Posts Tagged ‘Lud-in-the-Mist’

A Writer’s Best (Non-Human) Friend

June 26, 2010

After all these years, I specifically remember only two of the presents I received upon graduating from high school. I know there were many others, and I recall the wonderful gathering of friends and family at our house — and the many cards wishing me well. But, material presents, I remember two: the Taylor family gave me a big black umbrella, which I thought was very cool — it seemed like just the thing to have as a college student; the other, from my parents, was Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. They filled out the front page: Presented to Fred Durbin by Mom & Dad, June 6, 1984. [Wow! That was the anniversary of D day, 40 years later! Isn’t that a solemn realization in and of itself? Forty years before I exited the troop ship and charged up onto the beach of the world, other young — and not-so-young — guys were doing it for real. If they hadn’t done what they did then, I would have been going out into a much different world. . . .]

But anyway: that dictionary has been my constant companion ever since. It’s been to college, it’s crossed the ocean several times, and wherever I’ve set up a workspace for even a short while, my dictionary has been within easy reach.

In 1993-4, the year I worked for a Japanese company thinly disguised as a school, I had an actual desk at work — that’s the only year I’ve ever had a workspace all my own on the job, a desk with my stuff on and in it — and yes, to be sure, my dictionary was there. My fellow native-English-speaking teachers, who had desks all around mine, regarded me as “the guy to have proofread your writing before you use it in any public way.” One co-worker in particular would ask me to proofread things, and whenever I would frown slightly and reach for my dictionary, she would laugh and say, “Okay, what did I misspell now?” (A dictionary at work is a great tool for politeness. It takes the heat for you. You never have to tell co-workers that you think they’re wrong; you adopt the official stance of being “not sure,” you look it up, and the authoritative answer is there in black-and-white!)

About ten or so years ago, I got to  thinking that the language had changed enough since 1984 that it was time for a new dictionary. Not that I wanted to get rid of my dear old Webster’s from my parents — not at all! But I felt it was time for that one to have a junior partner, a helper, a back-watcher. My mom was of the opinion that dictionaries never go out of date; she was still using the Webster’s she received when she went to college. Truth be told, I was using that one (of hers), too. It was our “house dictionary.” Mom had it on a wooden stand that was probably supposed to have been for a Bible. Throughout my childhood and even into my Japan years (since my dictionary was in Japan), I would run into the dining room when I needed to look up a word. It was tattered from decades of use and the pages were yellowing, but it still got the job done.

But I longed for a dictionary that reflected the current language, so when my friend C. in Niigata asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said I’d really like the latest edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As it turned out, the local bookstore didn’t have a Webster’s when we went shopping. However, they had a beautiful Oxford English Dictionary. I immediately saw the wisdom and attractiveness of having both my Webster’s (American) and the Oxford (British). I could compare spellings and usages in the two countries as well as across time. So that was my birthday present from C. that year, and it’s one of the birthday presents I’ll always remember most — because now it stays with me, too, wherever I am.

C. is full of questions. Once he asked me something about the battle of Thermopylae. The next time I saw him, I gave him some detailed notes. He said, “Wow! You went ‘Net-surfing!” I said, “No, I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary you gave me.”

After my year in the States, I was shipping things back to Japan, and the guy who runs the shipping company in my hometown looked askance at these two heavy dictionaries I was sending overseas. It’s not cheap to send books that hefty. He asked, “Don’t they have dictionaries in Japan?” Well, yes, they do . . . but these were my dictionaries. They have children in Europe, too, but if you’re moving there with your family, I’ll bet you’ll take your own kids, even though they cost.

A third dictionary joined the team after Mom passed away: not her old one, which is now in storage (but will be back on my shelf someday, Lord willing, when/if I set up a desk in the States), but a deluxe Merriam-Webster’s that my dad gave her. I haven’t really gotten into the habit of using it, because my Webster’s and Oxford do the job so well for me. But still, I’m glad the deluxe edition is there.

So what’s all the fuss? What’s so great about dictionaries? After all, our computers have spell-checkers, right? And if you need to know anything, you can look it up on-line. Plus, there are perfectly good, state-of-the-art electronic dictionaries no bigger than a pocket calculator that could save me hundreds of dollars in shipping expenses. Yes, but. . . .

Partly, it’s the difference between buying a book on Amazon and buying a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. The difference is getting to see and walk past and handle all those books you don’t buy.

When I go to look up a word in a paper dictionary, I almost never get to that word without being ensnared by four or five other words first. Seriously — can you go right to the word you went after, and not read anything else? It’s like putting a mouse into a cheese shop and telling him, “Go straight to the far wall, tag it, and come straight back here.” Not going to happen.

