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.
I’m sitting in bed, covered in blankets and cats, sinking into the falling-snow quiet that’s somehow seeping through the walls of the house. The house is quiet inside, too: I’m the only human here, and will be for the next two days. I’d be in Montreal with Peter now, except that I’m waiting for the call or text that will propel me out into the snow, into a cab, into a hospital, to attend the birth of a friend’s baby boy.
Why not check The Door in the Mountain‘s page on amazon.ca, while I’m waiting?
There was one review, as of a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly, there’s a second. 3.5 stars—sigh—but it’s the subject header that grabs me by the throat: “A disappointing second novel.”
Obviously, I’m disappointed that she was disappointed. But “second novel”?
What Bothers Me, #1:
It’s an understandable mistake. For years after my actual second book came out, I’d encounter people (not many, but some) who’d say something like, “I loved A Telling of Stars!” To which I’d say something like, “Thank you! Have you read the prequel, The Silences of Home?” And to a person, they’d look puzzled. “A prequel? You mean you’ve written another book?”
What Bothers Me, #2:
I’m very fond of my first two books.
What Bothers Me, #3:
If this reader thought that The Door in the Mountain was a weak second showing, what would she think if she knew that it was, in fact, my fourth?
What Reassures Me:
My first two novels will be coming out as e-books in the next couple of months. New covers; new format; new audience?
Now I go back to waiting for the call that will summon me to baby boy’s arrival. And while I do, I’ll let my real second book have the last word(s):
They walked around the room once, twice; she leaned against him when the pains came. He imagined that she would tire and sit, or maybe lie down – for the baby must be close to coming now. But she shuffled on, stopping in the same places with each circuit, and he came to know each brushstroke of these places, and every bump or pit in the stone – and still she walked and leaned. He breathed with her: deep and quickening as the pain began, and lengthening, softer as it ended. He held her hips as she hung from him with her arms around his neck; he felt her breathing and her cool, dry skin…The pains began to come even more closely together, so that she hardly took three steps before another was upon her. She cried, “Lie down, lie down” and kept crying out, even after she was on her pallet: she wailed without pause and seemingly without breath, and he knelt beside her, all his certainty dissolving. She no longer looked at him, and although she still clutched his hands, when he wrapped them around hers, she did not truly seem to notice them, or him. Be with her, he told himself, to quell his fear. Follow her in every moment – that is all. He felt his calm returning – but then her parted lips shaped words.
Fire beats against sky and skin. Outside, where there are stars – but there only because of this other fire, deep deep within. A body like a brand, a body tight and hard as metal; not a body. The flames twist and climb and burrow and they will always be here, searing breath black – but not always: a break, smoke billowing in wind. The body returned. A surge and a heavy thrusting weight, another, another, and then the space of wind again, for breathing and looking at the sky of desert, lake, woods. Pressure like falling or floating underwater, too long but no other choice – and the weight moving down and through. The body filled and open, tearing with a different fire – another body, easing slow and vast, then rushing slithering weightless free.
I finished the first draft of The Door in the Mountain: the Redoorening (working title) three weeks ago today. Peter read it (typing comments whilst I sat beside him, writhing and sometimes squeaking); my editor will read it closer to the end of the month. And already I’m wondering—and already people are asking—what’ll be next. It’s like when Emma was writhing and sometimes squeaking, only weeks old, in the centre of some adoring crowd of friends and/or family: someone would say, “So—you thinking about the next one at all?” Then and now, re: procreation and creation, my answer is a muddled, at best: “How dare you! I’m not thinking about the next one at all! Except that I kind of am, because this was a huge deal, and I did it, and I feel exhausted and triumphant, and I know I want to do it again. Oh dear.”
So. Once the edits are done, whenever that might be, what will be next?
Here’s a stab at a list.
1. Louis Riel. The vast horribleness of an insane asylum in Quebec. A nearby manor house, once lived in by the man who would become Queen Victoria’s father. Madness and secrets and danger.
2. Present-day Liberty Village in west-end Toronto. A woman. A townhouse. Long-ago Liberty Village, which spits up the ghost of a man who was an inmate in the vast horribleness that was the Toronto Prison. Lust and secrets and danger.
3. Persephone. The same world as Ariadne and Chara’s: godmarks and familiar-but-reimagined mythic territory.
Peter’s new book came out a couple of days ago. It’s been lauded in Publishers Weekly, Locus, the Los Angeles Review of Books; accrued a slew of multi-starred reviews on Amazon and Goodreads; inspired incredibly detailed renderings of its featured spacecraft, by fans who must have devoured the book in a matter of hours. He’s still responding to the questions that poured in during his Reddit “appearance,” the other night.
