Lessons We Can Learn from Authors with Distinctive Voices
As a writer, you’re often asked who influenced or inspired you. That’s not always an easy question easy to answer, because writers tend to be voracious readers, magpie-like in their tendency to incorporate snippets and stylistic details from a myriad of sources.
I’m sure there are any number of writers and stories that have nudged me in ways I don’t even recognize, but the thing I value above all else is authors with a voice. Who aren’t merely telling the story, but doing so with a distinctive command of language, a way of using words that makes their work as immediately recognizable as a solo by Mark Knopfler, a riff by Keith Richards or a calla lily painted by Georgia O’Keeffe.
Here’s a short and in no way comprehensive list of some of the authors who’ve done this for me…
THE NIGHT PEOPLE – Jack Finney
Jack Finney is best-known for writing INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS, and perhaps best-loved for his wonderful TIME AND AGAIN. He also wrote great shorter fiction – collected in ABOUT TIME, 3 BY FINNEY, and THE THIRD LEVEL – many of the stories playing with the notion of time travel or parallel realities.
This is my favorite. A short, non-genre novel, but so amazingly readable – maybe the best example of Finney’s intimately conversational prose. It was the last novel I read before embarking on my first novel, ONLY FORWARD, and the search for an equally transparent voice is one of the things that drives my writing to this day.
AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS – HP Lovecraft
Nobody should try to write fiction that seeks to unnerve or horrify unless they’ve read Lovecraft, and AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is the very best of his work. You may decide you hate it and want to write very differently, but you’ve got to at least read it. Be warned, his style can seem overly mannered: my favorite Lovecraft sentence (from a short story called THE COLOR FROM OUT OF SPACE) is “The bloodworts grew insolent in their chromatic perversity” — which is as overblown a way of saying “The plants went a strange color” as I can imagine.
And yet… somehow it works. He gets the stories told, and through that voice manages to conjure a cumulative sense of weirdness and dread that few other writers have ever achieved.
ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE – Robert M. Persig
Voice is critical in non-fiction too, and this book sits on the boundary. Reading it was what set me on the road to studying philosophy at university, opening a world of ideas that I’m still trying to incorporate. It’s beautifully written and utterly involving, pointing the way to finding keys to some of the biggest questions of our existence through thoughtful consideration of the apparently everyday and mundane.
This is what every creative work should attempt to do, as far as I’m concerned: attempt to evoke the universal through a personal and even idiosyncratic look at the specific, with prose that’s attractive and yet transparent.
A STAINED WHITE RADIENCE – James Lee Burke
I bought this book purely because of its jacket illustration but ended up falling for Burke’s compulsive lyric darkness, and it was this series that inspired me to move out of writing pure SF and horror, and to start including crime and thriller elements in my work.
Don’t read this first, though – start at the beginning with THE NEON RAIN. The relationship between Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell is one of the best buddy friendships of all fiction, and builds richly over time. Burke is a masterful prose writer, leavening his tales of broken men and women and their dark deeds and legacies with beautiful, elegiac prose.
LUCKY JIM – Kingsley Amis
This is the book that made me appreciate the precise use of words – and opened my eyes to how funny irritation and disappointment and impotent fury can be in the hands of a master. And Amis, at his best, was surely that.
LUCKY JIM is story of a hapless lecturer at a minor English university in the 1950s, and includes, amongst so much else, the best description of a hangover ever written. This is the jacket from my Dad’s copy, borrowed from a work colleague and never returned… which I picked up idly one day in my early teens, and have never put down since.
If I had to pick just two books that made me want to be a writer, it would be this and…
THE TALISMAN – Stephen King &
“On a brisk autumn day, a thirteen-year-old boy stands on the shores of the gray Atlantic, near a silent amusement park and a fading ocean resort called the Alhambra. The past has driven Jack Sawyer here: his father is gone, his mother is dying, and the world no longer makes sense. But for Jack everything is about to change…”
Others in this list helped, or shaped my direction, but it was THE TALISMAN that flicked the switch and made me a novelist. Mingle the power of King’s storytelling with the magic of Straub’s cool, measured prose and you’ve got an unbeatable combination — an epic cross-country journey between two inter-related worlds that’s both magical and yet also grounded.
Don’t for god’s sake read the follow-up, BLACK HOUSE, which somehow combines the worst of both writers instead. Leave it a few years, and re-read this one.
COOL MEMORIES – Jean Baudrillard
The cover copy for this says: “Can you grasp a world when you’re no longer tied to it by some kind of ideological enthusiasm, or by traditional passions? Can things “tell” themselves through stories and fragments? These are some of the questions posed in a book which may seem melancholic. But then I think almost every diary is melancholic. Melancholy is in the very state of things.”
Anything by Baudrillard is worth reading, but the COOL MEMORIES series (I – V) is the most accessible of his work. Jottings, ideas and observations about the world, some a single line in length, others a few pages, all fascinating. Whenever I read or re-read one of these books I come away with ideas for something to write.
RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA – Arthur C. Clarke
I heard this book before I read it. It was serialized on BBC radio when I was a kid, and I remember being utterly rapt. If SF is about evoking a sense of wonder, then this is as SF as SF gets – delivered in a clear, very readable voice with just enough character to keep you hooked.
A mysterious object is discovered approaching earth, and people go to investigate in the short window before its trajectory sends it winging back out into the void.
VERY GOOD, JEEVES! – PG Wodehouse
I never got into the non-Jeeves Wodehouse books, but by golly did I love the Jeeves ones — reading them over and over again in my teens. Wholly out of time, despite appearing to be so time-specific, overspilling with joy in the play of words. I was fascinated to later discover that Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler attended the same school in England at the same time, under the same English teacher. They went on to produce such very different books — and yet with their sense of humor and elegantly specific use of language, it makes perfect sense.
This might seem an odd choice for this list, but I do try to put humor into everything I do, especially in dialogue — because that’s what humans are like: even in our darkest moments we find something to laugh about.
SKELETON CREW – Stephen King
Perhaps the best collection of King short stories, and it also contains THE MIST… which might be my favorite short story ever. Everything that’s good about King is in that novella, a classic piece of old school storytelling, told in his famously accessible and involving style: something happens, then something else happens because of that… until you’re gripping the book thinking: Oh my god, what’s going to happen next?
KOKO – Peter Straub
KOKO is part of a superb mystery trilogy where horror seems always to be on the verge of infiltrating the story, and yet — all the more effectively — never actually does.
So few people manage to pull this off. Straub is the master of it, carefully positioning words to create a sense of a reality that’s slightly out of kilter, and unreliable.
THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES – Ray Bradbury
A classic collection from one of the best voice writers in any genre. Just as Amis put the comedy into fury, Bradbury installed eerie melancholy into SF and speculative fiction – and it’s all the better and more powerful for it.