Cataloguing Your Influences
I’ve always shied away from the questions, “Who do you read?” and “Who are your influences?” On one hand, I've always found my mind blanking when asked those questions, thus making me look like a word-fumbling moron; on the other hand, those questions always reminded me of that scene in The Third Man, when pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is inadvertently wrangled into a Q&A with a snooty book appreciation society. One member asks him how much James Joyce has influenced his writing, to which Martins fumbles his words and looks like a moron (really, he’s gripped with stage fright). When another member of the audience presses him for his influences, Martins replies "Zane Grey," to which the moderator haughtily laughs and says something to the effect of, “Surely you don’t mean the Western author!”
Pretension. That’s what name-dropping influences was to me. Nothing but a lot of masturbatory one-upping to prove you were more well-read and obscurely-read than the next guy or gal. Recently, though, I’ve had a change of heart. I read this article on BookRiot by Minh Le, “A Is For Achebe: Who Makes Your Author Alphabet,” which asks the reader to categorize their favorite writers by naming one for each letter. The rules here aren’t too strict—you can alternate between first name and last name (so, for instance, Chinua Achebe could fall at either C or A, depending on where you put him, if you put him down at all).
Le isn’t necessarily coming from the perspective of a writer attempting to catalogue his influences, but rather as a reader naming those authors he enjoys the most (that’s what I gather, anyway). And yet, the exercise lends itself to a cataloguing of influences perfectly. So after reading the article, I began to put my own Author Alphabet together, only realizing midway through that I was doing the very thing I always loathed: name-dropping my influences. And you know what? I kinda liked it.
The sense of joy I felt led me to the conclusion that cataloguing influences is maybe one of the most important things any aspiring writer can do. I’ll talk about the evidence I have to back that claim up here in a bit, but in order to do that (and to bring this process full circle), let me publicly and without equivocation share with you my Author Alphabet.
A quick note: I thought about hyperlinking all the names below, in case any of you weren’t familiar with their work, but good God that would take forever. If you don’t know who some of these people are, you’ve got a friend in Google.
- A - Alex Cox
- B - William Peter Blatty
- C - Joyce Carol Oates
- D - David Cronenberg
- E - Edgar Allan Poe
- F - Gillian Flynn
- G - Vince Gilligan
- H - Kat Howard
- I - Washington Irving
- J - Joe Hill
- K - Stephen King
- L - Jonathan Lethem
- M - Richard Matheson
- N - Neil Gaiman
- O - Orson Welles
- P - Chuck Palahniuk
- Q - Quentin Tarantino
- R - George Romero
- S - Stanley Kubrick
- T - Jim Thompson
- U - Universal Monster Movies (not an author’s name, I know)
- V - Kurt Vonnegut
- W - Joss Whedon
- X - David X. Cohen
- Y - Kelly Link
- Z - Poppy Z. Brite
As you can see, I’ve cheated throughout—mildly so by putting Kelly Link at the Y spot, rather than at K or L; egregiously so with “Universal Monster Movies” at U (see aside above). But while including films released throughout the 1930s and 1940s (the best of them, anyway) might be cheating the rules of the Author Alphabet, in terms of my influences as a writer of horror and dark fiction, the UMMs are infinitely important, and are not necessarily traceable to just one film or creator. You could include Carl Laemmle Jr., producer of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and a host of other titles, or any of the numerous writers and directors who frequently contributed to the “movement,” but doing so would run the risk of leaving out certain movies, and that I cannot do. My grandpa, who I called Buddy, was a certified horror movie buff, and some of my earliest memories involve watching these “tame” movies (by today’s standards) with him. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment my interest in the macabre was ignited, it would be there, on my grandparents’ floor, staring up at the TV in awe. So yeah, Universal Monster Movies at U. Deal with it.
Some of the names on this list are not influences in the same sense as the UMMs—I wasn’t reading them/viewing their work at a young age—but I recognize their impact nonetheless. Neil Gaiman falls into that category: I hadn’t even heard of the man until I met my partner Lauren, who practically shoved American Gods into my hands and said, “READ IT!!!” I’m glad I took her advice, because Gaiman is now one of my favorite authors, and the joy I found in reading Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline, Smoke and Mirrors and The Graveyard Book largely inspired me to start writing fiction again.
