Actually, this post is about stealing. I just burned the whole morning trying to justify my existence, and I thought I’d share. Anyway, this post was on another part of the board yesterday:
“I love Christopher Moore’s work—I’ve been on a laughing roll reading Lamb and a couple of others lately—I’m a very early fan beginning with Practical Demonkeping days—but I’ve had strange hauntingsa while reading Fluke—-feelings of been there/saw that—Like wasn’t there this TV show on Sci-fi Chanel that had whalelike ships that were living controlled by “pilots” (like whaley–boys)? Hey, wasn’t there? Really, a living organism ship with an integrated “pilot” and alien crew? Especially I liked the pilot who was totallly integrated with the the whalelike organism. Pilot was cool. Did I miss something here? Was this show given any credit? Isn’t Farscape a major influence on this novelties of this novel (beyond the Gooville meme/gene theme)?”
Me again. I wrote a sarcastic reply, but then I lost some sleep thinking about it, and I think a more serious reply is in order. Not because the post merits it, but because I need to make it.
Now that the initial rush of being pissed-off has passed, I will admit that there a parallel between the living ship Moya and live interface the Whaley boys use, but I assure you guys, I didn’t get that idea from Farscape. I liked the show, but it never occurred to me that Pilot and the pilots were similar. In fact, strange as it may seem, the Whaley boys on the ship are actually modeled on, wait for it, yes, pilot whales.
That said, I need to get this out of the way.
I am writing a book about the personification of Death. I formulated the plot nearly ten years ago, and submitted the proposal three years ago. Since then, Dead Like Me has come out on Show Time, and much to my dismay, many of the ideas I was going to use, were being used in that show. I’ve been scrambling all along to make my book different, and it is, but anyone looking for a parallel will definitely see one, because it’s a big, universal theme. It’s been around for as long as I can remember, this Death on Earth thing, from Death takes a Holiday, to Joe Black, to On a Pale Horse, to that early Twilight Zone with Robert Redford as Death, to Gaiman’s cute, perky girl Death, we’ve been putting a death suit on people in fiction for a long time. As with vampires and demons and sea monsters, it’s part of the supernatural pallet, and as with my work with those other elements, I’m hoping to bring something fresh and funny to the motif.
Since Bloodsucking Fiends came out in the mid 90s, there has sprung up an entirely new sub-genre of vampire fiction: Chick-Vampire-Lit, with titles like UnDead and Unwed, and Every Which Way but Dead, which explore blood and the single girl a little more thoroughly than my book. I don’t for a second think that these writers were inspired by Fiends, but I do think that there was a logical place to go with the vampire story, a logical point of view to be exploited, and several authors have gone there, completely independent of my single-girl vampire story. That’s how this works. If you start thinking about a certain set of elements in a story, you are bound to come to similar conclusions. (Start listing all the Faust motif stories you’ve read over the years and you’ll get my drift. Oh, Practical Demonkeeping is one of those as well.)
In the seventies there were two books that came out independent of each other that were so similar in plot that when they made the movie, they had to use both of them to avoid legal trouble. The books were called The Tower and The Inferno, the movie was The Towering Inferno. Coincidence happens. People were thinking disaster back then. Fire in a high-rise was the logical next step.
I got a letter the other day from someone who had just read Coyote Blue and said it reminded him of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. He wondered if I had been inspired by American Gods. Well, actually, I’m sure that I was inspired by a similar idea, that the old God’s are irrelevant to our time, and that if Gods are going to be relevant, they need to move and work in our world, a world of electronics and automobiles and instant communication, not of swords and monsters and nothing but agriculture or hunting parables, to which none of us relate anymore. It’s also irrelevant that Coyote came out some eight years before American Gods, but I know that Neil hadn’t read it. We were simply two authors working with the same theme, and coming up with completely different ways of expressing it. It’s obvious to anyone who reads the two books that a similar theme is at work, but that doesn’t mean that one begat the other. A couple of years ago I ordered all the Sandman books and read straight through them. Much to my surprise, one of the stories was about Joshua Norton, a homeless man who declared himself Emperor of San Francisco back in the 1860s. The story had been written and published about the same time as Bloodsucking Fiends, but quite honestly, because I’m not a comic book guy, Good Omens was the only work I’d ever seen from Neil Gaiman, and that because someone sent me a copy a few years after Practical Demonkeeping came out, citing a similarity, which there is none. Yet there they were, two stories based on the same historical character, mine, the Emperor, in Fiends, and Neil’s, more true to the history of Joshua Norton. How could that happen?
