This week, we asked out esteemed panel about the books that inspired them and to interpret “inspire” however they wanted…
The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan is (for me) the epitome of epic fantasy. At a practical level, I’m simply impressed by the word count of these massive tomes, which seemed to grow longer as the series progressed. There are many things to admire about it, but the magic is probably my favorite. The One Power sets a high bar for magic systems in fantasy literature: it’s a vital speculative element, difficult to learn, dangerous to its users, and near-limitless in its applications. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent debating — both internally and with other fans — what could or could not be done with it.
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton remains one of my favorite books because it so effortlessly weaves science into science fiction. The idea of extracting dinosaur DNA from amber-encased mosquitoes sounds so plausible that scientists are still discussing it. (Side note: the unfortunate reality seems to be that it can’t be done. DNA simply does not hold up for millions of years.) Jurassic Park not only created the coolest amusement park ever, but also brought sci-fi to a mainstream audience.
Dune by Frank Herbert might be my favorite space opera. The first time I read it (as a teenager), I loved that Herbert managed to put all of my favorite things — spaceships, assassinations, hand-to-hand combat, and pretty girls — into a single book. As an adult, I admire how he took mind-numbing topics like economics and political intrigue and actually made them interesting. He also had a habit of killing off my favorite characters, which helped me prepare me for George R.R. Martin.
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb breaks so many conventions of traditional epic fantasy. It’s written in first person, for one thing, and features magic that’s extremely painful to use. I admire how Hobb develops the concept of animal familiars, which are bonded via a secondary form of magic that’s frowned upon in the world. I’ll be honest, I’m never a big fan of animals as characters outside of picture books. But the relationship between the main character and his wolf pierced me in a way that I still don’t understand.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss offers a different kind of inspiration. It seems to violate so many fundamental rules of storytelling. The first chapter opens in the common room of an inn, which could not be more of a fantasy cliche. The book seems to end right in the middle of a story arc, with very little resolved (as does the sequel). Yet the prose is so lovely, so enchanting, that it hardly seems to matter. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to write at that level, but reading Rothfuss certainly motivates me to try.
I’m a late bloomer. I didn’t start to seriously pursue a writing career until I was in my mid-thirties, and even then I felt uncertainty about exactly what kind of writer I wanted to be. I attribute this delay to the fact that my early life was so painfully chaotic (or so consumed by work and school) that I never had a chance to just relax and explore all that genre fiction had to offer.
But eventually, life settled down and I immersed myself in the (fun) task of getting a sense of the genre landscape. I read some SF. I read a bit of mainstream horror. I read some classic weird fiction. And while these books did indeed start to give me the lay of the land, they didn’t inspire me.
But then I made a decision to revisit the work of Thomas Ligotti (specifically, the 2008 Virgin Books paperback edition of Teatro Grottesco). I had made a fleeting attempt to read Ligotti during my chaotic years, when “Our Temporary Supervisor” appeared in Weird Tales. At the time, his work sailed over my head. I couldn’t get it.
But by 2008 I was mature enough (or, perhaps, simply disillusioned enough) that I understood where Ligotti was coming from. The book was inspirational, in the sense that it demolished many of the preconceptions I had about genre fiction. (Yes, you could make a name for yourself by writing short stories. Yes, you could make a name for yourself by writing in a way that was totally disengaged from the storytelling conventions of pop culture. You could eschew the serial storytelling and melodrama, for example, to which much of publishing has succumbed.) I quickly read all the Ligotti I could get my hands on.
For a while, I essentially wanted to be Thomas Ligotti when I grew up. I think I’m not alone in having once harbored that sentiment. Many writers have been inspired by his career and sought to tread further along the road which he has paved for us. One might even go so far as to say that Ligotti is the world’s most inspirational pessimist.
