Sometime in 1984, my friend Katherine gave me a mixed tape. (I just can’t bring myself to use the current “mixtape” spelling. I am middle-aged and refuse to be taught this new trick.) Sides A and B were chock-a-block with songs by a Chris de Burgh, from Ireland. I listened. I loved. The epic, balladic sweep of some of them; the quiet intimacy of others. The shameless sentimentality of most. (Even at 14, I was pretty clear on this quality.) I loved them all.
As the years went by, I wore out many more de Burgh cassettes, both mixed and purchased. I listened to them so often, in fact, that warped tape sounds became an integral part of my memories of the songs. I’d re-spool the most stubbornly self-destructive of the tapes, light-headed with dread—because if the re-spooling didn’t work there’d be nothing for it but to buy the thing again, and there was only so much allowance to go around.
When I was in grade 10, “The Tower”—a beautiful, lushly scored, fairy-tale parable of a song—inspired me to try something new: fan fiction (though I didn’t know this term at the time). I took de Burgh’s words, his story, and transformed them into my own. Somehow I ended up giving the two typed pages to my grade 10 history teacher to read (such a browner, me)—and she, in turn, read them to her young daughter. This was a breakthrough moment in my writerly life: someone I didn’t know had listened to and loved something I’d written. (So thrilled was I that it didn’t occur to me until much later that Mrs. Whelan might have been embellishing, or even outright lying, to spare my feelings.)
Katherine and I realized the dream of our teenage lives in grade 11, when we saw Chris de Burgh at Maple Leaf Gardens. Apparently my sing-along gusto was intensely embarrassing to her, and possibly unsettling to those around us in the nosebleed seats. I was oblivious to all that. “Borderline”? “Spaceman”? “Transmission Ends”? I was transported; I had to sing.
Last night, way too many years after that Maple Leaf Gardens magic, Katherine and I saw him again, from our definitely-not-nosebleed-seats at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. I didn’t know the first song, but I was in tears anyway, the moment he started singing it. Serious, streaming tears.
Another time he made me cry? When I was 14, lying in my bedroom—lit only with glow-in-the-dark-stars, once the other lights were off—listening as his voice rose to unbearable sweetness: And when you lie beside me / Soft and quiet in the night / I often listen to the rhythm of your heartbeat giving life… I had no idea how to deal with the intensity of my own longing. It was huge. It hurt. It hurt that I hadn’t felt anything close to what he was singing about; for some reason it also hurt knowing that I would, someday. Last night I cried because I was right, at 14, and because I was 14, once, and because his voice is still so sweet.
“The Lady in Red”, possibly his most famous song, was one of my least favourite. Still: when it came on at the 1986 Crescent Boys’ School semi-formal, I was wearing a red dress and my very first heels (2 inches at most), and my boyfriend wrapped his hockey-player arms around me and buried his face in my hair and sang along, in his tone-deaf way, and life just couldn’t have been better. Last night—yup. Tears, as I remembered.
And we met someone. Katherine was on my left; on my right was a young man named Sina, a doctor who came to Toronto from Iran six years ago. Just a year later, de Burgh performed in Iran with a prominent group of Iranian musicians. At last night’s concert, during the closing chords of another song I didn’t recognize (one of the sentimental ones, full of “I love you”s, both sung and projected, in a variety of languages), I heard Sina suck in his breath. Not just him, either—many of the audience members. “That last thing he said,” Sina told me, “was ‘I love you’ in Farsi. And did you hear? Did you hear how many Persians there are here, who understood?”
After de Burgh and his backing orchestra performed “Spanish Train”, Sina’s must-hear song, he turned to me and smiled a huge, dazzling smile and declared, “Now I can die happy.” Delighted, delightful hyperbole—and he told me I could quote him.
It was a pretty sodden, wondrous evening, all in all. A celebration of a precious and enduring friendship; a deep plunge into nostalgia, and the crazy-liberating joy of songs that aren’t ironic at all, and don’t care to be. An encounter with a person for whom these things matter too.
