Welcome to Pogue's Pages!

I'm POGUE...known by many as Chuck Pogue, a few as Charles Pogue, and billed professionally as Charles Edward Pogue...just because it really looks BIG splashed across a theatre programme or a movie screen. From that last remark and the profile on the left, you can see I'm a theatre man...And the term "theatre" encompasses stage, film, TV. I've been shooting my mouth off on other people's blogs and message boards for forever. So having finally gotten the hang of it, I've decided to build my own soapbox from which I can pontificate, blather, and muse...mostly on theatre, film, writing, music, books...but ultimately anything that interests me, irritates me, or just catches my fancy. I invite you to join me. I'll try to be faithful and update regularly, so that when you visit there will always be something fresh percolating and maybe even provocative that we can discuss, dissect, or debate.

Charles Edward Pogue

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Literary Influences (Or what do Dr. Seuss and David Cronenberg have in common?)

Invariably whenever I teach or guest-lecture at some college, high school, or seminar, I'm always asked what's the best advice I can give to an aspiring writer. It is always one word: "Read." Read anything and everything. Novels, plays, history, newspapers, comic books, instruction manuals, the backs of cereal boxes. Writers are readers.

Reading not only helps expand your knowledge and love of language, it's also where you learn to develop a style, a voice, and hopefully a sense of simple grammatical mechanics that one should have grasped in grade school and high school. Now I don't profess to be the greatest grammarian myself and sometimes my spelling is atrocious, but I'm a fairly diligent proof-reader and able to catch the majority of my mistakes (particularly when I'm turning in professional work), and I had a rather exceptional educational grounding in English. Any failure not to absorb the basic tenets of our Mother Tongue was my own inadequacy, certainly not the fault of my many dedicated teachers and professors.

But those things I might have missed or forgotten are constantly reinforced through my reading. I may no longer remember how to diagram a sentence nor can I recite every grammatical rule, but most of it I just do instinctively because I've picked it up by reading writers who are better than I am. So if I dangle a participle, it's probably intentional...because I read that sentence over and over again and tinkered with it until it made sense to my ear.

The gist of all this is: You can't construct a screenplay until you first learn to construct a sentence. I've read scripts utterly devoid of punctuation and capitalization, mangled by incorrectly spelt words and tortured grammar. I've even gotten scripts unemblazoned with a title or author. It amazes me how many people think they can become film-makers without establishing any rudimentary communication skills. You can't learn to write a screenplay by WATCHING movies...at least not that alone. You have to read. You have to understand the literary craft. Screenplays are drama. Drama is literature.

Once when teaching an eight-week course at the LA Film School, I had a rather arrogant young man who thought he was the next Bily Wilder or Philip Dunne...Well, he probably didn't know who those guys were...let's just say he thought he was the next Shane Black. After reading a script of his that he boasted had been written in a drunk-fuelled all-nighter, I didn't have to de-bunk the myth that works of genius are created in a haze of booze or drugs. His illogical plot predicated on a chain of improbable, if not impossible, coincidences and unmotivated characters debunked that all by itself (Writers also have to be in control; indulgences and excesses have proved the breaking of far more artists than the making.).

But there was something else in his script which couldn't be blamed on his binge. I asked him in class when he was sober to spell the preposition, "through". He spelled it: "threw"; the same way he'd consistently spelled it in his script. It proved to me that he was not only not a proofreader, but he was not much of a reader at all. I suspect I can pick up any book in my library, open it anywhere, and probably encounter the word, "through" within five or six pages or less. It may not be "a", "and", or "the"; but I figure it will appear with some frequency in most texts. (I just went back and checked my own blog. "Through" appears in the third paragraph.) You cannot be a reader and not encounter this word all the time. Its spelling should be ingrained in a reader. A reader should have been picked it up by osmosis, after the third or fourth grade, surely. Writers are readers.

But what kind of a reader does a writer have to be? Ah! That brings up another question I'm often asked: "What were my literary influences?" A much more interesting question that produces a much more complex answer; because while I consider myself a pretty well-read fellow, I've hardly spent my life reading Hemingway, Faulkner, and Proust.

While I've read my share of what could be considered high-tone literature, much of it required when in school and probably most of it exploring theatrical classics, I have much more often gamboled in the fields of popular literature, much of which would even be considered pulp fiction...for which, I make no apologies. Of the thousands of books in this house (5 thou? 6 thou? I don't bother to count 'em), the heart of the collection is fiction...late 19th century to mid-20th century adventure, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction. A goodly part is theatre/film including a wealth of plays. Then there's history/mythology/and general reference.

