When I was eleven or so, I was complaining to my aunt about how irritating my younger brother was. She, of course, said my brother was a great little kid, and maybe I needed to relax. So she lost points with me. Then she said, “If you want to read about siblings who fight over big stuff, you should read Nine Prince in Amber.”
So now she wanted me to read, too. More points lost. I hated to read.
Time went on. Then one day she showed up and gave me a copy of the damned book. I told her I’d read it. I lied, of course, but she was my aunt, and I liked her when she wasn’t sticking up for my little brother, so told a fib to make her happy. She’d forget; I’d forget; and all would be well again.
Only she didn’t forget. Every time I saw her, she’d ask if I’d started the book. Sheepishly, I answered no, that I hadn’t had time. This was when there was no internet or social media, no home video games, and no cable television. So, of course, I had time, and I spent a lot of it trying not to do homework. But, really, I was a bit put off by her belief that reading a book – any book – was something to get excited about.
But, as I said, I liked my aunt, and eventually I found myself staring at the book and dreading the next inquisition. There was only one way out: read a couple of pages, scan the back cover, and then tell her I’d read it – maybe even mention a character or two by name. That ought to do it, I thought.
So, I read the first page.
Along with all the other pages in the book, I’ve read that first page about fifteen times over the years.
This wasn’t a book, you see: it was an experience, a new and different world with cleverly drawn characters, plots, subplots, and mystery.
It wasn’t written for young adults by any means. There was smoking, violence, sex, murder, and intrigue throughout. The main character and first-person narrator was a devil-may-care kind of smartass and, simultaneously, a savagely determined – and very dangerous – protagonist with a strong desire to kill his brother. His reasons were good, but still.
(For the record, I was never that mad at my brother.)
Yet it was more than a story to me. Even though I was just a kid, the writing itself struck a chord. From the moment I’d read that first page, I wanted nothing more in the world than to be able to write words like the ones I was reading. They were a fabulous act of creation, and because of them, I’ve been writing ever since.
Nine Princes in Amber, it turned out, was just the first book in a five-book series, and only two of them had been written at the time I fell victim to my aunt’s less-than-subtle machinations. After Nine Princes in Amber, I devoured the second one, too, The Guns of Avalon, with my aunt’s smiling approval. She’d hooked me, and she knew it.
After the Guns of Avalon came the long waits between books, sometimes as long as two years. So I filled those dark times with new books, starting with – again at my aunt’s urging – the Hobbit. My reading list grew long, but nothing could satiate my desire for the next book in the Chronicles of Amber. But it was years before I would finally turn the last page of the last book in the series that had so captured my imagination. In the interim, I’d become a prodigious reader.
It’s now been close to fifty years since I first read Nine Princes in Amber, and its author, Roger Zelazny, has been my literary hero ever since. So much so that I deeply mourned his passing in 1995.
There are other writers whose works I like well enough to be sure, but none has ever risen in my esteem like Roger Zelazny, save Shakespeare.
No. Seriously. Roger Zelazny’s writing taught me how to tell a story. Shakespeare’s taught me how to hear the music in words. I never stray too far from the influences of either when I write. But if I had to pick one as the strongest influence in my literary world, it’s Zelazny all the way.