And then there’s me.
I’m in tears. I hate the tears, and the useless, hurt silence that preceded them.
He asks me what’s wrong, but I know he already knows. We’ve been through this before, albeit somewhat less damply. Jesus, I think, stop fucking crying; let him enjoy his first book in eight years… But I can’t. I snivel and stammer, and he puts his hand on my leg and listens.
“When you gripe about a blog post getting only 15 responses, I try to remember the last time I had one. You had thousands of hits on your website today; the only time I came close was after we got married and you linked to the post I made about my vows. About 90% of the people who find my website came from yours! [I see this on my stats page, in the “Came from” section.] You talk about how your publisher lowballs authors; I think about how I once had a big publisher and two big advances, and how that changed, so drastically. When I was in London, Joe Abercrombie [whom I adore and respect] introduced me to another writer as ‘Caitlin, Peter Watts’ wife.’ Now, when you were in the hospital, recovering from almost dying, and I was by your bed every day for two weeks, the nurses all called me ‘Mrs. Watts.’ We weren’t even married then! But I didn’t mind the Mrs. thing at all. The London thing, though? I laughed, because I love being your wife—and also because Joe was so adorably embarrassed when the person he was introducing me to said, ‘And is she perhaps something other than Peter Watts’ wife?’ But it would be really nice if someone knew me as a writer. It would be really fucking nice. I have so many petty, envious moments when it comes to author friends or acquaintances: the ones who get three-book deals or sell film rights or complain because they can’t keep up with the fan mail. But I don’t live with them. I don’t watch them check Amazon rankings and Twitter, or come across amazing new reviews….”
I feel like an amoeba. I feel like Godzilla. Peter’s hand is still on my leg. He’s quiet. Listening.
“You make your living at writing. I don’t. So why does it matter to me—the advances, the reviews, the Amazon rankings and ratings? Okay, so that’s a stupid question. But it’s the receding horizons thing: all I want is an agent/no: an editor/no: another book/no: a trilogy/wait: now a TV series…. [Once upon a time, a very successful fantasy author explained this concept to me, after he’d been complaining about movie deal discussions he was having with Hollywood types. “I know,” he said, with patronizing accuracy, “you only wish you had my problems.”]
“So here’s the thing. [There were, in fact, many 'things' in this monologue.] I landed with a fabulous small press when commercial houses refused to take me on. I get to write the kinds of books I want; I don’t have to box myself into formula or a sub-genre-du-jour that doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t need to make money from my writing; it can be my passion, not my livelihood. All of which should make me feel liberated and lucky. Right? But my latest book is…what? I don’t know. It’s nowhere. No one likes it. [I'm fully aware that this isn't true, but there's no stopping me.] I don’t even want to finish the sequel. I hate everything. I want more. I AM SO DUMB.”
Godzilla subsides into the sea (though we both know he’ll re-emerge: he’s a franchise monster). The amoeba extends a pseudopod that happens to be shaped like a human hand. Peter takes it and puts his forehead against it. He says some things that are careful, loving, understanding. I smile, damply. He smiles. He lets me go, but only to head for the kitchen—because it’s his turn to make dinner. Feta pasta, with, perhaps, a chaser of green ginger wine brought from London.
Maybe I’ll finish the sequel, after all.
I spent my four BA years reading, thinking about reading, writing about reading. I read Milton and Hesse, Lorca and Kincaid, Senghor and de Beauvoir, Borges and Whichever “Anonymous/es” Wrote Beowulf. I hunkered down in sentences and examined individual words; I built entire essays around an image. I didn’t always enjoy this; in fact, near the end of my fourth year I wondered if I’d remember how to read for pleasure, once I was out of university. But what I remember now (through a haze of nostalgia and distance, granted) is how it felt to wander around the McGill campus with my head full of words: other people’s and my own. I remember that the inside of my head felt prickly, juddery, always a little off-kilter. There was a restlessness about this reading and thinking that I’ve never come close to, since.
Until yesterday, in a lecture hall in the Ramsay Wright Laboratories (aka Department of Cell and Systems Biology) at the University of Toronto, where I sat with the students of an undergraduate English class as they discussed The Pattern Scars.
