There’s a meme that whizzed around Facebook last week, in which you listed 15 authors (“poets included”, said the meme in parenthesis, as if “Hey! Poets have feelings too!”) who have influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall, the meme commanded, and take no more than 15 minutes.
So, for the sake of posterity, here is my list. Recommendations on what to do with the remaining 13.5 minutes of my allotted time can be sent via email.
Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, Roger McGough: Let’s start with some poets because Hey! Poets have feelings too! Their collected volume The Mersey Sound is one of my most treasured books, well-thumbed and falling apart, held together by sticky-tape and willpower. Their style and approach have informed my own efforts at poetry, and Patten’s poem Little Johnny’s Confession is my favourite poem of all time. You may not guess it from the procession of gross-out moments and nob gags that have comprised my novelistic career so far, but these guys are right at the top of the list as far as influences go.
CS Forester: One word: Hornblower. Immensely readable combination of swashbuckling adventure and character development; a flawed hero who continues to rise above his limitations and occasionally prospers because of those limitations; flowing language, salty humour…. if you wanted the stock ingredients for the Marius dos Hellespont books, you can see it in these volumes. Like The Mersey Sound above, my collection of Hornblower books are falling apart at the seams from over-reading, and it’s well past time I got me a bound box set.
George MacDonald Fraser: And here’s where the rest of Marius comes from. If you’ve not read MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, you’ve missed out on some of the funniest, cleverest, sharpest writing ever committed in the English word. Flashman is a knave, a coward and an amoral bounder who, despite his continued caddishness and weaselly-hearted opportunism, somehow ends up a greater and greater hero with every adventure. Sound familiar? The books are pure historical fantasy, but the history is so perfectly realised, so detailed and seemingly accurate, that you accept every word as gospel. Reading a Flashman book is a masterclass in writing fantasy, history, humour, character, dialogue and outright lies all in one. Sheer brilliance.
Spike Milligan: poet, playwright, novelist, scriptwriter, stage performer, memoirist, film actor, trumpeter, TV star, genius. The man I wanted to be when I grew up. The career I wanted to have. The first inkling I had that an author does not have to be bound by genre, or form, or expectation, but can live by the sheer virtuosity of his work alone. I’m still striving.
Bruce Dawe: The first poet I wasn’t forced to read. Came to me via a school text book, but the language was so dazzling, the rhythm and metre and in-your-faceness of works like Enter Without So Much as Knocking— a performance of which was, for years, my party piece– blew me away after years of da-da da-da da-da da-DA da-dum da-dum da-DUM… Still, for me, the best poet Australia has ever produced, a world class talent, with power, grace and laser-like accuracy in his words.
Chuck Palahniuk: At his best, there’s nobody better at balls-to-the-wall gonzo insanity than Palahniuk. There’s such a spiralling whirlwind of circumstance going on in his plots that it’s easy to overlook just how beautifully his best novels are constructed. Read his best work, Rant, backwards– I have– and you’ll discover a work so cogent and narratively solid that it works equally well in both directions and is still utterly bugfuck as all get out. The first time I read Palahniuk’s work it wasn’t just a revelation: it was permission.
Terry Pratchett: If you think Pratchett is a fantasy writer, you’ve not been paying attention. He is, simply, the best social satirist of the 20th Century: Tom Sharpe with attitude, and the keenest eye and turn of phrase in literature. He’s not just funny, he’s accurate. I couldn’t believe, when I first read him, that he was getting away with so much, so blatantly, and being so awarded by the very people he was skewering so unmercifully in every book. There is no better writer, and arguably never has been a better writer, at creating an unbelievable world so utterly, painfully believable. He is the Masterclass.
Harlan Ellison: At his best, in that period between the late 60s and 1980, Ellison was a whirlwind of narrative rage, a maelstrom of language, emotion and pyrotechnic literary tricks who created stories that nobody in their wildest dreams could match. Ellison danced across ice too thin to hold anyone else, fenced with demons, used words and concepts as weapons that slipped past every plate of working class armour I wore and pierced my preconceptions about society, storytelling and just what was supposed to be right, damn you! in a way I’ve never truly forgiven him for or been able to thank him enough for. He taught me that attitude is the byword of our trade, that words are created to be accurate, that the right words in the right order was not just hyperbole but was, in fact, the secret of our power. For all his faults and subsequent fall into mere humanity, he will always be the first, most important, and greatest of my literary teachers.
Ray Bradbury: If Ellison taught me chaos, Bradbury taught me peace. There is a stillness to Bradbury’s writing, a simple and nostalgic beauty, that is all too often dismissed as mere simplicity. Bradbury was the first author I set out to collect, because every merely simple tale like The Veldt or Golden Apples of the Sun or The Anthem Sprinters was so fucking simple I knew I’d be trying to unravel his tricks and powers for the rest of my life. He makes it all look so easy, so fucking easy, that at times I could weep for one ounce of his simplicity. Of all the authors who have influenced me over the years, and there are far more than just these 15, it is Bradbury who lingers, whose plots and moments I remember best. He reminds me that the fantastical can be joyful, and that happy endings can contain much more then just happiness.
Roger Zelazny: has there ever been an SF writer who so easily and delightfully brought so much outright weird to the table? Read Eye of Cat. Read Isle of the Dead— my personal favourite. Read that glorious failed collaboration with Phillip Dick, Deus Irae. Nobody pinned such narrative solidity to such straight-out oddballery as Zelazny, and I love him for it. The guy saw everything through his third eye.
Howard Waldrop: Yeah, we’re really out in the crazy lands now. If you don’t get Waldrop then you just don’t get him. If you do, then you know the joy of picking apart thirty separate influences and allusions every damn time you sit down to read a story. Waldrop showed me how to over-stuff a story, how to fill it to the rafters with bits of business and sotto voce asides and in-jokes and momentary lapses of reason and still, still, create a story of such narrative strength that the actions of the characters will have you crying out in delight, frustration, and glee. Often simultaneously. Every Waldrop story is like a waltz through someone’s memory cathedral with a blindfold on. Just trust that there’s an exit somewhere.
Jack Womack: They don’t build futures like Womack’s anymore. At a time when William Gibson was the Official New Best Fashion among my fellow University students, I was slumped in the corner with my copy of Ambient wondering what all the mainstreamers were fussing over. Womack spits and scratches and bites where everyone else’s futures, no matter how punky and cybery they try to be, are still glossy video game analogs. His novels don’t just have dirt under their nails, there’s powdered glass and dried blood and flakes of skin from the last person they attacked. If my works have grit and grime beneath their fantasy lingerie, it’s in large part because I read Womack.
Kurt Vonnegut: The absurdist’s absurdist. The optimist’s realist and the pessimist’s realist. The man who loved and pitied the world simultaneously, who despaired and despised and believed in and doubted and gave up on and passionately, oh so passionately, hoped for the world to just catch up and understand what it was doing to itself, and to us, and to him. The most beautifully humanist, wonderfully funny, darkly cynical, frighteningly prophetic, damaged writer I have ever read. Of all the writers I have listed here, Vonnegut is the one from whom I have lifted not only literary lessons but attitudes towards my own life. Of all of them he is, to borrow a concept I have lifted from his works and applied to my own life most assiduously, a key member of my karass.
So. 15. I could give you another 15, and another. But these were the first that came to mind, and them’s were the rules. Who influenced you? Who stuck their needles into your cerebellum and refused to withdraw? Whose shoulders do you stand on?