Friday, January 31, 2014

A Moveable Inspiration

Who do you count as your early-on writing inspirations when you were getting started. Has that changed over time? How? Why? 

by Paul D. Marks

HemingwayLoeb My writing inspirations are all over the place. Initially, I aspired to be a latter-day Hemingway, sitting on the Left Bank, sipping absinthe, chatting with my literary buddies. I wanted to live the romantic, adventurous life that Hemingway describes in A Moveable Feast. Yes, I liked his clipped and concise writing style, and his philosophy of the clean, well-lighted place, as well as the eponymous story, but I also loved the idea of that writer's life and lifestyle – so his influence is, or was, as much about the writer's lifestyle as his writing style. But when I tried it, drinking and writing, I just wanted to play – got no work done. Along with Hemingway comes Fitzgerald. Stylistically different, the two just naturally fit together, at least in my mind. One of my favorites stories is still Hemingway's short story, Soldier's Home, which I read every year or two.

But my writing influences don't only come from books and authors. I've always loved movies, uh, films, since before I could walk. And a lot of my writing has been influenced by them. I saw anything and everything I could, especially on the big screen. And though there's been a lot of influence from the movies in my work, from Frank Capra and screwball comedies to Alfred Hitchcock's suspense tales, and more modern directors like Martin Scorsese and even John Dahl, the thing that's stuck with me the most is film noir. I think I'm addicted, intervention needed.
I'm also one of those people who, while everyone else is leaving the theatre, is standing there, craning my neck around them, to see the credits. I've always been interested in who wrote a movie and, if it was based on a book, who wrote that.
So from this jumping off point, I began reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and other writers whose works were turned into noir or mystery movies. One of my favorites is  David Goodis (right), whose novel Dark Passage, was made into a movie with Bogie and Bacall. Having watched and liked that movie, I began reading Goodis, starting with the book that that movie was based on. But my favorite Goodis is Down There, made into the movie Shoot the Piano Player by Francois Truffaut. I have to say, though, that I'm not a fan of the movie, but the original book is terrific if you like down and dirty noir stories. Goodis has been called the "poet of the losers" by Geoffrey O'Brien, and his stories deal with failed lives and people who are definitely on the skids. They're often people who weren't always in this position though and the interesting part is seeing how they deal with their downfall – not always so well.

Along with film noir, the early hardboiled writers (though there is some crossover) have influenced my mystery-noir sensibility: Chandler, Cain, Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, etc. Along with these writers comes John Fante, although I'm not sure Fante would fit either the noir or hardboiled categories. Nonetheless his thinly disguised autobiographical tales of a struggling writer's life in early 20th century L.A. made enough of an impression on me that I wrote to him shortly before he died.
Later on I was drawn to Ross MacDonald with his psychological insights and James Ellroy with his corrupt and sultry grittiness. But for me Chandler, with his elegant descriptions, metaphors, characters, depiction of the mean streets and his ville fatale relationship with Los Angeles, will always be on top, as high above everyone else in his field as the Beatles are in theirs. They are sui generis, in classes by themselves.

What draws me to these writers and the noir and mystery genre in books and films is that they're about the other side of the American Dream. There's an inner core of darkness and corruption in society, a feeling of fear and paranoia. There's a moral ambiguity in the writings of most of these writers and in these films. They are the equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting (another major influence on my writing) with its cold light and shadows, filled with a sense of alienation and angst.
In much of noir and some hardboiled writing (and there is often, though not always a difference between the two) there's no sense of redemption, but much betrayal. No good guys, just bad guys and worse guys. The hero is flawed. People's own flaws and weaknesses create their fallibility and ultimately lead to their downfall. I think this appeals to me in the sense that it's a realistic, though often pessimistic and cynical, view of society. And in my own writing, both in my novel White Heat and many of my short stories, the characters are flawed, the situations ambiguous.

And now to throw a monkey wrench into the works, my two favorite books of all time are not hardboiled or noir, but both have influenced me in many ways. They are The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham and The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. The former because I relate to the character of Larry Darrell on a lot of levels, his disillusionment after the war (WWI), and his search for peace and meaning in life. And the latter because it's the ultimate revenge story and revenge is so satisfying, served cold or otherwise.

As to whether or not my inspirations have changed over time, the answer is not really. The old ones are still there, but new ones get added to the list all the time, everyone and everything from Walter Mosely, Carol O'Connell and Michael Connelly, to movies like Ghost World and Pulp Fiction.
And finally, the other early – and continuing – inspiration for my writing, as much as any writers or movies, is the City of Angels itself. I remember it well enough from when I was a kid that it still resembled Chandler's L.A. And later, my friend Linda and I would drive around the city, heading out in all directions, searching out the old buildings and the ghosts of old L.A.

L.A. is my own ville fatale. She is my mistress and a harsh mistress, indeed. But she is also my muse. But that's a whole 'nother story for the sequel.

Angels-flight-LA (1)


Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Paul! I love the old hardboiled "noir" novels, too, and like to reread them every once in a while for inspiration.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Meredith. They are fun, in a sort of down and dirty way.

Susan C Shea said...

Paul, what a terrific piece on 'noir.' Lately, people have been attaching that word to every kind of crime fiction and confusing the concept. Your definition brings it back to what it really is, and helps explain its core attraction.

Stephen Buehler said...

Good post, Paul. Our tastes and influences are very similar but our writing styles are very different.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Paul --
I've enjoyed everyone's contributions this week—both some great reflections on influences and some great recommended reading—but I did want to chime in here to say that I think your background and interests and mine seem to have a lot of similar points.
Really enjoyed your post here!

Catriona McPherson said...

The Count of Monte Cristo has the best plot ever plotted! Great post, Paul, and I live the idea of a "ville fatale". Edinburgh doesn't really cut it.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan, glad you enjoyed it. I agree with you, people use the term noir very loosely. And I think some don't even really know the definitition at all. But it's a marketing tool. It's a word that grabs attention. Still, I wish they'd be more precise.

Thanks, Stephen. It's interesting to see how the same tastes and influences can lead to different writing styles and way of expressing them.

Thank you, too, Art. I've enjoyed seeing everyone's influences this week, also. And maybe some time we can talk about our similar interests and background.

And thank you, Catriona. I agree with you on The Count. I'm not sure about Edinburgh as a ville fatale, but it does have Mary King's Close and other underground areas that seem pretty noir and maybe even fatale.

GBPool said...

Paul, Your writing does have aspects of those great writers, but you have added a soul to many of your characters that shines through and gives yet another dimension to both their character and your story. You took the best from those old writers and added your own magic touch.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Gayle, for the kind words. I've definitely been influenced by those people, but I do try to bring my own style or approach to it.