MIND MELD: Our Non-Writer Influences
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We asked this week’s panelists about their influences outside of the literary world.
Here’s what they said…
I often feel that people have a skewed idea of what I do as an editor. I’ve heard “go ahead and tear this manuscript apart” and “rip me a new one” more times than I can count. And that’s not what a good editor does, that’s what a good critic does. Nonetheless, the people who have had the most impact upon my work (other than authors) are individuals with their own skewed version of the truth, and who stick to their guns when their worldview is challenged. I like loudmouths, people with just enough audacity to think they might be able to solve all the problems of the world if the powers-that-be would just listen to their lunacy for a moment. I like people with radical beliefs, but with ideas just crazy enough to work. And I like people who can make me laugh, no matter what the topic. So three people who all fit this bill would be: George Carlin, Henry Rollins, and Howard Stern. All three have written multiple books, but none are known predominantly for these books. But they’re opinionated, funny, and all three have made me stop and evaluate life and art on many different levels. They all have a way with words, and though sometimes they can go overboard and offend in a heartbeat, they walk that fine line of making you laugh despite yourself, and generally bring the topic full circle so that their message is clear. And a clear, concise message with an edge is more likely to be listened to than the same message without the little punch at the end. That influence and skill is something I see myself using at my job almost every day.
Like many writers, I’m a very bookish person, and most of my influences are other writers! That said, there are a few people who had a huge influence on me and who weren’t writers: I’ve always been a huge admirer of Le Loi, the Vietnamese Emperor who overthrew the Chinese rule and founded the Le dynasty: as a child, I was fascinated by the legend of his magical sword; as an adult, I am able to much better appreciate the strategy that went into fighting the Chinese troops and establishing his own dynasty, as well as completely transforming Vietnamese society—it’s certainly made me think on the nature of power, how you take it and how you exercise it, all notions that have made their way into my fiction.
Another person I very much admire is Alexander Yersin, who is mainly known for his co-discovery of the bubonic plague bacillus, but who is remembered in Vietnam as “Ong Nam,” Mister Fifth, where he did so much—bringing various medicines into the country, helping to establish medical schools, and thoroughly acclimatising himself to the country (he quickly learnt Vietnamese and decided to stay in Indochina until his death). He’s still honoured there: the streets named after him were among the only ones not to be de-baptised after independence, and he still has funeral offerings made for him in his hometown of Nha Trang.
I’m generally fascinated by history; and by the notion of historical record—of who gets remembered and on what terms; and I have a great interest and fondness for the people who haven’t been so well remembered; for the women who are in so few of the records; for the poorer classes who don’t get much of a say when we over focus on the aristocrats; and for the minorities who are all but invisible in the historical record (France was an immigration destination for lots of people from its colonies even during the colonial age, but you wouldn’t know it from our “official” history as taught in school). A lot of my fiction is concerned with this rewriting of history, and with the fate of ordinary people in times of stress.
Finally, I listen to a lot of music and derive inspiration from it: in particular, I’ve been a fan of The Innocence Mission, Vienna Teng, and India Arie, as well as a lot of V-pop and K-pop (I recommend Khong Tu Quynh, especially her online album Try 2 Up, which merges R&B and more “traditional” V-pop sounds, and her duet “Lanh” with Tonny Viet, which I listened to over and over while working on On a Red Station, Drifting).
(I have also been influenced a lot by the people around me and my family, and there’s quite a few family stories that have been inspirational—but they’re much more a private matter!)
My non-writer influences are varied. Some of them might seem a little strange. One is the professional wrestler and manager “Luscious” Johnny Valiant. I was actually born too late to see the primes of the Valiant Bros—when I was a kid, Johnny was a manager—but in an interview, he said something that always stayed with me. Basically, when you’re doing a complicated hold and the audience starts chanting “Bo-ring” that’s when you really settle in and sink in the hold. Make ‘em suffer. Let ‘em wait. The frustration will make the inevitable reversal of fortune more satisfying for the crowd. There’s something to be said for not simply doing the very first thing you think the audience wants, or that the audience thinks it wants, as a writer or an editor. Actually, I could spend all day talking about professional wrestlers: the frustrated genius of Karl Gotch (who could really fight and would have made a mint in MMA had it been around in his prime), the casual virtuosity of Eddy Guerrero, the improvisational wizardry of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, etc. But I won’t!
