Every writer, even the best and most original, have been influenced by other writers. Don’t be afraid of being influenced by this or that writer. Read the authors who ring your chimes and give you some spark. Study the best writers you can find. Copy or steal what you can, adapt it to your own purposes the best you can, and beyond that try to assimilate not just your favorite writers’ tics and trademarks, but the inner, essential qualities and comprehensions that have drawn you to this or that author who seems to have your number. Work hard, study hard, and your “voice” will eventually take care of itself, if you read the best and pay the right kind of attention.
Every writer is irresistibly influenced by the time and place he or she was born into, and then come the travels, if you can afford them, but it’s the very rare writer who has not been influenced by the writers he’s grown up with and who have shaped him. A good reader can spot it, most of the time. It’s also been said that good writers are influenced, but great writers steal—and the best of them can blur up their fingerprints if they want to.
As for me, once I stopped reading juvenilia, I started mainlining European heavies, beginning with Dostoevsky, a bit of Stendhal—whom I misunderstood completely—and then moved on to where the anguishes of my adolescence led me: well, primarily Kafka and Beckett. In the words of Leonard Cohen, You want it darker, we blow out the flame.
Which is not the way I turned out in the end, but more to the point, the fact is that I started out with very little interest in straight realistic narrative in the American manner. This was certainly one of the reasons for my slow development. When I finally realized that real life was important, and interesting, and fundamental plus true, I had to start gathering my rosebuds late in the season. I didn’t have a narrative voice, just a sort of random cleverness, and as for writing dialogue, um, fuggedaboutit.
While my sense of what was important in life was shaped by writers whose writing mine would never resemble—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, and later, yeah, Stendhal—I remember trying to lift some nuts and bolts from Philip Roth’s early novel Letting Go but they didn’t fit my pocket. Then, maybe a year out of college, I ran into two books one summer, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano—which was too much for me at the time but got into my bones anyway—and another novel that had been influenced by it: Robert Stone’s first book, A Hall of Mirrors. (The lead characters of both books are alcoholics, but that was incidental to me; most of what interested me was not drinking but the permission Rheinhardt and the Consul’s boozing gave their authors to peel away the strictly real and into a sometimes hallucinated deeper sense of life in the world.)
In Stone’s book particularly, I loved the bruised, rueful lyricism of the prose that seemed to come partway out of Hemingway but was also inflected by a jazz sensibility, the Beats, and a pre-hippie hipsterism that knew its way through the rough and the sweet, the tender and the night, the dangerous and the endangered. I felt I could make a start with some of that. The book also had something that Volcano worked with greater density: a system of images and motifs that organized the undercurrents of the story and the people in it: a high literary finish, with metaphysical implications, that I aspired to myself.
And with Stone, the riffy dialogue: I didn’t try to imitate it outright, but its sense of ironic bounce and rebound, the surehanded way it voiced the characters, were important parts of what I’d been looking for. In my own first novel, which came out forty years after Mirrors, I can still hear echoes of Stone’s dialogue in my pages. And in fact, not long after The Bear Comes Home emerged from obscurity with a prize in its paws, I was at a literary event with Robert Stone at which he and I were sort of hogging the sparkling-wine barrel in the corner of a living room, and various people came up to say a word or two to Stone and then depart. One was a youngish female novelist, a good one, and she said her goodbyes to Stone without much of a look at me; as she walked off—I know it’s impolitic to say so—and we watched her, Stone said, “Cute,” and I replied, “She’s a sunbeam.” There was a moment’s pause at the end of which I realized that I had spoken the Robert Stone line, the one a character of his would have spoken. I realized that Stone had not only taught me to write dialogue, he’d taught me how to speak.
And you know what? My writing sounded like my own anyway.
At first I’d tried to lift my dialogue from the plays of Anton Chekhov, which are often imitated and even duplicated, but I couldn’t bring it back alive. I’ve also been smacked hard by Rimbaud, and have picked Sam Shepard’s pocket since forever. You can get away with it if you figure out how.
There are many kinds of influence. Some of them, because they are not about the superficial features of a style, truly are invisible. Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma has influenced me as deeply as any novel I can think of, but I defy you to find a trace of it in anything I’ve written. I’ve already mentioned Tolstoy and Chekhov, who, second only life experience, are major influences on how I understand human nature, but I don’t write anything like them.
Very typically, my immediate, visible influences came from the generation immediately before mine, cf. Stone, Don DeLillo (but too late to count), Elmore Leonard and a few others, including John le Carré. If that seems an exclusively male pantheon please let me include Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx and let me see . . .