‘A book is a loaded gun in the house next door’ (Ray Bradbury – Farenheit 451)
Three Authors that Rocked My Writing World
Books and reading have been at the centre of my life, for over thirty-five years. There are photos of me as a child and awkward early teen, book clutched in hand, not even aware of the camera as I’m so absorbed in a book. I can identify parts of my life by what I was reading at the time. I can think of a book I read and the feelings and emotions of the time come flooding back, much the way smell evokes memory.
There are many books and many authors which I have been moved by, inspired by, changed in some way by but there are only three that I would say really inspired me to pick up a pen and write.
The first is Ray Bradbury. I read some of his many collections of short stories as a young teen and was hooked by his creative use of language. Ray Bradbury was more than a wordsmith. He took ideas, crazy, big, weird ideas, and brought them to life with beautiful but honest language. One of my favourite stories of his is ‘And the Sailor Home from Sea’ in ‘Machineries of Joy’. I love his description of the prairie, like the rolling sea and the wooden house, creaking like a ship. He turned the midwest of America into something weird and wonderful, created a whole new mythology of landscape for it.
‘Trembling in his bed, he whispered, No, no, it can’t be – I’m mad! But…listen!
He opened the farmhouse door to look upon the land. He stepped out on the porch, spelled by this thing he had done without knowing it. He held to the porch rail and blinked, wet-eyed, out beyond his house.
There, in the moonlight, hill after slow-rising hill of wheat blew in tidal winds with the motion of waves. An immense pacific of grain shimmered off beyond seeing, with his house, his now recognized ship, be-calmed in its midst.’
I also love what Bradbury had to say about writing. His quotes still move and inspire me now.
‘I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them.’
And about reading and the change in culture, the move away from it as a lifetime habit;
‘The problem… isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.’
‘Farenheit 451’ is one of my favourite novels of all time. I would argue that it is in fact the most important science fiction novel of all time. Sheer genius. If you haven’t read it – shame on you! – go and get a copy now.
The second author who inspired me and continues to inspire me (He still writes – his last novel published in 2012 ‘Boneland’) is Alan Garner. It was a friend of my sister’s, visiting from University who introduced me to Garner when I was aged about twelve. The first book I read was ‘Elidor’ – I hesitate to say it is a children’s book because Garner doesn’t like that distinction and I think I have to agree with him there. A good book is a good book. If you have to dumb down your writing for younger audiences then it is not a good book.
‘Elidor’ was my first taste of fantasy. I had an old copy of the first edition that I bought second hand from the library. It’s about four children in Manchester who enter a fantasy world, fulfill a quest and return to find the enemy has followed them back. Written in 1965, it might even be the first British urban fantasy novel.
I believe it is based on the English Folktale ‘Childe Rowlande’ and quotes Shakespeare in the epigraph:
‘Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came – ” KING LEAR, act iii, sc. 4’
This is one of my favourite passages in the book. I love the description of foreboding and imagery of static electricity, the way Garner drip feeds the feeling that something is not quite right as Roland returns to his house.
‘After the first pulse of horror Roland did not move.
He saw every detail of plaster on the wall: he heard every sound in the house and in the road outside. He did not breathe: his mind raced so that every second was ten.
The shadows were not anybody in the room. It was too small and bare for anybody to be in it unseen. And they would have to be between the torch and the wall to make shadows.
This was my bedroom. There’s nothing to be frightened of here. They’re marks on the wall. Damp patches because the house is empty.
He went closer. They remained the same size. Flat shadows on the wall: motionless, sharp and black.’
I also loved ‘The Owl Service’. The idea of the eternal love triangle of Blodeuwedd, Lleu and Gronw that comes from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion is something that influences my writing to this day. Garner is a folklorist and that is clear in his writing. His interweave of landscape, folklore and myth is something I relate to on a personal level as it is the place where all my writing springs from too. It is what moves me to write.
To give you an idea where Garner’s inspiration comes from and how meticulous he is with research;
‘I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten’s War Requiem nearly every day.’
(Times Literary Supplement 1968)
If you are a writer, be sure to read ‘The Voice That Thunders’; his essays on writing amongst other diverse subjects such as folklore, archaeology, mental health and language. A truly brilliant writer.
The third is Robert Holdstock. Continuing with the theme of mythology, the British landscape and folklore, The ‘Mythago Wood Cycle’ of books includes; ‘Lavondyss’, ‘The Bone Forest’, ‘The Hollowing’, ‘Merlin’s Wood’, ‘Avilion’ and ‘Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn’
Set in the Herefordshire ancient woodland known as ‘Ryhope Wood’. It tells the story of Stephen Huxley, his brother Christian and their father George. Stephen returns home from World War Two to find his brother Christian has become obsessed with the woods that surround their home Oak Lodge. He tells Stephen of his encounters with the ‘Mythagos’, creatures (humans, monsters and animals) created from ancient memory, myth and subconscious of nearby human minds. Seen as some as a metaphor of the journey into the heartwood of the psyche, the wood can only be accessed by four tracks. Anyone who doesn’t use these tracks has great difficulty accessing the heart of the wood.
Re-reading it now, I am still deeply moved by it. Holdstock captured something truly amazing, primal and mythologically resonating. It still, on a subconscious level, along with Garner influences my own storytelling today. When I read it as a teen, I wanted to go into Ryhope Wood, to see it’s secrets for myself and I still have that urge today.
Read it, if you can, even if you’re not a fan of fantasy. It’s about so much more.
Writing this post has made me go back and re-read the books of my favourite authors. They stand the test of time and still feed my imagination. They reminded me of where my origins and influences are, between which pages to look for inspiration.
One thing that has occurred to me is ‘Where are the woman authors?’ It just so happened that my favourites were men. They didn’t have to be. I just haven’t discovered the women writers yet who weave together landscape, mythology and story in the same way. If you have any suggestions – please leave a comment – I would love to read them!