Well, Tolkien, of course. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE, FRSL, Oxford don and world-creator-on-the-side. As has been the case for so many people, he was a seminal literary influence on me. In fact, looking back, it’s hard to overstate his influence. My mother bought me The Hobbit when I was 11, and there’s irony in that I just couldn’t get into it. In fact, I think I tried unsuccessfully at least twice, eventually putting it aside. I don’t recall why it didn’t grab me, truly I don’t, because the very idea is heretical to me now. But there things languished until a family friend showed me The Lord of the Rings in one volume, recommending it highly. I started reading it --- might have been perversely attracted by its mammoth size --- and was immediately enthralled. It was the summer between elementary and junior high and I was all of 12. I don’t say that with any overweening pride --- I’ve said I may have been a wee bit precocious as a child --- but as a career teacher, I have not been made aware of many 12 year olds who could or would tackle such a work. So... maybe there is some pride in that confession. (As an ironic aside... I doubt that if Tolkien was published today for the first time he would find anywhere near the literary success he has enjoyed. In fact --- it pains me deeply to say it --- I actually have doubts he would be published at all. Many people’s acquaintance with The Lord of the Rings today stems not from the novel, but from Peter Jackson’s wildly successful films --- and I’m always pointing out to my classes that Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Jackson’s Middle Earth are very, very different places telling stories that, while similar in numerous regards, are also profoundly dissimilar in numerous particulars. Many people today watch the films, then turn to the books to get, they assume, more of the same --- which, of course, they do not receive at all.)
However, the upshot of my exposure to Tolkien was simple, but, quite literally, personally transformative: it made me deeply desire to create stuff like that, too.
There we are, simple as that. He had created something alive, something wondrous, something that could be held up and examined from many angles like a diamond sparkling in the sunlight. So I wanted to. Interesting when you think about it, isn’t it? Why does this creative urge come welling up from within the vaults of our souls? And why should Tolkien’s creative urge spark one within me?
But I didn’t want to parrot. As far as I’m aware, fan fiction didn’t even exist in the Dark Ages when I was young --- I think it’s mostly a child of the Internet --- but I never felt the slightest desire to write stories of Middle Earth or its races/creatures/civilizations. The idea never occurred to me: Middle Earth was Tolkien’s world, and to commandeer it --- even though chances of being published were zero --- seemed blatantly disrespectful and creatively bankrupt. I just aspired to Creation of a world, a world as rich as Middle Earth.
Now, in fairness, I look back at stories I wrote in junior/senior high, and yeah, they were, in various ways, pretty Tolkien derivative. One year, at the local senior high drama festival, I took part in a writing workshop conducted by a fairly well-known local playwright. I submitted a story for a critique, and he noted that there was no question I had been “influenced --- perhaps too influenced --- by Tolkien.” But he also noted, very kindly, that I seemed to have ability to string words together, and he encouraged me to find my own voice and carry on. So I did.
And then... I’m not trying to gloss over thirty years, but university arrived, and marriage, and children, and a teaching career. I wrote sporadically, but nothing organized. (Although I composed some pretty creative assignments for my classes.) Life was just too busy. Until, in the midst of a rewarding but draining career, ten years ago, I found myself deeply unhappy, and turned to writing about it. I wrote of a teacher who, also disillusioned with his career, was offered an escape by a very unusual being into another, perilous world. I had no particular design to write a novel, but... the writing was therapeutic, and the story grew. And eventually, I realized I was no longer writing for therapy’s sake, but because the story had developed a life of its own. It was absorbing. All kinds of amazing things were happening; some I had planned, but many I hadn’t, and I wanted to learn more about what was going on.
So I did. And the result was Gryphon’s Heir --- which Kirkus Reviews says is, among other things, “fabulously layered mythmaking.”
That’s a happy ending. For today, anyway.