The sad passing of Anne McCaffrey yesterday got me thinking about my favourite writers – those who’ve influenced me over the years, the ones who’ve been my go-to ol’ reliables at different times in my life, the ones whose back-catalogues I have hunted down and consumed to extinction. McCaffrey herself wasn’t actually one of those writers. I enjoyed the first few Pern books before I decided I could do without the melodrama, and I remember The Crystal Singer and its sequels fondly. From somewhere near the start of high school and for about the next fifteen years McCaffrey was always somewhere on the radar but she never quite made it to the top of my personal charts. Liked, didn’t love.
(That’s a crappy eulogy, I know, but she is remembered fondly by a legion of fans world wide and I think would be satisfied enough that I remember many of the particulars of Killashandra Ree’s adventures nearly three decades after first reading them.)
I inherited my love of reading from my mother, who got it from hers. Nan’s place was like a treasure trove to me – there was a laundry wall that was stacked from floor to ceiling (very much literally) with books. She kept her collection like a kind of treacherous dry stone wall of temptation. It was often very difficult to extract a book without bringing down a bunch of other ones. There were Christies andFrancises, as well as Ludlum and Heyer and Sayer and Marsh.I spent months working my way through my Nan’s library and probably didn’t read more than one or two percent of its contents.
But like every devoted reader, I was busy developing my own personal pantheon of writing demigods. They would speak, and at one time or another in my life I was entranced. Some have endured, their reputations remaining untarnished in the face of my evolving tastes and their occasional (to my eyes) missteps. Others were once ascendant and are now idle, recalled with warmth at best and at worst with distaste at their Icarus-like plummet from my regard. Yes, Piers Anthony, David Eddings and Dave fucking Sim, you get in that line over there. And you shut up.
Overwhelmingly my preferred authors are writers of fiction. Until relatively recently, I had little experience of well-written non-fiction. That’s on me. I’ve never really grokked reading non-fiction for pleasure, and even now I’m pretty much only going to look at historical writing, (auto-)biographies and the occasional bit of social or political analysis. The poppier the better. So I’m missing those genes altogether, which should give some indication of my lax attitude towards academic endeavour and research in general.
So, to the fiction. I’ve always had my nose in a book. My early heroes were Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Alistair Maclean on the crime/action side, John Wyndham’s triffids and John Christopher’s tripods over at science fiction and…hmm, not that much fantasy until my teenage years. I think that’s when I glommed onto Ray Bradbury, who definitely held my attention for a good few years. I developed my perfectly healthy and charming and not at all obsessive lifelong fascination with Doctor Who back then, so I should probably add Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes and Terry bloody Nation to the list.
That would bring us to the first of my personal Big Two: Douglas Adams. In my first couple of years of high school, I probably read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy twenty or thirty times. The first couple of sequels, likewise. The next couple – eh, they had some good bits. But HHGTTG was the big one, and probably did more to shape my brain than any other single book. It certainly helped shape my speech patterns, which tend toward overly elaborate constructions intended to withhold a punchy gag as long as possible and to overuse of adverbs (a crime of which Adams was not in fact guilty, but the devastating precision with which he deployed them clearly made an impression on my impressionable brain). He also wrote and script-edited for Who, of course, which only served to underline his genius as far as I was concerned. And yeah, I liked Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, even if he ripped off his own scripts to write it.
On the tail of Adams came Stephen King, who by virtue of being extraordinarily prolific at just the right time (the 80’s) gave me the second great influence of my formative years. Despite not being otherwise a particular fan of horror (it’s fine, but it’s not my thing per se) I devoured everything King coughed up, which was a lot. There are quite a few great novels in his back catalogue (The Dead Zone, The Shining and later Misery and Needful Things) but The Stand was the one that did it for me. Something about the epic end-of-the-worldiness appealed – I’ve read all 1000+ pages of it at least a dozen times. In recent years his even-more-epic multiverse-spanning Dark Tower series *might* have toppled The Stand from its place at the top of the King tree, but it’s a close thing for me. (Oddly, none of the above rank as King’s scariest, which are probably either Salem’s Lot or Pet Sematary, both of which feature murderous undead children. Go figure).
Moving on: in my late teens and into my twenties, there were comics. Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Ellis, Ennis. Anything and everything by that lot, then and now. Terry Pratchett came to fill the gap left behind by Douglas Adams. Iain Banks, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville have all become somewhat indispensible (though Banks’ star might be starting to fade since the last couple of Culture books) and I was deeply gratified to have discovered Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books several years ago.
Thinking about this list there are some weird omissions. Tolkein was never a big figure for me – I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until I was 27, and I’m *still* only halfway through The Hobbit. Asimov never really clicked with me. Nor did Clarke (except ‘Childhood’s End’ and ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, of course). There are a great many classics of science fiction in particular and fantasy as well of which I am woefully ignorant (never read any Bester or Le Guin or Moorcock, sod-all Heinlein or Vonnegut or Zelazny or Vance). I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare but my attachment to most of that canon is tenuous. My ‘literary’ reading is piecemeal and honestly pretty random. I don’t do poetry. I read a bit of crime and mystery stuff, but I fall short of enthusiasm there. These days I reserve a lot of my admiration for television writers, but that’s probably another story.
So which writers are in your blood? C’mon, don’t be shy.