Five books that got me started
Over at her place, my friend Jessica Bakkers posted a list of the six books that made her what she is, as a writer. Great idea. It’s fun, it’s easy to put together in the form of a post, and we are always ready to learn more about the writers we follow, and maybe find out a few new books to read.
So, why not steal Jessica’s idea?
Now, I actually already did something similar, a while back, listing the authors that had most influenced me. The ones I wish I was as good as. A shortened list, one that I could (and maybe will) expand.
But let’s look at this thing from another angle.
I started writing in high school. The causes have already been debated elsewhere: nerdy kid, likes books and stories, wants to impress blonde girl…
Let’s forget about the blonde momentarily (hint: you can’t impress girls writing fiction – not at sixteen) and let’s focus on the books in “likes books and stories”.
Were there five books, back in 1984, that gave me the push I needed, and got me on the way? Books that created a certain mental state, a certain predisposition? That got me saying, “I’ll try something like this. Now.”?
Of course there were, and I am about to make a nice list of them.
And it’s a bit embarrassing, because I’ve seen this done by “real writers”, and their list always includes at least one Russian author, and a Frenchman soaked in absinthe. And Georges Simenon.
Mine’s a little low-brow in comparison, but what the heck, this is my story and I’m sticking to it.
These were the books I was reading in that year when I first started typing my stories on my mother’s old Olivetti Lettera.
I have written extensively about Conan the Adventurer.
The first book by Robert E Howard I read, in the beautiful translation by Riccardo Valla, with the cover by Karel Thole, that I am placing here instead of the English one with which you’re probably more familiar, so that you can appreciate why this book got me into a lot of trouble when I was caught reading it during recess in school. The volume contains my favorite Conan tale – People of the Black Circle – and it was certainly an inspiration and a gate-opener.
This was the sort of stuff I wanted to write. I also liked the idea of trying my hand at short fiction.
I immediately sought more of the same, and Howard’s essay on the Hyborian age was also a very important discovery – here was worldbuilding, done in a manageable way.
Lyon Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea stories were the first fantasy I ever read, and I think they spoiled the genre for me, forever.
Much as I like Howard’s swashbucklers, I can’t but see a hint of ridiculous in the whole medieval set-up.
I am not distrustful of civilization (I actually like civilized things like good sanitation and quiet) but I am usually wary of heroes and champions and men of destiny. Reading Castle of Iron taught me it’s OK to laugh at such characters, and I never stopped ever since.
C.J. Cherryh’s Gate of Ivrel (and the follow-ups in the series) brought the whole game to another level. First, because it was a science fiction book that looked like fantasy – and I liked the idea very much, and I still like it today – second because it had two incredible main characters. The plot was complex and the language was complex, and this was the first of many books that had me say “This is what I want to write, but I’ll never be this good.”
(My Italian readers will notice that I was heavily influenced by the Fantacollana line of books by Nord. And they will not be very surprised, I guess.)
But to start you need a good solid handbook, and I got Asimov on Science Fiction, a nice book that includes a section about writing. Today I think a lot of what Ike wrote about style and writing is amply debatable, but it was exactly right for a kid of my age and general outlook. Here where da rulez!
And that makes four. What’s the fifth?
I’d be tempted to mention something by Edgar Rice Burroughs, that was the first writer I automatically imitated when I started writing – ERB’s language and structure are particularly “sticky” – I read a few chapters and I enter in Burroughs-mode.
But there’s two other writers I was reading at the time that really got me thinking in terms of stories I wanted to write.
And there’s two books, so here we go…
Leigh Brackett’s Martian tales featuring Eric John Stark were like Burroughs, but better. Brackett could write a good action scene but she was also a great landscape painter. And her Mars was more interesting, and easier to accept for a kid growing up with science magazines. I got a volume that included The secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman, and I was happy. Once again, the mix of adventure, science fiction and fantasy elements was exactly what I wanted to write. Much later I’d get the Skaith novels – that I must re-read, because it’s been over thirty years and I miss them.
And then there is the White Wolf himself. While not my favorite Michael Moorcock character, Elric was another important way point, because the Elric stories showed me there were alternatives to the two basic models of fantasy hero I knew – the straight muscular hero in the Conan style, or the smart, tongue-in-cheek adventurer that is not taking anything of this really seriously, Pratt & De Camp style.
I liked very much Moorcock’s way of showing a weak and uncertain hero.
I would meet other variants later, but those where the days in which I was looking for adventure and short stories in my writing, and meeting Elric was a good thing (not many of his friends and acquaintances can say that, I guess).
And this. I guess, is it.