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Influences: L. Frank Baum

There are a couple of questions writers get that seem to be unavoidable. I hate both of them. The first is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve blogged about that elsewhere. The second is, “What authors do you try to imitate?” I don’t like that one any better than the first. The implication is that whatever is worthy about one’s writing comes from some external source, as if the writer simply can’t be the wellspring from whence the goodness originates.

But let’s say the second question is reconfigured as, “Are there authors you feel have influenced your own writing?” That’s a fair way to pose the subject.

I used to answer, “No one. I write the way I write. I’m not trying to copy anyone’s style. I’m forging my own path.” Perhaps in the younger days of my career I felt that if I didn’t push back, I would be nudged off of my scrap of territory in the literary landscape. As a trilogy author, some would assume I must have been trying to write like Tolkien. Others would look at the cover or its catalog copy and think “sword and sorcery.” Hence, I must be following the lead of Robert E. Howard.

Ahem. No.

I admit I read Tolkien and Howard. I have multiple editions of the core volumes of their work. But write like them? If anyone makes that argument, they’re really stretching. For all the things I admire about Tolkien, his prose is not on the list. He wrote like the professor he was. I was never tempted to write like him. He spent way too much time dwelling upon the food his characters consumed, too much time engaging in info-dumps, and he had a perverse habit of leaving most of the action off-stage or described indirectly even when it was part of a scene.

Robert E. Howard on the other hand wrote action aplenty, and didn’t let his characters sit around musing about this or that while sitting in a circle, smoking pipes. But neither he nor his characters stopped to reflect, or ponder the greater meaning of life aside from the basics: Survive. Win. I have always wanted to imbue my content with more than that.

Plus, neither man had much understanding of what to do with female characters except for token attempts to use them as foils for the main, almost-entirely-male, cast.

As I wrote The Sorcery Within and The Schemes of Dragons and did story after story for the Sword and Sorceress series, if anything I was deliberately trying to avoid influences. I certainly wasn’t aware of adhering to any particular style.

But a funny thing happened. My daughter became old enough that bedtime reading shifted away from the sort of simple material meant for young children. I began reading the Oz books to her.

The Oz books had easily been my favorite series of books of all the things I read as a child. My mother had gone through her own period of reading them as a kid in the 1920s and the majority of her collection was still intact in our home, though “intact” must be qualified because my sisters and brother and quite a number of cousins had all had their turn at the volumes before I appeared on the scene. I had loved those volumes and loved them some more and then…I outgrew them. Or so I told myself.

For twenty-five years, I cherished the books (my mother’s fragmentary collection as well as the many I had added) not so much for the talespinning, but as physical artifacts and as a focus of nostalgia. I did not revisit them as reading material until my kid was there to serve as my audience. We proceeded one spoken word at a time. You can really get into a story when you have to utter every word of it out loud. I soon began to internalize more than the story. I was absorbing the palimpsest, the essence between the lines. The author’s voice.

By author, of course I mean L. Frank Baum, the creator of the series and author of the first fourteen books of the canon. (Or let’s say sixteen, because as far as I’m concerned, his so-called “non-Oz” volumes The Sea Fairies and Sky Island belong in the group.) Ruth Plumly Thompson wrote more than he did. I had recalled enjoying the best of her books more than any of Baum’s, but that was not my attitude as a daddy reading to his little girl. From my adult perspective, Baum had a voice and was saying something. Thompson had a gig and was collecting a paycheck. She was good enough at the formulaic aspects to lure me in as a kid, but as a grown-up, left me unfulfilled.

But Baum? Holy cow. I would read a sentence and think, “That’s how I would have written that sentence.” And the way he used female viewpoint so often and so well? To me that had always been a mode that made sense to me. You would suppose that as a nerdy, comic-book-reading boy, I would not have enjoyed reading about girls, but it wasn’t so. Maybe I was just weary of being presented with story after story and/or book after book filled with boy protagonists, and appreciated a change of pace. Probably, though, it was just the way Baum brought Dorothy and Ozma and Trot and the others to life. He gave them perspective, courage, decisiveness, compassion. They didn’t just “do” things. They had reasons why they did things.

It’s been about thirty years since those reading sessions with my daughter wound down. I repeated the bedtime-reading phase with my son but now he’s in his thirties and I haven’t actually re-read any selection of Baum’s stuff in quite some time, but now I accept that yes, my work does reflect the influence of at least one writer. Moreover, I can even put a name to the most essential thing Baum’s work had that I find myself trying to imbue my own work with. It’s called heart.

“Heart” can mean many things. What I mean, and what Baum seems to have aimed at, is, “These are my characters. They do things I understand. I would love if you felt they were your characters, too, doing things you understand. They are not playing roles. They are themselves.”

Thank you for your time, everyone. And thanks, L. Frank Baum. You taught me more than I thought.



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