There was an English prof we had in college who would say, “I got the new such-and-such dictionary. I haven’t finished reading it yet. I’m about halfway through.” We thought that was hilarious, the idea of sitting and reading a dictionary. Personally, I’ve never done that, but the longer I live and the more deeply I appreciate language, the less funny that sounds to me.

Dictionaries give you definitions, of course. When I read H.P. Lovecraft, he nearly always sends me running for the dictionary. When I read Lud-in-the-Mist, I made a list of words to look up. You want to know what the list was? I’ve got it right here. Are you ready?

pleached, propinquity, ribands, ribbands, chiaroscuro, hierophantic, cozeners/cozening, plangent, potsherds, poncifs, fulminate, byre, barouche, exogamy, cockchafe, spurious, disquisition, spinney, brawn [as a food], syllabub, squills, “mopping and mowing,” hartshorn, carminative, civet cat, velleity, tuftaffities, sententious, osier, porphyry, quinsy, perdurable, casuistry, cicerone, frangipane, perroration, pullulating

Be honest, now. If you knew the meanings of even most of those, you’re a far better man than I! (Even if, like Eowyn, you’re not a man!)

But also, dictionaries help us with spelling. Like I’ve said, “queue,” “oubliette,” and “oeuvre”. . . . I have to look them up every. Single. Time. (It’s like trying to figure out which side of the car the gas tank inlet is on. If you’re like me, you squirm inwardly every single time you pull into a gas station — which side is it?!)

But those are just the clinical uses of the dictionary. The real reason I love my dictionaries, not simply rely on them, is that they’re like friends who actually help me write.

Writing is a notoriously solitary activity. We writers cloister ourselves off from the world, face the blank screen or paper, and make our sacrifices. We miss the TV shows and the visits and the concerts, etc., in order to walk the lonely path, that line from word to word to word. No one can do it for us. No one can tell us what to write. Except. . . .

“Where do you get your ideas?” people ask us. “Where do these ideas come from?”

I think the single best answer just may be “from the dictionary.” The words we use are all in there, after all. (Well, no, that’s not true. We speculative fiction writers insist upon making up a sizable percentage of our vocabulary. But the dictionary is a great help in making things up, too.) I can’t tell you how many times the dictionary has bailed me out when I’ve needed a name for a character or a place. Not that I necessarily use a word as-is to be a character’s name — I’m not writing Pilgrim’s Progress. But words have resonances; words have sounds and elements. I may lift a part of this word and combine it with a part of that one. I may borrow a word for the way it means or the way it rings. One thing can lead to another — the dominoes fall — and sometimes the dictionary can even unravel plot problems. It’s the wise friend who’s always there. It’s comforting, solid, and infinitely sane. It’s realistic, your anchor to the Earth. It can absorb your tears and help you see more clearly when you’re ready to.

Webster’s is the king of dictionaries for two reasons: it shows where words are divided (which Oxford doesn’t) — and far more wonderfully, it comes with pictures! They’re not there for every word. But for a huge number of words whose meanings are hard to grasp or envision, Webster’s is there with a visual rendering. Again and again over the years, a picture has snagged my gaze, and I’ve understood something new and crucial about my story. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then Webster’s is priceless.

A dictionary can help you find things that you didn’t know you were looking for. Character names . . . costuming . . . architecture . . . plot points . . . conflicts . . . historical details . . . complications . . . specificity. Precision. The right tool for the right job. At every stage of the writing process, from conceptual work to the final buffing of a manuscript on its way out the door, a dictionary is the friend to have beside you.

So how about you, dear readers? In your walk of life — in your career or your hobby — what is the tool you wouldn’t want to be without, and why?

From the Places Where They Played

July 18, 2009

Today was one of those days when I just never quite got to writing. I had the Neo and the notes out, and I worked through some scenes in my mind; but I just didn’t write. I’ll chalk my foot-dragging up to one third laziness, one third caution [treading very carefully this close to the end of the story, not wanting to rush], and one third reluctance to finish — writing this book has been so pleasant that I’m sad to reach the end . . . but not really, and not for long — it’s good to get things finished. I’m estimating there are about three major scenes to go before the end. (Which probably means there will be five or six. Or ten?)

Concerning writing days, I’m a notoriously slow starter. I’ll do any number of things before I get around to writing: oversleep, dust some obscure shelf somewhere in my apartment, ride my bike to the store (the day never really begins for me until I’ve been outside), file some piece of paper that’s been waiting in some pending pile for too long, stare out the window, check e-mail, read some long-forgotten files in “my documents,” notice a book on my shelf that I really want to read soon, review my story notes, chew my fingernails, eat lunch, make coffee, take a long walk, open the refrigerator for no reason, lie down on the floor for awhile. . . . But once all the grains of sand build up to the point at which everything overbalances and the poles reverse [What kind of metaphor was that?! I don’t think that was legal, even with an artistic license.] — once that happens, then I’m scary. It’s like in the movie Troy, when Achilles gives Odysseus a good-sporting jibe for taking his sweet time in getting to Troy, and Odysseus says something like, “I don’t care whether or not I’m there for the beginning of the battle, as long as I’m there for the end!”

