Sunday, September 21, 2008

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Nerd: Influences

In our interview (conducted by the inestimable Shaenon Garrity) just before Cold Iron Badge launched, I was asked for some of my influences as a fantasy writer. I mentioned Steven Brust, Charles De Lint, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tanya Huff, Neil Gaiman, and Joss Whedon.

Now, this was by no means an exhaustive list. As worthy as those creators are, I was focusing particularly focused on works in fantasy that were influences on Cold Iron Badge.

Brust, for instance, inspired me to explore low-fantasy, street-level characters dealing with high fantasy problems, while mixing in sensibilities from other genres (Brust adds mystery and noir; I threw police procedural into the genre blender).

De Lint was one of my keys to urban fantasy, and along with Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry also to unashamedly Canadian characters and settings. I, of course, repaid the favour by having characters named in their honour horribly murdered.

But, as I said, that's a "influenced Cold Iron Badge" list more than it's the "influenced Stephen" list. Here's how incomplete it is on the latter front:

It doesn't. Mention. Tolkien.

Tolkien was my gateway drug to fantasy. Tolkien was where it all started. He's the reason that the modern fantasy genre exists in anything close to its present form. He's the reason both that there is a Dungeons & Dragons (1) and that I cared enough about the content to want to play it. The thousand and one pale imitators who followed in his wake are evidence of the enduring power, influence and excellence of his work.

I'll probably have more to say about Tolkien in the future; pending that I will note that Lord of the Rings is a profoundly deep, powerful work. It's an essential piece not only of the canon of fantasy, but of English literature in general. I both envy and sympathize with those who haven't yet read it (they've missed out on the pleasure so far, but get to read it for the first time), and I can get pretty judgemental about people who didn't like it (2).

I also owe a rather strong debt to Roger Zelazny. A warm, funny, deeply intelligent and humanistic writer, he used a seemingly effortless light and fluid style to juxtapose the heroic and the human, the perfectly immortal and the tragically mortal. He's probably best remembered for his Amber series, and that's where I first encountered him, although Lord Of Light is often considered his finest novel. I learned a lot about writing from reading Zelazny. His few, too-brief essays on writing, and anecdotes passed along by other writers who knew him, amount to a crash course in creative writing.

And there's Douglas Adams, who didn't write fantasy, but whose wit and sense of the ridiculous influenced me deeply. He's another writer, to point out what's becoming a pretty clear theme, who put ordinary people in a world ruled by the rules and tropes of genre fiction, and made them try to cope with it and get out alive and sane.

Of course, especially as a young aspiring writer, everything I've read (3) influenced me one way or another. For good or for bad, pushing me towards or away from particular approaches and ideas, giving me examples I was inspired to emulate or motivated to avoid.

(There's lots to say, for instance, about the schlocky fantasy I read as a teenager that I would now place in my personal Hall of Shame. Or, more charitably, I could characterize those books as examples that I was inspired to avoid. But that's a long, embarrassing story for another time.)

The process never stops as long as we continue to live and to learn, although it does level off. I'm older now, I have a stronger grasp of craft and of my personal voice. It's less likely that the next novel I read will be such a strong influence that it'll be a game-changer in how I view fantasy, writing or life in general.

In contemporary fantasy, for instance, there are a lot of writers I admire, whose books I love, who I still wouldn't characterize as strong influences. George R. R. Martin is one; he revitalized the genre with A Song of Ice And Fire -- read the series, but only if you can stand the pain, because he's brilliant at putting his characters through the wringer.

There's J. K. Rowling, who with Harry Potter not only found great success, but basically made reading cool again (and note that she did it, again, by mixing and matching genres, in this case the fantasy epic with the classic British "kids gang solving mysteries" adventure, as if Lord of the Rings had been written by Enid Blyton).

And Terry Pratchett, as funny as Adams but deeper, putting genre-conscious characters in a world ruled by fantasy tropes, and then letting them change that world and the world change them.

Of course, creative influences are funny -- trying to break them down into something as neat and tidy as clear genre categories is ultimately futile. Even in this short list, I've broken away from speaking exclusively of fantasy writers to include Douglas Adams. Everything I've read really has gone into who I am as a human being and as a creator, not just the books with dragons and swords. Maybe I'm ignoring the early impact of the Hardy Boys on my writerly development. Or the significance of the fact that I stand alone with Steve Bochcho in having thought that Cop Rock was a totally awesome show.

And yet.

There must be something inside me that drew me, not just to fantasy, but to the writers I've cited here. Some reaction, some spark that made me choose fantasy as a vehicle for my storytelling (4). The common threads, the seeds of inspiration, are so clear, the connection must be real. And I also think -- I believe -- that it's a connection that is important and meaningful.

In the end, of course, it's readers (and, in the case of the truly great, which I'm not, literary biographers and university professors and the like) who truly and most clearly see the connection between writers, following the thread of influences. And they in turn are influenced by me (5) and it all begins again.

Which is humbling, and a little daunting. I thought I was just writing a fun adventure story about a cop who teams up with an elf. Now I'm part of the endless cycle of influences that ripple through our culture, affecting people, changing the world.

No pressure, huh?


(1) Yes, I've read about the history of D&D, and I know that Gary Gygax always claimed not to have been particularly influenced by Tolkien; however, it's because of the appeal of Tolkien, and the Tolkien-related hooks in D&D, that it found an audience. D&D may have been rooted in wargamers developing rules for small-unit tactical skirmishing with fantasy elements derived from Moorcock, Lieber and Vance, but that's not what made D&D a phenomenon.

(2) In this viewpoint I may be unkind, but I'm at least in good company; see Ursula K. LeGuin's wonderful essay, 'Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?' You can find it in The Language of the Night, a collection of her short non-fiction.

(3) And seen, and heard, and experienced, but this is supposed to be a blog post on fantasy, not my autobiography, and I'm trying to stay on point.

(4) This also, of course, completely ignores the fact that Cold Iron Badge is a work of collaboration; Patrick and I developed the story and characters together, and he has his own experiences and influences that he brought to the process.

(5) "This Geigen-Miller clown is a hack! I can do better than this!"

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