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Literary inspiration, where does it come from and are we all plagiarists?

A number of people have asked me some interesting questions over the last few years, about my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J; We never had it so goodQuestions like: “But is Phillip you?” And: “So what influenced you to write?” 

It’s often got me thinking, not so much about what influenced me to write it, but more about the influences whilst in the process of writing. And in this post, I’d like to briefly talk about such literary influences, conscious or otherwise. Because, after all, we are all plagiarists by nature. And if we weren’t, we’d never know how to get from a to b… A to B. Sounds like ‘out of bed’.

Since I haven’t read my debut for so long – and never had any intention of rereading it – I found, when flicking through its pages a few days ago, that I began to slow down somewhat, and before long I was reading it in spite of myself. What jumped off the page at given junctures were those literary influences, books I might have been reading at the time, or those to have influenced me to the point of dictating the direction of my life – incidentally, you’ll find a post dealing with my five all-time favourites here << .

A literary genre to truly impress me, when done correctly, is satire, narration from the viewpoint of an ‘alien’ looking in; one able to show human folly in all its morning glory. But it goes further than that: I mean someone you wouldn’t consider to be an alien at all, at least physically, maybe even your average Joe. A human alien, then, on Earth. And that’s where Camus’ L’Étranger comes in.

I believe there is an element of Meurseault, Camus’ character, in Phillip, my narrator, in that he endeavours – if endeavours is the right word; he kind of struts along – to go about his life via his own route only to fall at just about every hurdle. I feel sorry for Phillip, I can see that his heart’s in the right place, and why he sees life in a certain way, just as with Meurseault. Neither of them will ‘play the game’. But although there’s no compromise, it isn’t through sheer crankiness or belligerence, quite the contrary: it’s because they simply don’t understand the game. Furthermore, they are also very much affected by the elements. The kind of effects the sun has on Merseault is equivalent to the factory fumes Phillip must endure. And like Merseault, if more comically in Phillip’s case, you could imagine my narrator, too, killing his old boss completely in spite of himself, due to said elements… well, that and the fact said boss won’t allow Phillip to get his head down for an hour in a dark corner. Poor Phillip, he should go to bed at nights…

Another literary hero to appear in my five all-time favourites is Paul Baumer, from Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front. Another good title for this classic would have been The Outsider. Why? Because, for me, being an outsider is about making a conscious choice; it is someone, unlike Merseault especially, who refuses to ‘fit in’. Maybe Phillip is somewhere between the two.

Where Paul Baumer and Phillip Rowlings are so similar is that they feel they are each fighting war alone; Phillip also witnesses, if only a tad less literally, young people dropping dead around him, and feels helpless. And when Phillip, by then an eighteen year old, flees from a hospital ward to the point of feeling that he could almost fly, well, I recall Baumer doing very much the same thing having witnessed the passing away of a comrade…

As for books I was reading at the time, as I remember – I did write the book between 2002 and 05 – there was Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his debut novel too.

Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s all but 1st-person narrator, is a hardened working class rebel, of the early 1960s variety; one of the ‘kitchen sink’ mob. And he even gets a mention; for two reasons, as I see it: a, because his dad resembles him; and b, more importantly, because he yearns to resemble him also, physically, sartorially, and philosophically. Save Phillip doesn’t seem quite up to it…

But yes, yet another, kind of, outsider looking in.

Another of my five books is a play: Shakespeare’s Henry IV part two. 

‘However could you come up with that one!’ you might well say.

Well, forgive my audacity, but I see something very Falstafian in the relation between Phillip and his best friend Jed. Moreover, without giving too much away, Phillip is eventually obliged to make a life-choice, with regard to Jed: that is, will Phillip follow Jed down an ever-darkening avenue; or will he endeavour to stick with the slightly lighter of the two?

