By Alex Segura
I’ve been thinking about my influences a lot lately. I picked up a copy of James Ellroy’s massive new novel, Perfidia and, just a few pages in, was reminded of how his terse, rhythmic writing inspired me years ago. I was in my 20s and lugging around a copy of Ellroy’s Lloyd Hopkins books - collected in one hardcover L.A. NOIR volume - and starting to cook up the first Pete Fernandez scene I’d ever write, which eventually ended up introducing readers to the characters in my debut novel, Silent City.
Like I noted last time, I got to meet Ellroy a few weeks back. That got me to thinking about my influences, too. Not just how great they are, but how the puzzle pieces click together and who is partially responsible for what, in a micro and a macro sense.
See, I don’t think influences are like vitamins you ingest and then reap the benefits of. We’re sometimes influenced by authors we may not even like, or react to authors we admire in ways that don’t necessarily involve aping them. I have a lot of influences I’m conscious of - but even that’s just perceptional and kind of like comfort food. Their work tastes good so I consume more of it and I want my work to taste good and be consumed, too.
I know, for a fact, I wouldn’t have written - or even attempted to write - Silent City if a friend hadn’t handed me a copy of George Pelecanos’s A Firing Offense. Or was it when I got to Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand? Did Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues help? Maybe it was when I cracked White Jazz for the first time? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer. However, I know in my gut which authors get me going as a reader, and it’s a safe bet that they’re the ones that I turn to when I want to get my own writing moving.
The trick with influences is that you want the bits and pieces you collect from them to combine to form something new. Would I like my words to come together just like the work of Writer X, who is extremely successful, critically acclaimed and never seems to write a bad book? Sure. But then I’d be a great copy instead something unique.
I’ve given up trying to figure out which pieces of my writing machinery come from where - I know, based on the authors I go back to, who my influences are, and I’m grateful for them. My ongoing struggle is to do my best to live up to them. It’s an exciting and daunting challenge.
Who are your writing influences? Were there any that surprised you when you realized they were there?