Why literary inspirations are overrated… or… a better way to ask this question

Who are your literary inspirations?

Every published author is asked this at some point. After a while it becomes one of those questions that you answer on autopilot, trotting out a carefully curated and eclectic list of famous and avant-garde authors (i.e. authors no one has ever heard of) designed to make you seem both widely read and also a litterateur of immaculate taste, all the while trying to hide the fact that your soul is dribbling out of your ears.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with holding up an author as a literary inspiration – I certainly have my own writing heroes – but most writers rarely articulate exactly how that author has impacted upon their work, instead simply gushing on about how much they revere them, how they’d willingly give up all their worldly possessions and spend the rest of their lives worshipping at their feet in blissful adoration. Or words to that effect.

A far more interesting way of framing this question – interesting for the author and for listeners, in my opinion – is to ask how certain books have inspired us, and what lessons we learned from the way those books were put together by their wonderful authors.

I read a lot. Easily a hundred books a year. I estimate that over forty years of reading I must have read at least 5000 books. Maybe more. 

So here is what I’ve learned from…

Watership Down by Richard Adams

A children’s classic. Who would have thought a novel about rabbits could be full of adventure, intrigue and excitement? I read this book as a kid and was hooked on the story of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the other rabbits, displaced from their warren, moving across the English countryside to find a new home. On their epic journey they encounter every conceivable danger, and then meet the ultimate rabbit foe: General Woundwort, surely one of the most villainous villains in children’s fiction. 

What I learned: That it doesn’t matter what shape, colour, creed etc your protagonists are. The only thing that matters is writing a story that makes readers want to turn the page.  

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett 

I first read this novel as a teenager. For me it is the very best of the Discworld canon. I was instantly entranced by Pratchett’s ability to blend pathos and humour, at the ease with which his prose rolls along, and at the way we quickly become invested in his larger-than-life characters. In Guards! Guards! we are introduced to the recurring characters of the city of Ankh-Morpork’s Night Watch: Captain Sam Vimes, Corporal Nobby Nobbs and Sergeant Fred Colon, as they tackle a dragon threatening the city – with predictably hilarious consequences.

What I learned: If you can make people laugh they will retain warm memories of your writing and return to the well. Thirty years after first encountering the Discworld I still dip into my collection for inspiration. Pratchett is the reason I wrote my first novel aged 17 (a rubbish comic fantasy). He’s the reason my books embody humour.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Science Fiction rarely touches the heights of Dune, consistently voted the very best SF novel ever written. A space opera, written to a near literary standard, this novel spawned a dozen sequels, none better than the original. The novel follows the story of Paul Atriedes, son of Duke Leto, as he grows to manhood on the desert world Dune. The galaxy is ruled by the Emperor and his forces, in uneasy alliance with Great Houses and other corporate agencies, but power in this galaxy is controlled by access to the spice melange which gives users the gift of extended life. This novel has everything: adventure, mystery, great revelation, amazing SF concepts, and a sympathetic protagonist.

What I learned: That great writing transcends genre. SF isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Dunedrew readers from across genres because of the strength of characterisation, the plot, and the incredible world-building. Dunetaught me that there are no limits on inventiveness.

The Firm by John Grisham 

The best thriller I have read. Mitch McDeere, a young law graduate, is recruited by a Memphis-based law firm offering an incredible pay package. It’s too good to be true – he soon discovers that the firm is a front for the mafia. This book – which made Grisham a star – moves at a breakneck pace and is written with a terrific mix of legal insider knowledge, humour, and great plot twists.

What I learned: That a good thriller is impossible to put down – it has that incredible quality that every writer wants to achieve: making readers want to read just one more chapter before they turn out the lights. The Firminspired me to start writing crime fiction. It’s the reason I write crime today.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

I still remember the first time I read this, the overwhelming feeling of discovering something magical. This book was voted the best Booker prize winner in 40 years. It tells the story of modern India, using magical realism, through the eyes of Saleem Sinai who was born “at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence.” People may know Rushdie because of the controversy around The Satanic Verses, but this is the book that proves he is a literary genius. 

What I learned: That through words you can make readers nostalgic for a time and place they have never seen. I started reading a lot of classic literary fiction after this book, and that really improved my technical prose writing skills. Midnight’s Childrenis also one reason I now write about India.

Finally… It’s World Book Day… A perfect time to buy a book and help an independent bookseller and an author. Doesn’t even have to be one of mine!

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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