The first thing I saw, other than the students themselves (and I was almost too afraid to look too closely at them), was a screen with lecture notes projected onto it—via laptop, not the overheads of my own undergrad days, whose images inevitably warped at the edges. The Pattern Scars‘ cover was up there, and quotes about fantasy, and my book’s subversion thereof. As the lecture progressed there were quotes taken directly from the book itself, and discussion points about Nola: the varieties of her victimhood and imprisonment; the paradox of her desire for the power, and the man, she hated; the writing of her own story; her ending, which could be seen as her first and final act of autonomy.
One student said that he’d hated this ending, as a reader who had narrative and emotional expectations, but also that he’d completely understood it—that it had been right.
Another student remarked on the syntax of Nola’s “Teldaru cursed me” statement, in which she continued to make herself an object, even at the moment of her freeing.
There was talk of finding/becoming/formulating yourself through the reading of a text—and my god, there I sat, finding/becoming/formulating myself through other people’s readings of my text. Words like “meta” and “intertextuality” swam up from 1990 and made my head feel prickly, juddery, more than a little off-kilter.
I haven’t been in Nola’s world for years. Seeing her words up there, larger than life, made me teary. Watching students flip through their copies of the book made me teary. It’s a good thing no one was paying attention to me, because I was so relentlessly teary.
I’d recovered by the time I did my reading: a passage from the as-yet-unnamed Door in the Mountain sequel. After that I answered questions from instructor and students—a lovely cascade of questions, after an initial, silent, collective hesitation. I’d had three hours of sleep the night before, and I’d so recently been, yes, teary; I was sure, right up until I started speaking, that I’d stumble over both the reading and my answers. I don’t think I did. I felt wonderful.
Students lined up to get their books signed, after the Q&A time ran out. I signed a few, then glanced up and saw how long the line was, and felt a little shaky again.
So I got to go back, for a few hours, to a room where people talked about words, and what they might mean. To have those words be “Nola”, “Bardrem”, “Otherseeing”, “Sweet, The Pattern Scars, 2011”—well, as I might have written in my journal, in 1990, after a particularly overwhelming class: It was too much. Too painfully, wonderfully much.
Last week, Peter Watts tagged me in something called “The Writing Process Blog Tour”. I’m going to be lazy, and let him outline the terms: “It’s kind of an authorial chain letter. An author receives a series of questions (presumably of interest to the reading public); answers them on their blog; passes them on in turn to three other authors downstream.”
I’ve settled on two authors for tagging, rather than three, since I’m fairly sure this won’t impede or impoverish the exercise.
What Am I Working On?
I’m finishing up the sequel to The Door in the Mountain, which was published last month. The sequel is nameless, as of now—pretty typical, as I tend to take a couple of years to churn out hundreds of thousands of words, then agonize for what feels like almost as long over the very few words that will make up the title. My deadline for this one’s rapidly approaching, though, so I’m going to have to rely on relatively quick thinking—mine, or someone else’s: my publisher’s running a “Name this Book!” contest. So if you love Greek mythology, have a thing for Minotaurs, ancient Crete, and/or beautiful, bitchy princesses: e-mail your ideas to doorcontest
How Does My Work Differ From Others In Its Genre?
This is a hard one. I’m always profoundly irritated when authors say things like, “My book’s going to turn fantasy on its head, because it’s SO dark/edgy/bracingly anti-epic/in every way unlike anything ever written in the history of the genre/etc.!” My irritation has to do with the smug, self-conscious, self-indulgent tone, and the certainty that difference means superiority.
So I’ll let some readers weigh in. I know: it’s unwise to turn to Goodreads reviews for trenchant, considered critique, and certainly for ego boosting or cheering up. But many of the readers who weigh in there have identified elements of my books as unique or different—and I figure it’s okay to quote them. Several of them: not just the ones who say these unique and different elements are fabulous.
To wit, re: my first book, A Telling of Stars:
“The plot is very nearly anti-fantasy. It’s beautifully written, it’s thoroughly imagined, and it messes with the reader’s expectations. So much will depend on your tolerance for being messed with.”
“The plot-minded part of my mind got bored because it felt like nothing was happening.”
Re: The Door in the Mountain:
“I really liked Caitlin Sweet’s writing style, because it brought to life Ancient Crete. The style of writing is not like that of a typical YA novel; Sweet’s writing really brings texture and vividness to the classical myth of the Minotaur. Detailed and clear, the world building in The Door in the Mountain was really enjoyable.”