Be There For the End — See It Through — Go the Distance — those should be our goals as writers (or in doing whatever we do). Remember why the “Dead Poets Society” is called the “Dead Poets Society”? — It’s because the members are committed to living out their lives as poets. Poetry is a path that you must live to the end, and not turn aside. You’re finally really a poet-all-the-way when you’re a dead poet, when you’ve lived deeply and drunk life to the lees.

Anyway — I have to quote here from a comment that came into this blog last week, because it’s so well said that I wrote it out on a little piece of paper to keep in my “great quotes about writing” notebook. It’s from Catherine, who I’m quite sure will be writing professionally in the near future.

Last week, Catherine wrote:

“The settings and the music, especially, remind me of some idealized time in the past, when everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t; a time that I can only return to if I have a character whose life envelops me so completely that I can’t look out the window without seeing her through the trees.”

That describes so well the writing process when it’s working (for the kinds of stories, of course, that so many of us love)! If you get a character who’s absolutely real to you, and if you immerse your imagination in a setting that evokes that yearning for a remembered time that maybe you never actually lived through (because it’s been improved by your memory and the passage of years), then I think you’re well on your way to creating something extraordinary. Catherine, I’m in awe of how well you’ve summed this up! We’ve talked before about that C.S. Lewis concept of the longing we sometimes feel that does not have its fulfillment in anything we live through from the cradle to the grave — yet still we feel that yearning: and logically, when there is a yearning, there is the corresponding satisfaction of the yearning [there is food for our hunger, there is sleep for our tiredness, there is companionship for our loneliness, etc.] — and therefore, the longing that has no fulfillment in this life is a powerful indication of the existence of Heaven — of more to the picture than we presently see.

Hope Mirrlees explored that idea (indirectly) in Lud-in-the-Mist, and I think a lot of the other great stories do it, too.

A time in the past, when “everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t” — such is also true of the present, of the mundane — right now in our lives, everything is wonderful except for what isn’t. (When we’re older, these will be the times we look back to with our wistfulness and see all the magic that is here!) Yet a great deal of what is really true and what is beautiful seems to come into focus only when we’re well past it on our careening ride into the future. So, I think, so many of us writers look to our childhoods for the clarity and the perspective that makes a worthwhile story. Not that we always write directly about the things we did and thought then; but that we revisit something of what we felt and perceived in those distant days and shine a light on it through the filter of our experiences since then.

Here’s from Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees:

“In [man’s] mouth is ever the bittersweet taste of life and death, unknown to the trees. Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell.”

Memory and hope, the two wild horses that drag and thrash man like a pair of Untowards — these, writers, are two of our most important tools. Bring them to bear!

When I was born, the road I lived on didn’t have a name — it just had a

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

 rural route number. Little by little, the city limits of Taylorville drew closer, and eventually the talk was flying fast and furious of naming the road. The default, front-running name was “Glen Haven Drive” — not because of any careful thought on anyone’s part, but because there is a Glen Haven Cemetery at the first bend in the road. My two childhood neighbor-friends and I intensely disliked that idea, because for one thing, who wants to live on a street named after a graveyard? For another thing, we didn’t like the sound of “Glen Haven” — it seemed ill-suited to a country road in central Illinois. So we thought about it for awhile and came up with “Old Oak Road,” because the road does have an abundance of old oak trees, particularly along its inhabited stretch, before it gives way mostly to fields farther north.

Following some advice from our parents about how to go about getting support for our idea, we boys took a petition up and down the road for the various homeowners to sign if they liked our name. (I don’t remember how old we were; I want to say I was about 9 or 10, which I think is pretty close.) Our dogs also came with us, as they did pretty much wherever we went on our bicycles or on foot; and when they encountered the homeowners’ dogs, they all went through the standard dog protocol of barking furiously at one another.

So our signature-gathering typically went like this:

“Hi! We’re BARK BARK BARK BARK to get BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK if you BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK.”

Sometimes the homeowners had questions, such as:

“What BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK?”

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Most often, they just signed the petition so we’d take our dogs and go. Then came a city council meeting at which the issue was debated (without dogs); and by, as I recall, a fairly narrow margin, we were awarded our tree-loving, heritage-rich name, and there were three happy little boys who got to live on a road that they’d named. I wish I had here in Japan the picture my mom took of us three kids with the road sign, but you’ll have to settle for the one I’ve got.

