This week I’m going to talk about my favorite genre and non-genre writers, and their influence, for good or ill, upon me and my writing. These are the writers, in other words, without whom I would not be the ink-stained wretch who stands before you today. Let us take them in the order in which I discovered them, shall we?
Fritz Leiber – Believable Heroes and Lyrical Mischief
Scouring my local used bookstore for more fantasy after I had devoured the Lord of the Rings, my twelve-year-old self discovered a book called Swords and Deviltry. In it I found a pair of heroes who were not martyrs to hopeless quests, who did not have great destinies, and who thought as often with their privates as often as they did with their heads. I was seduced, utterly.
As much as I liked the epic story and noble emotions of the Lord of the Rings, the mixture of the fantastic and the mundane that I found in Fritz Leiber’s work felt true to me like Tolkien’s never did. Fafhrd and Grey Mouser were people I knew, no different than the dreamers and big talkers I hung out with, the “get rich quick” pals you had to bail out after every failed scheme. These were people whose motivations and emotions I understood. If I met Aragorn in the Prancing Pony we’d be out of things to talk about in five minutes. I’d be bullshitting with Fafhrd and Grey Mouser in the Silver Eel all night.
At the same time, these two regular guys lived in a fantastic world of swords, sorcerers, towers, demons, jewels, skulls, and dangerous, delicious women – all the pulpy fantasy trappings that my perpetually adolescent heart craves. It was the best of both worlds, and described with the delirious, dizzying prose poetry of a man drunk on words. No other writer I have read has put pictures of his places and people in my mind with such wit and painterly grace.
Because of Leiber, my heroes are more human than iconic, and my prose sometimes a little tipsy.
P.G. Wodehouse – Comic Complications and a Limited Palette
You would think that the kid who wanted more blood and sex and believable heroes wouldn’t have much interest in a world where even couples rarely kiss, where a cartoon knock on the head is as violent as it gets, and the characters are more comic archetype than real people, but I did.
Blame it on Monty Python. Those guys turned me into an Anglophile, and while searching for more British humor, I found Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, and fell in love. P.G. Wodehouse was every bit a fantasy writer. His world of butlers, country houses, gentlemen’s clubs, conniving aunts, terrifying fiancés, and useless young men in spats never really existed. All the elements might have had basis in real life, but his stylization and distillation of them was as imagined as Lewis’s Narnia, and as proscribed and artificial as the set of a sitcom – and served the same purpose.
Using only a short list of stock characters and locations, Wodehouse managed to spin thousands of farce plots and comic situations, and always came up with fresh and funny ways to pay them off. Add to that a flair for comic banter and a light touch with the foibles of human nature and his books become jewels of minimalist comic genius.
Wodehouse taught me that tried and true tropes – in his case upper-class twits and trysts, in my case lower class swords and sorcerers – are not the walls of a prison, but instead a set of infinitely reusable building blocks, with which you can build any kind of story you want.
Raphael Sabatini – High Adventure and Clockwork Plotting
To my mind, Raphael Sabatini is the exact middle of the tree that has as its roots Alexander Dumas, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and as its branches everything from regency romance to espionage thrillers to Indiana Jones to, yes, sword and sorcery. Sabatini was not a literary novelist like Scott or Stevenson, nor a pulp writer like Robert E. Howard or Johnston McCulley – the guy who wrote Zorro. He was a popular novelist who wrote middle-brow books for middle-brow people, but he did it with such skill and style that I return to his books again and again, both for pleasure and for lessons in craft.
Sabatini’s genius was in honing the sprawling genre of historical fiction down to the highly stylized and much more focused genre of the swashbuckler. A historical novel is about history, and uses the characters to personalize a place, time and set of events. A swashbuckler is about nothing except the hero, and uses history only as a colorful backdrop to highlight his story. For example, Scaramouche isn’t about the French revolution, it’s about Scaramouche. The revolution is just a convenient machine for making things difficult for him.
Like Wodehouse, Sabatini used a small set of tropes – sword play, moonlight chases, divided lovers, daring rescues, hairsbreadth escapes – to tell an infinite number of stories, and he used them with such precision and pace that the novels hold you from the beginning in that most delicious tension of knowing that a happy ending must be coming (since they’re all that kind of novel) yet finding yourself unable to see how it will be accomplished until, impossibly, on the very last page, all is finally resolved.
Because of Sabatini, my stories are about their heroes first, plot second, and everything else after. He also taught me that it as important in storymaking as it is in songwriting to end with a resolving chord.
George MacDonald Fraser – Low Adventure and Exposed Hypocrisy
George MacDonald Fraser is Raphael Sabatini turned on his head. His Flashman novels are cut from the same hero-centric historical mold, and feature the same set of swashbuckling tropes, but instead of a stalwart, square-jawed hero, they star an utter bastard of an anti-hero who would kill his own grandmother to escape the desperate situations he finds himself in.
Fraser grew up reading and loving Sabatini and other adventure writers, but a cynical world view and a dirty mind wouldn’t allow him to play it straight, and so Flashman was born – a cad, coward, and soldier of the British Empire, who runs, shitting himself in fear, though every major military disaster of the Victorian Age.
But it isn’t all scatological shenanigans. Fraser takes pains to point out in every book that, as bad as Flashman is, his oh-so-noble superiors are often worse, and that a fellow who stabs another fellow in the back isn’t even in the same league as a fellow who sends entire brigades of lancers to their deaths out of laziness or stupidity. It is this that won me to Flashman for life. The moral outrage hidden in the villains’ tale, the highlighting of the crimes of the powerful against the weak, the belief that the lowly soldier often has more honor than the guy with the tassel on his hat.
From Fraser I learned that skullduggery can be fun, and that poking the rich and powerful and corrupt with sharp sticks is my life’s work.
Yes, I call it Sabrepunk for a reason.