December 10, 2012

Writing under the influence

One of the most fun things about writing is finding out how things work, and being surprised when you’re wrong. This is true both on the writing end of things – actually making the story – and the reading side of things, when people read the story you made.

I am still getting surprised. This isn’t going to be a rant – I promise you that – but more like recording my own reactions when I see how people react to what I’m doing.


The weirdest thing about writing, so far, is having someone else tell me what I was trying to do in a thing I did.

This can be weirdly specific – I have not ever had anyone tell me, “Your book is clearly an exploration of how Wisconsin lesbians are contributing to the organic food boom,”  but, at this point, it wouldn’t surprise me.

One thing that’s quite amusing is when someone tells me what was influencing my work, assuming they know what I read and what I like.

And it’s really, really, really amusing when someone tells me what is an obvious, huge, heavy influence on my work – and I’ve never even heard of the thing they’re saying has influenced me.

This happens a lot more than you would expect. My influences, I’ve always felt, are pretty obvious, and when someone asks me if XXXX was an influence, I’m always happy to say so, because neither writers nor novels come from nowhere. But there’s always a rather thunderstruck moment when someone – in a tweet, review, blog post, or direct email to me – says, “Well, the novel is heavily influenced by _____,” and I have to google _____ to find out what _____ even is.

This is amusing to me.

What’s less amusing is when someone suggests there’s an influence that is so incredibly heavy upon my work that it borders upon plagiarism.

Though it’s darkly amusing when I’ve never even heard of the thing they’re suggesting I’ve borrowed from.


This has happened a couple of times. I’ve been told that MR. SHIVERS and THE TROUPE – in very separate instances – very closely mimic certain works. The works they’re saying the books mimic vary tremendously, and each time that this has happened, I’m more or less completely unfamiliar with the work my work supposedly mimics.

Here’s an example:

I’ve been told that both those books heavily borrow from the HBO series Carnivale.

Here’s the fun thing:

I have seen about ten minutes of Carnivale in my life. I can remember the instance clearly: I was in a hotel (I have never had HBO), I turned on the TV, immediately tuned it to HBO (because that’s what people who don’t have HBO do in hotel rooms), and watched about five minutes of Carnivale, because that’s what was on. I recall something about two men being in a diner, and a storm being outside. Then when I realized that on another channel Hook was showing, I immediately tuned it to that channel, because ROOF EE OOOOO. (This is why I remember watching Carnivale – it was the first time I was actually disappointed in the movie Hook. But that’s another story, probably a much more controversial one.)

So, unless that scene in the diner was so loaded with subtext and suggestion that it somehow downloaded all 2 years of the show into my brain, I don’t think I, personally,can claim that Carnivale is a big influence on me, because that would be a lie, and any fans of Carnivale might be disappointed to pick up my stuff expecting the same.

Do I work in the same vein as Carnivale? Probably.

Is it possible to have two, three, or maybe even four works about magic and mystery set deep in past Americana, in circulation among the innumerable outlets of screen, print and music, all saying different things? I would like to say probably.

Here’s the thing, though:

I recall reading once in a music essay that there is no show on earth that owes as much to Tom Waits as Carnivale. (Googling has not turned up the article – but I will keep looking.) Tom Waits, as I hope you know, has thoroughly explored the magical/seedy side of early 20th Century Americana through a variety of music types for nearly 40 years. This essay suggested that, as perhaps the single greatest articulator of weird, alley-performance Americana, Tom Waits and Carnivale were inextricably linked: what Tom Waits created, Carnivale used.

I love Tom Waits. Tom Waits has been a huge influence on me. Part of why I write is to explore worlds he created, or suggested – part of why I write is because I want to make my own worlds, just as he did.

Am I saying that I bypassed Carnivale, and went straight to the source? Am I saying that Carnivale stole from Tom Waits?

No. That would be stupid. That’s not how influence works.


The issue is that, when someone encounters something done really, really well for the first time, they assume that this exact instance is the first time it has ever been done well, ever, period.

This is rarely true. For example, in regards to stories about the performance culture – these have been around since the performance culture existed. The “youth runs away to join a troupe of traveling players” is a trope that is positively medieval, or older.

Nothing is new. Ideas circulate. And they do not do so logically: you cannot trace an influence like tracing a bloodline on a family tree. Ideas travel through osmosis. They’re like a gas, swelling to fill their container. There is oh so very rarely an idea or an aesthetic that is wholly and completely new at the moment it is conceived. You don’t have an influence injected directly into your brain: you have to marinate in it for a long, long while.

If there is any newness to art of any kind, it is when an old idea is filtered through a lens that is wholly unique: the artist. No one is quite like anyone else – right? – so no one will do the same thing in the exact same manner.

Ideas are old: all people are new.

But, this doesn’t address the rather huge and mildly dispiriting elephant in the room:


Readers like to believe that when they’re reading a book, they’re stepping inside the mind of a writer. Some people even grow to believe that the writer is someone they know, and trust: after all, you are spending three, four, maybe even ten hours with someone, discussing very intimate, beautiful, terrible things.

But you do not know your writers. Because the reading experience is about 70% the reader, and 30% the work. Good writers know that – they know that the reader will be doing most of the heavy lifting, and the smartest thing to do is to give them the tools, the suggestions, the implications to make the story start, and then get the fuck out of the way.

(If you are curious why all writers feel like frauds – and almost all of them do – it’s that they all know that, deep down, it’s the reader doing everything. Writers can see the strings on the puppets – to them, the show they put on is paltry garbage. And when audience members approach, describing the show as if it was some miraculous revelation, the writer cannot help but feel a deep and terrible shame.)

So, go back and take a look at my formula – 70% the reader, and 30% the work.

You will note that the writer is not a part of this, at all.

I am not with you when you read. The voice you hear is your own. I am giving you a frame: you are the one imbuing it with beauty.

So, I have my own influences, certainly – but so do you have yours.


Lots of things.

Lots and lots and lots of things. Book things as well as life things. Mostly life things, possibly. Thus, things I can’t quite explain.

But there are writers that I am specifically keeping in mind when I write my books. These are writers I aspire to, that I wish to learn from.

(Many times, I try to aspire to be like them several years after I read their stories. In these instances, I aspire to be like my idea of them, and my idea of their works, rather than the real things – because I cannot remember them. This is, usually, a good thing.)

So, do you want a list? Do you want a list of the writers I went into a book trying to be like?

Of course you do. This is the internet age: all things that cannot be listified are deemed worthless.

So, without further ado, here are the writers I had in mind when I wrote each and every one of my books:

  1. MR. SHIVERS – Cormac McCarthy
  2. THE COMPANY MAN – John le Carré, Raymond Chandler, David Simon (as in, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which is a really phenomenal book)
  3. THE TROUPE – Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, P.L. Travers
  4. AMERICAN ELSEWHERE – David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury
  5. CITY OF STAIRS – David Mitchell, John le Carré

I will assume that clears everything up, answers all questions, clarifies the inscrutable, and casts light into the many dingy corners of my mind.

That was easy. Right?