I've spoken about Mary Renault as an influence before, but it's time I brought her full-front. She's not a mystery writer, of course, but she's probably had more effect on my writing than anybody else, possibly excepting John LeCarre - and that's a toss-up. I'm talking about conscious influences, not something half-buried, like N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for TREASURE ISLAND, say, but more along the lines of picking up on some startling coup de theatre and asking yourself how they pulled it off. Writers are jackdaws, scavenging shiny objects and hiding them in our nests. Sooner or later we persuade ourselves we owned them all along. Always steal from the best, Hemingway said.
Excepting the Theseus books - which have plenty of carnal sex, the guy fathered more children than Zeus - the novels are cast as love stories, THE LAST OF THE WINE, THE MASK OF APOLLO, THE PERSIAN BOY, and she manages this without any affectation or embarrassment. Whether it's physically consuming, or kept at a distance, or simply an old ember that still gives off heat, we feel both a lightness of heart and the breathless pull of Eros. Here are Alexias and Lysis on the beach. Alexias has cut his foot on a sharp stone. "I sat on a flat-topped rock, and trailed my foot in the sea. The water was clear, and the blood unrolled in it like smoke in a blue sky.... A gull screamed over us, an empty sound, to tell us we two were alone upon the shore." Tell me that's not a metaphor you'd kill for, We two alone upon the shore.
The thing I've always admired most about Mary Renault, and the thing I've always most wanted to imitate, is that her books are all of a piece, from breast to back, familiar and contained, and utterly confident, as if sprung full-blown from the brow of a god. They're entirely natural, without any sense of being labored over. Her voice, or voices, seem to come from inside your own head, like an echo. They don't smell of the lamp.
Craft is a matter of practice, and application. We learn by doing. But transcendence is a gift, and like as not, it catches us by surprise.