The Townhouse of Ideas


Okay, so the third thing I thought I might write about here is my influences. Barb’s written at least one where she talked about Shirley Jackson (and, I imagine, Jane Eyre, because boy is that an influence on her, too), so I thought I might do the same.

So let’s talk about Roger Zelazny.

Number one influence, Nine Princes in Amber. And its next two sequels, and to a lesser extent the two books after that, and to a rather lesser extent the 5 books in the series after those. So that means talking about the main character of the first 5 books, Corwin of Amber.

That means talking about Dick Powell in the film Murder, My Sweet, because I’m entirely convinced that– among other things– Corwin of Amber is basically Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in the film Murder, My Sweet. The two characters even have a scene where the guy:

–wakes up after having been drugged and

–has to use a metal strut from the bed and knock out one of the guys keeping him there against his will, and

–get his head (enough) together, and

–get his pants on, and

–go to the room of the head doctor-like guy who’s been in charge of actually keeping him there, and then he

–holds that guy at gunpoint, and

–smashes that guy’s hand when he reaches for a button that would sound an alarm//call for help, and then he

–interrogates him, and then

–he forces him to hand over some money so he can get away.

That scene I just described happens in Murder, My Sweet, and it’s also the start of Nine Princes in Amber. The exact same sequence of events that I just said, in every respect, no exceptions (just some additions.)

So Corwin of Amber is Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, but with superhuman strength and stamina and really good with a sword. And he’s a bit musical, too, because he’s Dick Powell, and Dick Powell was also Dick Diamond (as opposed to Sam Spade, get it?), the Singing Detective.

And Corwin had better be a detective, because he’s got to solve the mystery of what happened to his father, because the Nine Princes story is also basically Hamlet, which is why they all live in a castle and Corwin wears black so damn much and talks to someone who is allegedly his father’s ghost, but that’s not the point right now (although you’ll be hearing about me writing a character who is Hamlet at a point in the future, so I guess I might as well foreshadow this now).

But what– as my wife’s vampire character Johannes Fassbinder might say– does this mean? What it means is that the character voice of Corwin of Amber has been very influential on me. Very. I first read Nine Princes in high school and I tell you, fellows and gals and compatriots, I could hardly get enough.

See the thing about making Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe is that everyone already knew Dick Powell as a funny guy, a song-and-dance guy, and they didn’t believe that he could be a serious private detective, and they wanted to prove him wrong. But he did it– enough, anyway. Yes, Dick Powell is HILARIOUS as Philip Marlowe. As Dick (Richard) Diamond, the Singing Detective, he just quipped his way through almost every situation. He quipped at least as much as Peter Parker’s Spider-Man. And unlike in The Thin Man, Powell’s character usually hadn’t been drinking, so it gave you the feeling that this was a guy who’s seen Some Stuff, and that his main way of coping with it was to sarcastically quip his way through life.

a dark street, with car lights streaming by, captured with a very slow shutter speed

Except every 6 or 7 episodes, Richard Diamond got seriously mad and stopped being funny, and he got downright scary in his terrible wrath against the doers of evil. I’ve seen Peter Parker as Spider-Man pull that same trick sometimes, and it works just as well. When Smilin’ Spidey ain’t smilin’ anymore, then boy howdy, is a guy with the proportionate strength and speed of a spider someone you do NOT want comin’ for you.

But yeah, I also approve of Elliot Gould’s performance as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, because he’s much the same way. “It’s okay by me,” he says, until he finally loses his temper at the guy who’s behind everything, and boy, is Smilin’ Phil not smilin’ anymore. It makes for a very powerful ending.

(Zelazny’s other guys are often similar in the most important respects, such as the noir crime novel The Dead Man’s Brother.)