Somewhat related is my taiji instructor, Henry Wong, who has demonstrated to me that one can keep getting better, and that doing the same thing over and over is a good idea, but that at a certain point what has worked will stop working, and so to improve one must go deeper, find subtler ways of improving.
The filmmaker Hal Hartley is a major influence as well. His early films, especially The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Amateur were mini-lessons in formalism, and I’m a formalist to this day. Even when I write a story about a walrus, as in the anthology Walrus Tales, I can have fun with it by practicing a little formal experiment.
Finally, Morrissey, who is always good for stealing a title for a story in need of one.
I have a huge soft spot for all out-of-the-box, who’d-a-thunk-it problem solvers. As an exercise in problem-solving, I think the entire life story of Abraham Hannibal is an inspiration and a guide—not only for my own life, but for writing about fifty impossible things before breakfast, and laughing at “this could never have happened in real life.” As a shining example of an autodidact genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan is my hero, having derived much of what we know as number theory de novo, in new and fascinating ways. And, of course, the person who invented spread spectrum encryption has my vote regardless of her other accomplishments.
In medicine, Barry Marshall (because until his research, everyone knew ulcers were caused by stress) and Randas Batista (because how can chopping out a piece of the heart to make it smaller possibly make it work better?) and Josep Trueta who developed a radically new method of treatment of injuries while bombarded by both shells and casualties of shelling in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. One need not be an immigrant kid like me to admire people who achieved much working with limited resources.
In music my taste is pretty conservative: I love opera—at least the good parts: Aida, Pagliacci, Don Giovanni. For writing, nothing gets me into a character’s head better than finding an aria I can imagine him or her singing. It might explain much about “Don’t Look Down” if you imagine Viviam running through the protagonist’s head. And of course, I had to write an ode to “Ode to Joy.”
In film and TV, I learned English from watching Star Trek reruns; I think I need not say more.
Last but not least, Konstantin Sergeevich Stanislavski. Everything he said about acting, I try to apply to writing.
1. The Beatles.
I really like the Beatles. If you asked me who my gardening influences were, I’d probably tell you my grandfather, my sister, my girlfriend, and the Beatles. Here are these guys who went to Hamburg early in their career to play show after show after show in front of unruly, sex-crazed crowds, then came back as the beginnings of what you might call the greatest band of all time. That Hamburg gig was constant, intensive, grueling, focused, day-after-day-after-day practice. This is how someone becomes awe-inspiringly good at something. There have been studies; don’t get me started.
I sometimes wish I had the chance to sit in the middle of a room of obnoxious, bored people who really wanted something meaningful and good to read and would shout at me to write about different things. They’d read what I wrote immediately, all at the same time, exclaiming over parts that they liked and giving me endless grief about the rest. After a month or two I would come out of that room with my hair gone completely white and a persistent facial tic, skeletally thin but a genius.
My girlfriend would probably not support this plan, however.
2. Mohandas Gandhi
I know, ridiculously pretentious, but the man was a living demonstration that achieving great things is compatible with living a good and compassionate life. He also used non-violence in situations where other people almost always use violence, and this kind of thinking has led me to at least wrestle with some very difficult problems about writing.
For example: how do you keep your readers engaged without treating them unkindly? This may sound like a weird question, but think about the last great cliffhanger you saw on a TV series or at the end of a book. Of course you felt compelled to find out what happened next, and during the whole period you had to wait, you were probably preoccupied from time to time with this cliffhanger. Does that really improve your life? I mean, it’s something to talk about with co-workers if we want to do that, but it distracts us from more important things and manipulates our emotions to ensure we’ll come back for more.
