Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Influences, Part 1

A few years ago, the husband asked me which three books most influenced me as a writer. Of course, the obvious -- and the most correct -- answer is "Every single book I've ever read." Even the "bad" ones, even the ones I didn't understand or didn't like. All of them. From "The Tall Book of Mother Goose" as a toddler to "Exodus" as a middle schooler to "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang," which I had to read in middle school and hated. Even "The Sun Also Rises," which was the only book I ever read the Cliff's Notes for instead of the actual book, because I read the first chapter and thought, "This is crap. I'm not wasting my time on this shit."

As writers, it's hard not to be influenced by everything we read. Hell, probably "Goodnight Moon" has sunk its itty bitty claws into my subconscious from how many times I've read it to my children in the past five years.

To answer the question in a non-annoying way, though, here are the three books that truly influenced me as a writer.

1. "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" by Judy Blume.

This probably wasn't the first chapter book I read by myself -- I was already in third grade when my best friend Amy read this and then I read it because we were super competitive -- but it's the first one I remember reading. Told in the first person point-of-view by the book's hero, Peter Hatcher, Blume's writing perfectly captured what it felt like to be in that age group (which is now called "tween") and dealing with the pressures and pains of school, friends, and little brothers.

Blume did such a good job getting inside the heads of children, I immediately read all her other "Fudge" and Fudge-related books that were out at the time: "Superfudge" and "Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great." I then moved on to all her other books, including "It's Not the End of the World," "Dennie," "Blubber," and of course, the super-famous, "Are You There, God? It's Me Margaret," for which, by the time I read it in the mid-80s, my mother had to explain to me what sanitary napkin belts were.

Oh, Fudge, what did you do now?

Who among us hasn't been influenced by Judy Blume at some point? It's tough to find women, and especially American women authors above a certain age, who weren't.

After reading "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" I started narrating my life in my head, as if telling my story to readers. At ten years old I wrote my first "novel" -- a 10-page story about a girl whose dolls came to life to give her advice -- my mom typed it up for me, and helped me send it to Judy Blume's publishing house, Dell. They were nice enough to send a sweet, personal rejection. The rejection didn't bother me one bit, because I clearly had already found my life's profession: writing. I found it thanks to Judy Blume.

2. The "Dragonlance" books, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Sure, there were other books that might qualify for the fantasy/sci-fi labels, which I read before I found the Dragonlance books. But when I was 16 years old, I stumbled across the world of Krynn through the Dragonlance trilogies, and that's what sticks out for me.

I didn't read them in any kind of order, except to stick with the 1-3 order of each trilogy. In fact, I started with "Time of the Twins," which chronologically takes place about halfway or so through the whole series.

This dude has hourglass pupils. Come on. COME ON!!!

Never before had I read books so fully immersed in an entirely made-up world. These books had dragons, elves, warrior women, wizards -- even a moody knight. For whatever reason, I hadn't yet heard of "Lord of the Rings" yet, and so these were all amazingly new and exiting for me. (I blame growing up in Florida for my lack of Tolkein exposure before age 16.) I used to hide them under my desk at school and read them instead of paying attention to my teachers, which might explain why I flunked Algebra II and had to go to summer school. I'd stay up late reading them in bed. I'd stay home on Saturday nights and read them locked in my room, radio blasting grunge music from the University of Miami's station.

I finally did pick up "LOTR" one day and read the trilogy, and I faithfully watch "Game of Thrones." For me, though, the love affair with epic fantasy, with second worlds and sword-and-scorcery, comes straight outta Krynn. Because of these books, I learned that I could start from scratch and build an entirely new world in which to base my stories.

3. "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

It's something of a cliche by now for authors, especially those of us who dabble in writing Arthuriana, to claim this book as influential.

But it is.

And, like the works of William Shakespeare, it lives up to the hype.

When I was about 17 years old or so, a teacher I liked saw me reading "The Once and Future King" (thank you, Mom!) and said if I liked that book and if I considered myself a feminist, I should read "The Mists of Avalon."

Two years later I finally did. And that was it, my world was blown away.

Just...YES. So much.

Up to that point, I was familiar with the most basic Arthur legend: The one outlined in "TOaFK" and immortalized by the movies "The Sword in the Stone" and "Camelot." Beyond that I could not fathom another world of Arthuriana, much less one in which the women took center stage. Wait, Morgaine isn't a scheming and incestuous evil witch? (Well, she is incestuous, but in ignorance.) Lancelot is Arthur's cousin? The Lady of the Lake is a pagan not a spirit? And Guenevere, Arthur and Lancelot have a three-way??? WHAT????

Mind = blown.

As with the other two books on my list, once I read "The Mists of Avalon," I couldn't un-read it. I couldn't let it go. It sank down into the depths of my psyche and started influencing the stories I told myself, the way I saw myself, and the way I wanted to write. No other single book has stamped itself so completely and permanently inside of me the way "Mists" has done, even twenty years after I first (finally) picked it up and read the opening words, "Morgaine speaks..."

What about you? What books most influenced you as a writer, or even in your life in general? Not your favorite books -- I'm talking about the books that actually changed you as a person. What books have left a permanent mark on your spirit?

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