But, normally, Phillip would follow Jed into the Gates of Hell, and at times often feels as if he has – i.e., amid Jed’s very own Shakespearean escapades, believe it or not. I’m sure the Bard’s literary creation was a major influence in my writing some of these scenes, even if, for the majority of times, the joke is on Phillip

As a final influence – though there’ll no doubt be many more – I’m going to suggest Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s – emphasis on the book and not the film; and not that I’ve ever found anything remotely wrong with Audrey Hepburn…

Film-wise, one of my major influences in life has been the Nouvelle Vague, a genre of French cinema from the late 50s to the early 70s, and I character I fell hopelessly in love with many moons ago, the ultimate mod icon, was Jean Seberg, in Jean-Luc Goddard’s À bout de soufflé. It was a strange experience, a weird case of déjà vu, at least to see Seberg’s Patricia Franchini, out there on the streets of Paris. That short-cropped blond hair. Seemingly snatched from Truman’s novel; my literary, imaginary lover gone all cinematic…

But I’ll say no more of such an influence as hers, since she plays too great a role in Wood, Talc and Mr. J; We never had it so good...

Funny, writing this: I’m now reminded of Dave Eggers’ copyright page, at the beginning of his A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he states:

‘This is a Work of genius, only that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so he had to fill in gaps as best he could.’

Fiction indeed…

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Five books that changed my life...

They can do all kinds of things to you, books.

They can get you into trouble when you’re young: ‘Put that book down, Christopher, you were in bed two hours ago – They’ll be ringing social services next, you look like a zombie!’

Indeed, they can be bad for your health: ‘How many times have I told you not to read in the dark, you’ll be as blind as a bat by the time you’re 30 – You’ll have glasses like jam jars!’

Be bad for your diet… or maybe good for it: ‘’No wonder I’m hungry, I forgot to eat!’

Be bad for musicians: ‘Look at my guitar nails, but I thought she’d get killed!’

They can cause insomnia: ‘’Couldn’t sleep until I knew he’d marry her!’

Or have the reverse effect: ‘I’ll never finish this book at this rate!’

They can make you late: ‘Shit, I’ve missed my stop!’

And put you off films: ‘’Nothing like the book (snooty voice)!’

They can make you say even sillier things: ‘’So many books in the world and I have only one pair of eyes!’

They can force environmentalists into a corner: ‘’Nothing like the feel of a good book, you can keep your kindle… Oh, wait a minute…’

They can force you into a corner: ‘’Can’t move in this room for…!’

They can arouse you: ‘Has it suddenly got hot in here?’

But they can even bring about delirium; or trip you up; or have you falling in love with a fictional character: ‘Why isn’t Holly Golightly my next door neighbour!’

I could go on. And it’s enough to make you wonder why we do it.

Why, then, do we do it?

Because books can also make us cry, from deep within, in a way nothing else can…

As well as make us laugh, wholeheartedly, from that same place…

And further to that, they may guide us, lead us down the right path, or steer us from the wrong one; they allow us to empathise, sympathise…

They may not always tell us anything new – perhaps never tell us anything new. Yet they always tell us in a new way…

Stories guide us, our world is in narrative form; and they may be major influences in our lives, particularly in our formative years. To a degree, they mould us into who we are today, construct our perspectives, leading us out onto the world…

And all I’d like to do in this blog post is to state five such books that have played an important role in my life thus far, and why. Who knows, I may then persuade you to tell me yours, allowing me to enter your literary world, for yet another perspective.

In the meantime, I urge you to dress accordingly, according to each of my – our – literary destinations…

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathon Swift.

It was an old English teacher who, indirectly, prompted me to read this one. Though when I say indirectly, do I mean belatedly? Whatever the case, I laughed in her face – I was thirteen years old, what would I want with a children’s story, teachers are so stupid!?

When eventually picking up and delving into Gulliver’s Travels many years after my teacher’s rebuked guidance, I recall referring to the big Collins Dictionary in our house, for a peak at its definition of ‘satire’.

“Wow!’ I blew. ‘And I thought I knew what the word meant. Jonathon Swift must be, sort of, the Master…”

I’ve rarely read satire to equal that kind of power since. Certainly nothing has ever surpassed it.

I also haven’t read the book for over twenty thirty years, and have only ever read it that first time. Isn’t that strange! That such an influential book and inspiration should then hold me at a distance? And the truth of the matter is that my recollections of the story have become rather vague.

