A friend of mine recently put a comment on a Facebook post I sent, saying that the story she’d read (Faces, if you’re curious) reminded her of the works of Sir Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. I said that they’re both influences on my work, which I suppose came as no surprise to anyone. It got me to thinking, however, about those real-life muses that have indeed impacted not only on my style of writing but on my decision to write.
I should note that this list is not all-inclusive, nor is it in any particular order. I have a lot of different influences. Here are some of the major ones, though – mostly literary.
I’ve been writing on and off – mostly off – for some time now. It was in Year 8 or 9 that I actually started putting pen to paper and coming up with words intended to express my feelings and thoughts. I’d written before then but only scrappy little things that I can no longer even really remember.
In high school I wrote a poem about love. I believe it was called Love Bites (not influenced by the song of the same name, though people assumed it was), and it was woefully, terribly bad. I could probably find it in a yearbook (it was printed, much to my later chagrin) but I have no urge – at all – to do so. Seeing where you came from can be good but it can also be utterly cringe-worthy.
But in any case, high school and secondary college (indeed, all of my schooling life) was a heavy influence on my writing for it was there that I first seriously considered whether or not I actually wanted to write. I won’t go into my schooling life in any detail here but I was a skinny, awkward kid who got along much better with books than with people. Writing gave me a safe place to put my emotion. I wrote many very bad poems back then.
Very likely I should put in the name of my English teacher at the time but I don’t recall who it was.
Everyone knows of J. R. R. Tolkien. At least, everyone who knows of his works knows of him. He is, without a doubt, one of the single most cited influences on modern fiction writers – and with extremely good reason. His works number far more than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but those two stories are definitely his best-known.
One of the first books I read was The Hobbit and I did so while my peers were still working through twenty-page books in primary school. Don’t take that as a boast, it’s just fact. Some people grow up physically engaged, whereas others grow up mentally engaged. I’ve always been terrible at sport. In any case I found the language in that story to be captivating. I loved reading about the habits of Hobbits, the depredations of dragons, the elegance of elves and other such alliteration. It took me some time to graduate to The Lord of the Rings but from a very early age I was already hooked on the rich world that was Middle-earth.
One of the first serious adult novels I read was Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey. In it I found a world that was both fantastical and real, impossible and possible. How could I not love it? Strong characters, dragons, a terrible threat, craggy coastlines and a developed world with its own societies and idiosyncrasies. Anne McCaffrey woke in me, before any other author did, the love of world-building. From designing coastlines to envisioning forests to working out the details of traditional garb Anne McCaffrey remains a strong influence – even when I forget she’s there, in the back of my head, urging me to think about what kind of clothing merchants in a desert culture might wear.
Currently there is a very big deal being made – and rightly so – about strong female characters. Those characters of my own making that I’ve always loved the most have been females. When stories become popular they often seem to be praised or damned mainly on their female characters and while I sometimes deeply disagree with people’s assessments of certain female characters (to avoid an argument I won’t go into those here) it’s notable that stories with strong females in them are not new. Anne McCaffrey was doing this literally decades ago.
Menolly resolutely stands on her own two feet, even when they’ve been torn ragged whilst running away from Threadfall, despite coming from a misogynistic and oppressive household. Lessa determinedly takes steps, despite personal threat, to avenge her family’s unjust deaths at the hands of invaders. Both of them make utterly indelible changes to Pern society in ways that no other characters can – and that’s only two characters. Characters such as Sharra, Moreta and early dragonrider Sorka Hanrahan are amongst their number. If you go beyond humanity you can also add in every female dragon on Pern – ever. Gold queen dragon Ramoth may have been more even-tempered than her rider, Lessa, but she was the largest dragon to have ever lived and was not one to mess with.
And all of that’s only in the Pern series. She wrote others. Many others.
Anne McCaffrey died following a stroke in November, 2011. She was openly accepting of fan fiction as long as fans followed a set of rules that she wrote up. She taught me not only that world-building is way more fun than it should be, but also that a writer can have strong female characters and strong male characters as well.
I was introduced to Sir Terry Pratchett’s work well before he was knighted. I have a suspicion that the first of his books I read was Wyrd Sisters but I don’t remember that at all; the first of his stories I actually remember reading was Mort. After going through that tome with outright fascination I went back and read them all (at the time), starting with The Colour of Magic and going on from there. Mort is still one of my very favourites.