It seems obvious to me that Steven Brust’s memorable character Vlad Taltos (whom my wife knows as “Lizard Boy,” much to Steven Brust’s amusement), from his Jhereg fantasy series, is also rather influenced by Corwin of Amber//Roger Z. Vlad is a guy who’s not bad with a sword or dagger who’s NOT superhumanly strong nor tough, and he makes up for it by being smart and fast (when he’s at the top of his game, which unfortunately for him is not every day of every year). And yes, I’m influenced by Brust, too—who I think I also started reading in high school—the first Jhereg book came out in 83, after all, so it had some years to be around (and to start getting sequels) before I found it.

(Lupin the Third, from Japanese manga and anime, also reminds me a little of this type of guy, but the comparison slowly veers toward the shoulder of the road if you push it, so I won’t push it– just thought I’d mention it in passing. Still, specifically, Lupin’s The Castle of Cagliostro was rather influential; even though it was rather after high school that I discovered it, it was still before I started writing in earnest. Lupin gets determined to rescue a somewhat innocent young woman that he first met years ago when he was starting out and she was a little girl, so it’s nice that he stops being a gal-chasing lech for 90 mins of his damn life. He clearly makes a choice— “I met this girl when she was a child, so y’know what? I think it’d be fun for me to play the pure and noble knight in shining armor that she needs me to be—just this once, just for her,” and that’s just how he plays the whole adventure.)

So, yeah. A certain take on masculinity that is not overbearingly so, a guy who’s arguably sort of sensitive, not too proud nor snooty, a guy with genuine wit– sometimes a bit much wit, in that his mouth can get him in trouble sometimes– That’s Richard Diamond and Dick Powell’s Marlowe and Corwin of Amber and Vlad Taltos and kinda Spider-Man and I gotta tell you, my male protagonists have a lot in common with that vibe as well. It isn’t often that my wife will come to me and say “read this, is this how a guy thinks?” because she has a perfectly good awareness of how guys think, and it’s not often that I read a speech she’s written for one of her male characters and I say “this is great but let me edit it, I wanna guy it up a little extra,” but each has happened at least once, and when I try my hand, the guy in question comes out, let us suffice by saying, notably influenced by Zelazny’s hard-boiled sword-slinger nice-guy-at-heart sort of dude. That version of masculinity is absolutely one I can relate to. That “hey man I’m just trying to get along with everyone, I’m not here to cause any trouble, it’s all okay with me” 95% of the time except that when trouble comes, bad trouble, unfair, cruel, evil trouble, that special 5% of the time that– all right, let’s face it, it comes pretty often in fiction, because it is the purpose of fiction to be dramatic– then that internal lever gets thrown and they stop smiling and start demonstrating to the cruel and the unfair that maybe they shouldn’t have picked a fight with this particular guy after all.

So, yeah, Dick Powell and Roger Zelazny. Definitely influences.

But this sounds like it’s telling you about the kind of characters I write, not about my writing style—which of course isn’t necessarily a betrayal of the title “Influences,” but it’s not the point I meant to get at. So: my writing style:

–is funny, witty, except when things turn serious, at which point the previous funny and witty stuff gets thrown into sharp contrast

–alternates between being fairly fast-moving most of the time, but with characters pausing to figure out how they feel about what’s happening a small percent of the time—only when that internal struggle is as vital and intense as what’s happening externally

–alternates between being casual (that is, the characters talking to each other—and you, if it’s first-person narration—in a casual, relaxed way) and the characters starting to speak formally—when things get tense, and/or when the situation turns emotionally cold, like someone’s really crossed a line

–I like to explore how the characters I write are capable of changing things around them—specifically, how they’re careful about doing that because it might make things worse.

I could go on, but when I think about going on, the line between “how I write” and “characterization” threatens to blur more. Still… noir (and before that, pulp) and the hard-boiled, and how that eventually started translating into the fantasy and sci-fi (and superhero) genres… yeah, those are my influences, and I think it’s definitely affected me and Barb’s brand for Wicker Man Studios: “Relationship dramas in spooky worlds.”