When The Secret of the Swamp King, my second novel, came out, a reviewer mentioned that I obviously had been influenced by Mark Twain. After all, the book features a lengthy raft trip, rough and ready river characters, and a boy who straddles civilization and wildness.
Ha, I thought. That shows what book reviewers know. As I wrote The Secret of the Swamp King, I never once had Mark Twain in mind. But the more I thought on it, the more I realized that of course Mark Twain was a major influence on the Swamp King and all my other storytelling. It may be true that I never actively thought about Twain or his influence as I wrote that book, but it certainly wouldn’t be true to say I never had Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer “in mind.” They were in my mind so deeply that I didn’t have to think about them.
I have written before in this space about J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of the “leaf-mould of the mind.” People often ask writers and other artists about their “influences,” but that question only gets at the influences the writer is aware of, perhaps the influences that the writer wants to be influenced by. But, as Tolkien says, everything you read and observe and remember goes into your mind, in a combination that is unique to you; that unique mix gives rise to something that only you could make. Story, Tolkien wrote, “grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”
I’ve been thinking about hidden influence and the leaf-mould of the mind as I’ve been preparing for Writing with Mark Twain, which starts two weeks hence. Studying the mechanics of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I’ve been able to bring some of Twain’s subterranean influence up to the surface where I can get a good look at it. I better understand what I owe to him. And it’s always a pleasure to feel a little more gratitude.