Dear readers, I have a tale to tell you today. This post is part one of what should be an interesting discussion, but more on that later. First, let me paint you the picture of a writer in love with someone else's words, and what happens when that writer gets within grabbing distance of their authorial idol.
It was summer 2009, and I was standing there at a crowded book launch, ten people away from one of my all-time favourite authors, Tim Winton. I'd been eyeing him off the whole time he was speaking, just like the other ten hungry-looking people in my way. I was running ideas through my head of things I'd say to him when I got my turn to meet him. Or maybe I was just thinking about running up, tackling him to the ground, and snuggling him. Or maybe not. Probably not. Did I mention how much I love him?
Anyway. I was thinking furiously, trying to decide what one thing was the most important thing to say when I got my chance, and in the meantime I was watching him. The first thing I noted was that he was incredibly generous with his attention. No matter who came up, no matter what they had to say, he listened with full interest, and he didn't cut them off. He waited til they were finished. We all waited til they were finished. I was fidgeting impatiently when I noticed a good friend of mine standing nearby, and I squeezed closer to talk to her.
Bernie* [names changed to protect the innocent!] was herself a guest of honour at the function- she was the Aboriginal Elder who gave the Welcome to Country address before Tim spoke. But I wasn't thinking about that when I went for a chat. I sidled up to her and gave her a hug. We had a chat about my new baby. And then I laid it out.
Me: "I am so nervous."
Me: "I love Tim Winton so much. So so much. I love his books, I love his writing- he's had such a huge influence on me and *my* writing and I'm dying to meet him."
B: Scans the crowd, noting ten-person queue. "Well, then. Come with me."
So, Bernie got me by the elbow and dragged me through the crowd toward my idol. She nudged her way through the queue until she got right to the very front (VIP coming through! Nobody argues with a VIP!) and then the two of us were standing right in front of Tim Winton himself. She waited until he finished the conversation he was having, and then the next person in line opened his mouth to start talking, and before he could utter a sound Bernie jammed out her elbow and shoved in front of him, dragging me with her.
B: "Tim, I've got someone for you to meet. This is Claire. She's a writer."
And then she gave me a shove, and Tim Winton gave me an encouraging smile, and I pretty much died. Mentally. Verbally.
Me: Giggling like a demented schoolgirl. "Hi! I love you. Your writing, I mean."
Him: Smiling. "Thank you."
Me: "I just had to tell you what your books mean to me, because I'm a writer too. And I love them because I'm an archaeologist..."
Right about there things get a little hazy, and I can't remember exactly what I said, except that he had one of those looks on his face that got a little bit more quizzical all the time, which means you know you're not making sense. I just spewed out a whole bucketload of crap about his themes and character development and stuff that should probably never be spoken aloud, only written about in writing textbooks and English lit classrooms, and it was like there was no off-valve in my brain.
When I finished talking, he just looked at me kind of sideways, still nodding politely, then asked, "D'you ever get out to the [*] Hotel? Great drinking spot."
And- erm- that wasn't an invitation. That was like the number one, biggest ever right-angle change-of-topic I think I've ever had in a conversation. I (almost) laughed. And then I told him about the mysterious hidden room purported to be under that hotel, and how I'd been applying my archaeological knowledge to try to locate it for the owner, and after that we had a good chat without me sounding like an idiot any further. Much further.
Oh, sigh. Love is a wondrous thing.
But I was just compelled to tell this guy what he meant to me. I was thinking about it author-style, and I figured it didn't matter if I sounded like an idiot- I just wanted to tell this person that his words had made a difference to my life, and that I appreciated it. I'm still glad I said it, even if he didn't understand a word.
Last week, Diana Gabaldon, the other favourite author I've had a chance to meet in person (though in this case we had a much more social and convivial couple of hours to talk over dinner!), posted on her blog about influences. She talked about needing to read other writers to absorb the excellence of the written word and to draw inspiration.
I will admit that in the early days of writing, I had a panic moment every time I picked up a book that had vaguely similar themes to mine. Merry Go Round in the Sea (by Randolph Stow) was a WWII book set in the Geraldton region- oh no! Jessica (by Bryce Courtenay) was a WWI book featuring treachery, siblings and shearing. Eeek! Even my favourite Tim Winton novel, Cloudstreet, featured characters doing some of the same things as mine, and some of the same settings.
Was I copying them unintentionally?
The simple answer to that is, of course not. Once I had a good chunk written, I could see with ease that my stuff was by no means similar to any of theirs. My voice was completely different. My characters were completely different. My settings and events were completely different. And I had a completely different book.
By putting those books down, I wasn't saving myself from unintentional plagiarism. I was robbing myself of inspiration.
Now, in recent weeks, I've written so much of my own work that I haven't had time for reading. But as a result, I keep coming across parts of my story that are a little sub-par, and I feel the urge to remind myself what amazingly perfect writing looks like.
(Re) enter Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and read 150 pages in one big gulp. Words can barely express how much I love that book. From the very first page, I'm in that world. Submerged, dragged along, unable to look away. It's told in multiple points of view, and more than that, it throws every conceivable literary convention out the window to achieve what it does. Present tense and past tense mixed together? Heck, why not. On the same page, even. In the same paragraph. Quotation marks around some dialogue and not others? Sure! Smooshing words together to invent new words? Bring it!
These are all things that I'm quite sure would annoy the living daylights out of me in any other author's work, but for some reason they all come together for perfection in Cloudstreet. They're approaches to writing that I would never take myself, but what I do take from them is the way those words make me feel. The way the characters stay with me weeks, months and years after I first read the book. The intense feelings of despair and joy and everything in between that are brought to life so convincingly that they take your breath away. And above all else, the passion the author has for his home- Western Australia- and the way place becomes a character in his tales. Now *that* is something I like to think Tim Winton and I have in common.
All of this is, of course, subjective opinion. And I was out to lunch with my two best friends last week, talking about this exact topic, and my friend of nearly two decades (OMG, we're so old!), lifelong debater and WIP-critiquer extraordinaire Ricki just looked at me and said, "I hate Tim Winton's writing."
Cue shocked hand to the heart.
And as we talked about it, we discovered that all the things I love, Ricki hates. All the reasons his writing resonates with me are the exact same reasons it puts her off.
So, we decided the blog post I was thinking of would be a lot more interesting if we presented both sides of the story. Next week (note: *probably* next week, unless life gets in the way), I'm going to talk about the techniques used in Cloudstreet and a couple of other Tim Winton books, and why I think they work. I'm going to talk about how he throws out every possible convention and still makes it brilliant. And Ricki is going to counter-argue with her reasons why those same things don't work for her.
It should be good. Stay tuned!
(NB: That debate never did happen- maybe sometime in the future :))