The Triumvirate

All writers have influences, whether those are other writers, artists, musicians and creators or sources closer to home like friends, family or the next-door neighbour whose ideas we steal at night using our radio poison devices. Some of them are sources we know about and examine; others are unconscious influences we don’t realise or admit even to ourselves, much less the crazy paranoid next door who glues tinfoil to his forehead to block you once and for all.

I mean, seriously, if his ideas are so precious, maybe he shouldn’t leave them lying around pinned to stolen undergarments. It’s just asking for trouble.

Anyway, this week I’ve been thinking about my influences, and I thought it would be fun to narrow them down to an arbitrary Top Three and talk about how fucking awesome they are. Or were, since they’re all old dead white dudes.

Jorge Luis Borges

Despite never being sure how to pronounce his name (Bor-jez or Bor-hez?), I’ve loved Borges’ work ever since stumbling across ‘The Library of Babel’ in some anthology or other back in my university days. Then I read ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ and I was utterly hooked; he’s been my favourite fantasist ever since. You can keep your Tolkeins and your Martins; they have their place and I like their stuff, but the true phantasmagoria has a different power and one that speaks more clearly to me.

Borges’ work has the resonance of myth, dream and parable. His stories pick a single concept, like an infinite library, a fictional reality replacing a real one or a writer attempting to recreate a classic novel from scratch, and play with it like a beautiful toy. A Borges piece doesn’t try to imply that it’s a snapshot of a wider world that could be further explored; each story is a thing onto itself, bound in a nutshell, a jewel that shines alone without any need to be socketed into an over-detailed crown. Even his ostensibly ‘realistic’ early work, like ‘Man on Pink Corner’, has this quality; a petty criminal is stabbed, and there’s no need to work out where he came from or what happens after the event, because all that matters is the sadness of the event and the tango happening in the background.

To quote biographer Edwin Williamson: “His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author’s ability to generate ‘poetic faith’ in his reader.” And that approach to storytelling, to work inside a tight set of conceptual bounds’ and focus on wild fancy rather than prosaic underpinnings, is very much the way I come at stories, especially fantasy stories. I don’t care much about how the story could have come about or how it could fit into a greater context; I just like to focus on the what and the why of what’s happening now, in this narrative right here, and to go as far and fast into that idea as I can without stopping to get my bearings. That’s very much the ethos of Hotel Flamingo, to name the most obvious example, and that’s why getting called a ‘skittish Borges’ by one reviewer is pretty much the highpoint of my writing career.

Raymond Chandler

If Borges showed me where to go, it was Raymond Chandler – that prissy, irascible, homophobic, despicable genius – who showed me how to get there. When I first read The Big Sleep it was a thunderbolt, a revelation of a lean, muscular but also refined and intellectual prose style that could portray both action and pathos without dropping a beat.

Chandler’s work is unconcerned with fine detail, preferring to give readers short but incredibly rich cues that let them paint their own vision of his characters and their world. His punchy similes and metaphors do more in ten words than most writers could accomplish in three hundred. A description like “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window” tells you everything you need to know about both the hot number being described and the attitude towards women on the part of the narrator. His work is finely crafted without being artificial, lyrical without being schmaltzly; his pulp thrillers gloss over the process of crime and punishment to reflect themes and questions of honour, courage, betrayal and the cost of doing the right thing.

Do I write like Chandler? Um, I’d like to say that I do, but I know I can’t measure up to that standard. I try my damnedest to write to the same general principles, though – to suggest rather than describe, to sum things up with a core metaphor rather than explicit detail, to put the emotional meat of conflict in the centre of the plate and let the vegetables take care of themselves. The Obituarist is my own attempt to come at Chandler’s sort of story and character, not as pastiche but through genuine inspiration, even if the trappings are totally different and the gender politics are a whole lot more enlightened. But I think you can see that ethos in the rest of my work, too – and it’s fun to apply that approach to other genres than crime, too. We could do with a lot more Chandler in our fantasy.

Hunter S. Thompson

I like to swear.

Okay, that’s the obvious thing everyone takes from Thompson, along with stories of ludicrous drug-fuelled rampages. It’s the easy hook and it’s a powerful one. Thompson wasn’t the first or even the best author to throw out that concept of the writer-as-celebrity, as a larger-than-life figure who didn’t just write stories but lived them and shaped them and brought them into being with the force of his own genius and excess – but he’s the one who got his claws into me, who made me consider the need not just to come up with stories but to wrestle them into submission. And yeah, I gave the life of heroic excess the old college try for a few years, but let it go before my knees, kidneys and neurons suffered too much permanent damage.

It’s too easy to let that be what we remember about Thompson, too easy a thing for writers to emulate without pushing further into his craft. Thompson was more than shock value and swagger, more than vitriol and a dishrag liver; he wrote with honesty and an appreciation of beauty, loss and truth that was visceral and harsh but still completely genuine. The ‘high-water mark’ passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the sad, restrained core of that book, a scene of quiet and deliberate art around which everything else shrieks and rages. There is a rare intellect in his prose, unhampered by sentiment or much care for those who’d judge him, and while he was a self-serving egotist who painted himself in the best and bloodiest light whenever possible, he was pretty honest about that too.

What have I learned from Thompson, other than ways to test my internal organs to their limits? That can be a little hard to pin down. There’s a lot of influence in my language, riddled with profanity and peppered with occasional grotesque absurdities. But I also try my best to go past that and to find the point and power under the froth and colour; to write as genuinely, honestly and unsentimentally as I can, even if my subject matter is ghosts and monsters rather than cocaine and the poisoned heart of Richard Nixon. And more than anything else, I try to build up a head of steam and ride that strange torpedo as far as it will go; to let momentum pick me up and throw me forward into the work without caring too much about where I land. Which is how HST wrote. And lived. And died, the motherfucker.

So that’s my Holy Trinity, my Three the Hard Way. If I was bulking the list out to five I’d have to start weighing up other possibilities, and it’d probably be Stephen King and Kathe Koja who got the nod. Or that’s what I think today, anyway; ask me next week and I might think of two completely different writers. But at the core it’s always Borges, Chandler and Thompson who fuel my love, blood and rhetoric; it’s always those three giants who teach me something different every time I start asking them what and how I should write next.

Also, looking at those photos, it’s really a wonder that I don’t smoke.

That’s my truth. Tell me yours. Who carried your prose on their shoulders to get it where it is today? Who do you go back to again and again for inspiration and guidance? Who is your Father/Mother, Son/Daughter and Holy Spirit of Indeterminate Gender?

Leave comments! I promise to try harder to respond to them from now on.

4 replies on “The Triumvirate”

I notice your Top 3 are all male …

Seriously, though, I totally agree that Chandler is one of the greats. But for me, while I agree that his use of language is fantastic, it’s more the chivalrous-knight-in-a-corrupt-world that keeps bringing me back to them. “Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” (A quote I used in both the uni essays I wrote on The Big Sleep.)

Hi Harriet,

Yes, all male, and that does bother me a bit. As I said, Kathe Koja would be my number 4 or 5, which maybe mitigates it a bit, but at the same time I occasionally fret about not reading enough women.

Chandler’s themes and mode of story is amazing, absolutely, and one of the most powerful things about his work. It took the hardboiled private dick ouvre of Hammett et al and took it in a different direction. That’s been an inspiration too – the willingness to work within a subgenre but under your own rules.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *