Here we go:
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) is the quintessential American Author, and the first one that left his mark. Read Finn and Sawyer and Yankee in my youth, and devoured as many of his short stories as a man could humanly consume and still leave room for desert (though for the life of me, have never been able to finish The Innocents Abroad). Returned to the books I read as a kid and found so much more there. His satire was biting, and his writing style was natural and colloquial - you imagine him sitting on the front veranda listening to him spin a tale, a thimbleful of brandy untouched on the settee next to you because you don't want to interrupt him by reaching for it.
J. R. R. Tolkien is of course at the foundation stone for any western fantasy author of the past forty years. Grandfather Tolkien distilled the mythology of Northern Europe into stories that epitomized the middle of the Twentieth Cent. Gary Gygax always denied that he was influenced by Tolkien in D&D, and I believe him. But the the other influences he did have were niched or out of print by the time the game arrived and unknown to his market, while Tolkien was not. Plus the fact that the races available to the players (and therefore their first experience with the game) were directly out of the Council of Elrond. From Tolkien we get the epic nature of fantasy, the intensity of world-building, the ensemble as a fantasy trope, and, for good or ill, the idea of fantasy lives in trilogies and is sold by the pound.
Ursula K. Le Guin is my anti-Tolkien. Compact, neatly plotted, and personal, her fiction is stands in comparison with the massive triple-deckers that docked in the bookstore shelves in the 80s and 90s (a few of which I might have penned). Earthsea's first three small books in particular was delightful for what it did not reveal as opposed to what it did - there is worldbuilding here, but it did not get in the way of the characters. Loved Lathe of Heaven but could not get my teeth into Dispossessed.
P. G. Wodehouse should be of no surprise to those who have encountered Giogi Wyvernspur and Tertius Wands. I came upon Wodehouse early in my marriage, at a time before the Fry and Laurie version on the TV, when knowledge of the pair was more limited, and found Woodhouse's banter delightful. The saying is that Wodehouse wrote one story for sixty years, but his plots really were as convoluted as a door-banging French farce, and the raw pressure moving the story forward is incredible. The one to read is Code of the Woosters.
Hunter Thompson probably is a surprise (or not) because of his drug-fueled cynicism and habit of installing himself in his nonfiction. I found him when he was writing for Rolling Stone and I was in college. He is responsible for my use of the word "mojo wire" for any form of electronic communication. Foul-mouthed and observant, his best is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. A cleaned-up version of him (with more than a dash of Chicago columnist Mike Royko) showed up as the protagonist in Liberty's Crusade.
Arthur C. Clarke brought me into SF in junior high. In the Titusville Library, I found a copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which started with the line: "Behind every man alive now stands thirty ghosts". (It's wrong, but it's a great opening line). Loved Childhood's End (though it seriously creeped out the Lovely Bride). His short fiction, collected in books like The Wind from the Sun and Tales of the White Hart, is where he is at his best. I love how he could put a stinger in his final line of a story ("If any of you are still white, we can cure you").
Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, is the lyrical master, the wordsmith, the Norman Rockwell taking small-town America to the stars. Martian Chronicles was the one that kept coming back to me, stitched together of published stories and vignettes to create an interplanetary How the West was Won. He is both comfortable and chilling.
Harlan Ellison is like Clarke in that he is a master of the last line. There was a time when EVERYTHING he wrote was in print and available on the shelves at Von's bookstore in West Lafayette, Indiana. He excelled at short stories, but gains his status here as an editor - I discovered his Dangerous Visions earlier in high school, and had my mind blown by the borders of SF being pushed back. His career has gone from terrible infant to grey eminence, but he has been my favorite sort of writer - a working one.
Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are a matched set for me, and I will get the two confused. Hammett gave us characters like Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and the Continental Op (who is a favorite for me). He encapsulated noir, where the hero suffers for doing justice. Chandler taught me the importance of location as character - his stories of Phil Marlowe made LA (legendary from the Gertrude Stein quote of having no "there there") into a character. Chandler also wrote what is to my mind (and a bunch of other people as well) the best opening paragraph ever:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. - "Red Wind"He evokes the setting, but the undercut at the end, the joke, the punchline is what drives it home.
Frank Herbert wrote one of my favorite SF books: Dune, and for that if nothing else he deserves his place on the list. There is so much stuff going on here: Adventure Fiction, Man against Nature, Coming of Age, Strong Female Characters, Court Intrigue, Mysticism, Utopia, Dynastic Revenge, Cultures in Conflict, all wrapped up in an epic tale on a distant planet in the far future. It is what I was shooting at with The Brothers' War - a huge book that did not feel padded. Dune was muscle tissue all the way through. For me, it was a perfect book that could have just stopped there. The sequels were OK (Children of Dune was excellent), but the longer it went, the more of the life was bled out of it, and I never followed up on the authorized postmortem texts. Always the book I pick out from the shelves on a whim and then find myself fully rereading.
William Gibson is the author I read in hardback. I may know his literary moves by heart these days, but starting with Neuromancer he has charted a course in the future that has looped, by sharded realities, back onto the present. Again, he's a master of the first line, building the world and encapsulating it on the welcome mat. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel". Not "a" television, but just television. The rest of the world just follows naturally.
Barbara Tuchman represents for the Non-Fiction-Authors for me, her A Distant Mirror is as meaty as any Tolkienian Appendix. She managed to pull off both common life and political machinations, and influenced my part of Cormyr, a Novel with Ed Greenwood (I wrote the past chapters, he wrote the modern stuff). Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers and William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire also deeply inspired my work and worldbuilding.
George Orwell and Sinclair Lewis round out my fifteen, as they both fit in my mind as "political writers". Animal Farm is Orwell's best to my mind, while I found his Down and Out in Paris and England to be excellent, it arrived late in my own career arc. Lewis's Babbitt I read in high school and keep by my computer just to plunge into a few paragraphs of his pithy observations of 1920's booster-ism and American life. Sort of like the News from Lake Wobegon with more teeth.
There were a lot of near misses. Just recently discovered Nero Wolfe, devouring his work with the passion of a mid-life fling, but cannot call him an influence. Patrick O'Brian's naval stories define the genre, but reading them was something I picked up from Margaret Weis, and except for one short story, that potential influence lies unrealized. Zelazny's Amber Chronicles (the first five, thank you) were just nudged out by Dune. I like Lovecraft yet cannot fully embrace his nihilism. I cannot endorse C. S. Lewis without confessing I never read Narnia. I enjoy both Howard Waldrop and China Mieville but cannot say they have been influential. Bill Burroughs pushes out beyond Hunter Thompson into stranger lands. I will confess that, when left alone in the house, I will pull a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl I purchased at City Lights bookstore in SF off the shelf and read it aloud, scaring the cats.
Of my own ragtag bunch of colleagues and contemporaries, Lester Smith and Rob King's work will be discovered and discussed long after our fantasy realms are forgotten, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman embody Chandler's exhortation to "exceed the limits of a formula". Troy Denning and Doug Niles will be rewarded for their long labor in the literary fields in some retrospective. And in the aforementioned Cormyr, Ed Greenwood did a fly-through of a second-story restaurant in Arabel that has nothing to do with the plot but is just flat-out brilliant. But they are the writers of my time and place, and my considerations of their works are wrapped up with late-night conversations, parties and volleyball games, and drinks at a Lake Geneva bar, their influence more than just words on paper, and that very personal connection takes them off the list (with my apologies).
Those are my fifteen. What are yours?