(The library from different angles)

All of it undoubtedly shaped me as a writer. But what would I consider my seminal influences? Below is the list...that shaped me probably not only as a writer, but as a person too.


CARL BARKS...Barks, for years, was the artist and storyteller behind Walt Disney's Comics, who created the elaborate yarns of Scrooge McDuck and his nephews, Donald, Louie, Dewey, and Huey. Gladstone Gander. The Beagle Boys. Ole Scrooge, diving into his money vault like it was a swimming pool. Great fantasy excursions of wonderful wit and adventure.

COMIC BOOKS...in general...a part of my childhood...Archie, Tarzan, Superheroes, Westerns, Mad magazine. In my teens it was the more supernatural black & whites: Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, with great illustrators and brilliant Frank Frazetta covers. I still have several thousand Silver Age comics that I collected in college -- Conan, The Shadow, Doc Strange, Swamp Thing, Howard the Duck (comic was great; the movie crap).

ENCYCLOPEDIAS...When I and my siblings were very young, my parents made a major investment in our education by laying out for a set of Grolier Encyclopedias, as well as a series of books called Land & Peoples, and a Random House series of All About Books...I've been a reference book guy ever since.

The Grolier's got replaced years later with The Encyclopedia Britannica. Years later, with my first film money earned from writing, I bought my own set of Britannica. I also inherited my grandfather's set of the famous 11th edition Britannica. I have other reference sets: Man, Myth, and Magic; The Encyclopedia of the Animal World; Empires: Their Rise and Fall; Annals of America; the Enchanted World. I have dictionaries of all sorts: Rhyming, Underworld Slang, British-American, Quotations. I can go searching for something specific in some reference volume and find that I've suddenly killed two or three hours, cross-referencing, leaping from one topic to another. These reference books have helped me figure out scenes and plots and character motivation. When I'm doling out that advice to young writers, I always tell them any good writer has three books always close at hand: A comprehensive dictionary; a thesaurus; and Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

DR. SEUSS...I was famous in 2nd and 3rd grade for doing lavish, profusely illustrated book reports on the good Doctor's imaginatively surreal books.

EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS...where I became a read-a-holic. Flashlight under the covers. Reading till one in the morning. About the time I acquired glasses. Wonder if my reading habits had anything to do with it? Tarzan was mythic. John Carter made S-F palatable...because it wasn't hardware and spaceships, but really just interplanetary swashbuckling (years later, I wrote the very first Princess of Mars script for Disney of that oft-started, oft-stalled project. Many other scripts have been written after my adaptation, but mine has ascended to something of cult status in the Burroughs circles as the most "Burroughsian" script ever and even in some film circles). Burroughs was not a great prose stylist, but had boundless imagination...he also is directly responsible for both my literary/film ambitions. The books let me to the Tarzan movies and both Tarzan books and movies opened up my world to better writers and better movies.

SAX ROHMER...I learned the art of atmosphere and crackerjack pace. Swirling fog, mysterious figures in the dark. Also the art of anticipation...Fu Manchu was felt long before he ever made an appearance. Talk about building up a "star" entrance. Rohmer doesn't always hold up as well as he used to, his delivery often not as good as his promise, but he can still carry you on pure energy.

H. RIDER HAGGARD...SHE is my favourite novel of all time. And he wrote a ton of other good ones. For all practical purposes, inventor of THE LOST RACE novel. He hits me on a very visceral, primal level. He stirs deep waters. And I find he haunts me long after I've read him and I realize that pleasant little tale I read suddenly has a richer resonance. At times, his work has the pull of the Greeks and the Jacobeans in terms of its sense of somber power often veering into the tragic. GREAT STUFF!


RAFAEL SABATINI...a meticulous writer. I appreciate him more today than when I first read him. His Edwardian or even Victorian floridness can be a bit daunting when you're twelve. It goes down a lot better when you're older. His sense of period and history is quite nice, even if his plots and heroes are sometimes a bit genteel and quaint.

CONAN DOYLE...Sherlock Holmes. Need more be said? Yes, actually. A droll sense of humour and some of his other work is excellent, particularly Brigadier Gerard (see the origins of Flashman here) and the Challenger stuff. Some nice horror too.

ROBERT E. HOWARD...Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane. A visceral, muscular, moody poetic style. Much better writer than most realize.

(Howard's Conan; art by Ken Kelly)

P.C. WREN...wrote BEAU GESTE, among many others. Master of the convuluted plot and a dry sense of British understated humour.

BULLFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY...myths and legends every writer should know.

RAYMOND CHANDLER...taking the detective novel to literature.