Of course, good writing does affect emotions, and probably even manipulates them, but there’s a difference between readers enjoying and being fulfilled by something and being simply compelled to finish it due to suspense. Just as some foods and some video games and some relationships are addictive without being good for us, stories can be, too. I’ve been trying to find a way to use non-violence in powerful storytelling, to completely separate the engagement from the manipulation. I don’t know whether it can be done, but people like Gandhi have inspired me to at least try.
3. Mrs. Powsner
My favorite grade school teacher, Mrs. Powsner, believed in me in a way that on reflection has never even entirely made sense. She encouraged me to be unrestrainedly starry-eyed about what I could accomplish, and while that has gotten me into trouble at times, it also helped me blindly write my first million words in a way that protected me to some extent from being dismayed at my own incompetence. From people like Mrs. Powsner, my parents, and certain other teachers, I got the sense that I was a good writer, and that made me more audacious and energetic in actually writing stuff even though in many ways it wasn’t true.
Writing, and probably all of the solitary arts, presents these opposing problems of humility and self-confidence. When I submit a book to an agent or publisher, I have to think so much of myself that I believe tens of thousands of people should spend hours and hours just contemplating my words and pay me for the privilege of doing it. At the same time, I have to go to my writing every day and think, “OK, what did I screw up this time?” or “What am I about to screw up with this next part if I’m not careful?” I have to think the world of myself as I generate the first draft so as not to stall in self-doubt, then cut myself down to size in editing, then flip back to hubris in submitting the work, then humility again when I receive the rejection (most of the time, though there are those wonderful exceptions) to understand that I’m not the world’s greatest writer (yet) and that rejections are just part of how it all works.
Yet I suspect self-doubt is the more dangerous problem, and I’m grateful that I have protection against it. Whenever I get a little discouraged, my internal Mrs. Powsner pops out and says, “Hey, you know that stuff you did? That was really great!”
Either that, or I start singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Between that and the “Galaxy Song,” Monty Python pretty much covers all the bases. However, they were not teaching 3rd grade in 1977, to the best of my knowledge.
Composers with a flair for the dramatic make me want to WRITE STUFF because images imprint themselves on the insides of my eyelids with the right kind of music. Siegfried’s funeral march from Wagner’s Ring Cycle makes me SEE THINGS. But there are other pieces of music that do so, too—the sweeping theme from Dragonheart, the theme music for Game of Thrones (and no, the things I see have NOTHING to do with the subject matter of the series), stuff like that. I couldn’t tell you who wrote those pieces of music.
On the whole it isn’t PEOPLE who move or influence me. It’s the things they do or say and often I’ll remember a quote or a piece of music or an incredible painting long after I have forgotten who actually created it. And the way these things influence me is to remind me what is possible, not who it was possible for. I know. I should be better at this. But I don’t have a nice, neat potted list of names for people who held torches for me as I stumbled down my own path to enlightenment—too often the faces of those people are obliterated by the light they are shining forth. When I come across the thing that I loved with attributions attached I honour the creators—but I don’t worship at any one temple. My influences range from the person I talked with in the supermarket checkout line last week to long-dead philosophers, from someone I know only via the Internet who crowed over the same thing that I did to Vincent van Gogh, from a writing friend and colleague to Oscar Wilde. I’m eclectic. I listen to the world, and all its voices.
Outside of books, the biggest influence on my writing within the arts has to be music. I’ve always been a fan of dark, gritty, and surreal music, which I think is a fair categorization of my writing as well. My initiation into music started with classic rock bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC, and then, being a high school and college kid in the ’90s, I became immersed in the grunge scene. My favorites from that era tend to be on the darker side too: Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, NIN, Tool, and Radiohead, just to name a few. These days, the bands I find myself drawn toward tend to be more blues-based, bands like The Black Keys, Them Crooked Vultures, The Raconteurs, and The Heavy (apparently, you have to have a “The” or “Them” in front of your band to win me over).