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

 

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Anyway, that story is the background for telling you about a long poem my mom wrote shortly thereafter. Her poem was titled “Old Oak Road,” and it began with the creation of the world . . . yes, those six days when everything came ex nihilo by the spoken word of God. She traced the history of that region through the time of the undisturbed trees and the animals . . . to the long ages of the moccasined feet . . . to the coming of the white man . . . to the days when Abraham Lincoln rode along the dirt path there and saw the oak trees . . . to the era of the burgeoning community of Taylorville . . . and so at last to the time of the three boys with their bikes and dogs, who gave the road its name.

Yes, my two friends and I were the culmination of history! We all used to laugh together (Mom, too) about the grandiosity of the poem. It’s never been published except in a volume of my parents’ writings that I printed and bound as a surprise for them a long time later. But Mom did capture a certain intangible something there . . . some echoes of the fulfillment behind the yearning.

One quote from the poem that I’ve often used is this:

“Something whispered in their ears — something spoke from out of time . . . / From the places where they played. . . .”

Mom understood that the “places where we play” in our earliest years become for us a sacred well-spring, from which we draw water for various purposes all our lives. In most of what I do even now, the road and the oaks are whispering still.

And finally, one of the main places we played as kids was the barn behind my house. It’s described best in that same story, “Glory Day,” that I quoted from in the previous post. I promise not to do this every week, but let’s go there one last time. Again, there’s nothing fictional about this except the name “John.”

The barn had always called and whispered to John. If the fields and woods were sacred, then the barn was the chapel at the center of it all. It was entirely wooden, built eighty or ninety years ago. Though it no longer housed horses (Dad had sold Banner to a friend shortly after John was born), it was full of the memory of horses: ancient gray carpets of well-trampled manure and straw on the stall floors, the teeth-marks where horses had gnawed at the boards, and in one trough where mama cats sometimes had their kittens, there remained part of a salt-block for horses to lick — it shone in the dimness like a chunk of snow that never melted.

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

A central concrete walkway separated the lower floor into two rows of stalls. Those on the north were dark rooms with doors that closed, and where toadstools sprouted in the cool half-light. Virginia creeper thickly blanketed the entire north face of the barn outside, from the ground to the high hay-door. The vines’ roots sealed shut various hatches and trapdoors, and framed the windows that were open, so that what light entered was a green glow among fringes of bobbing leaves.

 

The south stalls were more open and airy, their walls mere rail fences that only rose chest-high. More of the outer wall on that side was missing, so that the sun had free access to bake the floor in shifting patches. Insects droned in and out; up under the rafters, mud daubers built nests resembling panpipes. Riots of foxtail and burdock, timothy and poison rhubarb spilled in through gaps near the foundation like crowds of clamoring fans desperate for glimpses of the inner world.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

The wide main door on the west always stood open and could no longer be closed, its rollers rusted, its planks in the grip of maples that had grown up along the walls and become, with their counterparts on the north and east, a natural, supplemental framework, steadying the aged structure against the winds. At the barn’s east end, a ladder climbed to the hayloft.

 

The hayloft occupied the whole upper story, the roof arching high above its hay-littered floor like the keel of an overturned ship. Wooden beams transected the space in struts and arches. Birds nested in the eaves. The loft still saw active duty — the tenant farmer from up the road stored his hay bales there in stacked banks that rose to the upper braces. He would remove them a few at a time as needed, so that their cliffs changed as the seasons unfolded. But John and his friends considered the bales to be their own private set of giant building blocks. They could be positioned into tunnels and fortresses — hot, itchy, pitch-black crawlspaces delightfully scented of alfalfa and timothy. Bound at times into these hay-block walls were long, papery snake skins.

The loft was the perfect place for the long, aimless conversations of boyhood — the plans, the fancies, the arguments, the make-believe. And when no friends were available, it was the place to read. John sat in the open hatchway on the west, his feet dangling above the ground far below, and read Lovecraft and Dunsany and The Martian Chronicles.

And so the barn was. It was the best. Suggestion for comments: how about describing that place you played as a child, when summers went on forever, and you could read all day with impunity?

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

Trees

May 23, 2009

I’ve been thinking about trees. That’s probably because they figure largely into the story I’m working on now. The more I reflect, the more I become convinced that trees may well be our single most significant (natural) connection to the numinous. I say “natural,” because our other connection is books–or, more accurately, stories–which is a link we humans have made. But trees are there all around us, shading us and whispering to us, breathing out oxygen to make our air sweeter, and beautifying our landscape . . . and perhaps their gifts to us only begin there. Walk with me, if you will, as I expound my theory.

I’m going to quote from Hope Mirrlees in Lud-in-the-Mist. She’s talking about a “pleached alley” here, which is a path between two rows of trees, with the trees all intertwined and roofing the road over, so that you have a shady tunnel. Here’s the quote:

“There was also a pleached alley of hornbeams.