Life just couldn’t have been better.
I’ve only ever taken one creative writing course. When my stint as a creative writing instructor began at the University of Toronto, back in 2006, I was pretty sure this made me a fraud. I was terrified one of the students would ask me what I’d learned from creative writing courses—but none of them did. Now, many classes on, I’m breathing easier. (Until someone asks me how I feel about three-act vs five-act structure, at which point I get all tense and sweaty—for here is yet another student who quite reasonably likes things empirical and road-mappy, while I, beneath my scorn, am more than a little bit afraid of numbered acts.)
I can’t remember exactly when my own single creative writing class happened. I must have been in grade 7 or 8. I do remember that the teacher asked us to do a brief but all-senses-engaged point-of-view exercise, and that I chose to write a paragraph from the perspective of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan, the 9-year-old girl whose body was found in a fridge in Toronto in 1983. Her story had moved and frightened me, and I felt compelled to try and be her, for a paragraph. To be terrified and in pain in ways I’d never been, myself. I remember feeling guilty, as the words flowed from my pencil—because surely I was exploiting her tragedy for my own really banal ends. But the words did flow. And when we were all done (I believe this was a timed free-write), we went around the circle of desks and read our pieces aloud.
I don’t recall anyone’s reaction. I do recall feeling tremulous, at first, then almost deliriously excited—because the act of saying them made my penciled words live in a whole new way. And then I felt guilty all over again: giving a murdered girl a voice that wasn’t hers, then delighting in my own voice, had to be some kind of tasteless, right? Why, even without the subject matter, delighting in my own voice had to be some sort of egotistical no-no. Right?
Thirty-plus years later, my read-aloud words are the voices of people imagined or long, long-dead. And I still love reading. I continue to think this love is unseemly, and I continue to enjoy indulging it, every time. Sometimes it’s intimidating: I remember one reading, right after The Silences of Home came out, when a woman at the very back of the room put her head against the wall and closed her eyes. I soldiered on, despite the sinking, “I’ve lost one” feeling. Afterward this very woman approached me and told me I’d melted her brain, “but in the best way.” Then there was the inaugural Nuit Blanche in Toronto, when I read from A Telling of Stars at 3:30 a.m. (Yes. A.m.) I sat in candle-lit darkness on a stage in the Heliconian Club, surrounded by a shocking number of people: shadowy people lounging on pillows and couches; really, profoundly appreciative people, who probably hadn’t come to see me read, but who gasped at all the right spots, and applauded for a very long time. I didn’t only read from my own work, that early morning. Each of the authors had been asked to come with a book or passage that evoked bedtime, for them, and I brought my battered copy of Goodnight Moon. I encouraged the audience to say the rhyming words, and they did. It was utterly magical. I was in control—and yet I was just one, reacting to and with the many.
I’ll be reading from The Door in the Mountain at the Eden Mills Festival on Sunday, September 13th. My slot is five minutes, at 3:30 p.m. I’ll probably enjoy every one of them.
I care deeply about my characters’ emotions. Some readers have opined that I care too much—that I describe emotion too lingeringly, in prose that occasionally verges on indigo. Jaele’s numbness—because it’s a self-defense mechanism, and just as important as the grief it keeps her from feeling. Nola’s helpless rage. Ariadne’s jealousy. There’s love too, obviously: all kinds of it, from unrequited to urgent to waning to steady to tortured. I try to be at least a little inventive about whichever emotion I’m attaching words to—because the path to writing emotions is hard, and littered with clichés.
Fear, though—fear is one emotion I might have treated with unwitting carelessness. I realized this in June, on a motorboat in Howe Sound. Or, in fact, a the day before, on the cliff walk near the Capilano Suspension Bridge. (I could actually go all the way back to the plane, but I’ve mentioned my fear of flying before, if in vague terms.)
How have I described fear, in my writing? A hammering heart. Blood pounding in the ears. (Though this can be anger, too.) Sweaty palms. A fluttery pulse. Sudden dizziness. A dropping-away of the ground beneath the feet.
And yet as the ground dropped away beneath mine, on that cliff walk, I felt none of those things. They were probably happening—the thudding heart and dizziness—but all I was really aware of was a strange sort of trembling in my chest and a desperate desire never to let go of the cables on either side of me, never to lift my feet. So I clutched and shuffled, camera swinging from my wrist, casting furtive glances at the splendour above and below me. My brain felt like it was splintering into pieces of wildly differing sizes, each with its own volume setting: My god that’s beautiful rock, striated—what a weird word, “striated”—trees growing out of it; I CAN’T I CAN’T; my god that’s beautiful water foaming down there, boulders, more trees, taller than any I’ve ever seen before; I can’t believe how high up can’t believe it, shouldn’t be so high up; LOOK ONLY AT YOUR FEET ignore everything that’s swirling around in your peripheral vision trying to pull you over and down; for CRAPSSAKE…
And then there was the motorboat.
“It’s pretty choppy out there,” said one of the girls who worked at the marina. “Really windy. Not the best day. Actually, we’re going to give you a bigger boat.” But my intrepid husband had a distinct spring in his step, as he made for the boat in question: he spent years making this trip to Anvil Island to count seals, and was eager to introduce me to their descendants. He never did. About half an hour out of Horseshoe Bay, as the far-too-wee boat pitched and yawed in waves that looked deceptively modest from shore but were, in reality, white-capped and vicious, I blurted, “I can’t do this!” in a warbly, wobbly voice that carried beautifully over the wind and motor noises. I could barely feel my fingers, which were digging into the vinyl seat beneath me. My hair and face were soaked. Mountains towered on our right, Anvil Island loomed not that far ahead, the grey ocean water churned—so beautiful, one brain-splinter noted, but another, louder one made a wordless noise that just wouldn’t stop. And that thing was happening in my chest again: deep in there, and all the way through, not just where my heart was. Supersonic shock waves. Dizziness that had somehow gotten lost on its way to my head.
I’d tried, in that half-hour. Thought: I can’t believe how much of a doofus you are. What’s wrong with you? I looked at Peter, just like I look at other people on planes—people who read magazines or watch movies or sleep (what the HELL is that about?) even as condensation spreads around that tiny hole in the window (the hole that’s obviously supposed to be there, but come on) and the seatbelt sign dings on, about 30 seconds after I’ve felt that surge that presages turbulence. I look at those people on the plane; I looked at Peter as he drove the boat, and urged myself to be that completely OK with things. But far above the ground, and apparently out on the ocean, I just can’t be. The wind, the water—much too big. Myself—much too small. I’m afraid.
The things I put my characters through! The danger, the drama—and their hearts hammer for a bit, and they wipe their sweaty palms on their skirts, and maybe their voices shake. I’m not sure I’ve ever come close to describing profound fear—probably because I’m fortunate enough not to experience it all that often.
Peter turned the boat around, in a wide arc that had us rising and hitting hard whenever the waves struck us broadside. He cut the motor in the lee of Bowyer Island. The boat rocked, but much more innocuously. The sensation in my chest ebbed, leaving me feeling hollow and light. My hand shook as I tore off the first chunk of fresh baguette; two chunks later, it didn’t.
I’m forgetting my nouns. Other things too (walking into a room for something—what?), but mostly nouns. I say “thingy” a lot, and roll my eyes, even as dread snakes through my gut. Maybe I’ve used “thingy” since I was 13 and, amusingly, just don’t remember. Maybe it’s a peri-menopausal symptom (someone—who?—told me about this). But it doesn’t really matter whether hormones are to blame, or whether it has ever been thus: I’m abruptly and acutely aware that I’m forgetting.
When I was young enough never to imagine aging in anything other than abstract, philosophical terms, I worked the Sunday shift at Edwards (why no apostrophe? Why, when the owner’s name was Edward?) Books & Art at Yonge and Eglinton. I’d score the upstairs, with its Edward-proscribed stool, and plant myself behind the counter, and I’d read. It was Sunday, after all: the customers trickled, at best, and tended to be browsers, not buyers. On other days I’d read fiction, but on Sundays it was all about the New York Times Book Review. Voraciously democratic, I read every review—every single one, whether the book in question appealed to me or not. I could feel things stirring in my brain, as I read: connections; shadows that weren’t quite ideas; ideas that I had to scribble down on the backs of the flyers we always had stacked on the counter. I gleaned strange and compelling tidbits from reviews of books I never intended to read because they were about politics, or physics, or a dead musician or actress. Words written about words got me all fired up to write words.
A few years ago, my parents gave me a subscription to the Sunday New York Times. Reading it continues to be a ritual, but it’s been devoid, for the most part, of the kind of glorious agitation I felt when I was 22. Because my Sundays aren’t just about sitting on a stool, in silence broken only by Bach or Vivaldi or possibly early Beethoven? Because I’m older, and not nearly as voraciously democratic about ideas as I once was? Because I’m older, and things don’t stir in my brain as they used to?
Today, though, I felt an Edwards echo. It’s spring, at last: everything’s Kodachrome green, and the cherry tree next door is shedding blossoms like snow, and we can sit on the porch again, with paper and laptops, coffee and maybe Baileys. I’m not writing, but I’m starting to think about thinking about it. All of this, and who knows what else, contributed to some sort of NYT-related alchemy.
I read every article in every section of today’s paper, except the ones about business and sports. (OK, so “democratic” I’ve never truly been, not even in the halcyon year of 1990.) Strange and compelling tidbits abounded, from the profound to the prosaic. I read about Kris Kardashian (who, pregnant and grieving for her friend Nicole Simpson, wore some of Nicole’s maternity clothing to O.J. Simpson’s trial, at which Kris’s former husband was defending him); Victorian death rituals (a paper band attached to the brim of a hat that had belonged to a four-year-old boy: “In affectionate remembrance Richard Nicholls Milliken Born Feb 11 1857 Died Dec 23 1861”); the connection between destructive factory fishing and World War II; DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, who use social media to document police brutality, cities in flames, the places where black men have died: “Our demand is simple. Stop killing us.”
There were connections, too, as there always seem to be, when you read enough. From that article about Victorian death rituals: “I wished I had saved a lock of my sister-in-law’s long black hair. Not just because I loved her, but also because I am selfish. Will someone feel the same about me? Isn’t that what we all want: to be remembered?”
And from an article about Frida Kahlo, this quote from an art museum director: “This continues to hit a nerve with people. The paintings are Kahlo’s way of saying: ‘This is how I thought. This is what I lived. Remember me.’”
And, just now, logging on to my own website in preparation for posting, I enter my password and tick that box: “Remember me.” (No matter how many times I tick the box, WordPress never remembers me.)
Profound to prosaic—a thought, a hope, an idea, a thingy: remember.
Years ago, just after my second book came out, I attended a swishy Penguin event to welcome the man of that particular hour, David Davidar, to the company. (Not all that many years later, this is what became of him.) Afterward, because sometimes canapés just aren’t enough, my editor invited all “her” authors out for dinner. I ended up beside a young woman I’d never met before, who, before the appetizers arrived, had already made it clear where she stood on a number of issues. One of them was TV.
“I don’t even have one,” she said, in a tone that managed to be snippy as well as languid. “There’s simply not enough time to write—so why would I possibly waste my time on TV?”
I said something like, “I really enjoy TV”, in a voice that trailed pretty quickly into silence. Her self-satisfaction was intolerable, but it was also daunting; I didn’t have it in me to challenge her.
Now, ten years later, I will. Because (and this is both rationalization and truth): TV helps me with writing. And in a related “because”: Justified.