All these bands inspire me and fuel the primordial part of my imagination that dreams up the landscapes where I set my stories. When I’m actually writing, however, I can’t listen to rock music—I need something more symphonic. I’ll listen to classical composers like Holst and Bantock; world music artists like Loreena McKennitt, Clannad, and Jocelyn Pook; and movie soundtrack composers like Joseph LoDuca, Howard Shore, and Hans Zimmer.
Outside of the arts, my biggest influences are the people I’ve met and interacted with over the years. Obviously, my family and friends are a big part of this, but also the people I’ve only known briefly. Robert, the grizzled veteran at the sheet metal shop I worked at in high school, still serves as my model when I need a good bit of swearing in dialogue. The crew of the Louisiana clean-up barge I worked on in the summer of 2010 during the BP oil spill was the inspiration for the pirate crew in my novella “Gold Comes Out.” Every character I write has his or her basis in real people. This is why I tell my writing students to get their nose out of their books every once in a while and go live life! You can’t write about things like love and loss if you’ve never experienced them, and you can’t write believable characters if you don’t get to know real people.
I try to bring a lush, visual quality to my work even though individual lines might be sparse. I want “evocative” in my minimalist prose, so what I write can be descriptive without being ornate. To do that I think it’s important to both see the way life is depicted by others, and experience it yourself. This means creating and experiencing art, film, food, and music.
There are layers of information in a painting or other type of physical art, beyond what’s obvious. More than anything else I’ve studied, examining the history of art from a socio-cultural perspective gave me an understanding of iconography and semiotics. I have degrees in Fine Art and History of Art because I’ve been intrigued by these secret codes for years, and pursuing them in an academic setting gave me access to the objects I wanted to understand better. A work can tell us where it’s made, when it was made, what influenced its creator, how valuable it was at the time it was crafted, what purpose it had—all without written documentation to supply this information. If it depicts an image, knowing the iconography of that culture will help you to read the image as if it is another language.
Most people have the ability to discern the symbols of our own culture. They’re embedded in the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, what slang we use in a conversation with our friends. If you know them, you can write those details into your fiction and tell more of the story than is portrayed by your narration. Keeping these ideas in mind when you invent fictional cultures helps you to remember to include the details of dress, movement, language, cooking, and so on, that will add depth to your new world.
The most important piece I take from film isn’t the writing, since screenwriting doesn’t do much for a film beyond creating a skeleton for someone else to dress. A movie is a composite of the actors’ performances of the material they were given plus how they’re dressed by the costumer, how they’re blocked in a scene, how the room is decorated by the prop guys, how the whole thing is lit, how the sound is captured, the editor’s skill, the director’s instructions, the producer’s vision, and even what the digital effects team is capable of.
I studied Screenwriting and Cinematography at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, got into post-war Japanese Cinema at UPenn, love noir films and early horror flicks for their use of light and shadow, and while I eschew action flicks in favor of documentaries and indie films, I still watch more than my share of movies because that composite presents an idealized version of our experiences. Cinematic trends shape the way we picture our own memories, give us expectations of how a “scene” will play out in our real lives, and your writing can draw from or rebuke this ideal world. If you can think of your writing as a film playing out in your reader’s head, you’ll pay more attention to things like where your character is standing in a room. You’ll visualize how the light from the window changes whether the next person who walks in will think your MC is angelic, wicked, angry, or sad.
We have to eat, all of us, in order to survive, but we can do more than shove calories into our mouths and exit stage left. We can, and should, be present and involved in the creation of our food, and we should savor each bite, each flavor, as if our dinner is a great book we don’t want to end. If you know what your food tastes like, and you can articulate that, you can write food into your fiction as another way to connect with your readers (who also eat food and like to recognize their favorite flavors in your characters’ meals). I know that when I read a story that has a character sitting down to lunch, or grabbing a quick bite as they run out the door, I want to know what they’re eating! Is it delicious? Is it filling but bland? Does it change their mood in a way that influences what decisions they make next? Does it have a symbolic meaning, or does it tell us about the character’s upbringing or economic status?
Food can do all of that, if you let it.