“To the imaginative, it is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed outside — it is not air that you are breathing, but silence, the almost palpable silence of trees. And is the only exit that small round hole in the distance? Why, you will never be able to squeeze through that! You must turn back . . . too late! The spacious portal by which you entered has in its turn shrunk to a small round hole.”

To pass into the trees is to enter the realm of magic, mystery, and things beyond us. Is it any wonder that trees are so prominently placed in the cosmologies of so many peoples throughout history? Norse mythology tells of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which supports and is itself the pathway among all the realms of gods, giants, monsters, and men. The Ragnarok, the end of the Universe, happens when Yggdrasil is eaten through by its enemies and comes crashing down.

Judaism and Christianity look back to Eden: the one time when the world was perfect was when the first man and woman lived in a Garden, and at the Garden’s very center were two trees. Trees sustained the lives of Adam and Eve by providing fruit for their food.

For a cultural anthropology class in college, we read a book about the Grand Valley Dani of New Guinea. A belief of the Dani people that I’ve never forgotten is that the human race was made from trees that were brought to life — trees given animation, eyes, and hands.

It’s often said by Christian scholars that all peoples throughout history have arrived at parts of the Truth; if you live in this world and look around and think, it’s nearly impossible to avoid figuring out some of it, even without divine revelation. And one thing that almost everyone “gets” is that trees are extremely sacred.

Then I began to think about trees and fantasy fiction . . . particularly, how trees relate to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s so much to be explored there that I wondered this evening if any scholarly research has been done on the subject. Seriously — someone should write a thesis or dissertation on Tolkien’s Trees. [Nicholas? Has it been done?]

In one real sense, I believe it was trees that drew me first to read Tolkien’s books. I remember illustrations in fairy tale books from when I was very young — enchanting pictures of the deep, dark forests in which various protagonists were either lost or out cutting wood. And when I saw the Ballantine editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — those marvelous paperbacks whose covers bore illustrations by Tolkien himself — I knew I had to read them. It was the very same stuff from those childhood pictures that had captured my imagination. The Hobbit‘s cover was Bilbo riding his barrel down the River Running, gliding beneath those gorgeous, fantastic trees. The Two Towers had that picture which is probably my favorite of all Tolkien’s artwork, because it’s all trees, nothing but trees! Yes, it has two tiny figures down in the corner . . . figures who are, depending on which of Tolkien’s notes you believe, either Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest or Beleg and Gwindor in Taur-na-Fuin. (Tolkien adamantly resisted drawing clear or up-close pictures of his characters, because he wanted to leave them to the reader’s imagination: but he had no compunction about drawing his trees in every loving detail!)

So, then: Tolkien’s books, I say, are a journey from tree to tree to tree! That’s what drew me in, because I already knew as a child that trees were the real things: trees were the door-posts of Faerie. My favorite part in The Hobbit is the journey through Mirkwood. There are times even now when I think about Mirkwood and can still get that shivery, watery sense of delight in my lower chest that we feel all the time as kids but so rarely do in later years. You know the feeling I mean, right? Mirkwood and Fangorn and the Old Forest can still do that for me.

The Lord of the Rings — what is more beautiful and tree-filled than the descriptions of Lothlorien? But let’s go deeper still: the story begins and ends with a tree. Right? Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party takes place beneath the Party Tree, the symbol of all that is good and wholesome and stolid and warm and homey and peaceful and comfortable about the Shire. And at the end of the book, the terrible cutting down of that Party Tree is the last straw: that’s the signal that the world is irrevocably changed, that the wounds sustained in this vale of tears will not be healed on this side. It’s the sight of that tree cut down that brings Sam to tears.

The Silmarillion, with its Two Trees of Valinor: like Eden, that was the one time when the world was perfect and right, when those Two Trees gave their mingled light. It’s their light, mind you — the light of trees — that’s in the silmarils.

Back to LOTR: Gondor has its White Tree. When it withers, the realm is in deepest trouble.

What shows us that Mordor is the land of evil? What’s the one thing that Mordor has none of? Yup. No trees.

What does Saruman do when he goes bad? He takes down the trees. Then the trees take him down, when Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, or . . . something like that.

And that brings us to the Ents. The Ents are “Earth-born, old as mountains,” second in antiquity only to the Elves. Treebeard refers to “young Master Gandalf” and “young Saruman down at Isengard.” [I love how Celeborn addresses Fangorn as “Eldest.” Man, that gives me goosebumps!] Ents are the shepherds of trees — tree-herders. Think of the implications of that. The function of these ancient sentient creatures in Tolkien’s world is to look out for the trees. It’s as if Tolkien meant the Ents to be representatives of the Earth itself.

My favorite Dr. Seuss book is The Lorax (and not just because of the Onceler). It’s for all sorts of reasons that tug at the dreamer’s heart: the fact that there’s a crumbling platform out at the end of town, overgrown by grass, which is all that remains to show where the Lorax stood, and from where he was “taken away” (by lifting himself into the sky by the seat of his pants) . . . but most of all, the fact that the Lorax “speak[s] for the trees.”