I’ve always said that I’m not really any good at plot, possibly because I pay too much attention to certain reader reviews. (“It’s a story that’s definitely more about people and character than about a fast action plot”; “The plot-minded part of my mind — ha — got bored because it felt like nothing was happening”; “Didn’t read until the end, wasn’t going anywhere”—I could, but won’t, go on.) The Silences of Home was tough, plotting-wise: so many threads and creatures and battles, which I’m still convinced I’m not good at, either. The Pattern Scars: different reasons, but same problematic plotting. Walking briskly down to the beach sometimes didn’t help. Sitting in coffee shops with a fresh notebook page in front of me often didn’t help. What did help, in both cases, was Law & Order: SVU. Yes. Because every night (thank you, syndication) I got to see how formula can work, and work well. And how characterization can be done deftly, or not, and what effect that has on plot. Part of my brain would be actively following the stories; another part would be quietly making associations and decisions about my own story. I wouldn’t be able to give any specific examples of these decisions, if someone asked me to, and I know this sounds like an authorial brand of truthiness, but: Trust me. I know it happened because I felt it happening.
And it’s not just about plot, whose requirements can be fulfilled even via not-so-great TV. Watching a good story provokes the kind of raw, emotional response that makes you want to tell a good story. Take Justified. My god, the heady joy of it: the language (especially the Boyd-Raylan banter), the crossing and double-crossing, the mayhem and murder, the inter-family vendettas that run so deep they’re practically chromosomal—but really, especially, the language. Your jaw drops, listening to it. It surprises.
I think that’s what this blog entry has been trying to say, o long-ago Penguin dinner companion of mine. Like any art, TV, at its best, is unexpected. It’s new. It hits you in the gut and the synapses and shakes you out of solipsistic creative doldrums. It can also make you want to drink bourbon. A lot of it.
I feel as if I do a lot of whining in this blog—when I’m writing about writing, anyway. Part of me thinks this is OK, because I’m being honest, and writers so often talk only about the positive, exciting stuff. Part of me thinks it’s disingenuous: I want to be admired for my honesty. So I’m going to promise myself (and you) that I’ll stop with the possibly disingenuously honest anecdotes about writing-time-gone-by.
Right after this.
Two of my three fellow panelists were considerably younger than I was. These were their first novels—to remember my first, I have to go back twelve years. I was 33 then, wide-eyed at my trips to Penguin headquarters; delighted by expense-accounted lunches with my editor, an actual professional who wanted to talk to me about my first book. My second, two years later, was supposed to be my breakout book. I was put up at the Fairmount Hotel Vancouver, on my book tour—on the same floor as Wallace Shawn! There was a lounge, on that floor only, open at all hours, full of fresh food and freshly-opened wine bottles and copies of The New York Times and The Guardian. “How would you like your coffee, Ms. Sweet?” “My…coffee?” “Yes. We’ll bring it to your room whenever you like, in the morning. With a newspaper of your choice, and a yogurt parfait.” The parfait was delicious. The bathrobe was plush. Pope John Paul had just died; I lounged about on the plumpest pillows imaginable, watching images of the Vatican on mute while my very small children mumbled into the phone, from four provinces away.
Just over a year later, in the bar of a convention hotel, a young man was holding forth at great length about the awesome deal his awesome agent had just made for his awesome young adult trilogy—the plot of which he went on to explain in loving detail. Even during my own recent period of heady, publishing-related delight, I would never have gone on and on as he did—not because I hadn’t been headily delighted, not because I hadn’t wanted to gush and inspire more than a little impressed, say, envy, but because I’d been afraid of seeming self-absorbed. (And I had been self-absorbed, of course—just silently.) Anyway: I was having a really bad convention. I’d just received my so-called “royalty statement” from Penguin; it showed a negative sales number, and five figures of in-the-red, misplaced publishing hopes.