Because it’s fucking cool! Because as a writer you read a lot, you consume huge amounts of material, and when a good story manifests itself, you jump on it. Emperor Norton is a great story, and not an obscure one. There is still a city-wide chain of Emperor Norton bakeries in San Francisco, and nearly any historical account or display of the city will include photos of him. It fires the imagination of a storyteller.
In the same spirit, anyone who observes a whale, especially a blue whale, will come to the conclusion that they look “designed”. That they, in fact, look like large ships — streamlined and efficent. I first discussed the plot for Fluke with my agent back in 1997. He actually was talking about suggesting the idea that whale song have some kind of message in it to another writer, a friend of ours who was having a hard time coming up with an idea for his next book. As we chatted, in jest, I suggested that maybe there was someone inside the whale sending messages. That’s how it began. When the time came to write a second book of the Lamb contract, I wanted to do something that would get me out in the field researching, so I proposed the whale book. The Whaley boys came out of photo my friend, Flip Nicklin, took of a pilot whale, that looks very much like the Alien from the movies has just told you a joke and is enjoying the punch line before he bites your head off. I wanted to bring these outrageous hybrids between humans and pilot whales to the page. The interesting thing to me, is that most of the negative reviews the book has gotten on Amazon is because it’s too wild, too far out, just too unbelievable. In the review of Lust Lizard, Publisher’s Weekly said that I just might be a decent writer if I could reign in my imagination. That’s right, kids, too much imagination. I’m not out of ideas, is what I’m saying.
All that is a very long-winded way of saying that neither I, nor any other author I know would knowingly lift an idea from another writer. Inspiration? Sure, I’ve gone on ad infinitum about the writers who have inspired me. Coincidence, synchronicity? Absolutely. But when you make your living by making up stories, the joy, and I’m not kidding here, is IN MAKING UP THE STORY. That’s the new part, the discovery. The writing of it is, well, work. You’re not going to lift a story to make deadline, and on the contrary, I absolutely agonize that something will come out that’s close enough to torpedo a project because of the similarity. (I was mortified when, while writing Fluke, I saw the trailer for the Disney animated film Atlantis, where they have ships, yes, that’s right, shaped like whales. Fuck! How did they steal that from me when the book isn’t even finished yet? )
One last anecdote:
Back in ’95 or so, I did a lecture tour on a cruise ship, where I basically talked about writing for five weeks while they fed me and sailed me around the Pacific. When I got home, I sent a short proposal for a horror story (novel) set on a cruise ship to my agent, just to see what he thought. His assistant read it and sent me a note saying, “It seems derivative of David Foster Wallace’s article in Vanity Fair called A Very Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again,” which was a humorous account of Wallace’s experiences while on a similar tour. It had appeared while I was at sea, and I had not read it, nor have I read it since. Yet what did she say: “It seems DERIVATIVE”. Let it pass that I was writing a supernatural comic novel set on a cruise ship and Wallace had written a humorous true account of his own experiences. Forget that I would have characters and a plot and that I had never even seen the article, nor do I read Vanity Fair because it makes me feel unclean. DERIVATIVE!
Well, that woman, for no reason that has to do with me, is no longer with my agent, but some ten years have passed, and I’m still pissed off. To appear smart, to show that she was literate, to show that she could recognize the same setting, she basically accused me of stealing. This is an awfully serious accusation to make, and I would caution people not to go about it lightly.
An author may find inspiration in many places, including the stories of other writers, but it’s simply not part of the make-up of a writer to knowingly steal material. It’s too hard and takes too long to get to be a professional level as a writer to not have confidence in your own material. You know from the time you’re doing your first report in fifth grade that the one thing you aren’t allowed to do is plagiarize. If that was your inclination, you’d give up long before you went pro. You’d have to. I know there have been some pretty high-level cases of plagiarism in the last couple of years (Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin) but these were non-fiction writers, who probably just blurred material from their notes into the book. (I think the material in question in both cases was the matter of a sentence or two.) Novelists don’t really gain anything by swiping material. For one thing, we’re not working underneath the radar. Our stuff will be out there for consideration. People will notice.
It’s just fine to explore the similarity of themes in different people’s work – see how they handled it – compare and contrast, but think twice before accusing someone of stealing. It may just be a way to display your cleverness, but to the writer it’s important, and he may spend the whole morning writing out a blog post about it instead of working on a book that’s due in a few months.
(And, oh yeah, don’t ever, ever, ask an author to look at your manuscript, or even discuss an idea you’re working on. Why? Well, you know why now, don’t you? Because if he sees your idea, he can be accused of stealing your it. )