The Human Condition:

My Influences – June 19, 2016

Double eagle

As a writer, you are what you read. And as I am heading into the later years of my sixth decade and working on the outline of my sixteenth complete novel, I have come to realize that you are most strongly influenced—the twig is bent, the compass pointed—by what you read at an early age. I was lucky in that I came from a family of avid readers, and my father’s bookshelves were stocked with popular novels, mostly bestsellers, from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, which were the period of his young adulthood and so from the generation that immediately preceded mine. He never protected these books and never made rules about which of them I could read. And then, as I was growing up, he further subscribed to the Reader’s Digest condensed books to feed his own habit,1 and later to the Time Reading Program to bring even more books into the house.2

What I read were mostly adventure and war stories: Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, about American sailors in the Pacific in World War II; Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, about British sailors in the Atlantic in the same war; and Garland Roark’s Wake of the Red Witch, about merchant sailors and Dutch traders in the South Pacific between the wars. I also read Thomas B. Costain’s The Black Rose, about a 14th-century Oxford scholar who travels to Cathay before Marco Polo; Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian, about a young doctor in ancient Egypt during a time of religious and political upheaval; C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, about a British officer in the Napoleonic wars; John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, about the disintegration of an old New England family in the 20th century; Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, about dissipated London artist Gulley Jimson; and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, about the early Roman emperors.

For nonfiction, I read Bertram D. Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution, weaving the lives of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin into the Russian Revolution; Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches, telling of his adventures in Stalinist Russian in the 1930s, then in North Africa with the Long Range Desert Group, and finally in Yugoslavia with Tito; Commander Edward Ellsberg’s On the Bottom, about hardhat divers raising the S-51, an American submarine rammed and sunk off Block Island in 1925; and Ellsberg’s Hell on Ice, about a ship and crew trying to force the Northwest Passage in reverse, traveling above Siberia from the Bering Sea in 1879.

Of course, to become a science fiction writer, I read heavily in the genre, although this was of my own choosing with almost nothing found in my father’s library. I read Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes; Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot and its sequels, as well as various of his John Carter of Mars and Carson Napier of Venus books; every one of Robert A. Heinlein’s novels I could get my hands on; and each of Frank Herbert’s Dune books, which took me up to my own young adulthood. I also read J. R. R. Tolkien and loved his The Lord of the Rings, as well as E. R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series—but for some reason fantasy as a genre never took hold with me, or not enough to come out in my writing.

These and many more books that I’ve probably forgotten I read on my own, outside my assigned books for school and college. And most of them I’ve gone back and re-read at intervals to see if my childish appraisal was worth anything—and sometimes just because I loved the story. Most of them have held up, in my opinion.3

What did all this early reading give me? To start with, a taste for story itself. I learned to love connected and crossing human lives, people engaged in adventures, or travels, or the trials of combat, sometimes working together, more often on opposing sides. I loved desperate characters, being pushed to their limits, fighting against odds, and risking everything. Were a certain proportion of these books melodramatic and overblown? Of course, but these are the stories that stir us, that take those of us who are average, middle class, workaday, householding readers like my father—and then me, in my later working years—out of ourselves and put us into another world with different needs and values. You may call that “escapist fiction.” I call it entertainment and, for a novelist, pure entertainment is high purpose.

Next, these books gave me a taste for the technical end of things, learning and showing how the world works. Stories and books about fighting navies, about making a revolution, or about hardhat diving operations are all about mechanics and techniques. The how is just as important, and as interesting, as the who, what, and why.4 I learned—or rather, absorbed through my reading—the notion that every ship, every weapon, and every tool or technique available to the character’s hand is a complex mechanism, worthy in itself of study and respect. Ships, especially, are complex because they depend not only on the mechanics of the vessel—operation of the engines, precise manipulation of the sails, aiming and firing of the guns—but also on the organization and cooperation of the crew in order to function and survive. A ship without a properly working crew is a dead thing sitting at the dock or run up on the shore; it quickly deteriorates, disintegrates, and turns into scrap.

