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C.C. Humphreys: ‘I like the swashbucklers, of course’

Detail of a portrait prepared for the print version of this story.

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

C.C. Humphreys, who works as an actor, author and swordsman, returns this year with Shakespeare's Rebel, a tale of whiskey and weapons set in Elizabethan England. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

From my childhood, I loved Rosemary Sutcliff. I think if you were to take a poll of historical fiction writers of a certain age, she would have influenced many. Her brilliance in putting a reader totally back in a time and place, her descriptions of land and ways of being without ever being anachronistic. Superb.

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I like the swashbucklers, of course – Dumas, Sabatini. I read a bit of horror too and remember being blown away by Thomas Harris, especially Hannibal. How to terrify with character rather than gore. (Mind you, there's a bit of gore too!)

Did you imitate any of them?

I don't believe I ever consciously go: Ooh, this is a Sutcliff moment. What keeps me writing is the desire to write the book I most want to read, and haven't. Yet since I most wanted to read those authors… maybe.

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

My stories are quite different to most of the above. Perhaps it's my background as an actor and playwright, but I love both dialogue and cinematic imagery. I also like even dark characters having a sense of humour. Even Vlad the Impaler! Don't remember a lot of comedy in any of the influences above.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

Drugs and alcohol. Young writers don't take enough of either.

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Really? I think there's great danger in trying to impress too many people – teachers, parents, lovers. Opinion can be valuable but if you submit yourself, say, to critique groups, which is how a lot of writing classes operate, you will be bombarded with opinions, not all of them selfless. Nurturing your talent like a little flame, not letting every other person blow on it… it's so important.

Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

Gosh. Good question. A distant cousin might be… Under the Volcano. Trying to watch an alcoholic dig himself out.

Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?

Philippa Gregory – not least for starting the trend for cover art of women in lush gowns seen from the upper lip down. Wilbur Smith, for macho thrills.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

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I still love Hemingway for those simple powerful sentences. But I love someone who can make a sentence last a paragraph too, subclauses and all. John Fowles was a master.

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

The irony of becoming a full-time novelist is that my novel consumption has been cut 90 per cent. Too busy researching and writing. I used to fear influence, but I think I've grown more confident over the years. So when I get the rare chance to read a novel these days, it's "bugger the genre!"

This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.

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