Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fifteen Authors Who Influenced Me

There's a game running around where writers name fifteen other writers who influenced them. I did it for Paul Brazill, but people kept tagging me on Facebook about it anyway. Reading a few, I was annoyed not knowing how these authors influenced the people listing them. So I'm going to do it again, but I'm also going to say a little about them. Prepare to watch a man admit he stayed up to 1:00 AM Fridays to watch TV and compare cartoonists to classicists. Dignity, I'll miss you.*

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit was one of the first true novels I read from cover to cover and is partially to blame with me getting into literature at all. Tolkien’s world-building and sense of gravity for all the fantastic elements drew me into prose in ways no modernists and post-modernists did. I still remember reading the end of Fellowship of the Ring at my grandmother’s and trying to hide under the bed, for terror at the prospect of someone as great as Gandalf being killed. By college I wasn’t writing anything like Lord of the Rings, but I had the “Tolkien Instinct.” If there was any question of what to do in a story, I’d ask, “What would Tolkien write here?” It was almost always the wrong answer for what I was doing, and it took me another two years to get a grip on it. Imitation was not how I needed to pay homage to the father of Fantasy. Just writing good Fantasy should do.

2. Akira Toriyama – Most famous for his comics Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, which actually had a bigger impact on me than Lord of the Rings. It was reading those bizarre comics that I realized how hard it is to come up with truly alien stories. I loved Tolkien’s Norse and Medieval fantasies, but they were still familiar enough to the Arthurian stuff I grew up with. Toriyama had the advantage of drawing on thousands of years of Asian culture and classics, so my little white ass in New York was baffled. Monkey-tailed boy living in a dinosaur-infested wilderness that is sometimes invaded by sentient plants that might be the devil, then escaping on adventures with a perverted bipedal pig in a car that fits into a capsule. Delightfully outlandish. First I imitated it, actually writing fanfiction that helped me ace my Humanities class. Then, around 180 pages in, I realized this thing wasn’t publishable and wasn’t mine. This was someone else’s world. Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Dragon Ball – worlds that were hard to make, shouldn’t be made again because someone had already done it, but that if I really wanted to write towards, I should study. Oh, and Majin Buu is my role model.

Imagine them high-fiving. Imagine it!

3. Stephen King – The biggest influence. At age 13, I was crippled by a neuromuscular syndrome. I was in constant pain and bedridden. The only reason I made it through many sleepless nights was having a King audiobook. I was entranced in Needful Things and Desperation. It wasn’t escapism. It was immersion. I was where I was, could not forget any of it for how badly I was suffering, but I wanted to know what happened next. I’m not exaggerating to say that curiosity about fictional events gave me the will to live. Ever since I’ve been dismissive of academics who look down on fiction for being entertaining. I’ve mined a lot about voice and the nature of endings from King’s writing since, but saving my life is a little bit more important. You can’t do more for a reader than that.

4. E.B. White – Through whose pen I also got the wisdom of William Strunk. I’m somewhere in the middle of prescriptivists and descriptivists. The only thing dumber than literary totalitarianism is literary anarchy. But there are general rules for the way most prose functions. Especially interpreting White (and Strunk via White) for the spirit of the rules, like why “Omit needless words, omit needless words, omit needless words” has six technically needless words in it, has given me a decent sense for editing.

5. Eudora Welty – Possibly hazardous to my career, but Welty’s versatility in the short story impressed me more than any other feat of any other author in literature. “Why I Live at the P.O.” is airy, trivial and funny. “Where Is That Voice Coming From?” is profoundly disturbing in its violence and racism. “A Still Moment” is ethereal. They tell you to find a niche and stick to it, that way you become a solid commodity. I can’t stand that.

6. Dante Alighieri – My worst influence. Dante convinced me to always do another tangent, to throw in another point or observation. Thank goodness I learned to edit them out later.

7. Douglas Adams – The perfect sense of humor. He seemed to make fun of everything and hate nothing. The first hundred pages of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy dismisses God, logic, friendship, government, and the earth itself. But any jackass comedian can do that. The big trick with Adams was to mock a thing and hug it at the same time. It was the comedy that accepts even the absurd and the intolerable. He could always invert a character to soften a criticism, deflating didactics in the service of pure humor. I still can’t listen to those radioplays without getting ideas. Horrible, stupid, purple ideas that I hope someone, somewhere will laugh at.**

8. Mark Twain – He was so easy to read that his were several of the first novels, after The Hobbit, that I read cover-to-cover. His narration achieves mental voice very quickly. I spent a decade trying to work out how. While recently I’ve become disenchanted with fiction that exists to make a point, his observational fiction still gets me. Even in a boys book like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the fence painting anecdote illustrates a great principle I’ve never read put better. Re-reading my favorites (The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Joan of Arc, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), I think I’m pinning down how he drew me into humor writing, and why the humorist establishment in literature disappointed me so badly. Twain wrote humor to make people laugh and think. Today many writers, especially those who think they are “edgy,” write humor to make people think and luck into laughs, which shows a distinct lack of thought. I think about that. One more way in which Twain influenced me, and continues to be ahead of me.