DASHIELL HAMMETT...taking the detective novel to literature. On the surface, less poetic than Chandler, but actually very poetic in his own lean, terse way.

S.S. VAN DINE...the locked room puzzles of amateur sleuth Philo Vance. Very good early ones. The last half dozen fall off somewhat. I'm reminded of the Ogden Nash rhyme about Vance's often pompous superiority: "Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance."

THE PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE TALKIES...by Daniel Blum. I discovered this book around 10 or 11 and was fascinated by the stills of all these movies in it. Movies I wanted to see and set out to see.


MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS...Errol Flynn's autobiography, told with lots of panache and truth-stretching embroidery.

GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINCE...Gene Fowler's great intimate, affectionate biography of his friend, John Barrymore. (at right.)

CHARLES DICKENS...GREAT EXPECTATIONS was one of the best, most fun assignments in High School I ever had. Believe it or not, one of the first pieces of drama I wrote was a musical of this novel.

WILLIAM GOLDMAN...my senior English teacher at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Norman Yonce, gave me the best bit of advice anyone ever gave me when he told me, "In the next four years your life is going to change so dramatically, all this sturm and drang of high school will become such small potatoes." He also gave me TEMPLE OF GOLD to read by William Goldman, closely followed by YOUR TURN TO CURTSY, MY TURN TO BOW...I have been a fan of him ever since.

THE PRINCESS BRIDE initially escaped my radar until Bob Denver (yes, Gilligan! At left) gave me a paperback copy of it when we were working in a dinner theatre in Odessa, Texas. Nothing ever spoke to me like this book. I used to hoard used paperback copies of it to pass out to friends, saying,"Here, want to know who I am, what's going on inside of me...here, this book is me." Imagine my joy when in Book City in Burbank, I came across a pristine near-mint copy of this in hardback in dj for three bucks.

ROD MCKUEN...okay, okay, let it all out. Snicker, if you will. But in the late sixties, McKuen was something of a phenomenon...a poet who actually made money...making a big hit not only with his books, but with recorded albums of poetry. Norm Yonce, who introduced me to Goldman, introduced his creative writing class to McKuen with a series of spoken word albums called The Earth, The Sea, The Sky. McKuen poetry backed by music from the Anita Kerr Singers. He also did less embellished poetry albums that were actually better. I remember IN SEARCH OF EROS fondly. In those long-haired hippie days of peace, free love, and indulgent, navel-gazing sensitivity, they were the kind of albums you listened to in the dark, drinking cheap, screw-top wine (often fruit-flavoured) and wallowing in the angst of tortured love...or used as ambience while you tried to get laid.

THE HIGHWAYMAN...by Alfred Noyes. "The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees/The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas/The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor/And the Highwayman came riding-/Riding-Riding-/The Highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door." Unabashed romanticism!

BIG BAND MUSIC...When I was twelve or so, like every kid in America, I thought I could convert my parents to popular music, so I played for my dad a top forty hit by Brook Benton called SHADRACH. My dad listened, smiled and said, "That's not bad. But let me play something for you." He pulled out a 78rpm of Larry Clinton and his Orchestra playing SHADRACH...infintiely cooler than Brook's version (and I still love Brook and his version).

I've been hooked ever since. I raided that 78 record cabinet. From these records, I also discovered Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the wry lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, show tunes, movie tunes, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Skinnay Ennis, Ray Eberle, etc. And I wore the grooves off his Louis Jordan album.

A RADIO SHOW...out of Cincinnati, that every night played a Broadway show album. Here I heard for the first time MAN OF LA MANCHA, ALL AMERICAN (book by Mel Brooks), HAZEL FLAGG, BAKER STREET, and tons of other now-obscure musicals most of you probably never heard of.

MOON RIVER...This was a radio show that played from eleven o'clock to midnight on WLW in Cincy every night, where poetry was read to organ music. It always started out the same way..."Moon River/A lazy stream of dreams/Where vain desires forget themselves/In the loveliness of sleep/Moon River/Enchanted white ribbon/Twined in the hair of night/Where nothing is but sleep/Dream on...Sleep on.../Care will not seek for thee/Float on...Drift on.../Moon River to the sea. Many's the night I fell asleep listening to this show on my little transitor radio with its ear-plug stuck in my ear.

SHAKESPEARE...Encountered him in high school. Really discovered the joy of him onstage, performing him.

