Following on from last week’s post I’ve been thinking about the books and writers that have affected my work, and my approach to writing.
The very first influence has to be Conan Doyle’s The Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes. I was lucky enough to study it for O’level and loved the brilliant mind of Holmes and the macabre plots that were played out in the smoggy streets of London. For homework we had to write our own crime story and mine seemed to grow and grow as the plot became ever more complicated, and while I don’t remember anything about the crime or my sleuth, I do remember the pivotal piece of evidence that solved the case. For some reason the criminal had written a sinister message on a bedroom wall, and the indents left by the heel of her shoe were so well preserved the crest of the shoemaker could even be seen. There were only a couple of pairs of this particular shoe made and of course the shoemaker kept excellent records. Case closed.
This was all very Holmsean and the teacher said so with a palpable tone of disappointment. I realise now that imitating the stories you admire is often how writers begin, and my experience was very possibly a comment on how creativity was treated in schools. The fact that imitation is part of the creative process wasn’t recognised (or possibly understood) by the teacher, and I get the impression nothing has changed, thirty years later.
Anyway, from that unpromising beginning, my reading seemed to develop in phases. I had my sex-and-shopping bonkbuster phase (anyone under the age of thirty-five won’t know what I’m talking about) which involved copious amounts of Jackie Collins and the quite brilliant Lace, by Shirley Conran. Then came the epic war phase of Lord of the Rings and Catch-22. I was introduced to Tolkien by my work mates. I was a laboratory technician at the time, and during our lunch break we would sit around a table in our white lab coats and read. As you can probably gather I’ve been a geek for a very long time. Then I went on to read The World According To Garp and became a John Irving addict, going through all of his novels and waited desperately for him to write the next one. Then there was the time I wouldn’t read anything unless it was Thomas Hardy or Oscar Wilde. Yes, that’s right, from Jackie Collins to Wilde in a few short years.
Looking back I can see I was searching for something in this very eclectic mix. Not necessarily what kind of writer I wanted to be, because I don’t think I had a firm idea of what that meant back in my twenties, but more about the kind of stories I was interested in. The novels that I mourn when I think back to the great book-giving-away of 2005 reflect the dark stories that I’m still drawn to now. Can anyone read Jude The Obscure without feeling a deep howl of needless loss? And what about the destruction of Dorian Gray, a reflection of how we could all potentially let our desires grow beyond our control. I find the light and darkness of human behaviour compelling, as well as all the shades in between, and this twist in the human heart comes out in the stories I write too.
If I think about the writers that have affected my writing more directly, it has to be when I was doing the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. The most challenging module of that year was The Poet’s Eye, taught by the wonderful Tim Liardet. This is a module aimed at prose writers who want to bring the poet’s acute observation to their work, so alongside poetry we looked at Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, and the Selected Short Stories of Virginia Woolf. I am still amazed by Nabokov and infuriated by Woolf in equal measure, and they both taught me how to use concrete and specific detail to build visual scenes. The image of Miranda sleeping beneath the apple trees and the box of tissues in the back of a car on Humbert Humbert’s journey with Lolita both stay with me.
More recent influences have been Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Now, this is actually a writing advice book, and sometimes you can read these and not feel you’ve learned anything new by the end. But this book is something else. Her writing is personal and insightful, and she has a way of finding the exact simile that perfectly illustrates what she is describing. She made me realise I had to relax my writing and let it breathe. She also helped me to see I should stop trying to be a perfectionist, because perfectionism is ‘based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die… people who aren’t even looking at their feet are doing a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. Stop looking at your feet.’ This is what I tell myself when things aren’t going exactly as I want them to.
Stop looking at your feet.
And then finally I have to mention the most recent influence on my writing. I was struggling with the voice of the main character in my YA novel The Big Deep. Throughout the story she is experiencing paranoia and has a rather confused state of mind, but this just wasn’t coming across on the page. She was too ordered, too controlled. So I went back to look at House of Leaves (again), by Mark Z. Danielewski. This book has multiple storylines that are told in different voices and forms, as well as an unconventional layout that reflects what is going on in the house. I experimented with the idea that the words on the page could in some way mirror her confusion, changing the visual appearance to show something the usual block prose can’t. Compared to other mediums, the novel is the closest form we have to depicting the workings of the mind, and while I’m well aware it can never convey its true complexity, I’m hoping this method works as a fictional representation at least.
I am currently reading The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer, about a man living with schizophrenia. It has a strong first person voice and the story is told in a variety ways (no surprise that it appeals to me then), and I have a feeling it’s one of those books that’s so good I’ll want to jack it all in and pull on a white lab coat again. I kid myself pretty much once a year that I’m going to give up writing and get a real job, but then I think back to Sherlock Holmes and wonder if Dr Watson would have given up writing about the cases they solved together, because let’s face it, Holmes didn’t make it easy for him. But Watson enjoyed the writing. He had something to say and he wrote about the things he cared about, and if he ever suffered from self-doubt he’d just sit patiently and listen to Holmes playing the violin while they waited for the next case, all the while hoping for well organised and efficient shoemakers.
I bet his teachers were never disappointed in him, and if they were, I bet he didn’t care, he just kept on writing regardless.