Music is an experience unlike any other. It may be the hardest art to include in a piece of writing, but I don’t think the most important thing you can learn from music is the notes. A song can be a memory in audible form, tickling your brain until you recall where you were and how you felt when you first heard it. It can be background noise to the important events of your life, or it can stir emotions you didn’t know you still had. The right music can stop you in your tracks, frozen, listening, until the song fades away and you are released.
If you understand how music affects you and other people, if you can describe in words the effect, you can incorporate that into your fiction in other ways. Maybe you’ve never had your heart broken but your main character has… how do you portray their emotions in a way your readers will understand? Find that song that you put on repeat during your last breakup and listen to it again until you remember what it felt like to lose someone you cared about—and then put the words for those feelings into your character’s dialogue. You can do the same when you need to describe longing or passion, or when you want to invoke a sense of nostalgia. Like in the movies, your story can have a soundtrack that plays in your mind as you write it, even if you never put your track list on the page.
Whatever other art you explore, the best advice I can give you is to let yourself experience it. Figure out what you love or hate or are indifferent to, and then practice writing about it. After all, you can’t write if you don’t live.
I think the greatest non-writer influences on me, with regards to the creative aspect, would have to be the bevy of heavy metal and punk bands I grew up listening to. All of the dark and twisted atmosphere and imagery that I use in my work can be traced back to my choice of music.
From the political cynicism of early Metallica and The Exploited to the outright Satanic mantras of Venom and Slayer to the fantastic otherworldliness of Fates Warning and King Diamond and the depressive gloom of My Dying Bride and Anathema, these bands and their ilk have formed the foundation of who I am as a writer; even as a person. I spent nearly every waking moment under the influence of metal from an early age, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s had an impact on what I’m doing creatively these days. From the titles of my stories all the way through to the phrasing of sentences, there’s a clear connection between my music of choice and the words that land on the page.
I find myself conjuring images as I listen to music, characters and worlds and conflicts coming alive inside my skull, each of these ideas embedded for later use. And while I can’t rightfully sit down and credit a singular band or entity, the genres of metal and punk having both left their scars, the amalgam of my musical experience is woven into the whole of what I do. Dark Angel’s brilliant social commentary and Kreator’s angst and aggression tempered by Voivod’s experimentation are all a piece of my storytelling. I can’t read through any of my work without hitting upon these pockets of inspiration, memories triggered in their wake.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s hard to come up with influences on my writing that aren’t some form of writing themselves. I spot my influences most easily in the tropes I use, which come from other books and movies. The musicians who influence me tend to be heavily narrative: Nick Cave, say, or Paul Simon. I’m forever amazed by lyrical efficiency. When I’m influenced by artists, it’s usually the ones who make art where something is clearly going on: thousand-word-picture painters like Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio, or modern sequential artists. I love Fiona Staples, Jill Thompson, Pia Guerra, Emily Carroll, and Eric Powell—those last two also write, so they may not count! I’m always inspired by artists with insane work ethics (Jack Kirby comes to mind), though whether that’s managed to influence me depends on the day. I hugely admire Guillermo del Toro’s work. I’d be delighted if some of that richness of tone rubbed off on me.
When it comes to historical figures, I tend to like the ones who lived so big they might as well be fictional. People like Ching Shih, Deborah Sampson, Dan Rice, and Oscar Wilde have turned up in my work, usually under heavy disguise. But we only meet historical figures through their stories, so I can only claim to be influenced by their depictions. I have writers to thank for that.
Actually, here’s a historical figure who spoke for himself via autobiography: P. T. Barnum. He’s got a not-unjustified reputation for humbuggery and he was clearly in the entertainment business for the money, but always seemed to remember the “entertainment” part. Maybe he wasn’t actually showing off George Washington’s nurse or a mermaid, but he made it worth your nickel. He was a hilariously inventive marketer. And he got the last word on his life by writing a bestseller about it. I don’t know whether you can find any of him in my content or my approach to writing, but I wouldn’t mind it.
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