JOHN WEBSTER...The Jacobeans' sense of tragedy and Grand Guignol appealled to my darker sensibilities. Film Noir owes a lot to John Webster and his pals. WHITE DEVIL & DUCHESS OF MALFI both great, the latter I was in (at left)...and it has one of my favourite lines of all times..."We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and banded which way please them." I was delighted when I discovered that Stephen Fry has a book entitled THE STARS' TENNIS BALLS.

THE GREEKS...simple, direct, but poetic with inexorable, inevitable climaxes.

CYRANO DE BERGERAC...this play is almost indestructible. Regardless of whether I'm reading it or watching any production of it, I am left in puddles at the end.

A. MERRITT...a strange, lush poetic prose grafted to a rich imagination. Another of those authors who stays with me. It's almost like he writes in some sort of fevre dream.

RICHARD III...a biography by Paul Murray Kendall. History came alive!

PETER SHAFFER...everything he writes. ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN, AMADEUS, EQUUS. THE GIFT OF THE GORGON, may be the best play I've read in the last twenty years.

TOM STOPPARD...Have loved him since ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. Again, everything he writes.

LETTERS FROM AN ACTOR...William Redfield's letters to a friend while he was rehearsing and performing in the famous Burton/Gielgud HAMLET of the sixties. Great theatre stories!

1776...the musical. Back in college on a rainy afternoon, I remember sitting with Julieanne and Edd Little (now Edmund August) in Clay Nixon's apartment as he played us the original cast album. It was a glorious revelation. Years later, when I was on the Writers Guild Board, during a meeting with the Screen Actors Guild Board, I got to go up to William Daniels, then SAG president and who had played John Adams in that production of 1776, and tell him about that afternoon and how much it meant to me. As I've gotten older, I try to take advantage of such opportunities much more than I used to. I think people appreciate knowing that they have affected your life positively. And so many performers or writers never know how many lives they touch.

And, of course, my influences continue. Some late in life influences -- my pal HARLAN ELLISON, who I first discovered as an essayist and just plain raconteur before I encountered his brilliant fiction. TERRY PRATCHETT's wacky, wonderful, exquisite-fall-out-of-bed-laughing-out-loud Discworld novels. FREDRIC BROWN...terrific short story writer and novelist, who can lead you right down to the end of the story and surprise you with something you never saw coming but is always so perfectly logical, if not inevitable. HENRY TREECE...his historical novels about Greece and Celtic Britain are bleakly powerful dying falls. Even his children's novels are unrelenting, uncompromising, and mature. Wonderful poetic writer...

I'm sure there are others who I have overlooked...


So what writers or books changed your life, altered your perception of the world or yourself, inspired your creative muse? Tell us all about it.


  1. My first workshop class in college, the professor asked us all to write down our favorite authors. One guy actually raised his hand and said "Can y you put yourself?" His stories, needless to say, were terrible, and his ego was so big the prof eventually threw him out of class because he argued with every single piece of criticism he got.

    Anyway, I'm glad you mentioned She. I LOVE She.

    As a kid Laura Ingalls Wilder was my hero.i must have read all her books 5 times.

    Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea is the first book that made me want to write a book, and I immediately wrote the first chapter of a book exactly like it.

    As I got older Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha changed my perspective on life.

    In grad school, Bester's Stars My Destination became my all time favorite book and has remained so to this day.

  2. Emily,

    I have over thirty variant editions of SHE, including two firsts. I have also written a film adaptation.

    In a POUND OF PAPER by John Baxter, a book about book collecting, there is a section where he asks notable collectors and writers (a group in which he inexplicably includes me)which book they would save if their house caught on fire and why. SHE was my choice, pretty much for the reasons stated in the blog.

    I have had the EARTHSEA series for years, but never have read it.

    I visited your blog and particularly enjoyed your entry about how you are educating yourself on those old black and white movies via TCM and other sources.

    What a wonderful adventure you have before you, discovering these classic films. And how lucky you are to have such resources that make them readily available...TCM, AMC, DVDs, Video, the internet. In my day, it was a lot tougher. We had no tapes or DVD, only three or four TV stations, and all the films were cut up with commercials. If THE MALTESE FALCON or CITIZEN KANE came on at 3am, you set your alarm clock to watch it, because you never knew when it might come around again.

    Bob Osborne, who hosts TCM, is a fount of useful information. Acquainted through mutual friends, we maintain a genial, chatty email correspondence. I envy him his job; what a great gig. He's a lovely man.

  3. Thanks! I do remember when you had to wait a year before you could watch a movie on video. It was torture.

    And man, you really do know everybody.

  4. When you've lived long enough to make it into geezer-hood as I have, knowing everyone comes with the territory. I don't really; but I'll mention the ones I do know. Thanks for the plug on your blog.