We sat down with James Blaylock, author of “Paper Dragons” and “Thirteen Phantasms” and one of the founders of the Steampunk movement, to ask him a little bit about what inspired him to become a writer and the role literature played in his life growing up. Blaylock will be speaking this year at the Stanford program.
GBSP: What role did literature play in your childhood?
Literature played such a large role in my childhood that I can’t separate it from my childhood. Childhood is a difficult time. I made it through by escaping into books. Sometimes when teachers talk about “escapist” literature, they’re doubtful about it, as if we should be reading something with more vitamins in it. Actually, anyone who reads anything for pleasure is escaping into the book or the story, or whatever it might be. If you read calculus texts for pleasure, you’re escaping into numbers. If you read War and Peace for pleasure, you’re escaping into history and into one of the greatest stories ever told. Two of the great escapes of my life were Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which are two of the most brilliant books of the 20th Century. The better the book, the more thoroughgoing the escape. So… when I was young (I started reading real books when I was ten) I spent hours in my bedroom reading Huckleberry Finn, Sherlock Holmes stories, and anything by John Steinbeck that I could get my hands on. (My mother had eight Steinbeck books in her library. They’re in my library today.) I grew up in Orange County, California, when it was mainly orange groves at the time. Twenty acres of orange trees stood at the end of my street. After school, I’d grab a book, bicycle down to the end of the block, ditch the bike in the weeds (we didn’t have to worry about theft back then) and walk out into the grove until I couldn’t see anything in any direction but trees. I’d find a likely looking tree, climb it, and read whatever book I’d brought. It was utterly quiet and peaceful. I’d figure out when to go home according to the late-afternoon onshore winds and the sun in the sky. Was that a wonderful thing? Yes it was. It was about more than books, of course, but books were my main excuse. In southern California a lot of wonderful things have gone out of the world, but books have not, and there are still plenty of wonderful things and opportunities around if you search them out. Find a fine and private place (as Peter Beagle put it) and read. You won’t regret it later.
GBSP: Did any one person in your life stand out as fostering a love of writing or literature?
Yes indeed. Like I said, my mother had a small library of books in the house – four shelves of them in the living room. When I was around ten I got copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for Christmas. I read them and fell in love with reading. I found myself looking through my mother’s books, and there was something in the cover of Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes that I liked. I didn’t know where Sherlock Holmes had returned from, and I didn’t care. I read the first story and the second story and I was hooked. My mother knew by then that I was a bookish kind of a kid (as was my sister) and so she started taking us to the local public library on Tuesday afternoons. The first time we were there, I was looking through the stacks, and my mother walked up with a Jules Verne and an H.G. Wells book. She told me that I might like them. I looked at the pictures on the covers and grabbed (as I remember it) the Jules Verne. For the next couple of years I read most of Verne, all of Wells’s science fiction books, a bunch of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books, the Black Stallion books, the seafaring adventures of Howard Pease, and as many other books as I could get my hands on. I became a book nut. I’m still a book nut. So I largely owe my passion for reading to my mother. And because one learns how to write by reading, I owe my writing career to her, too, at least in part. (And also to my wife, who cheerfully worked long hours that allowed me to find the time to write back when we were first married and I was just starting to publish.) Writers don’t work in a vacuum. We owe who and what we are to the writers who inspired us and to the people who inspired us to read those writers, and to the people who encouraged us – friends, family, teachers, friendly editors, and on an on. Sorry if that sounds like a lecture of some sort, but it’s absolutely true.
GBSP: What was your favorite book as a teenager? Which writers inspired you?
Two writers inspired my first attempts to write, back when I was ten years old or so: Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. It wasn’t the plots of the books that did it; it was the language and the settings of the books. The settings transported me to other places, and the language made me want to be able to want to do the same thing: to write in such a way as to transport people from their worlds to other exotic places, including the inside of my own mind. I read a lot of memorable books when I was a teenager, but in those days the most inspirational, moving book of the lot was Steinbeck’s East of Eden. That’s the one that did it for me. That was a long time ago. I can’t tell you whether East of Eden is one of Steinbeck’s greatest books, or only a so-so book, because I haven’t read it since I was sixteen years old. But I don’t care about that. I’ll never forget the effect that the book had on me then – on how it seemed to express who I was the time, at the pictures it called up in my mind, at how I felt when I read and reread passages from it. It remains one of the great reading experiences of my life. I’ve had other great reading experiences, to be sure. But the ones that I had when I was a teenager were among the best. Read as much as you can get your hands on. It won’t get any better. (It’ll remain very nice, however.)
GBSP: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
This is a tough question. I’m going to say no, although that answer is only partly true. I’ll see if I can explain. I wrote my first story (or the first I can remember) when I was in the fifth grade. I was ten or eleven. At that time I was trying to write like Steinbeck, and I wrote a lot of pieces that were two or three paragraphs long that sounded a lot like the opening paragraphs of the stories in Steinbeck’s The Long Valley. I learned to write by mimicking other writers, Steinbeck included. Mimicry of that sort is not only okay; it’s a good idea. Robert Louis Stevenson learned to write that way. He called it “playing the sedulous ape.” By trying to write like your favorite authors you learn a lot about the patterns and rhythms of the language. You learn to see things the way other people saw them – smart, imaginative, interesting people. Because of that you bring a lot more to your own writing. Anyway, my first real story was about a walking skeleton in a top hat, who smoked a corncob pipe and who terrorized a family in a farmhouse. The skeleton had no motive at all. He just wanted to freak out the family. I was happy with the result. My teacher liked it. I got the idea that it was fun to write stories, and so I wrote more of them. I read books and I wrote stories because it was fun to do so, and not because I wanted to be a writer. I kept doing that. Some years I wrote a lot. Some years I wrote very little. I was always reading, however. When I was 19 or 20 I started mailing stories off to magazines. That was fun, too. When the stories got rejected, I saved the rejection slips. I knew that virtually all writers were rejected many times, and so the rejection slips were evidence that I was doing what writers did. It was fun doing what writers did. Even then, however, I wasn’t trying to develop a career as a writer, although I was behaving as if I did. I thought I would have a career as a marine biologist. I was a fish nut as well as a book nut, and I spent a heap of time at the beach, looking through tide pools. I read and reread Between Pacific Tides, co-authored by Ed Rickets. Doc in Cannery Row is based on Ed Ricketts. I read Cannery Row over and over again, too – especially the sections about Western Biological, where Doc worked, and about the tide pools at the edge of Monterey Bay. That seems a little bit ironic – that Steinbeck’s work inspired me to write, but it also pushed me toward marine biology. Steinbeck’s The Log of the Sea of Cortez is essentially a book about marine biology and about Ed Ricketts. In college I discovered that my best grades were in English, and I drifted deeper into literature. I began to sell stories around the time I was 25 years old and suddenly I was a writer, although I was working as a carpenter at the time. In other words, I had a real interest in books and writing, but a lot of other interests, too. That was a good thing. The more I knew about these other things, the more I brought to my writing. Also, becoming a writer takes many years. If you say, “I must be a writer,” it can be very frustrating to have your work rejected year after year. Because of that, the vast majority of people who set out to become writers lose their passion for it. Better to say, “I want to write.” My advice is to read and write because that’s what you do, not because you want to be a writer. The most vital thing is to do the work, and it’ll turn out the same way in the end. In the meantime, go to the beach. Take a hike. Go on a road trip. Plant a garden. Unplug yourself once in a while from all those time wasting electronic devices. Learn to value silence.
GBSP: If you could give one piece of advice to young writers, what would it be?
I’d tell writers to read and write. It’s only by working that we develop our skills. Equally important, however, is to persevere. Thousands of would-be writers give up for every writer that sticks with it. If you stick with it, your writing will get better and better. If you let it slide, that won’t happen, and you’ll eventually lose interest. Don’t be frustrated because life interferes with writing; when you find time to write, write. There’s no tearing hurry. Read, write, don’t give up. One last thing: I think it was E.B. White who said, “Write for an audience of one.” That audience is you, of course. C. S. Lewis suggested that a writer should never ask, “What does my audience want?” or “What does my audience need?” It’s much better to ask, “What do I want?” or “What do I need?” If you follow those two pieces of advice you’re much more likely to be happy with your writing. Happy writers keep writing. And if you keep at it, the wider audience will catch up to you over time.