5 Books that Influenced my Writing (Guest Post by Rod Duncan)
Rod Duncan worked in scientific research and computing before settling in Leicester to be a writer. His first novel, Backlash, was short-listed for the John Creasey Memorial Award (now the CWA Debut Dagger).
After four crime novels he switched to fantasy. The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. He is currently writing a series of alternate history books, called ‘The Map of Unknown Things’.
Rod joins us today to discuss five of the books that most influenced his FALL OF THE GAS-LIT EMPIRE trilogy.
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
At the height of my Tolkien craze, a school friend said to me: “If you like that, you really need to read Titus Groan and Gormenghast.” So I did. They are dense texts with long passages of description. The opposite of the fast-moving, ideas-rich books I usually looked for. But from the opening passage, I was hooked by the surreal yet self-consistent world that Mervyn Peake lays out.
Born in China in 1911, just before the revolution, he returned to England in 1922. I guess it was this that gave him the gift of an outsider view on both cultures. Having personal experience of two tradition-bound societies, he created a third in his imagination. In the castle of Gormenghast, elaborate customs rule every strata of society. Only one of the characters can see how ridiculous it all is. That is Steerpike, the villain, the revolutionary, who wishes to tear down the entire edifice.
Only later did I come to think about this – the role of the writer as outsider, whose particular task it is to hold up a mirror for their readers.
The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross
This is a detective story set on a fictionalised version of Grenada in the Caribbean. We see it all through the eyes of Michael ‘Digger’ Diggson, a young detective who is trying to find his place in the world.
It is through his mind that we get to see the island and understand the islanders in all their diversity. Digger is fascinated by people – their weaknesses and strengths, the events that make them who they are. His gaze is insightful. But crucially it is also profoundly humane. The facts of a criminal investigation may stand judge over the people involved, but the eye of the narration takes them in without condemnation. Even when Digger is angry with them, he understands. And when he sees small acts of kindness, his heart is warmed.
I really admire the humanity of Jacob Ross’s narrative eye. I try to bring the same mercy to bear in my own writing. To understand how the characters got to be where they are. Even the ones I might not like to meet.
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin
I must have picked this up at first because it is a slim book, with an exciting picture on the cover – tunnels and doors and faces carved into the rock. For a D&D-obsessed teenager with slow reading, it all seemed perfect.
Though the front cover image showed a man, the book is really about a girl becoming a woman. It is about one outsider finding another outsider. It is a beautifully crafted gem of a novel. I would later go on to read the others in the series, but this remains my favourite.
Is it a children’s book? That is how it was marketed. A fantasy adventure. But a glance at the first few pages reveals that this is a book about people and emotions, the ones they can express and the ones they can’t. In short, it is exactly the kind of story that I needed to be reading as a child. Though the cover tricked me into it.
The more books I write, the more I become aware of the lessons of The Tombs of Atuan. However fantastical the setting, extraordinary the ideas and pressing the dangers, a story works or fails on the level of emotion.
The Vinland Sagas
After ‘discovering’ Tolkien, my head was full of ideas of medieval Europe. Almost all of them were romanticised Victorian creations. But after my first visit to Iceland, I started to read the sagas: histories that were written in medieval times, translated into English and published by Penguin in the Classics series. Even Middle Earth was less strange than this. More than anything it was the culture that lay behind the stories that I found alien, and therefore fascinating.
The Vinland Sagas narrate the discovery of Greenland and of Newfoundland by the Vikings (both already discovered and settled by explorers in prehistoric times). Strangeness is announced in the opening sentence, where we learn that the first protagonist, Eric the Red, left Norway ‘because of some killings’.
Because of some killings. It isn’t a strange thing to mention them. The strangeness comes from it being left at that. No explanation. No elaboration. Was the writer winking at us? Were we supposed to laugh at their dry irony? Or was the event so matter-of-fact that it deserved no more explanation? The point is, I still don’t know. The text requires interrogation. And that thought process feels like a gift for any writer of speculative fiction.
The sagas tell of many people who left Norway to escape the centralised rule of a new king. I used this as the model in my alternate history for the settlement of Newfoundland. The story of The Outlaw and the Upstart King plays out a drama against a re-imagined version of the Viking parliament.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
Am I the only person to have had the Foundation Trilogy read to them as bedtime stories? My father wanted me to learn to read – a skill I was late acquiring. Being a Sci-Fi fan, with great stacks of Analogue Science Fiction and Fact magazines, he thought that Asimov might be just the encouragement I needed.
In this trilogy, Asimov grows many ideas from a single seed: the conceit of ‘psychohistory’. He posits that given a large enough population – an entire galactic civilization – mathematics might enable a new kind of historian to predict the future, just as economists attempt today. But these predictions would be astonishingly accurate.
I loved it. Though my father had failed in his goal, since the text was far too difficult for me to read by myself. But the ideas stayed in my head. Can the course of history be changed by the sparking genius of a few great minds? Or is there ‘a tide in the affairs of men’ as Shakespeare put it? In my novels I set a woman to find out.
Instead of Asimov’s psychohistory, my conceit is the Map of Unknown Things. This ‘map’ cannot predict the future. Rather, it is a tool for avoiding the risks of change. It identifies geopolitical crises or technological developments which might push the world out of the stasis of the ‘Long Quiet’. The creators of the Map of Unknown Things don’t wish to manage change. They wish to avoid it altogether.
I think my father would have enjoyed the irony. His choice of bedtime story didn’t get me to read, but it would eventually inspire me to write.
Rod Duncan is the author of the FALL OF THE GAS-LIT EMPIRE and THE MAP OF UNKNOWN THINGS trilogies, both of which are published by Angry Robot.