I seriously started writing when I was 13, “serious” in this case meaning I submitted carefully typed reviews and articles to fanzines and short stories to magazines.
My father toyed with the idea of being a writer at some point in his life, and we had a stack of old Writer’s Digests and Jack Woodford’s How To Write For Money in the house.*
I can’t recall how many stories I wrote and mailed out, but none of them sold (my first short story sale was “Smuggler” in the November 1983 issues of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, but of course by that time I was already well established as an animation writer; I had placed a few articles and reviews in fanzines by that time).
Recently I had reason to re-read some of my own stories, and I got to wondering who my key literary influencers were.
Here, in rough chronological order, they are:
Ray Bradbury was the sci-fi writer that school boards felt comfortable with, and as a result stories like “The Pedestrian” turned up in lots of grammar school and junior high English textbooks. Well, that was like Hartz Mountain heroin to 10 year old Buzzy Boy. I voraciously read everything by Bradbury in every library I had access to. Somewhere I read his short story “Pillar Of Fire” which includes a virtual laundry list of writers of the phantasmagorical, and of course that sent me off in search of each and every one of ‘em, and that led me straight to…
H.P. Lovecraft took one look at my Southern Baptist Sunday school theology, said “How cute” and proceeded to sweep everything off the table. I have come to realize Lovecraft was a racist and a terribly, terribly flawed human being, but his cosmic horror stories (retconned by August Derleth as “The Cthulhu Mythos”) made me realize “Holy #&%@ -- I’m not even asking the right questions!”, and while Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick and A.E. van Vogt would later expand my imagination even more, he’s the guy who shot the lock off the door.
When I started writing seriously (i.e., for actual submission of material, not just to fulfill a school assignment), I found myself typically bouncing between Bradbury and Lovecraft’s styles (the occasional Robert E. Howard and Ian Fleming pastiches excluded). Luckily for all concerned, I landed closer to the Bradbury camp than the insanely verbose and grandiloquent Lovecraft…
Ernest Hemingway cropped up on my radar through osmosis: I heard adults talking about him, read his name on gag book titles in Warner Brothers cartoons, saw the TV news report his suicide. I saw The Old Man And The Sea and For Whom The Bell Tolls on TV when I was ten or eleven, and since both were touted as based on his works, I looked them up. For Whom The Bell Tolls was the first one I read, and for a pre-adolescent boy that’s probably the perfect introduction to Hemingway. By the time I started reading voraciously, Hemingway’s modern style of writing pretty much became the norm for everyone, but he mastered that spare lean style better than anyone else.
Mark Twain first hopped into view with Boy’s Life reprinting “The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County” even though I’d seen movies based on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn before that. That short story led me to his novels, and oddly his novels led me back to his short stories and essays. Twain’s somewhat old fashioned yet naturalistic style flows so effortlessly and easily and handles asides and digressions so seamlessly that I found myself re-reading his works again and again to see how he did it.
H. Allen Smith is an unjustly forgotten American humorist from the 1930s-40s-50s. I picked up a coverless copy of his anthology Poor H. Allen Smith’s Almanac in a remainder bin in a Dollar General Store in Athens, Tennessee more out of curiosity than anything else and was delighted to find a soul mate. Smith, like Twain, was the literary equivalent of MAD Magazine, puncturing pretentious stuffed shirt shirts with pleasure. Like Twain, Smith employs a seemingly effortless style to conceal a sharp cynical sting.
Harlan Ellison came to my attention as I started reading more and more science fiction digest and fanzines in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Always controversial, deliberately provocative, and relentlessly entertaining on the page or in person, Harlan demonstrated more than any other writer I encountered the fire in the belly that represents The Work. (The Work is one of those things that can’t be described, can’t be defined; as Louis Armstrong once said of jazz “If you’ve got to ask, you’ll never know.” Writers know what I’m talking about, authors think they know, but most people just go “…wha…?” when the topic comes up, which is why writers rarely talk about it in front of civilians.) Harlan’s style and élan could never be duplicated, much less equaled, but damn, he left a lot of good inspirations and insights behind, and I find myself applying them -- filtered through my own style and experience, of course. His best insight was that no matter how fantastic the story, it had to be about human emotions, or else it was just shit.
