Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Writers Who've Changed My (Writing) World

I thought it might be interesting to have a brief discussion about ten authors who’ve strongly influenced me in one way or another.  I want to emphasise that this isn’t a list of my favourite authors (though many would appear in that list) nor of authors I’d recommend all writers to be influenced by (ditto).  This is a fairly random list of my (sometimes slightly off-the-wall) influences, in the approximate order I first encountered them.

A.A. Milne

The reason I’m starting with Milne is that I gather my parents were reading me the Winnie the Pooh stories pretty much from the time I was brought home from the hospital, and I’m certain they had a profound influence on my early desire to tell stories.  I dimly remember making up stories before I could write, and I wrote my first “book” when I was four.  I’d both read and heard other authors by that time, but Milne was the ultimate.

The Pooh stories (the real ones, not the Disneyfied versions) are both well told and well written.  The characters and their relationships are drawn vividly and economically – my touchstone for characterisation in a phrase is still “Rabbit, who never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them.”  Although I’ve never written anything especially like Milne, he was there right at the start.

William Shakespeare

Well, duh, as Hamlet might have said.  I’ve both read and watched Shakespeare’s plays since childhood and loved pretty much everything.  Memorable productions I’ve seen on the stage include Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in Much Ado About Nothing, Judi Dench and Donald Sinden in Twelfth Night, and two memorable productions of Hamlet starring Alan Bates and Ian McKellan.

Shakespeare’s so much part of the scenery that it can be easy to leave him out when assessing influences.  As with Milne, it’s difficult to quantify his influence on me, but the two areas where Shakespeare is peerless are his command of the English language and the quality of his characters.  If I can do either half as well as he did, I’ll be happy.

Ernest E. Tucker

Um, who?  Well, all I know about Tucker is that he published a children’s book in 1961 called The Story of Knights and Armor (suggesting he was American).  My local library had a copy, which spent about as much time in my hands as it did on their shelves, but neither my parents nor the librarian could track down a copy for me.  More than forty years later, the internet succeeded where they failed, and I now own a copy.

As a kid, I was mad about the Arthurian legends in particular and knights in general, and this book was perfect for me.  Alternating factual and fictional chapters, it tells of the development of the armoured soldier, through the Roman legions and up to the medieval knight, finishing with the advent of guns.  It’s simplified, naturally, but in forty-odd years of more serious medieval study, I’ve found nothing in it that was wrong.  Pretty much any battle scene I’ve ever written can be traced to this book.  I’ve no idea who Ernest E. Tucker was, but I raise a glass to him.

Rosemary Sutcliff

Before I got into fantasy, my big reading love was historical fiction.  The authors I particularly read ranged from Geoffrey Trease (good but slightly dumbed down for kids) to Mary Renault (heavy, adult and awesome), but I think Sutcliff was my favourite.  Although she wrote books both for younger children and for adults, her main body of work would nowadays be described as young adult – a classification that didn’t exist back then.

Her books were based on good, solid history – mostly ranging from Roman Britain to early medieval – her characters and their relationships were interesting, and she explored interesting historical and personal issues.  Her best known is The Eagle of the Ninth (recently filmed) which I loved, but my favourite was always Knight’s Fee, set a generation after the Norman Conquest.

There are obvious parallels between historical fiction and the type of epic fantasy I write, where great events unfold in a pseudo-historical settings, and the historical novels I’ve read have probably influenced me as much as any fantasy.  Rosemary Sutcliff is, in my opinion, the best of these.

J.R.R. Tolkien

I’d read a little fantasy, notably E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis and the Arthurian legends, as well as loving traditional English and Scottish ballads like Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, but it wasn’t my main fare until, at the age of fifteen, I read Lord of the Rings for the first time.  It completely blew me away, as it has so many people.

It marked perhaps the biggest landmark in the life of my imagination, not only because of the book itself, but I’d recently had the idea for the story that essentially spawned most of what I’ve written since, and was struggling to develop it.  Tolkien showed me what it was like to have epic ambitions, and I’ve never looked back.

Tolkien isn’t an influence to be taken in lock, stock and barrel.  Much of what he did would be scornfully rejected by any publisher if it came from an unknown author, from the infodumps to the frequent songs to the wandering POV.  It works triumphantly in Tolkien’s case (in my opinion) because he does it all so well.  He remains to this day my absolute favourite author.

James Branch Cabell

I believe (though I’m not absolutely sure) that Cabell’s Jurgen was the first fantasy novel I read after my discovery of Tolkien and, quite apart from anything else, it showed me just how varied fantasy can be.  Cabell had the knack of mixing High Romance with High (and sometimes Low) Comedy, and showed me how serious fantasy can have an immense sense of fun.

Cabell tends not to be discussed much these days by fantasy readers, many of whom seem to think the genre started with Tolkien, but he’s influenced a great many fantasy authors.  Neil Gaiman makes a few references to him, and his portrayal of Hell in the Sandman series seems to be a direct nod to Jurgen.

