This week’s featured author Alison Croggon wrote a wonderful guest post about being inspired by other work. Her new book, Black Spring, is her paying homage to a favorite classic, Wuthering Heights. Alison talks about how old works spark an idea inside and push you to present it in your own original way. This is a great read about writing and how to gather influence from other amazing things out there.
To take a classic and to steal its ideas is a cheeky thing to do. It has to come from a deep respect and love for the original book. Maybe that’s the first thing, and the last thing. But if Black Spring rings true, it’s because enough of me is in there to make it more than a dim copy of something else. A book is a shape in which imagination might resonate, just as a flute is a shape in which the breath of a musician makes music. Wuthering Heights was a shape I chose to breathe into; but I hope the music is all my own.
Years ago, an older writer told me that all books come from other books. This is why authors almost always say “read, and read lots” when someone asks them for writing tips. You come to the empty page with everything you ever read, and especially with every book you ever loved, living in your mind.
There’s another book that is just as important to Black Spring as Wuthering Heights, a novella called Broken April by the great Albanian writer Ismael Kadare. That’s where I got the idea of vendetta, the blood feud that drives many of the events in the book, and also the landscape for my story. But there are actually lots of other books. One of the most important writers behind Black Spring is also almost invisible: it’s Jane Austen. I was reading her obsessively when I was writing the book, and her voice is threaded into the voice of Anna, who is the main narrator.
If a book sparks inside you, it’s because it touches things you have experienced in your life: it opens new perspectives on something you have barely thought about, or it suggests a different way of seeing something familiar. Books not only open new worlds: they open new selves within the reader. Readers are collaborators with a writer: it’s their imaginations that rush into a book and make it come alive. The very best books of all change you and become part of what you are. I know that has happened to me.
Every time a writer sits down to begin a new book, he or she is rewriting the classics. Behind every sentence are the echoes of the sentences that have gone before. But that’s not the only thing at work, and not even the most important thing. Every writer also brings their lived experiences: tiny things, like the exact colour of sunlight filtered through leaves on a wooden fence, or significant things, like the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, memories of injustice or love, their own private sadnesses or joys. It’s these experiences that, consciously or unconsciously, make a book real.
When I began writing Black Spring, I hadn’t read Wuthering Heights for a long time, and I didn’t reread it while I was writing it. The only time I picked it up was when I worked on a couple of scenes which directly echo Bronte. But I did read Bronte’s poetry. I read her poems as a child, long before I encountered her novel, and it’s the passion and rawness of Bronte’s poems, more than Wuthering Heights itself, that drive the emotional subtexts of Black Spring.
Black Spring was the first time I approached a classic book. I have always been fascinated by the Chinese box arrangement of the narrative – a story within a story – and maybe, aside from an old desire to write a Gothic novel, that was what that attracted me. But what actually drove the book was deeper questions from my own life: What is love? What is friendship? What is betrayal? What is freedom? What does it mean to be female in a society that only values women as possessions? These are things that matter to me now, living in our present time, and I hope they matter to readers too.
Thanks Alison! Be sure to check Alison out on twitter and her website. Also, the giveaway we have running for three copies of Black Spring is still happening, open till 12:01 Sunday, the morning of the 1st of September. Don’t forget to enter to win one!