I was watching an old interview with Ursula Le Guin on YouTube today, from around the time when her book “The Lathe Of Heaven” was adapted into a movie for PBS. It made me think of how much her writing affected me, both as a reader and a writer when I was in my teens. The Earthsea books especially were a huge influence on me, particularly “The Tombs of Atuan“. That book has really stayed with me. There’s something so evocative about the way it describes the young girl who is brought to Atuan, and the darkness in the tombs where she lives her life, and how she communes with the powers and the magic in that darkness. Le Guin’s writing is always very powerful, and this is her at her best. It’s definitely a book that continues to shape the way I write even now.
There are other books that have shaped my writing in similar ways. Ray Bradbury’s short stories, maybe especially “The Martian Chronicles“, were another huge influence on me as a young science-fiction reader and writer. The kind of poetic prose that he used, and the fact that he told science fiction stories that were so much about human emotions: fears and dreams and hopes and nightmares was something that really appealed to me.
The story that fundamentally changed my perception of what books could be and do was J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings“-trilogy. I can still remember reading “The Return of the King” late into the night in my bed, and then crying like a baby when I finished it, simply because there wasn’t anything more to read. I wanted desperately to stay in that story, in that world, with those characters and felt almost orphaned once there was no more to read. The realization that a book could create that kind of deep world and vast story-line was a revelation. I suspect many other writers have been influenced in a similar way by it.
Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” sequence of books was another reading experience that completely absorbed me in my teenage years. There was a sense of palpable danger in that story that set it apart from many other Young Adult books I read back then.
Another book that also influenced me, and still stands as one of the best and most enigmatic works of fiction I’ve ever read, is Alan Garner’s “Red Shift“. It’s a very strange story and Garner’s writing is flawless – evocative, sparse, and completely stripped of unnecessary exposition. I re-read it a few years ago and it still holds up as a fantastically trippy and totally absorbing story. To quote Wikipedia:
It spans over a thousand years but one geographical area: Southern Cheshire, England. Garner evokes the essence of place, allowing his characters to echo each other through time, as if their destinies may be predefined by the soil on which they walk. These are themes explored more tangibly in his earlier work The Owl Service, but brought here to maturity in a weave of rapid, impressionistic dialogue. It is set in three intertwined time periods: Roman Britain, the siege of Barthomley Church during the English Civil War, and a caravan site near the M6 in the modern day.
Add T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to the list of books that shaped my reading and my writing in my teenage years. It’s still one of my all-time favourite poems, and when I read it in high school it revolutionized what I thought about poetry (and prose). It made me realize that a) poetry does not have to rhyme, and b) poetry (and prose) can be deeply meaningful even when it isn’t possible to decipher it fully, even after several readings.
I read a lot of other books in my tweens and teens too of course (I was a voracious reader back then), but these are some of the titles that I believe affected me the most back then, and continue to influence what I read and what, and how, I write.