I’m glad that I didn’t stay stuck in Ligotti-wannabe mode, though. The world already has a Ligotti. It doesn’t need another. But by following Ligotti (by reading his interviews and engaging with his fan community — Thomas Ligotti Online), I found out about several other bizarre texts reputed to satisfy those of us who yearn to have our neurons tickled and souls crushed: the anonymously written nineteenth century German book The Nightwatches of Bonaventura, Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, Roland Topor’s The Tenant, the work of Bruno Schulz, the work of Witkacy, the work of Mário de Sá-Carneiro and many others.
It’s a domino effect which persists to this day. Ligotti (and his fan community) were the gateway drugs, who knocked me into Hedayat and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Mário de Sá-Carneiro knocked me into other Decadent authors (naturally) but also into my latest enthusiasm, Leonid Andreyev (because both are published by the excellent Dedalus Books).
I’m particularly inspired by authors who could sustain an exploration of madness or the grotesque over the course of an entire novella or novel. After reading longer works like The Blind Owl, The Tenant, or Hermann Ungar’s The Maimed, I knew that the intense, weird, dark stuff didn’t just work at short story length. It could also serve as sufficient fuel for appealing novels — novels that dared to spotlight alienated, traumatized, and inconsolable protagonists. Such books gave me the confidence to branch out beyond short story writing, to try writing novels.
For me, that’s the heart of inspiration: the instilling of confidence. In the past I’ve casually referred to my favorite authors as my “literary heroes,” but on further reflection I realize that is a misnomer. While there are writers I admire and writers who inspire me, I have no heroes.
Heroes are generally placed on pedestals for worship — and hero worship inhibits growth. (Or, as the psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp put it: “If you have a hero look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.”)
But an inspirational figure is different. While a hero ultimately inhibits you (“This is a legend in our field. I could never achieve anything close to what this writer has. Why even try?”) an inspirational figure emboldens you (“Yes, he or she did something similar to what I want to do. Now I feel empowered to give it a shot.”)
Here’s to fewer heroes and more inspirations.
Born in 1995, Jeremy Szal is a Writers of the Future finalist and the author of more than forty publications. His fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in venues such as Nature, Abyss & Apex, Perihelion magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared multiple times in Strange Horizons, Grimdark Magazine, and Fantasy Scroll.
He is also the assistant editor of Hugo award winning podcast StarShipSofa. When he’s not writing he’s watching films, playing video games, or reading. He’s written multiple novels and is currently on the hunt for a literary agent. He lives in Sydney, Australia. Find him at: https://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/
Not an easy question. I feel like my inspiration for my writing comes from dozens and dozens of great novels over the years. A bit here, a bit there, soaking up the goodness and adding to my craft as a storyteller and writer.
While I’m not going to name all of them, there are a few writers who deserve special mention.
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin was certainly one of them. I’d always loved fantasy, but I’d drifted away from it when I entered high school. A few years later I was waltzing about in the library and picked it up. I devoured the tombstone-sized book over a matter of days. To put it simply: it reinvigorated by love of reading. It brought the colours back and created a world so rich and grand and full of dark beauty I simply had to get off my arse and make my own. Since then I’ve discovered hundreds of other fantasy novels, but this one remains close to my heart. If there’s one novel I can say that has made me the writer I am today, it’s because of this novel.
I’m probably cheating on this, but everything that I’ve read of Stephen King has certainly inspired me. I’ve been reading him for nearly half my life, and he never ceases to amaze me. His down-to-earth dialogue and “everyman” characters forced to deal with the most horrifying situations have always stuck with me. King might be a towering literary figure, but he’s a voice of the people and his voice spoke deeply to an overweight teenage boy on many hot summer afternoons. I don’t think I’d ever be able to write dialogue the way I do were it not for Mr. King himself.
Finally, a book that inspired me (and taught me a few techniques) was Karen Traviss’s Halo: Glasslands. I’d been looking for an entry-point into the video game franchise and its mountain-sized lore, so I started reading it. It was my first military space-opera and cemented my love of the sub-genre. It was my first true exposure to space ships, alien societies and hard SF in the novel format. I remember thumbing through the pages and thinking to myself that I had to create something like this, that this genre was going to be my home. The rest of the series doesn’t hold up as much, but I’ll always hold the first one close to my heart.
