Who influenced me and made me write in the way that I do?
It’s a question I’ve thought about quite a bit although I hadn’t really ever intended posting about it. Then my pal Rachel Fox did a Fine Post on the writers who have influenced her and she asked me the question directly. (I see that Poetikat has posted on this too). So that all gave me an excuse to answer, hopefully without sounding too full of myself.
I started to read a lot and to write a little when I was really young and I believe that the seeds of the way I scribble were planted very early and have not changed an awful lot since. That’s why the five influences I’m about to suggest will not seem overly highbrow or intellectual.
I could bluff you with more challenging fare if I felt like it, trust me, but that's not the point.
These five names represent an honest attempt to think back at who coloured my style of writing and why.
In approximate chronological order, here goes:
James Thurber: As with most things, I am not an authority on James Thurber. He turned up in a English Class textbook - “The Night The Ghost Got In”, I think – and shortly after that, I saw two collections of his work in the local book shop and I bought them. Most of the short pieces were from his New Yorker writings. I was amazed to find that a writer could be so accessible, smart and yet still funny. I wanted to learn to do that.
James Herriot: Yes, the ‘Vet’ from 'All Creatures Great and Small'. Years before any mention of a TV series, I was attracted to James Herriot’s books on account of the nice cartoons on the covers (remember I was very young). Inside the covers lay a wealth of well-told stories from the man’s professional life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales in the Thirties. I always remember a review on the back of one of the books said something like, “he can tell a good story against himself.” This sentence became embedded in the part of my heart reserved for writing.
Kevin Marron: Sadly, a great many of you won’t know who Kevin Marron was. Kevin was the editor of The Sunday World newspaper in Ireland in the Seventies and early Eighties. He kept a page in that paper called ‘A Sort of TV Column’ in which he reviewed the week’s television and had fun with everything else that came to his mind. His page was always adorned by a nubile young lady in a bikini and I think my parents thought my interest in the page was another sign of my advancing adolescence (along with the acne and the moods). The girls were certainly nice but Kevin was the main event - he was a brilliant writer. He was readable, smart, finger-on-the-pulse and funny – very funny. In 1984, when still a young man, Kevin Marron flew to France on the annual Beaujolais Nouveau run and tragically died in the ensuing plane crash. You made me want to write as good as you did Kevin. Maybe someday…
Stephen King: It seems to be cool to knock Stephen King but I will always defend him with some passion. I have read pretty much every word he has ever published and I think he is a sharp, crystal clean writer with colossal story–telling ability. I can criticise him too. Here is my one-sentence-King-crit: His 'small' books are much better than his 'big' ones. People think King is some kind of pulp writer because a) he writes in the horror genre and b) he is prolific but Stephen will still be around in a century’s time and will be taught in all the best schools. He writes about his own pain with great insight, be it alcoholism in 'The Shining' or traumatic life shattering injury in 'Duma Key'. He is graphic, visual and searing and he is, to my knowledge, the first writer to describe the taste of blood as ‘copper’. I remember as a teen grabbing his books off the shelves on the day they were published – books like ‘Christine’ and ‘Cujo’ spoke directly to me as a young guy. I wanted to be able to tell a story and grab the reader by the scruff of the neck like he could. Still tryin’…
David Mamet: It took me quite a while to discover that I’m better at writing drama than I am at writing anything else. Nobody beats Mamet for Drama. He pares everything down to the absolute quick. There is no flab, no fat. Read 'American Buffalo', see ‘Oleanna’, catch the movies ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ or even ‘The Untouchables’. Mamet rules. He taught me that brevity is the soul of wit (Polonius who?) and he is still teaching it to me. Nobody is better at writing about the state of being a man. I don’t always get what he writes but it always, always, gets me.
I could list 25 writers, sure I could. But with these five, I believe that I can see their footprints in the words I write. I don’t think I’m as good as them or even as good as anybody else, I just think they - all five - have shaped me a little. And that’s the point of this post.
Back in 1978, my English teacher wrote on the bottom of my essay that I had a 'nice, chatty style' and that I should try to hold onto that. She wasn't a writer but, with that passing comment, she influenced me too.