So, then, here are some of my tree memories:

I grew up on Old Oak Road, right, named for its abundance of ancient oak trees? I think I’ve told this story on this blog before, but near as we can figure from a perusal of very old maps, Abraham Lincoln himself may well have passed within sight of where my house now stands, as he rode along on his 8th Judicial Circuit route from Allenton (now vanished) to the up-and-coming little hamlet of Taylorville. And if he did, then it’s likely he looked right at the two trees that shaded my front yard when I was a kid. They would have been younger in Lincoln’s day, but they would have been there: oaks live a long time and grow slowly. Perhaps the lanky young lawyer even rested beneath one and drank from his bottle of Gatorade.

What impressed me about those oaks as a kid was how they harbored a whole other world up in their crowns, 20, 30, 40 feet above the ground — a world of limbs and leaves that I could glimpse from afar, but could never reach. (Isn’t it that precise longing for the misty realm on the horizon that has always fueled our romances? Avalon . . . Lyonesse . . . Mu . . . Lemuria . . . Shangri-La . . . Atlantis. . . .) The world was always there, always visible at the top of my tire swing’s chain. I climbed up that chain more than once — all the way up, scraping my bare feet, painting them orange with rust — I climbed up and clung for a moment to the earth-most giant limb of that world of squirrels and birds. But even I had the sense to go no farther, for it would likely have been the death of me.

There was a hole at the base of that oak tree, one of those little caves that often form in old trees. I imagined wee folk who lived inside the trunk in many-storied mansions. I used to go out with a lantern and look for them on Midsummer’s Eve. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

There was a willow tree in our north yard that my nextdoor neighbor and I used to climb. It had a friendly array of branches that were like a basket for holding little kids who wanted to play above the yard. That tree was like a Phoenix: its trunk snapped completely off at ground level during an ice storm, and my parents thought that was the end of it. But the whole tree grew again from the stump.

I had a reading grove in the northwest corner of the front yard. I’d sit in a lawn chair and put my feet in the fork of a young oak tree that is not so young now. I remember writing a lot of The Threshold of Twilight there and reading a lot of Stephen R. Donaldson. My good dog Hooper is also buried in that grove.

I remember gazing always at that great wall of oaks to the south of our property (see the aerial photo in the previous posting). It was a mighty, rolling green cliff, full of twilight caverns signifying mystery. That, to me as a boy, was the rampart of Mirkwood.

To the south of our place along the road there was a gigantic oak that I always called the Silhouette Tree. Apparently “silhouette” was a word I learned early on and especially loved, and I’d point to that tree at sunset and use the word. (That tree has just been cut down in the past year–I noticed it gone the last time I was there.)

In the middle of the field between my neighbor’s house and mine was another old, gigantic tree. We used to play there, building secret little clubhouses around its base. It was especially nice when the field was in corn, and we had to pass through the whispering stalks to get there, its towering height guiding us as a landmark as we navigated toward it, and the field shutting out all the world. My dad always cautioned us to be careful, that a lone tree in a field could indicate the site of a long-vanished homestead, and thus that there might be an abandoned well somewhere in its shadow, perhaps covered by a now-rotted layer of boards. (My dad was among the greatest worriers in human history.) That always added to the charm for us, that at any moment the ground might collapse beneath our feet. We used to prod and search and hope for that long-lost well, but with no success.

Mom had a grape arbor, and the vines quested out and climbed a maple tree at the back corner of the tin shed. In the arbor’s heyday, the tree itself was full of grapes. It was a grape tree. My nextdoor neighbor and I used to sit up there, high above the world, and eat them.

And here’s a story for you: at my grandma’s house in town, there was a birch tree. During a storm, the trunk shattered, and the tree was left leaning over the street and sidewalk. The trunk was completely severed, so it had to be cut down. Grandma enlisted me and all the neighborhood kids to do the job. That will forever remain as a “photograph of the heart”: there we all were, a scruffy, barefoot kid on just about every limb, each equipped with a saw, a hatchet, or a pair of clippers. Many of us were vigorously sawing through the limbs between ourselves and the bole. Every so often a kid would plummet earthward with a shriek. And down on the ground, there was the biggest boy in the neighorhood, methodically sawing through the trunk with the biggest saw. We all lived, and none of us were hurt.

So, dear readers — tell us your tree stories! Did you have a treehouse? Did you climb trees, maybe with a book in your pocket? Did you have a secret clubhouse sheltered by tree branches? If so, take us all there, so that those worlds may live again!

Books, Part 2: Fred’s Lists

May 15, 2009

It occurred to me this evening that I have now been a professional writer for ten years: a decade of selling fiction. So miracles do happen. For years and years, I seriously doubted I’d ever be published at all. But if you stay the course, things happen when they’re supposed to. If you’re a writer aspiring to make your first sale, don’t give up.

