Frank Wheeler: Five Things That Influenced Me

  1. Robert E. Howard’s “Conan”

So I found the first book, a collection of Howard’s early short stories later edited by Sprague de Camp, on a shelf in my public library when I was in sixth grade. I’d seen parts of the edited version of the movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing on TBS. My parents always made me change the channel. I figured it must be good. Figured, probably they wouldn’t say anything if I read the book. It was a book, after all, and they wanted me to read more. And it wasn’t even from the kids’ section.

Ten books later I was neck deep in the Howard’s Hyperborean world, and I’d read more sex and violence than TBS could’ve shown in a whole year. That’s when I knew books were cool.

It’s impossible to convey just how awesome it was to be a 12 year old kid in a private, religious school, and be reading about blood-soaked battles, murderous temptresses, and fertility-cult style gods and goddesses while my classmates read “The Hardy Boys” or the “Ramona” books. Not that I’ve got anything against The Hardy Boys, or Beverly Cleary. But it was Howard that turned on a light in my brain.

  1. Led Zeppelin

These guys helped me transition through my teens. I’d lost contact with most of my old friends, and was kind of drifting. I’d started writing a lot more, but I didn’t pay much attention to music. My tastes were haphazard: whatever caught my ear on the town’s oldies station, a few pop songs here and there, the odd soundtrack from a movie, and some classical music from my long-abandoned piano instruction. Most of the music I listened to then was at my part time job working in the kitchen of a pizza restaurant where the manager only played Nebraska’s premier classic rock station, “The Eagle.” A couple of songs perked up my ears, so I listened when the DJ credited them.

For me, I think it started with “Houses of the Holy.” That was the first album I played over and over while I was writing. Then “Physical Graffiti.” Followed by “4,” “3,” “In Through the Out Door,” and after that I forget the order, but most of the rest found its way in.

Blues, Hard Rock, Folk, in Zeppelin’s body of work, they all got mixed up and twisted around and had the life wrung out of them. The result was this new (to me) world of sound that was braver at times, subtler at others, never erring on the side of caution, and always full of the life-blood that inspired me.

Didn’t have a computer or typewriter then. I can still feel the ache in my fingertips when I set my pencil on my notebook and reached over to slip another Led CD into the player. Yeah. I used that energy like nothing else to get through those first stories and notes and drafts.

  1. Alfred Hitchcock

My mother got me started watching Hitchcock, and I am eternally grateful for this. “North by Northwest” might’ve been the first movie of his I remember watching. The scene with the plane chasing Carey Grant is still one of my favorites in cinema. But it was “The Birds” that really scared me to death. My family lived on a street behind which ran the cart-garages of the local golf course, and from the end of our driveway, there was a nice view of the fairway. I saw “The Birds” for the first time in autumn, and not even a week after, I walked out of the house one morning and saw the fairway carpeted in migrating birds. The trees were peppered with them also. I was eleven or twelve, and it was one of the most frightening moments of my life.

His work can get under your skin. Even if you don’t realize it right away, even if it takes a few days, it’ll get to you and keep you up at night.

Hitchcock taught me that a really good story had to scare you. At least a little bit. And it’s the scary parts that make it fun.

  1. Ernest Hemingway

Found this guy in college. If you want to know how to write about something without actually writing about it, he’s your guy. I’d read stories like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Center of the World” for an English class, but when I checked out “Old Man and the Sea” from the library (on sabbatical from school), his work really blew my hair back. I’m just glad he lived long enough to write what he did. He understood violence, and the place it inhabits in human nature, better than just about anyone.

Like they say about Melville’s “Moby-Dick”: it’s a book about whalers chasing a whale that’s not at all about whalers chasing a whale. All of Hemingway’s stuff is like that. Probably you’ve heard that iceberg comparison. How it’s all below the surface. It’s true. Call it minimalism, or whatever you want. The man had it cold.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying his work will cheer you up. In fact, if you’re in serious need of cheering up, don’t go near it. Having said that, do pick it up and read it when you get a chance. It’ll stick to your ribs like nothing else.

  1. Joseph Campbell

The moment somebody dismisses Joseph Campbell’s work, I stop listening. This guy left a map for storytellers. He spelled it all out for us in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and in even greater detail in “The Masks of God.” If his work isn’t relevant to a person’s creative writing, then that person is probably writing political pamphlets.

For me, the genius of these works is that he connects us all. Campbell shows how storytelling goes all the way back to a time even before what we recognize as language existed. It is a single lineage from the novelists and screenwriters of today going thousands of years back to the cave men who painted on walls. Every generation tells the story of its time using its own conventions, and in doing so, passes the torch to the next generation.

Problem is, because Campbell doesn’t distinguish religious stories from fiction in his analysis of creative works, you can’t mention his name without ruffling the feathers of many devout adherents of any given religious tradition. And because he’s considered “old fashioned” today, you can’t mention him to any devotees of the post-modern “isms” without getting serious eye-rolls.

Yeah, he’s trouble. Maybe that’s why I like him so much. Regardless, his work helped me situate my own work into a tradition. Helped me feel like it was part of something that made sense. That’s worth a lot nowadays, if you ask me.

FRANK WHEELER JR is an English teacher, fiction writer, reviewer, and author of THE WOWZER, from Thomas & Mercer, 1 May 2012. He lives with his wife on the plains of Nebraska in a small town surrounded by corn and cows.