9. GK Chesterton – How did I make it through college and never hear about this guy? He was the writer I spent years looking for: the one with whom I could disagree frequently and respect entirely. God, sound way too full of myself. Listen, he was rad. The Man Who Was Thursday has aged to perfection, time robbing its original context and adding a second edge. Now it satirizes both Chesterton’s opposition and allies. He stood up for orthodoxy and satirized satire. That's Welty-like range in non-fiction. He and Twain duel in my head these days, as I’m trying to weed out the impulse to reach for good quotes in my writing. They duel almost entirely in good quotes.

 Very funny men.

10. Gail Simone – I actually gave her closing run on Deadpool to a college professor. I walked in on him one day laughing his ass off, and before recognizing it was me, he actually tried to hide the comics behind his back. At a certain stage in my life she specialized in the irreverence of dangerous people and irreverent people in dangerous circumstances. Humor was not just a defense mechanism or an excuse for a point (like it’s treated by too many humorists), but a reason to be, a mode of existence. I loved that so much that it wound up at the core of my first novel, and will probably keep showing up until I go sane. She (and writer #11) almost made me recognize that I love a dynamic cast. You can drop them into the most enticing or boring circumstances, and I will read them. I will read three hitmen in spandex chatting about existentialism while they monitor the Prom. Gail Simone has not written that. Perhaps I should, but if I do, it's because of her sense of casts, which existed in Deadpool, then Agent X, and right now in Secret Six.

11. Aaron Sorkin – Television writers should also count. Literate people of my generation still watched more than twenty-five hours of TV for every book they read, and it influenced us. In high school I’d stay up to 1:00 AM on Friday nights to catch reruns of Sports Night, for its wit and profound monologues. There was a solid year when all dialogue I wrote on my own was a bad imitation of Sorkin’s repetition. He was for me what certain titanic playwrights were for others. Even after I grew out of the imitation phase, I credited his shows (and M*A*S*H) with making me realize my favorite thing in fiction is to establish a few interesting characters and just listen to them talk.

12. Joseph Campbell – Made me look at structuralism. I’d already had most of his key thoughts on culture and cross-culturalism (actually got very angry upon first exposure to him at 12, claiming he stole my ideas thirty years in advance). But his breakdown of the hero’s journey made me diagram stories in a new way. He sort of made me a post-modernist, when I tried to tell a story that was a purposefully backwards version of the heroic arc. Part of me still go back to his lectures when I ponder cultural and religious resonance.

13. Homer – My gateway into Literature. While I don’t pretend to know a mind thousands of years old, he appears to have had a sense of glory, of riveting action, and of sanguine humor. His Iliad caught me at an early age, for being similar in structure to those massive superhero crossover battles I liked so much. Even through translation he had ways of expressing the magnitude of a hero and the intrigue of action. As I grew older I appreciated his way of expressing things, comparing a lance tearing out an eyeball to the blossoming of a flower. That’s repulsive, but it also speaks to why war was waged. There are big pictures hidden behind every book of his poems. The dozen translations of read of his two surviving epics were my analytical training ground, and a significant reason for me giving the rest of literature a chance.

 This list is pants-optional.

14.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - I'm pretty dismissive of melancholy and bleak fiction. I think attraction to these usually indicates a life that hasn't been hard enough and a resultingly lethargic mind in dire need of exercise - say, the kind by getting its owner off its ass and living, doing some work in soup kitchens or clothing drives or relief work in a disaster zone. But if I'm bad now, I was impossible about this stuff earlier in life. You could not bother me to finish such tripe. I dismissed even classics of world literature as defeatist, authors who were regrettably celebrated for lying down before hardship. Nothing t swayed me until One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is an inescapably bleak novel that used bleakness for purposes, particularly to show how a person may refuse to be destroyed by it. Solzhenitsyn was almost doing bold political work in prose, but it was his character in the face of these things, and the character of his characters in the face of these things, that shook me. I've already commended Gail Simone for writing funny people who don't yield their humor. The big thing in Solzhenitsyn's work was creating austere or severe men who did not yield and made me admire that position, something I'd long given up on as valid. Here is work that does not lay bare some discontent and masturbate over how unfair it all is, or how bad life sucks, or how it's meaningless, or you don't like the meaning. It's not the wishywashy unhappiness that dominates so much of modern literature, and that is really just a well-dressed and bourbon-soaked negative of the Care Bears. Reading any Solzhenitsyn is distinct, purposeful, and disturbing in ways Horror can't be. It's an entire border of fiction. There was that time when I asked, "What would Tolkien write here?" Now I am more prone to ask, "If Solzhenitsyn hated this, would I have the balls to stand up for myself?" If I would, then I feel I'm doing right.