“There is a strong focus on imagery that makes the story almost come alive as the reader can easily imagine being in the fictional world that she creates. Unfortunately, all of this lavish detail is ultimately a detriment to the actual story as there really is very little that happens in the story and the action almost seems like an afterthought.”
“Cool! Ouch! Cool!” Ah, Goodreads…
Why Do I Write What I Do?
Co-workers at every one of my day jobs, including the one I have now, frequently say, “Oooh: you’re a writer—are you going to put me in one of your books?” or “Oooh: I bet you’re going to write about this place, because it’s so crazy!” Then there are the people who say, “You write fantasy, huh? So when are you going to write about something real?”
In part, I write fantasy because I have a day job, a night job, kids. I’ve always written fantasy, because even before the jobs and kids there were schools of various sorts, and all the other obligations and associations of “the real world. ” “Ah—so it’s all about escapism,” some would say (or sneer) to this—and yes, that’s true. It’s simply more fun to imagine life in a desert palace in a place called Luhr than it is to render life in a government cubicle in a big North American city.
But it’s more than that.
I tried once, in a fit of “maybe all those genre detractors are onto something and I won’t be a decent writer until I produce something real”, to work on a contemporary story. It was set in an old house near the wonderfully funky Kensington Market in Toronto—but within twenty pages the house had turned into a mini-Gormenghast, and its lone inhabitant into a sort of sexy Radagast the Brown. (Am tempted to work “ghastly” in here somewhere, but won’t.) I remember that birds fluttered amongst the ivy that covered his living room walls, and alit on his head and shoulders… I just couldn’t stick to the “real” plan, and this was so stupidly crushing that poor sexy Radagast and his birds, and the heartbroken young woman who’d wandered into their Gormenghast, simply ceased to be.
Wonder, awe and magic have proven to be the only paths to fiction, for me. Not as a reader: I read all kinds of genres, from Jack Reacher (yes, I believe he’s his own genre, at this point) to Borges to Austen to Stephen King. As a writer, though, it’s always been fantasy, always impossible places and people that allow me to get to those things that are real: struggle, transformation, the torment and beauty of creatures trying to fumble their way through the same world.
How Does My Writing Process Work?
And now for the blog baton-passing. I’ll huff and puff up alongside A.M. Dellamonica and Kelly Robson, whom I met last year when they decamped from beautiful Vancouver to Toronto (for no reason my pining former Vancouverite husband could comprehend). Like Peter and I, they’re married. Like us, they both write: Alyx full time (like Peter), and Kelly whenever she can, depending on her day job (like me).
I want to hear how they do it.
I’ll be going to London in a little over a month. I haven’t been there since I was three. My personal memories of it, therefore, are non-existent. My collective unconscious-type memories of it, though, are varied and vivid. There it is, in old family photos, in movies, on television (for the London of Sherlock is wonderful and compelling, no matter how thoroughly Stephen Moffat screws up his human characters). I might be thinking, “I pretty much know what to expect of London” — except that I made that mistake before, in 1998.
I went to Paris in 1998. I’d been there on that same “you’re three, so let’s take you to all sorts of fabulous places you won’t remember!” family tour. So no memory of it, either—and yes, a host of images from big screen and small. I had the impression that these images would prepare me, make me even, perhaps, a little blasé(e) about it all. After all, this wasn’t some unknown quantity of a city or country, as Oaxaca, Mexico had been. I’d expected to feel lost and exhilarated, when I went there, and to Spain—and I did. But Paris? Blah. Zay.
How wrong (and unforgivably stupid) I was.
I wandered, alone, shaky, at first, from trans-Atlantic sleeplessness. Cobblestones and narrow, climbing streets, moules marinières at Les Deux Magots, Rodin’s Gates of Hell at the Musée D’Orsay, the Seine with its bridges: I was swept away.
And all that was before The Moment.
My modest lodgings, the Hotel Malher…
…were just up the street from what I’d identified early on in my stay as a medieval monastery. I was busy, though, hopping the Métro every day, with smug yet relieved panache, to a convention centre where I sat in a booth, pushing the language school where I worked—so I didn’t investigate the monastery right away. When I finally did, I didn’t know what to expect, other than more wonderful old stone and a warren of dank little rooms.
Now I must digress. In the bathroom that was mine, as of age 13, I pinned one of my favourite images: “La dame à la licorne à mon seul désir.”
It came from a calendar of medieval artwork. I loved it with a quiet, steady passion that kept me in the bathroom for far longer than I would otherwise have been. I saw it every day, from 13 to 19, and I had a smaller version of it with me at university. Its colours seeped into wherever it was that my writing came from. This image, and its attendant, magical words, made me profoundly happy.