I very rarely let myself snap at anyone, in social or professional situations; I’m terrified of not being liked. But I saw actual red, as the guy talked on, and on, and my insides were acid with envy and defeat, and so I snapped at him. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something like, “I was promised that great things would happen to me, too. Get back to me in five years—no, three: we’ll see where you are by then.”
He raised his eyebrows at me. The people gathered in the circle of comfy bar chairs stared—or I assume they did; I was seeing a kind of puce, now. At some point, probably far more quickly than I imagined, someone said something subject-changing, and I subsided into my chair because it would have been too humiliating to leap to my feet and flee, as I so badly wanted to.
Over a year later, I ran into the guy at another convention. He grinned at me. “Hey: you’re the bitter, resentful one!” I had to agree that I was. (I have no idea what happened with his YA trilogy.)
Now back to Manhattan, in 2015. I’m on a panel. The other three panelists are younger than I am (two of them waaaay younger), and so effortlessly, gorgeously stylish that I (in my Blundstones and brown cords) want to leap to my feet and flee the moment I see them. Two are first-time authors. The third already has a movie deal. (To her enormous and hard-to-credit credit, she doesn’t mention this on the panel: I find it out four days later, via the full-page ad her publisher has taken out in the New York Times Books section.)
We each read brief sections from our books, then answer the moderator’s questions, then the audience’s. The other authors gush about their agents, all of whom are effortlessly, gorgeously stylish, and sitting right in front of us. I talk about how my New York agent dumped me over my penultimate book, and how a succession of agents turned down my last one. I manage to be both nonchalant and defiant about this, and I get all the right kinds of laughs—but my insides are acid with envy and defeat. In one of my other answers, I work in mention of Penguin; I need these agents and editors, here in the Mecca of publishing, to know that I was once with a Big House. (I almost don’t mention that it was Penguin Canada, because I know it’ll undermine the whole Big House thing: my NY former agent always told me that Anything Canada would be considered a backwater company, here in Mecca.) I want to turn to the three women beside me and snap, “I was promised that great things would happen to me, too. Get back to me in five years—no, three: we’ll see where you are by then.”
Some audience members ask me questions. Three of them buy my book. They’re eager to talk to me, as I autograph the books. They’re wonderful. I’m grateful to them—and I very badly want to leave.
The next day there’s no more writing stuff: there are just the Cloisters, and an ego gone blessedly, if only briefly, quiet.
They’re electronic. They have gorgeous covers. And they’re mine—my first two novels, long out of print. The brief introductions I wrote for these new editions are below, along with the links to the e-books themselves.
They’re back, baby.
I started A Telling of Stars when I was twenty. I was nursing a broken heart and an unrelated yet equally overwhelming sense of disillusionment with fantasy; I thought I’d try to address the latter, anyway. I’d write a story that was difficult, that offered ambiguity instead of closure, rendered in language that would be lush, as wonder-inspiring as what it described. I’d subvert tropes all over the place. It would be my protest fantasy, and there wouldn’t be a single family tree diagram or whiff of capitalized Good and Evil in the entire thing. And I’d write it for me—just me.
I started Telling in a tiny bachelor apartment, on a blustery December night in Montreal; I finished it on a sunny November morning six years later, in a tiny Toronto bungalow. I put it away, then. I had no idea whether I’d achieved what I’d set out to do, all those years before, and I wasn’t nearly as vehement and fierce and angry as I’d been then. I was sad, mostly. A dear friend of mine had died, as I was writing; another died as I was revising. They were both in the book, as was the guy who broke my heart, and my first love (who didn’t). My protagonist’s grief, longing, helplessness and hope were mine. I figured it would end this way, for her: with a manuscript that I put in a box. But it didn’t. Years later, I hauled it out and reread it. And I got an agent. An editor. A publisher. Readers who weren’t my parents and sister. It was a dizzying, amazing thing—until a few years after that, when it slipped quietly out of print. I figured it would end that way.
But, thanks to ChiZine, and you, it didn’t.
