I was recently asked who my favourite author was. 'Richard Laymon,' I immediately answered, sticking to my horror roots, the genre that has brought me a modicum of success and which, for those who are my readers, I am best known for. And it's true, Richard Laymon is my favourite horror author, and one of my biggest influences. I don't write in his precise, concise style, but I like to think he gave me some useful clues about horror, about the blood and guts of it, and I try to remember what I've learned through reading his work when I'm writing a new story.
But when I really think about it, really sit back and look back at the books I've read and the essays I've written and the way in which they have all shaped me and made me the person I am, there are two authors who stand out above the rest. One is Enid Blyton, and to her I shall be eternally grateful for pushing my childhood imagination into new places - picnics with the Famous Five, clambering up the Faraway Tree with Moonface, laughing at the various pixies and fairies and woodland elves who got up to mischief... It was wonderful. And I owe her at least a blog post in the near future.
It is, however, Virginia Woolf to whom I turn today. I first discovered her by accident in the school library. Browsing, not sure what I was looking for, I closed my eyes and stuck out my hand, grasping at the first book I touched. It was Orlando. I read the first page and I was hooked. The first sentence ("He - for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it - was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.") intrigued me, as all good first sentences should - why? who? how? where? when? WHAT?
I've read all of Woolf's works, from The Voyage Out to Between The Acts, as well as the short story collections, and loved every word. Everything. There is such poetry in her prose, each word laden with meaning, even as they are flowing and beautiful.
This is the style which, without meaning to (at least not consciously), I have tried to replicate in my writing. In particular, my unpublished novel At Peace With All Things is heavily influenced by Woolf's writing style. It's the minutiae of the moment that she captures, draws out, and make into something worth noticing.
My favourite Woolf novel, if it is possible to have a favourite, is To The Lighthouse. This at first seems a sparse thing, a simple observation of events over two days set a decade apart, one family who spend part of their holiday looking forward to a trip to the local lighthouse. But it's more than that. Of course it is. There is nothing simple in Woolf's writing, nothing is as it first appears.
It's all about moments. Special or mundane, they make up life, and they are all precious. They all lead onto the next, but they leave the person experiencing them changed in some way. As Virginia Woolf herself says, "Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works." This novel allows Woolf to simply write, to get everything she is thinking and feeling down on paper, all the while attributing it to her characters. It is freeing. And the result is wondrous.
And now, here is my attempt at a vignette written in Woolf's style. I'm still learning...:
An owl and a pussycat... They are staring at me. Both of them, just looking, glaring down from the rooftop above me. And I, unsure and unwise, stare right back. Not one of us blinking. Not one of us moving. Not one of us even breathing for long, long seconds that last for eons.
The moon is thick tonight, fat and round and near yellow as the sun as she hovers above us. She has her eyes tight shut against the world, not caring about us down here. And why should she? She is a queen in the heavens, the stars her subjects, loyal and stubborn and loving for all that. If I were her, I wouldn't deign to cast my shuttered eyelids towards the earth either.
I would stay regal and aloof and apart from humanity.
Just like the owl. Just like the cat. Perched together up on those dark red tiles, shaded by the night, lit by Her Majesty the moon.
The cat moves first, and for that I am glad. I may not have won, but neither did I lose. That is Puss's position, last place, first to give in to the temptation of the night. She stretches, shivers, stands and flicks her tail as though to say she meant to stop playing the game we didn't know we were playing. I let her go. I could call out, berate her, tease her, insult her for walking away from me and the owl and the moon who isn't looking.
I don't. The hour is too late, and the night is too quiet for any sound to be heard.
But I do watch her disappear across the roof, I watch her drop down to the fence and then down again to the pavement, scrabbling at the wooden slats with her claws, balancing herself as she plummets. She lands on her feet, as is to be expected. And then she is gone, black against the blanket of darkness, eyes shining for a moment, tiny tip of tongue poking from the soft lips.
I turn my attention back to the owl, hoping to let it know that it can go now if it likes, that I will win this, that I, with nowhere to go and no one to see, can stay here all night, staring upwards, my neck tense and knotted, my eyes misty with the strain of looking.
But while my thoughts were elsewhere, the owl too has gone.
I didn't even hear it go.
And I am left, my head turned upwards, my eyes scanning the scant sky.