He was very much of his time and culture – writing nearly a hundred years ago in the southern States – and his gender and racial stereotypes don’t always read easily these days.  Nevertheless, if you can look past that and accept the books for what they are, they’re immense fun.

Mervyn Peake

I first read Titus Groan around the same time as Jurgen, and the rest of the trilogy over the next few years.  Like Tolkien (though for very different reasons) I’d recommend Peake as someone to be influenced by judiciously, rather than necessarily trying to write like him.

Peake’s great strength lies in the awesomeness of his detail.  He built Gormenghast Castle, in words, stone by stone and person by person, with a level of description few authors come close to.  It could be argued that the plot of the entire trilogy could be written in a single moderate-length novel, but that’s not the point.  The trilogy’s a detailed painting of a place and its community, and Peake wouldn’t have been telling his story if he’d stuck to relating the plot as quickly as possible.

With the possible exception of one story of about 1000 words, I’ve never written anything that’s come close to Peake’s level of description, but I believe that any successful description I’ve written owes something to the architect of Gormenghast.

Michael Moorcock

I grew from a child to an aware teenager in the 1960s, and I make no apology for the effects that’s had on me.  Mike Moorcock, though he’s continued to produce fine works, is pre-eminently a fantasy writer of the 60s.  Perhaps one the most prolific writers of speculative fiction – he famously used to write novels (albeit slim ones) in three days – one of the things he showed me was that a broad palette was a good thing.  His books range from the high seriousness of the Eternal Champion fantasy to the weirdness of the Cornelius cycle to the exuberant fun of the End of Time, and many more.

I think, though, the main element I took from Moorcock is the interconnectedness.  Cabell’s works were also very interconnected, but Moorcock went several steps further, interleaving stories and characters that could surely have no link.  Though I haven’t taken this to anything like the same extent, using the multiverse theory to cross-fertilise separate worlds, I’ve always enjoyed having characters wander through many different stories, and elements from one story overlapping into another, despite vast differences of place and time.

Karl Edward Wagner

OK, I’m sure quite a few of you are asking “who?” again.  I’m not touting Wagner as a Great Author (though I think he’s a good one) but he had a specific and profound influence on me.  He wrote a series of S&S novels and short stories in the 70s about a character called Kane – supposedly the biblical Cain, wandering the prediluvian world.  What I found fascinating was that, because Kane is immortal, each story takes place against the backdrop of a different age, a different land and different customs, although historical references are sometimes made to places in other stories.  Anyone who’s read my Traveller stories can probably see at once how this has influenced me.

Actually, I think it’s a pity the Kane series isn’t better known.  While the actual plots are usually fairly standard S&S fare, Kane is a fascinating character, and Wagner’s great talent is to evoke haunting and intriguing backgrounds.  Perhaps my favourite example is a short story called Lynortis Reprise.  While the plot is a straightforward treasure hunt, much of the story takes place in the ruins of a sacked city, inhabited by those of both sides from the war who are too badly maimed to fit in.  Here, however, they’ve developed a society based on mutual aid which still haunts my memory thirty years after I read it.

Iain Banks

Also writing under the fiendishly subtle pseudonym of Iain M. Banks, he’s possibly my favourite living author.  He writes mainstream, SF and fantasy novels with an expansive exuberance, populating them with vivid, memorable characters.  Unusually for me, I probably marginally prefer his mainstream books to his speculative ones, but basically I love them all.

Banks, with or without his M, has many great qualities I’ve benefited from reading, but perhaps the most obvious one is his brilliant control of multiple time-streams.  Few, if any, of his novels keep the beginning, middle and end in the simple order – one, in fact, starts in the middle and proceeds alternately back to the beginning and forwards to the end, a trick I also tried less successfully some years before I read his version.  Perhaps my favourite, The Crow Road, has a “present” narrative, in which the main character is investigating an old family secret, interspersed with an out-of-order narrative of the events he’s investigating.

This might seem self-indulgent, but what it achieves is to give the information in the best order to unravel the secrets.  This is Banks’s preferred approach and has deeply influenced my own writing.  I was reading The Crow Road at the time I wrote At An Uncertain Hour, and his example helped me organise my narrative in a similar way – even though the flashbacks covered a few millennia, rather than a couple of generations.

Well, there are my ten authors – and now I’ve finished, I want to add Homer, S.T. Coleridge, Herman Hesse, Fritz Leiber, Mary Renault, Ursula LeGuin, Alan Garner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mary Gentle...  Maybe I should make it twenty writers, but I’d be thinking of more while I’m writing those. 

As someone else who’s influenced me profoundly – Bob Dylan – once said, Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it.


  1. Good list! I love Rosemary Sutcliffe :)

  2. Thank you for sharing this. Tolkien and Moorcock are definitely on my list also, as I read them very early in my 20-plus-years of romance with fantasy. You reminded me again of Rosemary Sutcliffe (of whom I read a few novels around the same time). Pooh Bear did not feature that prominently in my childhood, but I still remember the magic unlocked by 'Simon in the land of chalk-drawings', which I had as a kid. Books are passports to lands of wonder!!

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