Dashiell Hammett, Douglas Adams, Gies, H. P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, J.K. Rowling, Joe Haldeman, Lovecraft, Paul Gies, Paul J Gies, Raymond Chandler, Science Fiction, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, Ursula Leguin, writers, Writing
Friends of the Sky, the third and final book in the Bluehorse series, is coming this week. Also coming this week is my sixtieth birthday, which has the sort of significance that, while artificial, makes one think about how one got here. Put the birthday and the new story together and you have the recipe for Paul to think about his literary influences. Ten also seems like one of those arbitrary round numbers, but for an endeavor like this, arbitrary is good.
So here they are, in roughly chronological order according to when I first read their stuff.
- J. R. R. Tolkien. I had read a lot before I met him around the age of 12, but all else simply paled. I didn’t know to begin with that he was writing mythology, or that the short guys who take center stage are a reflection of the “little men” who won World War One. I just knew that he was a lover of words, a creator of deep characters, a painter of scenes, a drawer of connections across a deep landscape with a deep history, and a marvelous poet; he was also, let’s face it, very adept at dialog. And like a few others below, he made it look so easy one felt one should sit right down and write one’s own Lord of the Rings. Lots of people did, and found out that it wasn’t.
- William Shakespeare. I’m sorry to tell you this, but if you write in English, you’re influenced by the Bard.
- Isaac Asimov. The Foundation Trilogy has the sprawl of much longer novels, but its history has the economy and direction of a short, disciplined work. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Asimov’s galaxy itself is a character.
- H. P. Lovecraft. Don’t start with his early, short work. The later stuff—Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness, The Whisperer in Darkness—that’s when you see his incredible restraint, and his structural care, and the fact that his characters, who seem at first glance to be undifferentiated, have very distinct personalities; he just doesn’t weigh us down with precise descriptions of them (or anything else).
- Ursula Leguin. Science fiction is all about imagining something previously unimagined, and by the 1970s, sci fi had settled into cliche. Leguin saved it, with her penetrating imagination and her lurking political and cultural questions. That’s what brought me to Gethen, where there are humans, but no genders.
- Joe Haldeman. An actual soldier in Vietnam, Haldeman didn’t have any truck with the seriousness of war, starting with service members required to shout, “Fuck you sir!” at the end of briefings. He also showed me how to earn a happy ending.
- Dashiell Hammett & Raymond Chandler. The founder and the inheritor of what was not yet called “noir.” I found Hammett early and Chandler more recently. Giving a main character an attitude doesn’t make him an unreliable narrator; making him a detective means he’s also a teacher, teaching the reader about anything that wanders into the crime zone. And oh, the dialog. Add here, since I’m already cheating and including more than one writer: Elmore Leonard.
- Douglas Adams. (Okay, and Terry Pratchett.) Humor, but not silliness. The Universe is fundamentally flawed. You have to laugh about it: the Earth being destroyed to make way for a bypass, and destroyed by the third worst poets in the Galaxy, in spite of the fact that the entire planet was just a computer designed to find the question to the ultimate answer, which is 42 but we’ll never know why. But the laughter overlies a rich vein of anger, a middle finger pointed at the Divine.
- J. K. Rowling. I resisted, but inevitably I became an addict. I’ve reread and reread, and watched and rewatched and rerewatched the movies, and I finally figured her out, sort of. Everything that happens in the Harry Potters goes according to fairy tale logic: you must destroy the seven horcruxes, prophecies always come to pass somehow, the Room of Requirement is there when you need it, a mother’s love changes everything. These don’t always even make sense: why would Voldemort in Goblet of Fire go to all the trouble of getting Harry into the Triwizard Tournament, and fixing the result, just to make sure he wound up in the graveyard? But that doesn’t matter. They’re fairy tales. (How did Red Riding Hood’s grandma stay alive in the Wolf’s belly? How did Jonah stay alive in the Whale’s belly?) What’s interesting is that real, living, breathing, ordinary teenagers, with their acne and their crushes and their conspiracy theories and their seething, directionless anger, are living in these fairy tales. I always want to know what it’s like to live a different life, and this is what it’s like to live a fairy tale. (The Cuckoo’s Calling is damn good too, actually.)
- Stephen King. I came very late to Maine’s own, but the Dark Tower! The sweep of things, but also the unavoidable tragedy, the ineffable sadness, and the unwavering resolve of the ever self-doubting hero. And those memorable villains, the Low Men. They are around us even now, and they’re going to vote for Donald Trump.
Special mention: Without Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games, I would not have thought to write Daisy in the Dark in first person present tense, which turned out to be more fun than should be allowed. Then there’s Ender’s Game, which The Forever War is sort of the opposite of. The Road to Bluehorse is pitched in that zone, closer to Haldeman than to Ender, but Bluehorse could not have existed without Ender.
So there are my ten most important writing influences. What are yours?
The next thing I post will be the intro page for the next novel, Friends of the Sky.