And the thrill of discovering a new favourite author
Books. For most of us who write, it all begins with books. I fell in love with reading at an early age. As soon as I was able, I got myself a library card and devoured every word I could get my little paws on. I cherished the solace and adventure I found in the stories I read. Roald Dahl taught me silliness. Enid Blyton taught me strength, courage and loyalty. Louisa May Alcott taught me to be a feminist. Indeed, many of my favourite authors were so instrumental in forming me that to this day the lessons I learned from these stories still influence my decisions and opinions. Given the number of times I have moved over the years and the fact that I spent relatively short periods of time at various schools, books were a more constant source of companionship than the short-lived friendships made in each new place.
As I grew and learned more about the world, so too did my reading horizons broaden. I discovered mythology in JRR Tolkien, sci-fi in Douglas Adams and developed a taste for the darker side of fiction through Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. I yearned to be Heathcliff’s Cathy (but have since recovered from that, because reading it again as an adult? Well, the man is just abominable!) and fell in love with Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters. You see, there were so many books and so many genres and my appetite for stories so voracious, there was nothing I didn’t want to taste. I was a gluttonous teen in a sweet shop full of words.
As a writer, the stories I have consumed over the years have gifted me with a cornucopia of themes, tropes and motifs to draw from. But they have also given me something more precious. They have helped me to find my genre and my voice. Neil Gaiman wrote in one of the many excellent essays in A View from the Cheap Seats that writers tend to end up writing in the genre they are most drawn to reading. I agree. Like him, I have always been most drawn to mythology and the supernatural. Looking at my current WIPs, both of these feature strongly, but all of those other books have added something more to the mix – which is probably why I have such a hard time settling on key words for genre.
This, I think, is what makes modern fiction writers so exciting; they can blend genres to create new fusions of fiction that can tap into a wealth of ideas to fill pages with characters and settings we have never seen before, and yet still feel a little familiar. In doing so we continue the ages long tradition of using the recognisable to explain the fantastical. And underlying it all is the possibility to create characters that move us.
But here’s the rub. Often, when asked who our favourite authors are or who we are influenced by, we roll off a list of well known titles and the legends who penned them (as I did at the beginning of this post). I don’t often think of a contemporary author who has been instrumental in influencing my tastes or style. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work of many a still-breathing scribe, but I would still refer to them as influenced by the same big names that I am.
That all changed this past week when I read books 1 to 4 of the Project Renova series by Terry Tyler, and her stand alone novel Hope. I will post a more thorough review of these books soon, but this post is actually more of a (very long) way of saying there is a new name on that shelf marked ‘influences’. And the reason is simple. I read a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction (which is very mythological) and the worlds I build in my stories are often set in or after the world-ending events. But never have I read a series so well crafted, so meticulously thought out and so unflinchingly real that I had to keep writing down notes on the writing process so that I can refer to these when I am writing my own stories. The thing that stands out most, though, is the absolute clarity of each individual character. These people breathe! They are flawed and normal and do everyday things but they also rise to challenges and cause serious harm as well as good. It has been a long time since people on a page have had this kind of impact on me as both reader and writer.
So, to sum this all up: books are amazing! Some of the most precious will stay with you for your entire life; some are so entwined with memory that just to hear the title takes you back; some you reread every year or so to reminisce or discover something new, and sometimes, just sometimes, you discover a new name who reaches into your mind and twists, leaving a mark you will never be able to remove.