When I was 10 years old, I discovered Bill Cosby.
Don't take me wrong--Cosby had been discovered a good number of years before that, and was already quite a successful comedian and actor. But the year I turned 10, I stumbled across a TV special he'd done and immediately became devoted to his comedy, particularly his album To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, which absolutely changed my perceptions in any number of different ways.
I don't think I'd ever listened to a standup comedy album before. My parents had some Allan Sherman albums, and I loved them, but they were song parodies, and not just a man talking. This opened my eyes (actually, my ears) to comedy possibilities.
And it wasn't long before my mother would have to remind me every once in a while, "I don't mind if you listen to those Bill Cosby records" (they had by this time multiplied in my collection), "but stop talking like him!"
That was my problem. The rhythms of Cosby's storytelling, his timing, his choice of words--all those things were so ingrained in my head that I would unconsciously pick them up and use them in my own conversation. I wasn't so much a sponge as a mirror. If it worked for him, it would work for me. And to some extent it did; I would actually recite Cosby records at parties for my friends and match him inflection for inflection. I couldn't think of the stuff myself, but I sure could mimic it. Catch me on a good day even now and I can give you a decent approximation of "Chicken Heart" or "$75 Car."
This has recurred a few times in my life. When my wife and I would watch Mad About You early in our marriage, it would take me a half hour or so to stop talking like Paul Reiser afterward. Today, my daughter is a huge West Wing fan, so we watch quite a bit of it (thank you, inventor of DVDs!) when she's home. And the Aaron Sorkin dialogue is hard to leave alone. That man can write dialogue, and those actors sure could deliver it. It's a trial not to walk and talk when I'm taking the dog out after a few viewings.
I won't even discuss what happened when I started watching the Marx Brothers.
People ask me which mystery authors I read. And I lie most of the time, and name people I know or people I like. I do read a few, but I won't tell you which ones. And most of them, I honestly don't read. At least, not when I writing something, which I am almost all the time.
I can't be sure I won't accidentally appropriate something. Not a storyline or a character, but a style, a rhythm. I read biographies, histories, non-fiction; that I can do. I'll read anything that doesn't bear even a slight resemblance to what I'm working on, which is generally a mystery book with laughs.
And I've had readers and other authors tell me not to worry: "You have your own voice," they say. "You won't steal something." Of course I won't. Stealing is intentional; I'd rather quit the business than appropriate something from another writer who thought of it first. What I'm talking about is subconscious. It's something that I wouldn't know I was doing, and possibly wouldn't recognize even after reading the work over again.
I don't want to risk it. It's not an experience I ever want to have.
But if Bill Cosby ever writes a mystery novel, I'm going to be in a ton of trouble.