While my response to his books have been varied I consider myself to be, by and large, a firm Pratchett fan. His skill at bending words to his will is incredible and he manages to mix the familiar and strange in such a way that even a very alien world – one shaped like a disc, for example, riding on four elephants that, in turn, ride on the back of an impossibly large turtle – seems so familiar as to be a second home. His wit and humour is subtle and wicked; it’s rare that I’ve read a book by Sir Terry Pratchett and not found myself, at some point, in very real pain from laughter.
I met him once, in passing, when I went with some friends to a talk and signing night he held in Melbourne. I have a number of signed books and they occupy a place of honour on my shelf. I asked him if we’d ever see Eskarina Smith from Equal Rites again, too, easily one of my favourite characters, to which he said we may. Years later we did and, while I’ve no doubt her place in I Shall Wear Midnight had nothing to do with my question, meeting her again made me happier than I can fully express.
He is not all chuckles and satire, however. Tragically he suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s and has agonised over this since his diagnosis in 2007. Deep in his thoughts have been the matters of the loss of identity that Alzheimer’s inevitably brings and whether he has the desire to live through the death of everything that makes him who he is. His documentary on assisted suicide, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, was both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. For personal reasons – specifically, my brother Brian’s suicide – it was very difficult to watch. I heartily recommend it, though I’m uncertain where you might find it.
My thoughts are with him and his family. For my own part I feel this will be a tragic loss to the world and wish him the best in attaining what he feels he needs; once I felt it a shame that I’d probably never meet him socially. Now I know that even if I did he wouldn’t remember me. My biggest sorrow is that he will one day, if he remains alive, be unable to recognise even those he holds most dear to his heart.
Somewhat amusingly Neil Gaiman’s impact on my life began as a sort of addendum to Sir Terry Pratchett’s, as I initially encountered his writing in Good Omens, an excellent collaboration by the two. I would like to say that the distinctive style caught my mind immediately and I urgently went out to pursue his work and voraciously read everything I could get my hands on but it simply isn’t true. I liked it and that was that.
It wasn’t until a friend of mine let me borrow his Sandman graphic novels that I became a Gaiman addict. But even then, well, humans are a visually-acute species and a lot of my love of those graphic novels came from the illustrations as much as the writing. Still, I was hooked and he steadily reeled me in.
Another friend showed me Neverwhere and I knew I was trapped. Neil Gaiman presents a vivid, compelling story of a world under the skin of ours and that’s exactly the sort of thing that, at the time, caught my attention (and to be truthful still does). Oddity hidden amongst the mundane is a favourite of mine. After securing a copy of American Gods from the same friend I found that Gaiman’s ability to blend mythology with modern life resonated with me deeply. To briefly get less loquacious, I dig it.
I listen to his audiobooks a lot, particularly when I’m finding the writing mindset difficult to attain. Fragile Things is most effective for that. And I have to admit that I’ve been slow to read (or listen to) his work; I only secured an audio copy of Anansi Boys last month and, I have to say, if it was ever televised I’d be deeply upset if they didn’t get Lenny Henry (who narrates it) to play Fat Charlie. Nonetheless, whether I’ve been consuming his work quickly or slowly, Neil Gaiman remains one of the single most profound influences on my writing life. Heart.
I was sceptical when I first picked up a Harry Potter book (the first one, which I will never accept as being Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; it will always be the Philosopher’s Stone to me). I’d heard a bit about it but I have a level of caution, whenever the public is raving about something, that I consider to be healthy. Healthy-ish, anyway. But nonetheless I’d had it recommended to me and so I picked it up, flipped open the cover and began to read.
I was no longer sceptical when I put the book down. I was an outright, unabashed fan.
J. K. Rowling’s writing is like that of most of my influences – accessible, understandable, compelling. Her tale of a little boy who was at once immensely important and terribly outcast was one that I felt needed to be read. It’s difficult to slip a world of magic – not just mythology or weirdness but outright, unapologetic magic – into a modern setting without it seeming a little stupid. The Harry Potter series definitely doesn’t come across as stupid. It’s not wishy-washy or incomplete. It isn’t two-dimensional or over-simplified. It’s a rich, complex setting with its glamour and shine, its grime and dirt, in equal measure. It isn’t a ‘magical world’; it is the world, with magic. The difference is subtle but terribly important.
Nobody would deny that the ability to wave a wave to make a light, or the capacity to zoom around on a broom, would be darn handy. At the same time, though, life in J. K. Rowling’s world isn’t easy. It’s under siege by enemies, beset by evil and afflicted with bureaucracy (I loved the inclusion of the Ministry of Magic). Classes might be more interesting than we find ours as children but homework still needs to be done and teachers will still take a stern outlook on slackers. It’s real and unreal at the same time, fantastic and familiar. Not for nothing is J. K. Rowling the United Kingdom’s best-selling author of all recorded time.