All I now recall are names, the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians.

However subconsciously, perhaps I’ve always known you can’t go home again...

What I recall, though, is getting pulled in to the point of believing that the first-person narrator of this classic satire on humankind had gone quite mad, wherein no-one-escapes-the-jape. In other words, for some uncountable time, my world lay in a book, and that’s all there was.

By the end, of course, I’d feel a little silly, but oh-so thankful.

And to think the man, the writer, was eventually certified insane. By whom, one might ask, by whom? Thanks to this book, my dad’s over-cited favourite citation, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, finally made sense…

My next book may be scribed in the French language but all takes place in Algeria.

L’Etranger, by Albert Camus – first translated into English by Stuart Gilbert as The Outsider, and not a title I care for, but I’ll leave that one for another read, here <<.

It could be said that Camus’ first person ‘alien’ hero, Mersault, is even more skilfully achieved, in that here we have no fairytale encounters with Little and Large, but an everyday man going about his everyday business, and somewhat taciturnly at that it; barring, that is, a frightful encounter with a priest just prior to his execution, where, instead of yielding himself before his knees, of surrendering outpourings of contrition… there simply is no contrition; Mersault isn’t sorry for killing a man in ‘cold blood’ in the brutal Algerian midday sun, only that he should now be subjected to religious bigotry, be forced to feel something he does not, and be deprived of those utopian Algerian evenings.

Mersault, ultimately, verbally explodes with something as formidable as it gets; something as hot as that Mediterranean sun. And up until that point he has posed questions I once dare not ask. Indeed, I feared I didn’t have the language to articulate them, my feelings. But, as Camus himself once stated, this man at the forefront of existentialist thought, “Difficult concepts need only be expressed in simple words.”

He was a soulful character, Albert Camus. And as literary heroes go, Mersault? Well…

L’Etranger, by stark contrast to Swift’s masterpiece, I have read many, many times; I will never tire of it.

And so to 50s New York, and to a brownstone apartment buzzing with life, thanks wholly to the catalytic character that is Truman Capote’s creation Holly Golightly, in Breakfast At Tiffany's.

For me, in this case, the book and the film are as disparate as red wine and white; they’re different drinks from different grapes.
The Holly Golightly I see in my mind’s eye – to take nothing away from Audrey Hepburn – is the impish, cropped-headed blonde; one of the boys, but a real girl…

Funny, but I imagine old Joe Bell’s still standing around with a burning cigarette, outside his café on Lexington Avenue, silently yearning to set eyes on her once again: “I see pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight.”

I feel that sense of loss, of something never even attained; a childhood sweetheart, that first, secret, love; I feel what is truly meant by worshiping the ground upon which someone walks. That she might just recognise that I exist…

How can a novel do that?

I have yet to visit New York but, suffice it to say, the first thing I’ll do when… Or maybe not. Again, maybe that place is better left where it is…

For our next destination we return to France but for a German writer, in Emile Remarque, and his not-so-green-fields classic, fields amid the Great War of 1914-18, the one to end all wars…

My choices are not in order of preference, by the way, and nor have I left the best until last. But this one, All Quiet on the Western Front, a book “… intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling” – is possibly the one that speaks for itself most, in that it surely speaks to the public most; is the most well-known for the right reasons. It is the one, then, capable of creating tears from that normally well-hidden somewhere…

How well the German army characters become our friends, our families!

And we recognise how Paul Baumer, the novel’s principle character, is better left where he lies, never to return to his native Germany. For things would never have been the same, nay much for the worse, for the last of a happy breed of men.

But even when privileged with this knowledge, when first person narration moves to third, when the author steps in to inform us of the news of a sniper’s fatal bullet, but a day or two before the day of the Armistice, nothing is made any easier…

And it’s unlimately back to England.

I’ve allowed myself a play for number 5, by The Bard himself, since I feel it would be wrong to pick two Shakespeare plays from a choice of only five books: Henry IV part 2.