Back to Paris, many years later. I’m tripping down the cobbled street from my hotel, toward the monastery. “Musée National du Moyen Age Thermes de Cluny,” I read, when I arrive at its gates. I wander in. I amble about, thinking what an amazing job’s been done, turning this space into a museum. Wander amble wander—and now I’m entering a large, round, windowless room, craning over a couple of shoulders, because I can see that there’s something attached to the tall stone walls—many somethings, in fact, stretched from floor to ceiling—and then I stop, and I start to cry.
My lady and my unicorn are here. The reds and golds and greens I’d gazed at for so many years: all here, and then some. There are scenes that are totally unfamiliar to me. And they’re not reproductions printed on smooth, glossy calendar paper stock: they’re wool and silk, woven in 1500. They’re here, a block from my hotel, and I had no idea—and so I stand, all teary and overcome, thinking incoherent thoughts about serendipity and Paris.
London has a lot to live up to. But at least I won’t be foolish enough to imagine I’ve seen it in movies, and that’ll be enough. At least I’ll know that the personal and collective may collide in ways I’d never have expected. And I’ll know not to over-program things—because wandering unfamiliar streets, with map and without plan, is the very best way to stumble on magic.
Book Two: 59,549 words. Some of those words are plot notes I’ve incorporated into the text—but basically: 59,500 words. And they all terrify me.
It’s true: I’ve never known how my books are going to end until I’ve been mere pages away from their respective endings. But this book is different. I’ve written it entirely via laptop, as opposed to scribbling it on the ruled pages of notebooks. This electronic willy-nilliness has led to some unprecedented, wondrous and terrifying writing behaviours. To wit: I’m writing ANYTHING THAT COMES TO ME. It doesn’t matter if Plot Thing #Sort of Near the End comes waaaay past Plot Thing #Mired in the Ghastly Middle, or #Even Less Sort of Near the End as That Other Thing: I’m writing whatever’s easiest to write.
It was not ever thus.
I used to make my painfully sedate way through stories, giving each moment and scene whatever time it required to be born. I used to spend weeks sketching out what had to happen next, because there’d be no ending without it—no culmination without a methodically constructed arc. Remember: I never, ever knew how these stories would end. And yet I had to follow some sort of linear path; had to linger and wait, making space for what was next, and next after that, because to jump ahead would somehow (as in a bad time travel movie) jeopardize the integrity of all that had not yet gone before.
To wit, take 2: When I was starting to think about the book that would become The Pattern Scars, I envisioned a scene: a pivotal one, in which a case of deliberately mistaken identity would be exposed. I had no idea what the context would be: I knew only that there would be a scene like this. I didn’t write the scene. I spent days and weeks and months grappling with all the events that would lead to this scene—and when I finally got there, it was orgasmically good and right and justified—delayed gratification rewarded.
Not this time. There’s not a single linear thing going on, in this second Minotaur book. I’m seizing images and bits of scenes, no matter where they might come in the story, and I’m writing them. On my laptop. In a file that’s now called “Consolidated MS”, because for many many months it was divvied into four separate bits.
What am I DOING?
The downside: this is undiscovered territory, and I might make a mess of navigating it.
The upside: this is undiscovered territory, and I might realize that mapping it can be both random and GREAT.
The moral of the story’s story: do not assume you’ve definitively figured out your own creative process. Do not. You could move from a spiral-bound notebook to a MacBook Air. You, who’ve always needed to see the Big Picture, might see an ending before you understand how to get there, or a beginning with no apparent ending. You might use a pencil instead of a pen. You might start writing on the streetcar instead of at the desk you’ve been trying to write at for years (all the things in alignment: the view, the paper clip receptacle, the photos of that bleak and beautiful hillside at Mycenae).
Here Be Dragons. ROAWR. Also: YIKES.
Behold: a (modest) mountain of mountains with doors.
My editor/publisher brought me a bagful of these when she met me for lunch, last week. I returned to the day job with them and immediately sold two, to co-workers who won’t be able to come to my launch. The apparent glee with which they carried them away made me reflect on how very lucky I’ve been, in my writing career—even before it was a career. Parents who encouraged me to bury my nose in other people’s books, and then my own. The teacher who suggested that I work on my novel as an independent study project in grade 12 English, and allowed another student to read it instead of an actual, published novel. The first-year undergrad English prof who encouraged us to do one of our assignments as a creative writing piece, read mine, and phoned me to tell me ask what else I’d written, and when he might be able to pick it up at a bookstore. (14 years later, as it turned out.) The Ontario Public Service managers who’ve understood and valued what I do when I’m not in an office. The co-workers who’ll buy anything I write, even though many of them don’t like fantasy and won’t make it past page 15.
