Thursday, June 10, 2010

Influences

A lot of fiction heavily influenced my life in general, my life as a reader, and my life as a writer. Since I now make a decent paycheck now and again with my own fiction, that third influence on me is often foremost in my mind.

What books pushed me to write later in life more than others?

At some point I discovered the works of Charles Bukowski. At first it was his short stories that grabbed me, and then I moved to his novels, and then his poetry. Bukowski was an original. He made everything he did seem easy and casual, but that's not the way it was, at all. Underlying everything that he wrote was a humor and a wit that were both as sharp an insightful as any I've encountered. A lot of other writers try to imitate him, but no one succeeds at that. Don't try.

I also found Cormac McCarthy at some point. The first thing of his that I read was BLOOD MERIDIAN. It made quite an impact on me, and I've continued to read just about every novel that he produces. Some others are almost as powerful as that first one, but none of those have influenced me quite so much as that one. His style is another that one should not try to imitate. It's not that it can't be done--Charles Frazier did a passable patch on McCarthy with his COLD MOUNTAIN--but no one else can quite capture the world that McCarthy can conjure. Again, my advice would be to not even try to copy that style...and certainly don't compare yourself to Cormac McCarthy--this is a bit of hubris I've seen out of a few authors. Silly chaps.

I came upon The Beats rather late in life. I was well into my forties before I "discovered" them. It wasn't that I hadn't tried reading the work of that group of creators before I was older--but the fiction never held me for more than a few lines or pages, and so I'd cast that stuff off. Finally, though, I picked up ON THE ROAD for maybe the twelfth time in my life and, for some reason, that time everything fell into place. All the tumblers clicked. I was hooked for over a year on the fiction of Jack Kerouac, and then William S. Burroughs, and the rest of the bunch. I learned quite a lot from reading The Beats, and I almost abandoned genre fiction entirely after feeling that horrors and fantasies could never match the kind of power I was reading within the paragraphs of DESOLATION ANGELS or JUNKY. But eventually I came around and returned to what I knew best.

Somewhere in those past-40 years I found Robert Graves. First it was I, CLAUDIUS and then CLAUDIUS THE GOD AND HIS WIFE MESSILINA. Later I sought out his short fiction and after reading a bit of that I discovered some things about how to write that left me very well educated, indeed. Graves was a bit of a nut in many ways, but he was about as skilled a writer as I have ever encountered and I learned about as much from reading his fiction as from the works of anyone else I could name.

And even later than Graves and Kerouac and Bukowski I finally buckled down to re
ad as much as I could of Hemingway. As with Kerouac, most of my friends had read Ernest Hemingway's work in their youth and been influenced by it as very young men. For whatever reason I found more to admire in the fantasies of Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard and so would give up on the tempered realities of Hemingway. My loss as a young man, but there's nothing to be done for it now. Better that I finally appreciated him late than not at all. As with the others, reading his stories and novels showed me how to write more effectively than just about any of the fantasists with whom I'd been so engrossed from the age of eight through forty-two or so.

Did I waste a lot of my youth chasing dragons and demons and aliens creatures? Not really.

For the writer who influenced me more than any other was the crazed visionary Philip K. Dick. Most people today who know his name at all hear it because of his connection to so many film adaptations of his novels and short stories. He was, for many years, quite prolific and his mind was a vast factory of ideas. Today, he's considered the father of cyberpunk (go look it up). Some of his fiction seems dated--a product of the 1950s and 1960s and showing this in his language and condescending attitudes toward race and sex. But much of his work has stood the test of the decades since his death, and that material is as powerful now as when he first produced it.

My favorite Philip K. Dick novel is THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. It is set in a world in which it was not the Allies who won World War II, but the Axis. Furthermore, he cast his characters in a North America that has been divided down the Mississippi River basin--the Germans in the East and the Japanese in the West. If he wasn't the first to exploit this concept, he was likely in the first tier of those using that idea effectively.

