I’ve always felt that to write books, you need to love books; one thing follows the other! But the inspiration to tell a story comes from many sources, and one that’s always been key to my work are the books that surround me, the books I grew up reading and the works created by the writers I admire and respect. I love to ask other authors about the books that inspired them – not only is it a great ice-breaker, but you will always learn something about the craft and you’ll almost always see enthusiasm.
I think of the books that have inspired me as like stars and planets – orbiting around me on my authorial journey, constantly exerting an invisible gravitational pull on my writing. So here are six titles that make up the brightest lights in that constellation…
If I had to pick a book from my younger years that I still love as much today as when I first read it, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams takes that honor. The novel is full of mad, hilarious ideas but it’s always grounded in the real and human. Even though I’ve read it innumerable times since I first came across it in my pre-teens, it never fails to make me laugh! Merging humor and science fiction, Adams’s use of language is endlessly entertaining. Hitch Hiker’s encouraged me to write my own stories, partly because of the joyful way it stretched my imagination and partly because the tone is so truthful, no matter how wild and out-of-this-world the narrative gets.
The James Bond mythos has always been a big part of my entertainment landscape, from my first experiences sharing the movies with my family on TV and in the movie theater – but it was years before I got into the original books, beginning with a dog-eared copy of Ian Fleming’s THUNDERBALL donated by my grandfather. It was like discovering the character of 007 anew, and the distinctive cover of the edition I read, with an image of a broken SCUBA mask, remains embedded in my memory. I was fascinated by Fleming’s descriptive method and his distinctive whip-crack sentence structure. Reading Fleming taught me lessons about the essential structure of a thriller, and in the future THUNDERBALL would inspire me to write my own spy stories.
The only non-fiction book on this list is William C. Martel’s self-published how-to guide THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING; I was introduced to it by friend working on a TV series at a time when I was trying to break into scriptwriting, and after years of reading books that purported to ‘break the code’ of writing action-packed narratives, Martel’s guide was the one that lived up to the hype. Written from the trenches, with no frills and no pretensions, I found gems of good, solid writing advice in every single chapter of SECRETS – not just for writing scripts, but for telling thrilling stories in any medium. When you’re finding your voice as a writer, what you need is practical guidance on a granular level, and Martel’s book has that in spades. My copy is twenty years old, and I still go back to it now and then for a refresher.
Sometimes a book will impact your consciousness in a way that forever changes how you read – and William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER did that for me. This seminal 1980’s work of science fiction blew me away when I first read it, at right around the time I was thinking that I might try to become a writer. Gibson’s laconic authorial voice and his inclination toward hyper-nuanced detail undeniably left its mark on me. This is the definitive cyberpunk thriller novel, gritty urban SF that comes together with incredible confidence. The sense of place and the pace made me want to write with the same self-assurance. Few books have resonated so strongly with me, and decades later, if I look through the pages, I feel the same pull to put down whatever I’m doing and start reading all over again.
These days, I write action thrillers, and it’s impossible to work in that genre without standing on the shoulders of the titans who popularized it; Robert Ludlum arguably invented what we think of today as the beach read, the airport novel, the blockbuster thriller – and his seminal novel THE BOURNE IDENTITY not only gave rise to a series of movies that switched up the language of thrillers on screen and off it, it also remains a benchmark for every other writer following in his footsteps. There’s a terrific momentum to the BOURNE novels that pulls the reader through at pace, and where Ian Fleming taught me how to write description in thrillers, it was Ludlum who imprinted the importance of a propulsive, page-turning plot.
And of course, if I am paying respect to my thriller heroes, I must also salute Tom Clancy, whose early works I devoured in the 80’s and 90’s, beginning with my well-loved 1986 edition of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. The master of the techno-thriller, the lesson I learned as an author from Clancy’s writing was the essential merging of a relatable, everyman hero with the dark glamour of the modern world of high-technology, high-stakes espionage. RED OCTOBER is the epitome of the thriller concept novel, and Clancy’s meticulous attention to detail grounds it in a reality that makes his fiction feel believable even at its most dramatic moments.
About the Author:
James Swallow is a New York Times, Sunday Times and Amazon #1 bestselling author and scriptwriter, a BAFTA nominee, a former journalist and the award-winning writer of over fifty-five books, along with scripts for video games, comics, radio and television. His writing includes the Marc Dane action thrillers NOMAD, EXILE and GHOST, along with fiction from the worlds of 24, STAR TREK, WARHAMMER 40000 and much more.
GHOST, the 3rd Marc Dane novel, is out now in the USA from Forge Books. Visit James’s website at http://www.jswallow.com/ for more, including ROUGH AIR, a free downloadable eBook novella in the Marc Dane series, or follow James on Twitter at @jmswallow.