Last week I spent most of my time at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. One of the events I went to was called “Contemporary Writers on the Classics.” In it, as you might imagine, several modern writers talked about the influence of classic works of literature on their writing. Laurie Sheck, author of A Monster’s Notes spoke of how she read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in the not-so-distant past, and how deeply she was impressed by the monster. How she carried thoughts of him with her through her day; when she googled something, she would think to herself, “What would the monster think reading this?” I was really stuck by her genuine love for the monster, and how he occupied her mind until she felt it necessary to write hundreds of pages through his eyes.
The story was almost the same with the other writers on the panel. Ib Michael, a novelist from Denmark, found the same obsession in something called “The Inca Chronicle,” an old handwritten manuscript with 400 by-hand illustrations. He studied and thought of this document endlessly until a novel came out of it. Giannina Braschi carried her love of other characters into her actual book, where she as a character interacts with them on the page.
I suppose what struck me the most about this conversation was the deep love and obsession these writers felt with other pieces of fiction. That they carried these works not as burdens they were laden down with, but as baggage they were glad to bear. The writings and characters of past authors became companions to them, occupying their thoughts and minds, making them take them into constant consideration. They were burdens born out of love. It takes a writer, I think, to engage in this sort of deep love for literature that also implies creation. Because it was not enough for these writers to love the ideas and the characters as they were on the page. They had to take them further, to give them new lives, to breathe themselves and their own minds into them. To make them modern with their interest, not to let them languish in dusty old pages or let their corpses be dragged through literature classes filled with bored students.
There was also something I deeply understood about this. There have been times when I was so deeply struck by a story that I had to put something of myself and my own words into it. One example is the story of Arthur Rimbaud and it’s influence on my story “Je Te Connais Bien.” I was so struck by Rimbaud’s life that I began interacting with his work in a lovingly obsessive way, and that turned into interacting with him as a character on the page, much like Braschi does with Zarathustra and Hamlet in her novel The United States of Banana. When I fell in love with the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, I began reading about the then enigmatic leader of the band, Jeff Mangum. I became so intrigued by his story that I carried it with me until it became the basis for the character Jack Tran in my short story “The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre.” This latter example is not quite the same as modernizing a classic, but the same spirit is there. Something clicks in your head. You have found something that strikes you very deeply, and it is not enough to leave it where it is. Some part of your mind wants to pick it up and carry it further. It wants to take it from the place it ends to a new place, a place that is yours.
If anyone ever picked up something where I left off, I would be so deeply honored to have them do it. If I were able to create something that struck someone in this deep and inspiring way, I think I would have completely accomplished my mission as a creator of art. I guess there are people out there who would think of it as a kind of plagiarism, or a lack of originality. But I think that inspiration is to be found in many places, be them life experiences, histories, or the creative works of others. And that we carry them all around inside of us and respond to them in our work whether we realize it or not.