My choice is the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell. Beginning with Quarter Share, the series follows Ishmael Wang as he navigates the world of interstellar cargo hauling first as a green, unskilled recruit through to running his own ship in the “final” book, Owner’s Share. [The word final is in quotation marks because in September 2015 Lowell released In Ashes Born, which ostensibly begins a new series, but follows on pretty directly from the end of Owner’s Share. Much to my delight.]
The series begins when young Ishmael is forced to leave his home after his mother is killed in an accident. Her employment at the local university was the only thing allowing them to live on the company planet, so her death means Ish is on his own. With no skills, no credits and no clue, he ends up signing the Articles and joining up with a Federated Freight cargo ship as a labourer. Initially assigned to the mess hall, Ish makes friends and coffee and begins to try and find his place in society and the universe.
What is inspiring to me personally about these books is the celebration of ordinary people succeeding in relatively ordinary ways though teamwork and kindness. These books, while not short of problems for their characters to solve, don’t have end-of-the-world stakes or larger-than-life villains. They are about regular people living their lives, learning to do the best they can in sometimes trying situations.
To me, one of the jobs fiction can perform is to be a dress rehearsal for real life. Adventures with ever-rising stakes, heroic protagonists and boss bad guys are great fun, but in real life I’ll never be a superhero or the fated chosen one. I will, however, be in situations where I have to learn something new or solve a problem using only my willingness to listen and accept the help of others. The excitement in these stories comes from relatable problems, even in a fantastic world of interstellar travel, orbital bases and sailing starships.
As an author, these books have inspired me to contemplate what I call “comfort fiction” — the written equivalent of the feel-good movie. I’m interested in sometimes choosing to read and craft stories that aim primarily to make the reader feel good, with excitement and adventure playing backup roles in the narrative.
Lowell’s Solar Clipper books inspire that good feeling in me as a reader and they’ve inspired me to try and create that feeling for others.
“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff – and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.”
Thus begins Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a novel told entirely in end-notes to a pretentious epic poem, by someone who inhabits a singular world of questionable though irrelevant reality. At about the same time Hemingway was held out to me as the epitome of Literature, his words clad in blue-collar work shirts marching in goose-step toward inevitable conclusions, Nabokov’s danced instead, crossed and recrossed the stage en point, changed clothes with each scene change, each dress more gaudy than the next yet here and there a flash of leg, of shoulder, at times even of face, the glimpses of reality almost pornographic in their furtiveness, the viewer’s eye when tired of the relentless detail may at times pull back and view the stage as a gestalt — and that is when its magic would reveal.
Yes, it was holographic writing at its best: the order of narration is a function of aesthetics rather than chronology, the texture supreme over form, form over character, character over plot, a reading experience unlike any other. Pale Fire inspired me to go write something that would make Nabokov’s ghost sit up and take notice. Or, at least, say, after Nabokov’s anti-hero:
“…I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.”
Imagine you’re in your early twenties, and just moved away from home. Your other half lives at college two hours away, and your family resides in two other time zones. There hasn’t been time to make friends in your new town, except for books. That insatiable appetite, limited only to the library shelves, quadruples when a dear old friend recommends a book with a gorgeous white horse on the cover, whose blue eyes bore through your soul until you open the damn thing and cannot put it down. Never mind you’ve got a job the next morning or a cat to feed. This was my introduction to the Valdemar series by Mercedes Lackey.
Talia’s books (Arrow of the Queen, Arrow’s Flight, Arrow’s Fall) spoke to me on a level no book ever has. I never experienced YA when I was a young adult. My teen years were filled with dark and serious matter (Koontz, King, Saul). Fantasy wasn’t something I had recognized. Lackey’s writing and characters introduced me to an entirely new world.
