Conventional wisdom has it that there are no new stories, that everything we write has been written before. And so it’s no surprise that once we like an author, we hop out onto Google and ask “authors like <insert your favorite author here>” to try and find our next reading fix. Regardless of whether the story itself is new, the way it’s being told is new, the characters who are experiencing it are new, and most importantly, the readers can’t get enough of it.
So it’s not surprising that I was asked recently whom my influences are. People want to know the types of authors I read, with the expectation that those authors are influencing me. And they’re right. I wanted to answer that I’ve read thousands of books, which I have, across all genres, which is true, by authors across multiple centuries. But of course my interrogator was looking for something recent, something that would tell him whether it was worth his while to check out my book. And given that I’m in the business of selling my book, I revealed the following: Guy Gavriel Kay for his style, Brandon Sanderson for his magic systems, and Joe Abercrombie for his action.
There is no doubt that these authors–these artists–influence my writing. But it goes deeper than that. For to be a writer, it takes someone to set your feet on the path, someone to initiate that spark. It takes others to inspire you to continue to write. And sometimes, those who influence you also intimidate you.
I believe it was the 10th grade when Billy Budd was on the reading list for my English class. As many will attest, being forced to read anything, regardless of whether it is claimed a classic, can be considered torture, especially when you’re sixteen. My friend Kirk and I sat in English class, loathing Melville for putting this story and this character to paper. And this isn’t exactly a lengthy tome, weighing in at a mere 116 pages (according to the Amazon mass market paperback). But as many of you will also attest, when you’re sixteen, you really aren’t catching on to what you should be catching on to in classic literature. I was a much better reader of literature when I chose which books to read, when I picked up Hemingway and Steinbeck and others of my own free will. But no matter. At sixteen, toward the back of the class, on those hard chairs, staring at Melville’s Billy Budd, listening to our teacher exhort the power of the written word… it was like throwing wiffle balls at bricks. We just weren’t getting it.
So Kirk turns to me and says, “We can write better than this.”
Now, there’s no doubt that this was incredible hubris. A boast. And yet… for the better part of my life since that day, I’ve been writing. So thank you, Herman Melville. Thank you for writing Billy Budd.
I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, as that is the genre in which I write. I didn’t start there. I started with spy stuff, with a character named Ian Gemini in a horrible James Bond knockoff. When I published Ahvarra recently, a friend on Facebook told me he wouldn’t read it unless Ian was mentioned. I laughed because even I’d forgotten about that book. I stayed in that space for a while, writing books based on what I was reading: Ian Fleming, Robert B. Parker. But there came a point when my imagination wanted to run a bit wild, when I wanted things to work that simply don’t in the real world.
And that’s about when a co-worker handed me Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair. I’d read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but we’ll get to those in a moment. What Williams did was open my eyes to the possibilities. Here was a world of his making that was huge and open, seen through the eyes of a boy running for his life. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and the series is a fantastic achievement. I was so thrilled at the recent announcement that Williams is returning to Osten Ard for a new trilogy.
But now I was rolling. My imagination was let loose, and the previous books felt like a warm-up act for the main event. And as the years have crawled by, I fold more authors into the fold for their inspiration. Kay’s Tigana proved to me that you don’t need elves in a fantasy. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga showed me that heroes don’t have to be brawny knights bathed in glory and might. Abercrombie illustrated that every character is a shade of gray. Also, if you ever want to know what it feels like to be punched in the face, you can either ask someone to punch you in the face or you can read Abercrombie’s action scenes, because he puts you right in front of that fist coming at you. No one better. Sanderson turns magic into a character in itself, and its consistency across his Cosmere is a marvel.
These are just a few, and each year I add others. There is always something I’m reading that gets my brain churning, gets my creative juices flowing. There are a few authors, however, for which I’ll drop everything to read. When the galley edition of Abercrombie’s Half a King showed up on my Kindle tonight, I leapt in immediately. And so far, it feels like there’s a little bit of Bujold’s Miles in Yarvi.
Here’s where inspiration meets “holy shit what did I just read why in the hell do I think I could even come close to doing something like this.” Let’s face it. There are books that I have read that are so great, so awesome, that they actually intimidate me. Back to Kay again, whose A Song for Arbonne is such an elegant piece of art that I wasn’t sure I needed to read anything else, let alone write anything, for a short time after completing it. I mentioned The Lord of the Rings earlier. This monumental effort occupied Tolkien’s life. To read it is to clearly understand that you are getting but a glimpse into an entire history of a place and time that are outside anything else you’ve ever read, that each and every character has a lineage, that each and every place has a history that is steeped in time.
I am in awe of Tolkien, as any writer should be.
At the end of the day, those who intimidate are there to set the bar. I may have thought, at sixteen, that I could eclipse Billy Budd, but I know, thirty years later, that I still have plenty far to go to reach the heights of Kay, Tolkien and others. But that’s good. That’s why I write. To better my craft so that I can entertain my readers. And to aspire to one day inspire–or initiate, or maybe even intimidate–others who choose the same profession.