(How was that for a really short sermon?)

Anyway, more about books! For anyone who has not yet been there, I strongly encourage you to back up to the previous post and especially to read the reader comments beneath it. The readers of this blog have been answering the call to recommend favorite books. You’ll find wonderful titles there to keep you busy for a good long while. And everyone: you can keep right on recommending books in response to this post — or at any time. On this blog, good books are always on the subject!

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

[Aside: the phrasing of that last sentence is an echo from our years of playing Dungeons & Dragons back in junior high, high school, and college. To keep the game focused, we set up something called the Pun Fund. It was a can with a slot in the top. When it started out, as the name implies, if you made a pun, you had to pay a fine by dropping a coin into the slot. Quite soon, though, we expanded to a whole system of fines for anything that held up the game. If your character went on an “Ego Trip” (meaning he talked too much about himself or otherwise behaved like the center of the universe), that cost you a nickel. If you used “Logic,” you had to pay up. (A “Logic” violation meant that you stopped the game cold by arguing that a particular pit trap, for example, violated the laws of physics.) The catch-all offense was “Off the Subject.” That one’s self-explanatory. But in the interest of decency, we soon established the rule that certain things were always on the subject and could not be fined — most notably, food. Any mention of when we’d be taking a food break or what we’d be eating was always, always to the point and welcome. (And for reasons I never understood and never agreed to, Bugs Bunny was always on the subject. You could be in the middle of the most harrowing adventure ever, with the city about to go up in flames, and if you said something in a Bugs Bunny voice, you could not be fined! Go figure. . . .)]

My, do I digress! One more topic before I get to The Lists. . . .

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

I was happily surprised to discover some on-line reviews of Dragonfly I’d never seen on a site called “goodreads.” What made me even happier was that some of the reviews were quite recent! The book was first published in 1999 — a decade ago — and the mass-market Ace edition is out of print. (It’s still easy to acquire for pennies on Amazon. Yes, you can buy this book for about the price of a Pun or an Ego Trip!) But now and then, people are still finding it, and even better, they’re still liking it! Here are a few lines from some of my favorites, and notice the dates!

In April 2008, “Woodge” wrote: “I found this while browsing in a bookstore and I must admit that the arresting cover caught my eye. Upon a closer look, the cover would seem to appeal to a Young Adult audience but an even closer inspection revealed that to be misleading. (There’s a moral here somewhere.) . . . Well, it was as advertised. This imaginative, original story gets cracking from the very first pages. The imagery is lush and painted with a rich vocabulary. There’s nothing cutesy about the story . . . and it manages to include all sorts of beasties. Vampires, werewolves, gypsies, and other various ghouls all make an appearance in this unpredictable tale. And when the action is really moving it brings to mind thrills you might find in a summer blockbuster. Good times.”

In October 2007, “The other John” wrote: “(Had to re-read this one and get my fix of Midwest October…) Dragonfly is a great read. The premise is nothing new — a child has adventures in a mystical realm. But unlike Dorothy, Meg Murry or the Pevensie children, Bridget Anne (also known by the nickname Dragonfly) heads down to a dark realm — the essence of Hallowe’en. Not quite hell, but much closer than any other ‘faerieland’ of which I’ve read. But it’s not all blackness, either. There is love and hope and faith amidst the suffering and death. Mr. Durbin does a very good job of bringing the story to life, weaving together the plot and the characters. Nothing is wasted — details that I just thought of as embellishment suddenly turn out to be important to the plot. One of the folks who reviewed Dragonfly at Amazon.com said that the book reminded him of Ray Bradbury. Me, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, partly because of the basic premise, partly because of the underlying Christianity of the heroes. . . . But despite Mr. Lewis’ skill in portraying good and evil characters, his fiction comes across as a weekend gardener — a tad dirty, but still very prim and proper. Dragonfly, to continue the metaphor, is more like a real farmer, for whom sweat and dust are a part of daily life. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m going to put it on my shelf so I can read it again. I suspect it will only get better the second time around.”

On January 1st of 2009, “Jaymi” said: “I remember picking this book up on a lark. It was the name and the cover that caught my eye. We were just about to leave the store when I saw it and knew I had to have it. I’m glad I got it. Imagine Neil Gaiman meets H.P. Lovecraft and this is one possible reality. Dragonfly is the story of a 10-year-old girl who foolishly adventures down into a horrible realm (much like Lovecraft’s Dreamlands). Dragonfly follows a strange ‘exterminator’ down into her basement. . . .”

This is probably my favorite: on April 25, 2009, “Crystal” wrote: “I find it hard to believe this book is not more popular. Far from being overwritten or too descriptive, the narrative is perfect. Death is not off limits, nor does the author try to dumb the story down. So far, it’s as d**n near to perfect as I have come across.”