My first novel, A Telling of Stars wasn’t supposed to be published. It was my own personal protest fantasy novel, begun when I was twenty, and all fired up to subvert tropes. But then, ten years after I’d started it, I found myself with a Penguin Canada editor (the marvellous Barbara Berson—who, like me, is no longer with Penguin Canada). She loved it, despite or perhaps because of its first-novel excesses—and she wanted The Next One.
Part of Telling’s trend-bucking, I’d told myself from the beginning, was its stand-alone-ness. I would not write a sequel. No way. This was one young woman’s story; the reader would see her world through her eyes, only. But all those years later, casting about for another idea, her world wouldn’t let go of me. Fine, I thought. Not what happens after her; what happened before. Whether because I badly needed to rationalize breaking my own iron-clad rule, or because there actually was a difference, the prequel thing felt right. Jaele’s story was definitely done, but the story that had inspired her journey—the legend of Queen Galha, who’d lived hundreds of years before Jaele’s birth—still hadn’t been told. Not really. Because what if the tale of Galha’s epic revenge quest wasn’t at all like what had actually happened?
I had no idea, when I thought up the legend of Queen Galha, that I’d completely overturn it, in a subsequent book. (Yes, mostly because I never thought there’d be a subsequent book.) But that’s what I did—and it was so much fun. Jaele encountered people and creatures and places, in Telling, but she never stayed long, and I never had to fully understand any of them. In The Silences of Home, I had to fully understand them. I returned to the shonyn’s riverbank, the Alilan’s painted wagons, the lofty spires of Luhr. I figured out the Sea Raiders’ real names, and what their homeland was like before Galha got there. These were delirious discoveries. Silences is much longer than Telling, and much more involved—but I wrote it in a nine-month blur, in 1.5-hour increments, while one daughter was at kindergarten and the other daughter was napping. It remains the most thrilling writing experience I’ve ever had.
How and why does history become legend? I hope you enjoy finding out as much as I did.
I’m reading the Harry Potter series for the first time—aloud, to 12.75-year-old Younger Daughter. We’re three quarters of the way through The Goblet of Fire. There are some neat, worldbuilding-related details, and some preteen, best friend moments that are kind of touching. But other than that: man, these books are flat. Flat, derivative and dull. Rowling slaps new names on fantasy tropes, murmurs Tolkienorum Rowlingiosa, and makes a billion dollars—and no, it’s not sour grapes talking, here, truly: it’s befuddled boredom.
And it’s not just me. “Oh great,” Younger Daughter sighs, when there’s another quiddich match or Triwizard contest coming, “one more thing Harry’s just going to win because he’s Harry. And if he doesn’t win, he’ll only win BIGGER next time.” And, yesterday, “Characters should change: that’s what makes stories really interesting. But no one’s really changed at all.” *
When I was Younger Daughter’s age, I constructed elaborate fantasies before I fell asleep. I was the Chosen One, plucked from my mundane existence (indeed, from Earth itself!) to take my place among a fellowship of others who were a little older than I was, and wise, and hot, and wielded powers they (or the hottest one among them, anyway) would teach me. Because I had those powers, too. Always had, without knowing it—except that yes, I’d known (somehow, I’d always known): I was different. I was special. And there was somewhere far, far away that was so much more amazing than 20th century Canada. The yearning hurt. The yearning was wonderful. I remember lavishing many, many bedtimes on the plucked-from-mundane-existence part, and on the training-in-magic part. After that, the scenarios got vaguer. So now I’m trained up. I’m ready. I’m listening to the soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back, and I’m taking on a baddie with my hot companions, and now we’ve won, and we’re celebrating, and there’s some kissing. Aaaaand…back to the beginning. Because what can top the first victory, other than a series of other victories that will look and feel the same, only not quite as good? And really, the best part of the fantasy was being identified as a magical and special being in front of all my school friends—and maybe dropping back to visit them once I’d kicked baddie ass and done some kissing. Definite high points. But the fantasies got thin. They wore out. Because how often can you win? How satisfying is it to strive and suffer in a magical place but to know everything will be okay, always, no matter what?