As mentioned near the start of this (increasingly large) piece I’m a Douglas Adams fan. Ever since being exposed to his work via the BBC miniseries of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I’ve been amused and entertained by his witty banter and play-on-words. While Sir Terry Pratchett is more inclined to satire Douglas Adams was a fan of the pun.
He brought to the literary stage a fantastically playful way with words. His mild and very English way of phrasing jokes has rubbed off on me fairly thoroughly (though I am, sadly, nothing of the word-smith or the comedian he was). I did think Mostly Harmless was sub-par for his writing but that’s not uncommon for the end of a series of books.
I’ve watched, read and listened to Douglas Adams’s work for years now. It’s significant that his writing has been so popular the world over and, yet, was so distinctly British in its nature. In Douglas Adams’s works it’s okay to go a bit overboard, it’s permissible to write the absurd. It might even be funny. His work certainly is.
If you’re observant – or, rather, if you’re even partially sentient – you’ve noticed a pattern here. Many of these authors write (or wrote) stories that feature a relatively normal person (or someone who thinks they’re normal) thrown into abnormal situations and being made to deal with them. So it is for Lewis Carroll.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (the correct titles for those books) remain two of my absolute favourite books to this day. I’ve contemplated worlds very much like them from an early age and the ‘world within a world’ theme that I love so much in Neil Gaiman’s work was, in fact, awoken by Lewis Carroll’s stories. There is a cheeky and at times very dark sense of humour in those pages that appeals to both children and adults.
They have spawned movies, fiction, games, art and so, so many debates (scholarly and otherwise). If there can be said to be certain works that have made an unshakeable impact on literature (particularly in the U. K.) then without question these books are amongst them. His other works, such as The Hunting of the Snark, show his wit and skill over the English language. He has helped shape that language with the invention of words on a scale that reminds one of Shakespeare. He also suffered from epilepsy, which makes me feel a certain kind of kinship with him (even though my epilepsy is of a different form than his).
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died of pneumonia around the same time that the Earth was being invaded by Martians, courtesy of H. G. Wells, in 1898. His works have lasted in the public mind for more than a century since, and will doubtless continue for a very long time after.
The author of one of the most lingering invasion stories, The War of the Worlds, is a long-standing and recent influence on my life. While I’ve been deeply fascinated with that story for many years I came to it through Jeff Wayne’s musical version of the story. It wasn’t until this year – 2013 – that I actually got around to reading the book.
It really is quite different from the musical. If you’ve only listened it please, I insist, do yourself a favour by getting a copy of the book. It’s available for free online (the work is well and truly in the public domain – outside the United Kingdom, anyway).
Readers of my writing will note that at times I got on a bit of a tangent explaining the science (or pseudo-science) behind certain aspects and concepts. This is one of the main places I get that tendency from and it’s only grown since reading the book. H. G. Wells took (it seems) great delight in exploring forms of potential science based around one or two entirely alien concepts and expounding upon them – the complete lack of the wheel in Martian design, for example, and how that may have influenced their technology.
That willingness to play with commonly-accepted universalities remains a very valuable weapon in any writer’s arsenal. What would a culture’s garb look like if its people were completely incapable of seeing colours? How would a telepathic species communicate with ours if they had never developed any other way of sharing thoughts and ideas? Thinking of these concepts and following them through can be a valuable exercise. The movie Signs, for example, was a very interesting concept until you consider that a species intelligent enough to have developed intergalactic flight has just invaded a planet that’s 70% covered in a substance they’re deathly allergic to.
In truth this entry should come first because my mother is both the first influence I had and very likely the most long-reaching. I came to reading very early. All of my brothers did, as well; this was largely due to being surrounded from birth by hundreds of books, courtesy of our bibliophile mother.
We developed reading and writing skills early on compared to our peers and the only one of our immediate family without a deep and abiding love of fiction is my father; he prefers comedy and books about tractors, bikes, cars and so on. So you see, whether fiction or non-fiction, we were constantly bombarded with the idea that books are a positive thing. My mother had – and still has – a love of reading that is downright inspiring. She dips into a number of different genres and has even written (unpublished) children’s books.
She is an uncountable, unquantifiable blessing in my life, both in my writing and out of it.