Thomas Heggen is another unjustly forgotten American writer, remembered (if at all) as the original author of the novel that became the movie Mister Roberts. The novel began life as a series of vignettes and short stories Heggen wrote and sold to New Yorker magazine during World War II and based on is actual experiences as an officer aboard U.S. Navy cargo ships. After the war he assembled, re-edited, re-wrote, and added new connecting material to turn these stories into a novel, and from there worked on the Broadway play adaptation. He died a tragic early death (accident or suicidal despair over crippling writer’s block, take your pick). Again, I was introduced to his writing through the movie based on his work, finding a reprint of the book sometime after I discovered H. Allen Smith. In contrast to Twain and Smith, Heggen’s laconic style underplayed his humor, actually heightening the absurdity of his situations by treating them so matter of factly.
Richard E. Geis is better known as the editor of Science Fiction Review in all its various permutations (originally Psychotic then Science Fiction Review then The Alien Critic then back to Science Fiction Review then Richard E. Geis then Science Fiction Review again then Taboo) and as such one of the key influencers in the legendary New Wave vs Old Stuff feud that consumed sci-fi fandom back in the 1960s and early 1970s (which is to say just at the time when I was becoming active in fandom). Geis wrote fiction -- a handful of self-published sci-fi novels and stories in an era long before self-publishing was a viable norm, and over 100 porn novels at about $500 a pop – and I must be brutally honest, none of them were good. But his genius and ability lay in his editorial and critical skills, and in his editorial writing for Science Fiction Review he demonstrated a lively and entertaining style that managed to meld coolly analytical criticism with engaging and often sly personal observations (Geis frequently employed Alter, his name for his darker, more sardonic alter ego, in a back and forth dialog to use dialectics to exposes the strengths and weaknesses of any work or proposition).
William Goldman’s screenplay of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid was published as a paperback by Bantam Books. When I saw it on the spinner rack in a small drug store in Madisonville, Tennessee, I thought it would be a novelization of an upcoming movie, but when I flipped it open I realized I was looking at an actual bona fide screenplay, and of course, I had to have it. (The kneeslapper is that Goldman never wrote in conventional screenplay format, and while his works are excellent examples of how to tell a story cinematically, they sure aren’t industry standard.) I followed his work after that, both on screen and off, and when he wrote Adventures In The Screen Trade I devoured its lessons hungrily. While I see a certain stylistic influence in my writing from Goldman, what I really learned from him was structure and form and style.
Walter Hill and David Giler took Dan O’Bannon’s already legendary unproduced script for Alien and -- no slam against O’Bannon -- transformed it from a really, really good B-monster movie story into a work of poetry. Compare and contrast the two screenplays; everything’s there in O’Bannon’s work, but Hill and Giler blew it through the roof. Their writing style -- seemingly minimalistic but in reality forcing the reader to see the movie exactly as they envisioned it -- was a revelation, and while I don’t try to ape it directly, I have used it to free me from conventional descriptions of characters, scenes, and actions to good effect.
Charles Bukowski was introduced to me by the late Gordon Kent, a friend and co-writer at Ruby-Spears Studios. I quickly became enamored of his unadorned, almost journalistic style of fiction, but his poetry is what resonated the deepest. After reading Hill and Giler’s Alien script, I looked at Bukowski’s poems with new eyes, seeing how he used a similar technique in many of his poems that they used in their screenplay. This in turn led to a greater interest and appreciation in poetry as a whole on my part, and to start applying more poetic styles in describing characters and situations, again paring verbiage to a minimum while conjuring up more vivid mental images.
Like every writer, I’ve been influenced to some degree or another by every story I’ve read, every movie I’ve seen, every song I’ve heard.
Some may complain there are too many old white guys in this grouping, and that’s a fair cop – if I was drawing up a list of writers to recommend.
But I’m not doing that. I’m telling you what influenced me, how and why.
Take it or leave it.
© Buzz Dixon
* If you can find any Woodford book on writing GET IT!!! He’s not the best of the best when it comes to analyzing the writer’s craft but sunuvagun he’s damn good and he lays it out flat in a take-no-prisoners style. You may not like what he has to say but man, does he ever cut through the BS.