I’m also reading something else now (silently, to myself): The Magicians trilogy. Sometimes, when I tell non-genre readers that I write fantasy, they say, “Like Harry Potter with grownups?” I always cast about, trying to figure out how to respond (and so many people ask me this question: how is it possible that I have to come up with some new iteration of answer every time?). Next time I’ll say, “No: Lev Grossman wrote those.” He wrote them deliberately, interrogating fantasy tropes, extrapolating and expanding: Boy Magician Grows Up. Things Are Gritty. Magic Isn’t Wonderful; Magical Lands Are Strange and Creepy. Brakebills is Hogwarts and Fillory is Narnia, with pockets of Wonderland and Oz and Middle Earth, and it’s all incredibly intellectually satisfying—the way the story’s mirrors and clockwork reflect and refract it, and all the other stories from which it sprang; the way it buttresses and deconstructs the expectations and longings of both characters and readers. You can’t call it derivative, because it’s so deliberate. Grossman doesn’t just slap new names on old tropes and pass them off as wildly inventive: he lines them up, their former names intact and invoked, and performs careful narrative thought experiments on them.
He’s not just clever: he’s an excellent writer, and a particularly excellent writer of character. His protagonist’s motivations are so painfully true, and so beautifully expressed, that I actually find myself squirming on the couch as I read. And I’m reading fast: the entire first book in a day, and now, on day two, well into the second. (The statutory holidays have helped.)
So this is it, right? The antidote. Smart, well-written escapism (about escapism). I should be loving the hell out of this series. Right?
But I’m not. I’m liking it. A lot. I’m appreciating its layers, its perfect pitch, and its wry self-consciousness (“I just don’t see Plover coming up with all that stuff on his own,” says one of the characters, referring to the author who, in the Magician books, wrote the Fillory books). But it’s precisely this clever self-consciousness that keeps me from loving it. I can’t lose myself in an experiment, however eloquent or successful.
So what do I want?
Once again, as I have since I was about eight, I turn to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles for guidance. They tread the same well-worn paths so many stories have, before and since. After vanquishing the big baddie with a motley but wonderful group of companions, the orphaned assistant pig-keeper finds out he’s actually the High King. He proposes to the spunky, red-headed princess. The end. Escape complete; fulfillment of characters and reader, total.
But not quite. Moments after the princess has tossed her head and agreed to marry the assistant pig-keeper-turned-king comes this final paragraph (SPOILER ALERT for any of you who haven’t read these absolutely wondrous books, and intend to):
And so they lived many happy years, and the promised tasks were accomplished. Yet long afterward, when all had passed away into distant memory, there were many who wondered whether King Taran, Queen Eilonwy, and their companions had indeed walked the earth, or whether they had been no more than dreams in a tale set down to beguile children. And, in time, only the bards knew the truth of it.
I remember crying, the first time I read this, grinding my fists against my eyes. I loved these characters. They were real to me—only they weren’t. I knew it. The man who’d conjured them knew it. Even that last line wasn’t enough: I still cried, protesting and accepting; so, so happy, and so incredibly sad. It wasn’t the simple regret of coming to the end of a great book; it was a dizzying feeling, of being prodded awake by the author and sent gently back out into the world, suddenly understanding that nothing, no matter how beloved or perfect, lasts. Taran and Eilonwy might have gained everything, but I hadn’t. The yearning was still there, and it still hurt—wonderfully.
Magic that feels organic, not calculated. Longing (the characters’ and/or my own) that’s never completely assuaged. These maddeningly subjective things are what I want.
And now I’m off again to Fillory—though it’ll always be Prydain I’m trying to find.
*I know that at least a few of you will say, “But you’re only on book 4—things get REALLY DARK in the next one.” I’ll get back to you on that.