A question I always see writers get asked is: Who are your inspirations?
It’s a question that I’ve never really known how to answer. I put my flowery descriptions down to Arthur Conan Doyle, my humour to Terry Pratchett, my dark humour to Neil Gaiman. And of course there will be many others that have influenced me along the way without really noticing.
But I realised recently that there is one person I can credit as being the catalyst for being the kind of writer I strive to be.
Let me set the scene.
It’s 1996. I’m in Year 4, in Ms. Cornell’s class and I am 8 years old. There’s a French exchange student with us whom I adored. He’s not relevant to this story, I just thought I’d throw it out there.
Already I’d been creating stories. I still have notebooks with half-finished stories set around going to infant school. They weren’t the most creative but they were stories nonetheless.
I also had something of a reputation of being a compulsive liar. But it was never a case of attention seeking and definitely never with any malicious intent. It was just storytelling. Life at a 6/7/8 year old kid is not the most exciting, let’s face it. My mum still likes to recount the humiliating interaction between herself and my Year 3 teacher when she offered her condolences for his son who’d died. But who hadn’t actually died; it was just a story I’d told one day.
I loved reading and hearing stories but all the ones I told were very much of muchness. They were self-inserts, as they say. Tales of me at school, of me time traveling with Sonic the Hedgehog, of me meeting Howard Carter.
It wasn’t until one reading time in Ms. Cornell’s class when things changed.
We used to all sit in a circle while she read to us but we did things a little differently with this book. We set up a campfire in the middle of the circle; a bundle of sticks and leaves all balanced against each other in an approximation of a pyramid. A feeble attempt at imitating a scenario where people would gather to listen to tall tales by the fire light.
Feeble to an adult, perhaps. But as I remember it, I can almost see the fire. And I remember it being dark, in spite of the impossibility as it was probably about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, just after lunch time. But the scene was set. The atmosphere crackling.
Ms. Cornell opened the book and began. That book? The Saga of Erik the Viking by Terry Jones.
A lot of people probably know Terry Jones more for his Monty Python work but, even as a massive Monty Python myself, I will always consider him first and foremost, the man who triggered the storyteller in me.
Erik the Viking is a simple tale of a group of Vikings who set sail on an epic journey only to encounter many obstacles and treasures along the way. A Homer’s Odyssey for children, if you will.
I looked forward to reading time every day, anxious to hear the next chapter. It never really occurred to me that I could just get the book myself and read it in one go. But even if it had, I doubt I would have. Because there was something about the journey, the build-up, that made it that much more exciting. It became more than just a story, than just words written on a page. It became an experience. I’d never known anything like it.
When we finally finished it, I headed straight for the library to look for his other books. Fantastic Stories, a series of short stories of fantastical situations and Nicobobinus, an Enid Blyton-esque adventure story of two friends going in search for the land of dragons. Both just as captivating as Erik the Viking had been. I’d stumbled onto something eye-opening.
My writing changed from then on. It became less about me and other familiar faces and more about characters I’d create from scratch. Certainly there would be similarities, you’re still working with very little at 8 years old. But there was a fresh sense of creativity, of fun. And I remember enjoying it more. I suddenly realised that I could write about anything.
I didn’t just have to write about my own experiences, I could write about fantastical lands and mythical beasts. I understood heroes and villains, story pacing, sentence structure, ensemble casts… All of these things wouldn’t come into play in my own writing until many years later but the foundation had been set right there in that campfire circle in Ms. Cornell’s class when I was 8 years old.
I learned that stories exist to transport people to a certain time and place. They’re not just there to say something but to make people feel something. Thanks to Terry Jones and The Saga of Erik the Viking, I learned to stop just writing words on a page and instead paint pictures and scenes. It’s still a work in a progress and something that I will always be striving to get better at.
But next time people ask me my writing inspiration, I can go back to 1996, back to that unlit campfire and remember travelling across raging seas with a group of Vikings and say that without question, Terry Jones is responsible for the writer I would become.
And it’s still a proud addition to my bookcase!