My sense of literary influence is rather broad. In the course of my undergraduate and graduate education I read all of the major novelists of Britain and America, plus many of the minor novelists. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the western novel, and in my teaching and writing career I have studied numerous short story writers plus many novelists I did not read the first time around. And in the midst of all of this, I have maintained a fondness for the two great epics of Homer. In order to discuss the most significant influences, I would have to cite three, as I could not pick two of the following to the exclusion of a third. As it turns out, one of my writers is British, one is American, and one is Canadian.
Of the writers I have found most inspiring, I must say Dickens has touched me the most deeply. He grew up poor, as I did, and he conveys a sense of the absurdity of situations that we grow up in, have no power to change, and really have no power to leave behind. There is something in Dickens that speaks irrationally and truthfully, for me, at least, about how our lives are shaped. After reading some of his work in grade school and high school, I began to develop a literary appreciation of Dickens when I read Hard Times in college. From there I chose to read Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Bleak House. I have gone back to read Great Expectations several more times, a few years in between readings, as I have taught it in introduction to literature courses. I have also gone back to re-read Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House, both of them very big books.
I always find Dickens enthusiastic about life in spite of the circumstances that hem us in; in addition, I always enjoy the pure pleasure of using language liberally. Many of my stories about working in the fields in California reflect my belief, reinforced by Dickens, that poverty and influences of the past are fit subjects for serious fiction. As for the pure revelry of using language to deal with absurdity, Dickens’ influence is most evident in Adventures of the Ramrod Rider, perhaps a few of the stories in I’ll Tell You What, and a character here and there in my westerns (most notably, Rove in Black Hat Butte).
Of the twentieth-century writers, I have spent more time with American authors than with British. Although writers such as Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck are central to my experience, I have felt more affinity with A.B. Guthrie, Jr. He impressed me with his literary craftsmanship at about the time I was developing my own craft as a fiction writer. I have admired his prose style, his use of imagery, his evocation of landscape, and his meticulous execution of narrative point of view. I have also appreciated his sense of form, especially in plot resolution, in which he offers negotiated endings rather than melodramatic or slam-bang endings with a protagonist solving problems with conclusive violence. The influence of these aspects of his work might be evident in several of my short stories in One Foot in the Stirrup, Antelope Sky, Seasons in the Fields, and Shadows on the Plain. The influence is probably stronger in my earlier traditional western novels and in my contemporary western novel Keep the Wind in Your Face.
In my later traditional westerns, say from For the Norden Boys onward, I have worked with more definite endings and more assertive protagonists. In some, hearkening back to Black Diamond Rendezvous, picking up Man from Wolf River, threading through the Jimmy Clevis novels, and on through Stranger in Thunder Basin, I am working with an aesthetic that includes irony akin to Dickens as well as the stylistic influences of Guthrie.
These authors have two common features that I find motivating and that I aspire to achieve. One is a sense of form. Although Dickens has a reputation for having created some of the “shaggy, baggy monsters” of Victorian fiction, I find Great Expectations impressive in its plot, its pacing, and its internal structuring devices such as foreshadowing and image systems. As suggested above, I find the same qualities in Guthrie, especially in The Big Sky. The second feature is the great ability to maintain different levels of interest—the narrative or suspense level, the level of thematic seriousness, and then the level of intricate image systems and supporting word choice. I do not presume to have achieved such success, but I do find these two authors inspiring in these ways.
In short story writing, I most admire Alice Munro. Although I cannot presume to write up to her level, I consider her work as exemplary of the greatness that short fiction can aspire to. As with Guthrie, I admire her ability to work with negotiated and indeterminate endings. Always subtle and articulate, Munro writes about the importance of everyday relationships, and she conveys a clear sense that fiction does not need to be flamboyant. Such stories as “Dulse,” “The Turkey Season,” “Accident,” “Bardon Bus,” and “Prue” imply an aesthetic that resonates with me. In my own work, I figure that if something is more interesting than picking squash, it should be all right for a story, and it doesn’t always matter what happens to the squash. Munro’s stories reassure me in this line of thinking, and a story such as “Labor Day Dinner” seems even to make an indirect statement (and pun) about deus ex machina endings. Some of Munro’s stories (such as “Bardon Bus” and “Prue”) also have interesting internal structures, as they are not written in a straight line.
I cite the above stories from The Moons of Jupiter because I have been through the collection a few times, but I would also like to mention indisputable masterpieces such as “Friend of My Youth” “Carried Away,” and “Open Secrets.” Munro writes stories that, as models of excellence, tell me it is all right to write the kinds of stories I want to write. Once inspired, however, I have gone on to write stories that are perhaps too subtle or flat for their own good, as they do not distinguish themselves right away in a pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Still, I have faith in this kind of story, and some of my most successful stories in Antelope Sky and Seasons in the Fields were written after I had studied the work of Alice Munro.
These, then, are the writers whom I cite as having influenced me as a fiction writer and as a writer of the regions where I have lived. Beneath the surface differences of time and place, these writers all connect—with me, at least—as examples of the potential we hope to strive for.
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