15. Flannery O’Connor – Like a lot of these writers, she taught me little things, such as desiring character descriptions that seem sharp but are actually just vague and short (these work amazingly well, at least when she did them). But the big thing for me was learning that this shrewd, frequently shocking storyteller struggled with illness and questioned if the work she did in the hospital counted. That’s a kind of doubt I have – am I responding too much to my conditions, is sickness holding me back or tainting my work? No rational argument makes this doubt go away. You’d think rational people would realize that, but they keep trying with their rational arguments, and thereby disproving the existence of actually rational people. This sick-doubt is something that haunts. The closest thing to curing it is that O’Connor produced an amazing body of work. So, maybe I’m tainted and ruined, but that’s all just an excuse. Good work can be done. Thanks, Flan.

*No I won't.

**Honorable mention goes to Terry Pratchett for writing several thousand more pages of Adams, and convincing me that’s not what I wanted to do.


  1. So glad to see southerner Eudora Welty on there - very under-appreciated in my m ind. Great picks, John.

  2. Holy doodles! That's quite the list. I like your idea of explaining why they're your favourites - explains so much about you.

  3. seem to always give much thought to everything you write. Thank you for the explanations.
    Long live the fiction that entertains!

  4. I was so blown away, I forgot to wish you a happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Wonderful. We share some favorites. I actually had written a list of my top 15. But then I deleted it on accident. Ive been mad ever since so haven't rebuilt it.

    ps. Needful Things & It were two of my first King stories and just like you say. I COULD NOT put the books down.

    ppss. You hve to read King's new book- fantastic

  6. I'm with you -- esp on Dante, Solzhenitsyn, Chesterton, and O'Connor. (And as a Bennington alum of an earlier vintage -- 1977 -- I'm pleased to run into you!)

  7. Awesome list, John - I want to go back and reread later, but GK Chesterton nearly made my list also - The Man Who Was Thursday is one of my all-time fav's! That's the only one i've ever read by him but i'm sort of afraid to read something else because I'm afraid it will pale by comparison. A bit reminiscent of Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (another all-time fav), but of course they have entirely different aims.

  8. I compiled my list of 15 when Paul sent it round, then recieved the request again, and again. I, like you, decided to expand on the reasoning behind my choices but with no where near the sort of thought you put into this. As we saw yesterday, I don't have that sort of attention span. Very thoughtful and interesting look into what makes a guy like you write like a guy like you.

  9. Mr. Solender, I have respect for a good number of Southern writers. Welty and Twain are two of the best our country has ever produced.

    Mrs. WebliffesterOl, I like to own up to my influences. I owe them a lot.

    Laura, a lot of my thoughts are accidental, but I should still own up to them, right? Happy Thanksgiving and Revelations Day!

    Jodi, you know, I still haven't read It. I'm tempted to pick up the new King, but I haven't read Lisey's Story or Under the Dome yet. I need to knock off these items before getting still more King.

    Steve, happy to have you drop by. From your profile it sounds like you've led an interesting life. Happy to share some influences with you.

    PJ, I have not read much Graham Greene at all. Perhaps I'll pick up Out Man in Havana some time. The rest of Chesterton is completely different. He wrote substantial theology and a mystery series that are nothing like The Man Who Was Thursday. It's neat just to see the rest of his work.

    Harry, I think you've got attention span hidden somewhere. I need to go check out your expanded list...

  10. Ah, good - another person who's chosen to go beyond just giving a list of fifteen, and actually writing about the reasons for the influence. I love your list - thanks for sharing. Nice to 'meet' you, and happy Thanksgiving.

    I've woven my list of 15 in with a #TeaserTuesday game.

  11. It is good to hear in-depth why an author appeals and it was a great idea to do this post.

    I agree with your take on One Day in the Life... Living in the bleakest of conditions Shukov was just getting on with surviving. I have to teach this novel each year and the students finally get it and love it.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  12. Great list! GK Chesterton I know primarily from said quotes. He's up there on my list along with Oscar Wilde. I'm imagining those three men in a room. Oh what fun that would be to witness if it were possible. hehe.

  13. So did you hear the one ~

    G.K. Chesterton and John Wiswell walk into a bar . . . No one walks out.

    Splendid list insights you well Wiswell. ~ Absolutely*Kate, in the corner of the bar over there, with Raymond Chandler in the shadows and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the scotch. ~ Absolutely*Kate


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