I wanted to talk about Tobias Wolff
and Richard Ford
and Mark Richard
and other influences on my short fiction. But I'm on the road at the moment and can't wander to the bookshelf to paw at their collections. And the Internet isn't working very well, and this keyboard was designed by Satan. So instead, I'll talk about novels.
Cormac McCarthy said in an interview that "books are made of books." Of course, he's just stating the obvious, reiterating what any number of writers, academics and regular people have said less succinctly before — that each book, regardless of genus and species, would be impossible if not for its ancestors (whichever they may be). But it sounds so much cooler coming from him.
McCarthy's work is a good example. It seems pretty clear that some of his novels, like Suttree and Blood Meridian, might be impossible had their author not read... well, he would probably say Milton; we might add Faulkner. The attitude to language, the way some books have almost biblical diction while others are pared to the bone. Would McCarthy have found these rhythms if Faulkner had never existed? Maybe. Likely not. Then again, where did Faulkner come from?
Admittedly, you can disappear up your own ass if you follow this logic too faithfully, and you also sell the world short if you pretend that nothing good can grow in an empty field. It can, and regularly does. But influence is a decent place to start talking about those books that inspire us, books we wish to understand better. And for the writer reading other writers, for the poet reading other poets, it's fascinating to try to figure out which books the author's been "returning to." It works as a kind of ghost image on the text. Or... occasionally, it's a little more robust than a ghost.
Case in point, I just read a remarkable debut novel named Finn by Jon Clinch (about Huck Finn's diabolical father). Clinch is obviously influenced by Twain, file that under "Duh." But it's equally clear he's been influenced by Cormac McCarthy. Here's the first sentence:
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
What a glorious way to start a book (and you won't believe whose body it is). Just as Tom Stoppard took two characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet and followed them backstage (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), Clinch has followed Pap Finn in and out of his more famous son's life. This story, shifted to the adult perspective, is not what one expects. So, in the process, Clinch has managed to piss off more than a few Twain scholars. Good for him. If you use a foundational work as your springboard and you don't manage to annoy anyone, what is wrong with you? In essence, Clinch has done what all young'uns must do, he's clambered up on his influences and leapt into the air.
I've often said that McCarthy has become something more than just a writer, just a guy with great books. He's entered that weird realm where writers become engines for generations of other writers — the Ernest Hemingways, the Sylvia Plaths, the Eugene O'Neills. Like it or not, they have changed the terrain. This is where I fit in. I am influenceable. I freely admit, and as a few reviewers have noted, my first novel is a bit McCarthyesque. I can also point to influences such as Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy, and Ron Hansen's Desperadoes, and Michael Ondaatje's poetry, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. Who knows, maybe even The Wind in the Willows... Grimm's fairy tales. The brain starts listening to language pretty early.
Interestingly, a few Canadians have seen a commonality in my prose with such work as Sheila Watson's The Double Hook, a book I've never read... but keeping in mind the viral nature of literary influence, who's to say I haven't been infected through other vectors? There is great tension surrounding questions of influence. And part of that tension comes from the fact that it's not entirely controllable. I'm sure McCarthy never set out to create his own massive literary wake and pull so many writers in behind him. He just set out. In someone else's wake.