Monday, April 18, 2005

Writing Under the Influence

(Writing from Albuquerque, New Mexico)

I am a susceptible writer. I read a novel or a play and I become aware the author's rhythm, speech patterns, and his style. Invariably it leeches into my own writing, and even if I am careful not to plagiarize, I can sense the influence of others. I try to minimize it, and no one -- yet -- has come to me and said, "Wow, you sure did a lousy imitation of ______," filling in the blank with the name of an author I'd recently read. My excuse is that I'm honoring their work, not plundering it.

And then there are authors that stay with me and become a part of me, their influence going so deep that unconsciously I channel them when write, even if it's on a topic or with characters they never imagined. One such author is the late Richard Bradford.

Red Sky at Morning was published in 1968. It is a coming-of-age novel set in the fictional town of Sagrado, New Mexico, during World War II. The adventures of Josh Arnold, a transplanted seventeen-year-old from Mobile, Alabama, and his friends are carefully crafted into a funny and touching story about life and learning in an exotic place. I remember reading the novel when I was about seventeen, and was captivated by the characters and dry, almost deadpan, narration. There was something about the combination that really touched me, and I never forgot the story. (It was well-received by the critics, and true to the fashion of the time, it was turned into a film starring Richard Thomas, Desi Arnaz, Jr., and Claire Bloom. They ruined it.)

In 1978 I moved out to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a year to be a ski bum. I was between grad schools and not ready to start Real Life, and besides, after reading Red Sky at Morning, I wanted to see the magic of the land and the sky that is so well described in the book. When I arrived I learned that the town of Sagrado was a thinly-disguised version of Santa Fe, and I reveled in discovering the places and atmosphere were as true to life as Mr. Bradford described them. I found a paperback copy of the book at a bookstore and re-read it between shifts running a chairlift at the Santa Fe Ski Basin. It was all there: the scent of the pines, the achingly clear skies, the deep rich color of the land, and the laid-back and mellow tempo of the people. I felt a sense of both deep admiration and envy for the author's simple style of bringing it so sharply into focus for a reader who, until then, could only read about it.

Life and circumtances took me away from Santa Fe after that winter, but in 1995 I moved back to New Mexico, partially drawn by the memories of the last time there and the reality of finding a good place to live and work. The first weekend I was back I drove to the hills over Santa Fe and looked west to the mountains in the distance to absorb the sun and the sky. I was already in the first pages of Bobby Cramer. I had already planned to put part of the story in the mountains, and putting it in New Mexico, gently paying homage to the influence of Richard Bradford and my own adventures in the mountains when I was not much older than Josh Arnold, was a natural choice.

I'm heading up to Santa Fe tomorrow. I'm taking Bobby with me. I don't think Mr. Bradford would mind.



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