Those of you who read this blog with any regularity know that I talk about Stephen King a lot. He’s been a major influence and inspiration for me. I got hooked on King longer ago than I care to admit: back when they aired ’Salem’s Lot as a two-part miniseries on, I believe, CBS. Yeah, it was that long ago. I was a young teenager.
Those of you who’ve seen are probably wondering how in the world that could possibly hook me on King. Well, see, what happened was, I saw the last half of it. And I liked it well enough that I wanted to know what happened in the first half. This was before the days of video tapes or DVDs, long before, so waiting till it came out on video wasn’t an option. Not where I lived, at least. So, when I found out the series was based on a book, I started looking for the book.
It wasn’t easy to find good books in my area. I grew up in a largely rural county—something that would fit easily into one of King’s books, in fact—and the best source for books was the local Rexall drug store. They had one of those spinning racks that you used to see (these days they carry cheap-ass toys at convenience stores, if you see them at all), and that meant the selections were usually limited to bestsellers.
It’s been a long time, and I don’t remember how I eventually came across the copy. And I thought he was some new, unknown author, so you can imagine my surprise when I happened on a convenience store clerk reading a copy of The Shining. That led to me finding out he’d written other books, and before long, I was hooked.
In those days, I read science fiction and fantasy exclusively, so delving into King’s works opened up new worlds for me. Here was a guy who was putting everyday people, many of them resembling folks I knew, into extraordinary situations. And they usually didn’t come out unscathed. Considering this was also about the time I discovered Sapir and Murphy’s The Destroyer series, that was a good counterbalance. Remo Williams seemed to never get hurt seriously. Besides, Remo was this über-skilled martial artist who practiced a mythical, almost magical art known as Sinanju. He got sick when he ate hamburgers—one of my favorite food groups to this day—and could do incredible things. Even if he could never truly please his master and mentor, Chiun, a smartass Korean who was the master of Sinanju and prejudiced against all non-Koreans. It was harder to relate to these characters than it was the local yokels that populate King’s novels.
For me, King broke the mold. He showed that you didn’t have to sound “writerly” to be a good, successful writer. I’m sure there are tons of critics who hate him to this day for that, and I bet he cries all the way to the bank about it. He’s drawing from a long, honored tradition, too, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway and on down to Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald. Dean Koontz deserves mention, as well.
We don’t all have to sound like Nathaniel Hawthorne or William Shakespeare (though it can be argued he wrote in the idiom of his day, as well) to be good writers.
For me, King’s role is both inspiration and influence. When I read his work, especially going back to what I consider his two best works, The Stand and It, I want to sit down at the keyboard and emulate his quality. Not his voice—though I did go through a phase of that years and years ago—but his quality. It’s thanks to him that I want to populate my novels with the everyday people I see around me instead of Superman or some of Ayn Rand’s perfectomundo, shiny-perfect capitalists.
And, for a long, long time, if someone asked who was my inspiration, I’d point to King and King alone. I liked other authors, but I couldn’t say many of them inspired me. Tolkien did to the same extent he did other hopeful fantasy authors: we wanted to create a world as enduring to readers as Middle-earth, even when we knew we probably couldn’t.
I started branching out in my reading tastes in my mid-teens. I discovered Louis L’Amour, then dipped into intrigue with Robert Ludlum. I devoured every one of his books I could find. I read his Jason Bourne series long before Matt Damon splashed them across the silver screen (are they still silver these days?). But L’Amour had far too much first-hand knowledge of the West—a standard I couldn’t match—and Ludlum packed far too many twists and turns in his plots. No way could I match either of these guys, even as I enjoyed their writing.
For years, things stayed just about there. I read mostly sf and fantasy, with some Tom Clancy and a few one-offs thrown in for variety. Then, in 2007, my daughter got in contact with me. Thanks to a minor misunderstanding (that had major consequences) between her mother and me, I’d had no contact for about fifteen years. Wouldn’t have known the girl if I bumped into her on the street. Now, her mother and I are fighting against some geographical/financial problems in an effort to get back together, and I find out my daughter is also a writer.
I visited them twice that year in Santa Monica, and my daughter and I have grown increasingly closer to one another since then. No Hollywood, instant hugs and tears reunion, but a more sedate, solid growing together that I’m enjoying immensely. And writing gave us common ground.
Because I missed them so much, I started looking for stories that took place in the LA area. That led me, eventually to Jonathan Kellerman, then Robert Crais and now people like Don Winslow. I haven’t read all of Kellerman’s novels, though I do have most of them on my to-be-read list. I have read the majority of Crais’s novels, and I’ve read all of his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels. I think the only standalones I have yet to read are Hostage and The Two Minute Rule.
LA is a good place to set a novel, that’s for sure, and I wish I had more knowledge of the place so I could set one there. The one I’m working on right now starts there, but doesn’t stay for long. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed discovering the whole LA Noir thing, and I have some Chandler novels I intend to read at some point to get the feel for old LA.
The big breakthrough novelist who changed my voice considerably was Don Winslow. I’ve mentioned him here before, and you’ll probably hear mention of him again. His writing style is so free and informal—more so in some ways than I want my own to be—but seeing that someone could write that way and find an audience really freed me up to get away from my more formal voice. In fact, what you see here on my blog is my more formal voice, though I do try to throw in jokes and such to loosen it up some. I guess I still have that voice in me and it needs some expression. This is a good place to do it. After all, it’s nonfiction and what one writer friend of mine calls non-billable word count, so if I want to sound like a professor moonlighting, I’ll do it. It’s my blog and I’ll write it how I want to (hey, that almost fits the meter of the original song, doesn’t it?).
All these, and more, are what you’d call my literary inspirations. They’re standards I strive to meet, or they inspire me to be more creative in my writing, to break some boundaries, if I can. But there’s a more important inspiration, and I want to acknowledge it here: my family.
By that, I mean my daughter, her mother, and my daughter’s brothers. I know the way I’ve worded that sounds a little weird, but keep in mind that, though my daughter’s brothers aren’t mine biologically, I still love them to death. I want all of them to be proud of me, and my daughter and I form our own little writer’s support group. For me, her support is better than and exclusive of the other writers I know. She makes me want to be a better dad and a better writer, and she’s not a slouch writer herself. I’ve just finished my first read-through/critique of her new YA novel, and I have to say it’s excellent. Her writing, already very good, has improved so much lately that it’s almost scary.
But, thanks to these four people, my life has changed in so many ways. I’ve grown up quite a bit, for one. I’ve never had the chance to be a hands-on dad until now (Jesi was six months old when her mom and I split up, and I wasn’t very hands-on back then), and I find I’m loving it. And missing a lot because we can’t be together. But we talk regularly, and I feel special since I’m the first one who got to see Jesi’s new novel. I hope she can find a publisher for it, because it deserves a larger audience than just family and friends. It’s a good story, with characters you can get behind. So keep your eyes on this blog and on hers (jesimarie.blogspot.com) for news of it being published and, when it is, run, don’t walk, out and buy it.
None of this makes me special. Read the acknowledgments page of any novel, and you’ll find spouse and/or family thanked. We can’t write these books alone, even if we’re the only ones putting the words down. Without loving support, it’s hard. It took that loving support to get me serious about my writing, and I know someone who may well be giving up on his writing because he lost his support system.
I’m thankful everyday for each and every person who inspires me, but most especially for my family. You guys are the best.