It’s time to talk over my influences as an artist. I’m scheduled to take over a couple of author-promotion events on Facebook next weekend. I need something to talk about.
First, I’ll say that this. . . this has been one of my most serious influences:
Yes. It’s a very dumb Daft Punk song.
If you opened it and listened for a while, you heard them reel off a list of names of musicians and DJ’s who had influenced them at the time of their debut album back in 1997. That was before they made their fortune (one hopes) off of adding some words to what was essentially a backing track for aspiring funk guitarists.
In the case of “Teachers”, I gotta hand it to them: Explicitly laying out their influences in the form of an almost-danceable track took some courage. It also helped them fill out a track listing.
My influences as a writer are . . . varied, I guess.
I’ve avoided reading certain things that it seems everyone else reads. Stephen King is a mystery to me. Is he good? I think I saw Pet Sematary once, back in ’87. I think I was making out with someone at the time, though. It was at a drive-in.
There are a lot of well-regarded, very popular authors who can’t keep my attention. The typical page-turner just makes me want to turn pages. Nothing sticks. But I’m here to talk about the influential, not the non-influential.
One early influence was the CBS Mystery Radio Theater back when I was still a small child–small enough to stand up inside the typical American sedan. This show was terrific both for the sometimes-superb dramatic content, but also because I would listen to it while my dad was driving our family through the West from gig-to-gig. This was the first soundtrack to Route 66 that I knew, and listening to radio drama forced me to develop my imagination. As a family of travelling show-folk, we often didn’t have access to a TV. My mom would find the closest CBS station on the dial of that AM radio in that ’64 Chrysler or ’65 Mercury or ’66 Cadillac and the whole family would listen to oftentimes-great radio drama through the slight static: the eerily-compressed frequency range combining with the sound of exhaust and the wind to just make it seem more scary, more portentous.
At the opening of each episode, announcer E.G. Marshall would expound on that week’s mystery. Most were about something occult, terrifying, and bizarre–but some were more lighthearted. I heard some of the best voice talent active at the time: Mercedes McCambridge, Patrick O’Neill, Fred Gwynne, others. If you want to know how I developed an ear for dialog, listen to a few of those shows, most of which are now available online for free.
When my family finally settled down, I started watching reruns from the golden age of TV dramas–stuff from back when writers needed to get the story to come through a 12-inch black-and-white set in only 25 minutes or so, still allowing enough time for the Marlboro commercials. I am sure that watching these helped set the pace of my writing. You can’t afford to let things bog down when you’re writing a half-hour long anthology series. Tell your story in the time allowed, then get ready to tell another. Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and episodic things like Combat! began to influence me around that time, when they had already been off the air only twenty years or so.
Books? Oh. . . yeah. . . . books.
Hmm. . . .
Ok, I’ll tell you this: In the first few chapters of Moby Dick, a lot happens. It can’t keep building that way. Thus, Melville throws in that Cetology chapter that has made students groan since 1881. It’s a heat-sink. It’s there to slow things down and increase the reader’s anticipation. Thus, an interlude somewhere in the middle of Eye of the Diamond-T will teach you more about Hall-Scott engines and the trucking industry in the 1950s than you ever thought you’d want to know. That part comes after the explosions and fights and war scenes. Have no fear: Your patience is soon rewarded.
Then there’s all the stuff that Joseph Conrad taught me about setting scenes and alternative narrations. And what Dostoyevsky taught me about what mental illness looks like when committed to the page, and how ideas can shape characters. And what Mark Twain taught me about comic relief and asides and the varied charm of local color. And what Faulkner and the Greeks taught me about a god-from-a-machine, and what Walker Percy and Kurt Vonnegut showed me about a hero who’s morally ambiguous, lost, foolish and wise at the same time. And what Homer taught me about ego and conflict.
All of these have been influences on me.
But probably none of them influenced me as much as the time I spent in Mexico — back when I wasn’t quite sure why people went on living. I kinda wished they’d all just die–just for their own sake. I wanted to die, too. Everyone seemed miserable to me–all angry and crying about having been cheated out of this or that in life as they puttered about in their middle-class American lives. So as a young man I went down to Mexico and saw people living at the Nogales, Sonora garbage dump. They were smiling and happy. They had made their peace. They had forgiven themselves and others, and had learned to love (or had just always known how). That’s been one of the greatest, longest-lasting influences on me. Life: It’s what we’ve got. Make the best of it.
So if you pick up Eye of the Diamond-T after it debuts (and I sincerely hope you do. It’s a solid story that seems to impress even people who try their best not to like it), you’ll see how all of these influences have played out over time.
I thank you.