Other names aren’t necessarily influences, but rather “potential influences.” With these authors, I haven’t read a tremendous amount of their work, but I’ve liked/loved what I have read, and I think they really have the potential to sink their claws into me. Poppy Z. Brite is one such author, a name I’ve been familiar with for years, but one which I’ve only recently come into actual contact with (incidentally, this is a name the author no longer goes buy—he is now Billy Martin). I loved the language and imagery in “The Ash of Memory, The Dust of Desire,” but I didn’t care for the ending; that being said, I still feel drawn to this writer’s work, and I want to explore more.
One name, Quentin Tarantino, appears begrudgingly. His latter work (Kill Bill Vol. 2 and onwards) left me with a meh taste in my mouth, but I can’t deny the impact Pulp Fiction made on my writerly sensibilities, with its non-linear, twisted narrative, difficult characters, top-notch dialogue and absence of any easy answers. It was a big one for me, a turning point, and so Pulp Fiction and its creator must appear in my Alphabet, even if said creator no longer wows me.
There is one author on this list that I haven’t read at all, though his inclusion, like the Universal Monster Movies, is of the utmost importance. The written words of Washington Irving are strangers to me, and yet his tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow may have sparked a true story passed down from my great, great grandfather. He, along with several other children and their mothers, were terrorized by a man in a solid black mask (or, a wooden box with tiny eyeholes), who got his jollies by peering into the windows of unsuspecting families while the husbands were away. This being slightly before the turn of the 20th century (give or take a few years), the low light inside the homes, and the total absence of light (save the moon) outside, the man in the black mask appeared headless.
My dad would enthrall my siblings and me with this lurid little tale, making up his own embellishments whenever he saw fit, and I LOVED it. I wanted to hear it as many times as I could, whether it was Halloween or not. Just like the UMMs, this early memory represents one of my first exposures to the horror genre, a dot on a map leading to spooky landscapes and perverse motivations (not my own, of course). Whether or not this headless marauder was an Irving fan, I cannot say for certain, though I suspect, given the timeframe and the popularity of Irving’s story, that there may be a fair amount of influence there. So, Irving begat this macabre trickster, and the macabre trickster, decades later, begat me.
So Why Is This Important?
Well, on a surface level, whenever someone asks me who I read, or who my influences are, I can now simply recall the Alphabet and rattle off names like a champ, without stammering or pausing or generally appearing dense.
But of course, the benefits run deeper than this. The Author Alphabet, as an exercise, forced me to dig deep into my past, all the way back into early childhood, and find the sources for my current interests, and as a result, I feel more connected to the writer inside me. Imagine your creative self as a separate person—do you want to know him/her as an acquaintance or a friend? By avoiding cataloguing my influences, I was treating my writerly side as an acquaintance. I knew him in a general sense, and only spoke with him when we both sat down at the computer to write. The writer inside me was the real-world equivalent of a co-worker you get along with just fine, but one you don’t interact with much outside of work. Now, however, my writer is a guy I not only work with, but one I socialize with regularly when off the clock—i.e., a good friend.
Okay, perhaps this analogy is a bit glib, but I think you get the picture. Having these names and influences written down in an organized fashion gives me a stronger sense of empowerment and courage when I set out to write. This sensation brings to mind the title of Joyce Carol Oates’s much-celebrated short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—not the narrative itself, mind you, but just the title. The two questions are entwined, suggesting, to me, that in order to successfully move forward, you have to move backwards first.
As I said earlier, I’ve always known, deep down, where I’ve been, but the information was all jumbled in my brain. Think of a disorganized attic: you know generally what’s up there, you just can’t say where certain things are with any confidence. Cataloguing my influences was the mental equivalent of a good spring cleaning, with everything arranged neatly and logically, so that now, when I journey up there to retrieve something, I know exactly where to go.
Furthermore, knowing where I came from gives me a keener sense of my own "voice"—that all-too-important thing every writer is supposed to find. Neil Gaiman sums up the relationship between influences and voice-finding perfectly in his "Make Good Art" speech:
The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that's not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we've sounded like a lot of other people.
For me, knowing and understanding my influences on a more organized level informs me when and who I'm copying at any given moment. So, rather than obliviously plagiarizing some other author, my brain can now tell me, "Nope, that's good ole Stevie King talking through you. Make it your own."
So as you can see, keeping track of those that inspire you has numerous benefits. Perhaps this is a no-duh moment for you—or perhaps, like me, it's an epiphany. I hope it's the latter.
Now comes the part I know you’ve all been waiting for. Let us know your own Author Alphabet in the comments below; or if you just don't feel like getting that precise, just share some of your favorites. And feel free to share backstories behind some of your selections as well.
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