And then, people can be strange and mysterious, too. The silent and angry Captain Ralls in Red Witch or the brilliant and driven Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea5 showed me that every person has a history, a “backstory,” which shapes his or her present life and aims. People and characters are even more complex mechanisms that are put together as much by time and incident as by their own desires and decisions. Even characters driven almost completely by their passions, like Gulley Jimson in Horse’s Mouth or Leander Wapshot in the Chronicle, are forced to live with the consequences of their choices and desires.

One thing that my early reading did not provide for my writing was too many independent female characters. My books were mostly stories about men at war, in conflict, or pursuing their own advantage. Women in these books, like Julie Hallam in Cruel Sea or Angelique Desaix in Red Witch, are either distractions or trophies, not companions, not partners, not equals in battle. This was something lacking, which I believe I understood from an early age. I attribute this feeling to the influence of my mother, who was a capable woman, had been trained as a landscape architect, and worked as a draftsman at Bell Labs during the war. She gave up her professional life in order to have us boys, but she remained strong throughout our adolescence and considered her marriage a partnership with my father. And from her I gained a taste for strong female characters like Isabel Archer in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady or the Dragon Lady in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. Strong women, perhaps because of the frustrations they face in a male-dominated society, have always had a dual nature in my personal mythology: partly good, partly disruptive, and sometimes turned to evil. I’ve created my share of female characters in my books, and they always seem to face moral as well as physical choices.

All of this goes to the question: where do my stories come from? How and where was the twig bent? I believe, from my early reading, that I came to like, and now try to create, old-fashioned stories based on action and decision rather than purely internal psychology. Emotional struggle always accompanies dire choice, random incident, and crossed purpose, rather than preceding or driving them. And, true to the old novels with which I grew up, hard choices and great risk mean that death is always on the line.

1. People—especially in the university courses I took and the literary profession I later followed—used to sneer at the condensed books, but I read them innocently enough as an adolescent. I remember first reading Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles in condensed form before going back a decade later to buy the full novel and re-read it. And I read Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone first in the unabridged paperback and then, for a greater understanding of what I might have missed, compared it word-for-word and line-by-line with its condensation. From this I discovered that the Reader’s Digest editors had performed a delicate work of reduction: quietly removing excess words, multiple modifiers, and non-critical clauses while maintaining every scene, important line of dialogue, and plot point necessary to understanding the story. I think, in some way, doing this side-by-side comparison helped me become a better writer.

2. The Time Reading Program, a subscription service available between 1962 and 1966, mailed three to five books of both fiction and nonfiction to your house ever month. The editors chose works of 20th century authors—about a hundred in all, over the life of the program—which they believed would endure and belonged in any complete library. Much of my outside reading during my high-school years came from my father’s subscription to this series. He also bought the RCA Victor Red Seal Records subscription service, which brought three to five LPs of classical music into the house every month, and that helped bend my taste in music.
       My father’s method of training up boys was subtle. He didn’t force us to read or listen to anything in particular. He rarely even made suggestions—although he did have opinions about what he considered “garbage” among the modern music and books we brought home. Otherwise, he just set the example by being a reader himself, and then he left good books and music lying around for me and my brother to discover.

3. Well, with some exceptions. I’m just now re-reading the Red Witch, in an original I found at Alibris. While the story is still there, the writing is antique, cluttered, and constitutes what my English teachers called “fine writing”—using five words where one would fit, reaching for awkward similes, and choosing rare and erudite words over plain English. As one of my former coworkers would say, “Look, Ma! I’m writing!”

4. Those books also reflected my father’s taste in stories, and he was trained as a mechanical engineer.

5. Which I came to by way of the Walt Disney movie in a theater, when I was six years old, before I read the Jules Verne novel from my father’s bookshelf some years later. The articulate, precise, and yet deeply flawed captain played by James Mason had a powerful effect on me. So did the wonderfully barbed, bulbous-eyed, pre–Steam Punk submarine Nautilus as designed by Harper Goff.