In this interview with the literary journal AGNI, MacArthur-prize-winning author Jonathan Lethem discusses originality and the way that "influence" and copying from other writers are part of the creative process. Lethem's previous essay on this, The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism, is a masterwork (I'm also a big fan of his novels, e.g. this one and this one).
I’ve always been a consciously influenced writer. I usually have some models in mind for anything I’m writing, whether it’s other novels, or some films, or sometimes even a comic book. In terms of prose style, I am almost always open to writing some degree of homage, or trying to adopt or import a part of another writer’s style into what I’m doing. Usually it’s more than one author, and/or it’s in combination with some radically different influence on the narrative strategy, or on the kind of motifs, characters, or situations that I’m writing about. I never think that this is going to simply seem like writer X, because I’m always colliding that influence with a number of other elements.
I’ve come to believe that there is something innate in my method, my sentences, and my approach to narrative and characters that’s inalterable, and that transforms these influences even when I’m not conscious of it. So I don’t ever think in terms of embarrassment or hesitation or reservations about being influenced or working with models. I pretty much assume that’s how it works for me.
I understand that a lot of other people are much more deflective or diffident or uncertain or unconscious about these processes, but I believe strongly that they’re what’s going on in making narratives for anyone. That is to say, I don’t see being open to influence as some kind of radical or postmodern or experimental or unorthodox proposition, I see it as a way of talking about what simply is the case, and always has been for writers of all kinds.
These levels of inhibition from talking about influence may represent a kind of contemporary condition. Certainly the frameworks for identifying influence or for being anxious about it or resisting it are very recent ones. I don’t think that these questions bedeviled people one way or another until relatively recently. So anytime people express surprise about my disinhibitions, I suspect that they’re responding to the discourse, not the practice.
Anyway, it has always been my pleasure to assert my influences, partly because it connects my reading life to my writing life, and they seem so fundamentally connected. It’s a way of talking about my enthusiasms for narrative arts of all kinds. And this preference makes the condition of having to talk about one’s work vastly more interesting, because I’m talking about stuff I love all the time.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.