Thursday, October 2, 2014

I'll Be You

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?


Gerald So said...

Robert B. Parker's Spenser is a big influence on me. I was fascinated with the P.I. archetype before I read Spenser, reading Hammett and Chandler, but the sensibilities of Parker's writing were the first to click just right for me.

As you bring up, there are some things I dislike about Parker's writing -- Spenser's code of behavior, his unchallenged relationship with Susan Silverman after book twelve, and more -- that have influenced me not to write like him or the rest of my influences.

Another big influence is Jeremiah Healy, whose PI John Cuddy is similar to Spenser but ages and investigates more realistically. Cuddy is naturally good-hearted without a code, and Healy's books are better researched and more grounded in the law than Parker's.

The third and final influence I'll mention is S.J. Rozan's Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series. I admire how it alternates between two viewpoints, neither of which obviously resembles Rozan herself.

So three influential PI writers, yet I haven't written much PI fiction. My most successful character is roguish 1930s aviator C.J. Stone, who doesn't have a code, isn't a do-gooder, and whose background differs from mine.

Alex Segura said...

Very interesting breakdown, Gerald! It's always neat to see what books authors relate to and then try to figure out where they show up in their work. Thanks for reading.