I’m so grateful. I’ll express this gratitude publicly on June 1. Please join me.
University was really, really hard for me, at first. I’d been lucky, in high school: I’d had one teacher who didn’t mind when I wrote my novel in Latin class; another who allowed one of my Canadian Lit classmates to read my oh-so-unpublished novel while the rest of us were choosing between The Wars and The Handmaid’s Tale; and another who got me all fired up about Platonic caves and Forms, and Pindaric odes (and who, very soon thereafter, and for good, became a friend). But I believed what I’d heard: that university would make high school look like storytime on the kindergarten carpet.
My first year at McGill was a disaster.
Yes, I broke up with my boyfriend. But, though this was a psychic disaster that resonated for years thereafter, it was the academic part of the year that truly depressed me. My classes were in fancier rooms, and there were more students, and the hustle and bustle was exponentially larger than it had been at North Toronto Collegiate Institute—but what happened in these classes was mostly just blah. Plus, I wasn’t writing. I was certain I’d never write again. Nothing was right—except my fabulous roommate (a figure-skater-turned-microbiology-student who deserves some sort of podium showing for all those late nights of listening to me), my fabulous rabbit, Esther Bun, and the fact that I could go to the dépanneur next door any time I wanted and purchase Double Stuff Fudgee-Os.
Second year was somewhat better. Third and fourth years were spectacular—because of Nelly.
Nelly was from La Rioja in Argentina—a place she told us she’d left as soon as she could for the cultured glory of Buenos Aires. Nelly wore perfect wool suits—red ones with black tights, or black ones with red tights. She had short dark hair and wore enormous round earrings. She had slightly buck teeth that showed whenever she smiled her insanely expansive smile—which was often. She was old enough to have carried Mao’s Little Red Book around, in the days before the world realized what Mao was doing to his country. She was old enough to remember when Stalin’s Russia was considered The Place to Be—and to remember when that all changed, with a shock that she said she felt as actual pain. (When she told me about this I had just read de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins in my European Lit course, and I felt overwhelmed by this convergence of the lived and the read-about.)
In class she spoke only in Spanish. She spoke of repression and pain; of the particular torment suffered by female prisoners of Latin American dirty wars. She spoke with passion and heat, compassion and heartbreak. And she made us read a colossally long list of essays and novels—all in Spanish, of course. Spanish: a language I’d taken in grade 13 as a throwaway credit; a language I hadn’t been able to study in first year, because all the classes were already full; a language that made me insane, by third year, with longing and confusion.
In fourth year, she made us read a book that some of my non-Spanish-taking friends knew as A Hundred Years of Solitude. I rejoiced that I encountered it as Cién años de soledad.
I’d read and written fantasy for as long as I could remember, and yet I’d never encountered anything like this. It was a double-whammy: I was reading a novel of utterly confounding imagery and history, and I was reading it in Spanish. I didn’t understand every word, and I didn’t use a dictionary—because I didn’t really need one. Context was everything. I understood, even though I often didn’t. I haven’t experienced anything like this since. It was a blur of imagery, and the language through which the imagery was rendered. It was the poetry of a language I’d come to love, and the magic of a culture I’d never known—and it was distilled by Nelly, who gestured and spoke, and gestured and urged us to speak.
Magic realism, indeed.
I wrote to her, while I was living in Mexico—long letters in Spanish, which she never failed to respond to. How did we lose touch? I can’t remember. I remember only that, years after our last exchange, I tried to find her on the McGill faculty website, and discovered that she’d retired. She’s on Amazon, as author of El Silencio Que Habla: Aproximación A La Obra de Luisa Valenzuela. Valenzuela, an author I read in her class. “Her writing is characterized by an experimental, avant-garde style which questions hierarchical social structures from a feminist perspective. She is best known for her work written in response to the dictatorship of the 1970s in Argentina.”
Gabriel García Márquez died today, and I’m remembering Nelly, and how I felt in Nelly’s class. I’ve never felt that way again. Márquez’s words; Nelly’s voice.
“A mí me bastaría con estar seguro de que tú y yo existemos en este momento.”