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An Author’s Guide to Stealing from the Books You Love


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I steal. My fingers sticky, my pockets large, my wit quick, I take what I do not own. If it’s not locked up, bolted down, hidden, it’s mine. But at least I have some standards: as any professional thief will boast, only the best will do, thank you very much.

Of course I speak not of stuff, of loot, of swag. That would be vulgar. Plus it would require boldness, which I lack. I steal words, conceits, images, metaphors, structures, milieus, even whole plots.

A perfect example. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley returns to 9 Bywater and discovers by virtue of a chip he’d lodged atop his front door—elementary tradecraft, it now lies on the floor—signaling that someone has illicitly entered. Were I writing it, I would have said he makes this discovery fast or even “really fast.” Stretching mightily I might have said “in supertime.” whatever that means.

Le Carré placed the act “at a speed which has no place in time.” I could not have conjured that at a speed that has every place in time—that would be a million years. It smacked me hard in the head with the reality of what genius can do applied to the English language and in a small sense I remain dazed to this day. I was so entranced that I have used it in every book I have written since, while le Carré probably gave it no thought at all. It was so of his elegant style, it never lingered in memory. He had better things to do; I did not.

The business of naming the guns at play in typical Hunter surely comes from R. Sidney Bowen, whose World War II boys’ aviation novels I devoured in the ’50s. For Bowen it could never just be “a plane”; it had to be a “P-51D with a Packard-V-1650-V engine.” For me, following, remembering, honoring, stealing, it was never “a gun.” It had to be a “.45 ACP Colt 1911a1 manufactured by Remington Rand under War Department contract.” How is that better than “gun”? Not sure, but it’s more fun.

At least with le Carré and Bowen the theft was conscious, premeditated and wanton. I even feel whispers of guilt. But there is a more common sort of theft, of which I am far more frequently guilty. It traces its origin back to that moment when those of us lucky enough to do this sort of thing for a little money will have all shared and it gets at the thorny writer’s question of the difference between “being influenced by” and “stealing from.”

I refer to that spasm of bliss we all felt when we encountered a work so profoundly stimulating to our imagination. so in accord with who we were at the moment that it literally took over and became the world for a period. Through its lenses and by its values we saw and judged reality; its vocabulary became ours, its characters our friends, its big moments our earth movers. And though over time it eased its grip, it never went away. It sank through the strata and substrata of our cerebellum to the raisin of reptile brain way down there. For me it became “flight, fight or reread ‘Catch-22.'”

It might be a byproduct of innocence, as it becomes quite rare for a fully-operational adult. It also marks the moment when we first thought “I wish I had written that” became “I want to have written that.” And somewhere deep inside, a voice from that reptile brain will have replied, “Don’t worry, pal; you will.”

Borges has a short fiction—not quite a story, not quite an essay but an elegant meld of both—that addresses this point exquisitely. In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” he dryly tells us of the title character, whom you will have noticed is not Cervantes. He is instead a chap so in love with the great novel he wants to write it—not something like it, but its own self. This demands a lifetime of learning, willing, conjuring himself as the great señor, and ultimately he succeeds. He writes the exact same book spontaneously, word for word, and those who have read both, says Borges, claim that Menard’s is much better.

I can never be Cervantes. Thus what is left is a chance to be Menard. My career is about the ultimate, I suppose, in narcissism: I want to take the great work of the past and “fix it,” make it into my own

That was true of the first book of 43 years ago; that is true of the next book, of a few days off and too many in between to note. Both The Master Sniper (1980) and The Bullet Garden are attempts at the same thing, to turn Thomas Pynchon’s great Gravity’s Rainbow into “A novel by Stephen Hunter.”

On top of that follow two more equally ridiculous confessions: I didn’t really get Gravity’s Rainbow, but that didn’t have any effect on my need to use it, and in both the 1980 case and the 2023 case, so deeply did I convince myself of the delusion of my own talent I didn’t realize what I had done until months later. I actually thought I had written that. NOW I realize; no Tom, no Steve.

“Gravity’s Rainbow” is about a group of intelligence operators in the capital city of World War II, London, trying to track down a piece of German high-tech rubber called “Imipolex-G” from a project run by an SS officer named Blicero. They, er, seem to finish up in “the Zone,” Germany in the immediate aftermath of hostilities. I say “seem to” because I can’t make much of the ending, in which the quest seems to dissipate. But in the preceding 600 or so pages, Pynchon has pulled us through a brilliant recreation of the times, a free-form riff on the culture, the artifacts, the ideas, the memories of 1945 in the ETO. He puts you there.

My literalist imagination demanded that I take those materials and squash them into the rigorous artificiality called plot, with its cheesy middlebrow insistence of beginning, middle and big end, complete with “twists.” comic relief, wisecracks and gunfights. He had the courage to leave readers flabbergasted. I don’t do flabbergast; I just do The End.

His inspiration was the universe; mine “Osprey’s Guide to World War II Uniforms.” Actually he probably consulted Osprey’s too, because he clearly sweated the little stuff. The difference is that he just started there, but that’s where I stopped.

The point is not my felony but my process, which is probably your process too, everybody’s, even Pynchon’s, even Cervantes’s. Without that blaze of excitement when we encounter the novel of our dreams and feel it snuggle in, what are we? The answer isn’t pretty. No one wants to be that guy.
Instead, we are writers. We steal.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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