Take a horse-loving city girl who’d just left home for the first time, and throw her into a world of magic horses and soul mates, and she’ll never come out. Throw in the dysfunctional family and characters that can perform mental abilities. Lackey rolled it up into one and made my soul sing with this series. More importantly, her work awakened my need to write fantasy.
It isn’t all horses and pretty uniforms, of course. There’s danger and intrigue, there are confrontations, battles, and angry forests. Lackey wove a story that takes a young girl into adulthood faster than she ever should have experienced, but Talia earns the rewards that come her way. The author made this reader feel the story was crafted just for her. Maybe someday, she can pay that forward.
My original intention for this topic was to write about Tau Zero by Poul Anderson as the SF/F/H book that most inspired me. While I was living in Germany as an exchange student, a friend described an amazing book he was reading, titled Universum Ohne Ende (“Universe Without End”). I was dying to read it, but that level of German was beyond me, so I had to wait until I got back to the States, where I hunted for some time (no Internet back then!) to find a battered copy of Tau Zero at a used bookstore. Mr. Anderson did not disappoint; that adventure literally takes the protagonists to the end of the universe, plus it introduced me to relativistic time effects, which blew my teenaged mind.
But then I realized that my lifelong interest in SF perhaps goes further back, to a book I read over and over when I was eight or nine years old: Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. In this chapter book, illustrated by Robert Henneberger, two boys meet the mysterious Mr. Bass, and build a spaceship so they can travel to the Mushroom Planet that orbits, completely hidden, between the Earth and the moon. Even though the book was a product of its times in that Mr. Bass apparently thought only boys could go adventuring, I still saw myself in their shoes every time I read it. And I think this book set me up so that when I found my way to Tau Zero years later, I experienced not only that classic “sense of wonder,” but also the sense of coming home. So maybe Tau Zero wasn’t my “first time” after all; that honor probably belongs to the Mushroom Planet.
Unless, of course, I go all the way back to Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar Visits Another Planet. And considering that I do still own my childhood copy of that book, complete with its elephant-shaped aliens and exotic landscapes, perhaps that was the true beginning for me.
The first time I borrowed The Hounds of the Morrigan from the main branch of the Winnipeg Public Library, I was probably about 10 years old. I read it several more times as a teenager, taking it out from the library each time.
Set in 20th century Ireland, the book follows two children as they attempt to foil the plans of the Morrigan, the ancient triple goddess – or a group of eccentric, tobacco-chewing, motorbike riding women, depending on how you see the world.
This book didn’t inspire me to become a writer, exactly, but it definitely shaped my writing. It is one of the reasons I tend to write the sorts of stories in which secret histories and old, old conflicts peek through everyday life. I keep trying to recapture the wonderful chill that went through me the first time I realized that the hounds were near, that the lean man in the trenchcoat was not a man at all…
The book has inspired some of my writing in a more direct way, too. My 2013 story “Six Aspects of Cath Baduma,” published in Postscripts to Darkness,vol. 4, owes a lot to Pat O’Shea although it is definitely not a story for children. Certain motifs keep cropping up in my writing, including in the novel I’m currently revising, decades after I read The Hounds of the Morrigan for the first time.
I finally bought my own copy of The Hounds of the Morrigan once I grew up: a glorious first edition hardcover. I still re-read it, every few years.
I’m not sure which edition it was that I took out of the library, but I do remember that the jacket copy noted (as my copy does today) that the book “has been ten years in the writing and is a wonderful debut by a previously unknown author.”
That gave me hope, even as a teenager. To think that a writer might take 10 years on a book – an unfathomable length of time to me then – and that it would be OK! It was a revelation to me that there was no deadline, no expiration date. (I had somehow picked up the unhealthy notion that to be a writer I had to be a prodigy like Gordon Korman and publish my first novel at 14. Needless to say, I did not become the next Gordon Korman.)
Even today, Pat O’Shea’s career continues to give me hope. She didn’t publish her great novel until her fifties, and she did not finish the sequel before she died in 2007. Her life is a constant reminder to me that a writer doesn’t have to be prolific or precocious to make an enormous difference in a reader’s life.