Lee Goldberg had an interesting post on his blog in which he listed the 25 writers who’d most influenced him. I have to admit, most of them were unfamiliar to me and when I started thinking about a similar list, I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, I struggled to name 25 writers who’d influenced me positively (I can easily name 25 who influenced me by providing examples of how I didn’t want to write). Secondly, I realized my list was quite parochial and I’m not sure why that is - I’ve read plenty of literature in translation and plenty of American literature, but most of my influences have an English slant.
But here we are - there are ten writers listed below, each with an explanation as to why I name them. Remember, this is about influence, not picking favourites, though all of these would figure in such a list, too.
1. CS Lewis - I’d loved books before discovering CS Lewis, and although I loved the Narnia Chronicles as a child, that’s not why I include him here. I was reading The Silver Chair at around the age of seven or eight and was completely transported during the description of a snowstorm - but I was old enough to appreciate that someone had created this with words, the first time I really understood that there was a writer behind every book and the power those writers could wield over their readers’ imaginations. It surely laid the foundation for me wanting to become a writer myself.
2. Saki - Skip forward three or four years and I was introduced to Saki by my English teacher, the formidable Miss Wright. Saki’s stories are known for their twists, but The Lumber Room introduced an idea that was later confirmed in The Dead by James Joyce, the idea that a story can suddenly and unexpectedly take flight and leave the reader somewhere you never expected to be when you started reading.
3. Shakespeare - I’d known about Shakespeare from a much younger age but it was around this time that I started to become familiar with his work. If influence is hearing or reading something that you tuck away for future use, I’ve been influenced by Shakespeare more than I can say, in terms of language, plot, emotion, character. Perhaps it’s unfashionable to say it, but I suspect the same is true for most writers, whether directly or indirectly.
4. & 5. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh - For my money, the two greats of twentieth century English literature. I suspect one of the reasons I liked them is that they touched on themes which already interested me, but in showing me how to tackle those themes in a compelling way they undoubtedly had an influence on the way my writing developed. As an impressionable teenager, I also thought Greene something of a hero.
6. Lord Byron - Speaking of heroes. I liked Byron a great deal, and for a short while I had a knack for meeting girls who also liked Byron. I liked the poetry, of course, or at least the shorter poems, but I think the idea of Byron captured my imagination the way the idea of Hemingway might have done for Olen or other young would-be American authors. On the negative side, Byron and Jim Morrison have to take some of the blame for the awful and morose poetry I wrote around that time.
7. Kate Chopin - It’s all about The Awakening. It’s a great book, but there are a couple of sections in particular, rendered so beautifully that I always have them in the back of my mind, a reminder of what it is I’m trying to achieve.
8. Stephen Crane - And on that note, step up Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage is a wonderful novel, but I try to read his short story, The Open Boat, every year or so. Trying to achieve that level of simple perfection is a constant, perhaps unattainable, goal.
9. Jane Austen - I’m a fan of Jane Austen and she influenced me directly in that I borrowed from Persuasion for the plot of For the Dogs (together with The Nibelungenlied, which I haven’t included here because the author is unknown). But I think Austen is also a great exponent of the light touch. There’s deft social comedy in her books, but she deals with darker themes, too, with regret and loss and exclusion and does it all with such subtlety that I think all modern writers could learn from her.
10. F Scott Fitzgerald - Just to show that influence doesn’t stop once you’re an adult or once you have your first book published. I first read The Great Gatsby a couple of years back and enjoyed it very much. As so often in my books, the relationship with the past features heavily in my new novel, and as I was trying to convey that in one particular section, I thought back to Fitzgerald’s book and “stole” from him. I won’t say which section of Gatsby I paid homage to - maybe when the book comes out, I’ll offer a prize to the first person who writes to me with the answer.
As ever, feel free to comment on the above, on absences that you might not have expected (I realize there are no crime or thriller authors, for example). And do tell, which writers have influenced you?