Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Answer: mostly, I steal them.
Whenever I tell people I wrote a book and describe the high-level premise, the question I'm asked more than any other is where did your ideas for the book come from?
Certainly within the pages of my book there are lots of autobiographical tidbits and details I pulled from people I know or situations I've been in. That said, more than any other source, I owe my book to... other books.
A (Related) Digression...
I always say that the reason I write started from being a reader. Over the years I was just so impacted by the books I read, that eventually I said to myself: I want to do this too. Which is all to say, for me, writing was always a response to reading. So it should come as no surprise that the characters, plot lines, details, setting, structure, etc. of my book owe a huge debt to the other books I've read.
An Inexhaustive List
Recently, I tried to identify every book that directly influenced The Childless Ones. While I almost certainly missed many of my influences, it was a fun exercise to see just how many different and varied sources I consciously knew contributed. Also (shameless self promotion: go!), if you happen to love any of the below listed titles, then you might want to pick up a copy of The Childless Ones.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Atwood's 2000 Booker winner was probably the most important influence on my own book in that it inspired the dual-narrative structure that is so central to The Childless Ones. In The Blind Assassin, a realistic story of a woman recounting her and her dead sister's childhood is occasionally interrupted by excerpts from the dead sister's novel, which recounts the story of a blind killer on a faraway planet.
This probably goes without saying, but the fantasy portion of my book--and pretty much every other high fantasy book that's been written in the last sixty years--owes a huge debt to the tradition Tolkien started. Without Tolkien, my book doesn't exist. Period.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Childless Ones isn't just a novel with two competing narratives. Additionally, each chapter can pretty much be read as a standalone story. This structural choice was heavily inspired by Egan's Pulitzer-winning "novel in stories." I was also inspired by how Egan chose to set a story in the future (in the much talked about "Powerpoint chapter") in an otherwise realist novel/ collection.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
Coetzee's amazing 1982 novel was hugely influential on one of the fantasy chapters of The Childless Ones, in which the governor of a backwater town awaits the onslaught of a mysterious invading army.
Dune by Frank Herbert
In Dune, people take a fictional drug called "the spice" to access genetic memories. In The Childless Ones a fictional race of beings called Mandrakar pass their ancestral memories through the roots of an ancient tree. Merely coincidence? Probably not.
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Stephen King's books are hit and miss in my opinion, but I'm still pretty convinced that the opening line of The Gunslinger is the most perfect opener in the history of books.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
The protagonist, antagonist, setting, conflict and mood are all established in twelve words. So enamored was I with the tone of this book, that I mimicked it shamelessly with an early version of one of my later chapters, even going so far as calling the character "The Man," before changing this moniker in revision.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
There is at least a little (or a lot) of Tyrion Lannister in my character Serafina Nicoletto.
Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
One of my lit instructors at KU recounted to the class a story of how a fellow writer (maybe Arthur C. Clarke? I can't remember) once bet Isaac Asimov that he couldn't effectively cross hard science fiction with detective fiction. The result was Caves of Steel and the other Robot novels, which are essentially buddy-cop detective stories (with one of the buddies being a robot). The books are fun, though in no way masterpieces; however, the story of the bet really got me thinking about genre mashups. And so, in The Childless Ones, in addition to the big genre mashup between literary fiction and fantasy, I try my hand at a number of mini experiments with mixing genres. Throughout, one can find traces of noir detective fiction, science fiction, horror, dystopian fiction, metafiction and even found-object writing.
Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer were direct influences on my detective character Nicoletto. Except Nicoletto's a woman... and a dwarf... and a drunk.
Some years ago, I was in a writing workshop led by Simon (if you haven't read his short stories, I highly recommend them). Much of my chapter entitled "A Haunted House" was inspired by my time at that writing workshop--and one of the ghost stories told in that chapter was derived from a ghost story Simon told us one night at the workshop.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I have mixed feelings about this book--particularly its hyper violence. Still, the character of Judge Holden stuck with me and, when I was writing The Childless Ones, I really liked the idea of creating a mysterious, supernatural villain in a similar vein who recurred throughout the book. Of course, as can happen with writing, things evolved over time, and the villain I created ended up being less villainous as the book progressed (eventually becoming the character Benedictus). Nonetheless, Blood Meridian was still an important influence on the evolution of my book.
The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal
I stumbled upon this book randomly in the Lawrence Public Library during the period of time where I was writing The Childless Ones. First off, if you haven't read it and you enjoy noir fiction, I'd HIGHLY recommend it. The voice of the main character is unforgettable and hilarious, and I imitated it mercilessly for one of my fantasy chapters.
A short story by someone formerly in one of my writing workshops
Years ago, I read a short story by a fellow workshop participants about a girl having an affair with her high school coach. That story ended up being a big part of the inspiration of my third chapter, "What She Would've Told Him if She'd Told Him the Truth."
I modeled the frenemy-like relationship of two of my characters (Benedictus and Aron, if you've read the book) on both Professor X/ Magneto as well as Elphaba/ Glinda.
So there you have it. Take all the books I've read and loved, throw them in a blender with my personal experience, let it all churn and spin for a few years, and my book popped out.
Hopefully, I did some of these great books/ stories justice.