But Dick goes further. Within the novel is another novel. This novel is called THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY. The characters hear about it--written by an author who has used the theme that it wasn't the Axis who won WWII, but the Allies. And in MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, walls sometimes break down and the boundaries of reality are changed and altered. The characters within Dick's book are left with the idea that there is another world--one in which they were the victors and not among the oppressed.

This novel affected me on many levels. The night that I finished reading it, I placed it on my bedside table and turned out the light and went to sleep. Some time later--well before dawn--I came awake. Or at least I thought that I was awake. Then I realized that I was dreaming very vividly that I was lying in my bed in my own house. And I dreamed that I had just finished reading a book that I had placed on the bedside table before turning out the light. That book was, I realized, THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY.

This realization so startled me that I had to get up to turn on the light to look at the book. So I sat up and reached for the light.

And then I woke up. Really woke up. I was already up on one elbow reaching for the lamp, pretty much in my sleep. I knew what I was doing. For a moment, in the dark, I froze. I couldn't recall if the book by my bed was THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE or THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY. Which one was it?

After a few moments I couldn't take the suspense so I turned on the light and reached for the book. Picking it up, I realized that it was THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. The bad guys had not won WWII. I was not living in a world dominated by the likes of Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich.

That's what writing is all about. That's power. That's talent. It's not something I'm ever likely to equal, but it's something to reach for.

Philip K. Dick may very well have influenced me more than any other author.

At least I think so.

4 comments:

Lawrence Roy said...

As someone who doesn't write a lot of genre fiction (none at all today, anyhow) I'm proud to say my earliest influences were Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. What they told me in their stories was the most important thing I would learn as a boy: that not only was I justified in being angry with the world as it was, but that there was something hideously wrong with the people that weren't.

HemlockMan said...

Oh, yeah. Those guys influenced me, too. Harlan Ellison taught me that not only is it okay to be angry, but it's the right thing to do to vent that anger and frustration in a public way. There are few better lessons for a writer.

Edward Forrest Frank said...

Bob,
I think you are being too dismissive of your early influences in science fiction and fantasy. I read that genre almost exclusively since I have been a child. I enjoy it because of the ideas and flights of fancy in these genres. Certainly I do not read them for their character development, or plot elements. These are not key to the enjoyment of the story. Some of the books of which I am most fond, have terrible character development and hackneyed plots, but a single idea makes them burn bright in my heart. Characterization and plot development are nice bonuses, but without the sparkling idea the story for me is a failure. Perhaps that is why I found Avatar to be such a pathetic excuse for a movie, pretty to look at, but no real ideas in the story. Perhaps the worst novel I have ever read is a classic of American Literature. It is the insipid novel "The Great Gatsby." It is a pointless story about pointless people, who do not do anything in particular for no particular reason. It sucks. I just don't care about novels portraying the "human condition." I just don't care.

Perhaps Burroughs and Hemingway helped you learn the mechanics of writing, perhaps they have a style you admire and perhaps you have patterned some of your style after these writers, the question remains what authors have influenced you most conceptually? You talk about Philip K. Dick, but what of Bradbury and Lovecraft? Do Kerouac and McCarthy really influence you conceptually more?
From these writers you found later you have taken something you needed in your pursuit of becoming an author, but are they the foundation of your desire or need to write?

HemlockMan said...

Ed: Well...I didn't really mean to be dismissive of the writers who started me on the long road to becoming a professional author. But I reckon the essay does make it look that way, doesn't it?

Yeah, I'd likely never have started writing if not for Ray Bradbury, Hugh Lofting, Bob Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, etc. and etc.

Of course they were very talented folk, and of course their work has great merit. And that fantastic material must have struck a tremendous chord in my psyche because it has largely dominated my choice of reading material all of my life.

I rather like THE GREAT GATSBY. It's not about the sort of people I care about, but that's the point of it, I guess.

Yeah, the earlier work of Burroughs (JUNKY, QUEER) and guys like Hemingway and Bukwoski taught me a lot about the mechanics of simplicity. They also taught me that I don't want to write just for the sake of writing--it's deeper than that.