This play, like so many others taught me to appreciate the force of ambivalence in literature; and, moreover, to then witness it further brought to life upon a stage.

Ambivalence. To be torn. To be in two mind. Call it how you will, yet know there exists no easy answer; no easy way out. A man must be a man; must make a choice, for better or for worse.

And if Henry IV’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne makes for provocative reading and viewing, the act is surpassed only, for me, by one of the most powerful theatrical acts ever to grace paper and a stage: Henry V’s rebuking of the debauched, though wonderfully comic, Jack Falstaff.

Was a literary, theatrical relationship ever greater, than between the latter and the former Prince Hal?

Immediately upon coronation, a worldly prince is transformed into a pious and responsible king; for the great that is to come – a wondrously led English success over a numerically far greater French army; William Shakespeare must wield the knife by way of a quill and eliminate the influential Falstaff from the page. And, oh, how our masterful playwright achieves the deed!

"I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!"

Even when typing out the lines, the hairs on the back of my neck are raised…

I know that many of you simply cannot reed plays from the page – plays are for performance, and all that. For me, conversely, the very idea of the text being a play adds something extra to my already imaginative mind, for the playwright never tell us how we should think.

Maybe just a little something for you to think about…

Funny, but when looking back to my own debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good…, it being part of what has since become a series entitled The Rowlings Years, I came to realise just how affected, influenced by the above books, and no doubt others, I was…

The power of words, eh.

What are your favourite five books? And why?

All pics courtesy of Wikipedia.

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My advice for writers dealing with so-called 'Writers' Block'.

I was going to write a piece about smoking for this post, given that cigarettes play something of a prominent role both in my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good, and its sequel, Nancy Boy: for one year only…

… but then I wasn’t quite sure of what just what I wanted to say about them, about cigarettes, at least this time around, other than the fact they’re bad for you, and you possibly already know that…

And so, this time around, I’d simply like to offer my opinion on that old authors’ bugaboo: ‘writers’ block’ – I can hear it all: ‘’Been done! Boring. The irony: Chris is writing about writers’ block because he’s totally uninspired – Tell us something about cigarettes!’

And you may well be right. For, at the end of the day, all I would like to say about it – well, there’s a clue in the above paragraph, where you’ll notice I placed my first mention of the ‘ailment’ in parenthesis, as I’ve just done again, there, with ‘ailment’. Why? Because there’s no such thing as ‘writers’ block’, but a mere whim amongst authors, an attention-seeker – How I suffer for my art, I was a genius, and now I’m a fraud!

But I’ll always have my writers’ block to fall back on – the ignorant masses: the non-authors; those out there doing real work, they’ll buy it, ’work a charm.

And so it goes, as somebody once said.

‘What, then, Chris, might we attribute to the state of being uninspired?’

In a word: fatigue. In another: tiredness. Mental exhaustion.

Prescription: go and do something else – a change is as good as a rest!

‘And for how long?’

As long as required – how long is a piece of string?

Creativity is a product of the subconscious, perpetually formulating your art whilst ever you, the author, are engaged in other activities – like taking your kids to school, or playing badminton on Thursday, each activity fuelling the mind. Save that, on some days, trying to force it, the creative process, before it’s ripe, can have the adverse effect…

I won’t go on, but to say that this has been my experience since I’ve been putting pen to paper, particularly with the above novels.

But here’s what inspired this post, thus confirming my philosophy: earlier today, amid my basking in another day away from the pen, as has been the case for last few days, I was lying in the bath whilst my beautiful other half sat on the side of it. We were chatting about how we’d arrived where we are today, via many an adventure and misadventure, I’m happy to say – I wouldn’t have had it any other way; for swords evolve into pens if you survive.

Anyhow, what evolved from this conversation was my mental formulation of a novel I’m in the process of writing.

How about that! It’s just a case of getting it down now, that’s all. Which will be when it so wishes to.

In the meantime, if you are an author, I hope this post has given you a better sense of perspective – or that you’ll at least give it a thought when it just isn’t happening for you.

pic, courtesy of pixabay

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