Finally, on September 10, 2008, “Todd” said: “It is very dark and complex. . . . I really enjoyed the writing style. It is imaginary and literary, with lots of allusions to mythology, great books, and the Scriptures. But they are very very subtle. This is no Left Behind kind of cheap Christian novel. The author, a Lutheran, does a wondrous job of weaving elements of the Christian faith in . . . . I hope he writes more soon.”

There’s also a review in a language I can’t read and my computer can’t reproduce, so I won’t quote that one.

Groink! On to THE LISTS!

I’m going to give you three separate lists here (you’ll see why as we go along). Obviously, I’m not making any attempt to identify the greatest works of literature in the history of humankind. For that, I commend to you The New Lifetime Reading Plan, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, though the authors aren’t as focused on fantasy and horror as most of us are. (The weirdos.) Heh, heh. What I’m going to list here are the books that, for whatever reasons, have meant the most to me, have influenced me the most, and/or that people who know me well have recommended to me. In general, the books appear in no particular order: if they make the list, they make the list. Without further adieu, then (lest the referee declare us Off the Subject, and we all have to fork over a nickel or a dime):

List #1: My Treasured Books (The Small Shelf):

1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

3. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

4. Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

6. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (This is a children’s book, but its influence on me is immeasurable: it’s the very essence of mystery and exploration, penetrating the unknown, adventure in exotic places, friendship, and doing things for the right reasons. The illustrations and those wonderful maps are at least half of the enchantment.)

7. Collectively, the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Where to begin? Among my favorites are The Dunwich Horror, A Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” My absolute #1 favorite of his short stories is “The Shunned House.” And finally, his story that I believe supersedes genre and belongs in every college freshman English lit survey course textbook, right alongside “A Rose for Emily” et al., is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” I’m telling you, Lovecraft. . . . I grew up reading him, because the covers intrigued me in our family’s bookstore. As a kid, as a grownup, I read him perennially, and he’s one of the few authors whose stuff I’ve read most of. Even now, when spring comes around and the weather warms up, I itch to dig out a volume of Lovecraft, go outdoors, and read until the sun sets. Lovecraft in the dusk is the ultimate reading experience! If you don’t own any Lovecraft books yet and are wondering what to buy, I’d point you toward the annotated Lovecraft editions edited by S.T. Joshi, who is probably the world’s leading Lovecraft scholar. [I’ve personally met him — he shook my hand at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, and he gave Dragonfly a wonderful review in Weird Tales!]

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

8. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

9. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany (To protect the very guilty, I won’t tell you how I acquired my copy of this. But it’s worth acquiring, even if you have to venture into a Peruvian temple and outrun a gigantic rolling stone sphere and a tribe of angry Hovitos.)

10. Bertram’s Fabulous Animals, by Paul T. Gilbert (This is another children’s book, but it gave me endless hours of entertainment as a kid. In a nutshell, the protag, Bertram, is a kid who keeps finding out about various fantastic creatures, and he always wants to get one as a pet. His mama always kind of misunderstands what he’s talking about and says okay. He gets one, and pandemonium ensues. Finally, Bertram’s daddy comes home (he’s always in Omaha on business) and straightens things out and sends the destructive and/or selfish fantastic creature packing. It’s that delicious combination of funny and fascinating and terrifying that makes for the very best of children’s books. I remember almost having nightmares about one of the creatures . . . and laughing really hard many a time.)

11. Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser (This is my most recent discovery on this list. But it belongs here. I found the book in Tokyo, because of its beautiful cover. Now I read it almost every summer. But I implore you: read it only at night, during the very hottest season you can manage in your part of the world. It’s pure magic. The whole book [which is quite thin, an easy read] takes place during a single summer night; it follows the nightly adventures of a group of people linked by the fact that they are all residents of the same New England town. Wow, just thinking about it makes me want to take it down off my shelf right now. . . .)

12. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

13. Jaws, by Peter Benchley (Go ahead and laugh, but everything I’ve written has been colored in some way by Jaws. I’ll never forget the happy hours spent on my Aunt Emmy’s back stairway, just off her kitchen, reading Jaws. Yes, this is a rare case in which the movie is better. But the movie wouldn’t exist without the book. The book was first.)

14. Beowulf, by the Beowulf poet

15. Andersen’s Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (My mom would read these to me whenever I was really sick, so I will forever associate them with fevers and vomiting and delirium — but also with tenderness and love and the comforting presence of a mom . . . and release from all responsibility, because you’re sicker than a dog . . . and the hope of recovery, and the delight of water or ice cubes to a dehydrated mouth . . . and fantasy, and dreams. . . .)

16. October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (This is a hefty collection of stories about Hallowe’en by many different writers, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. And what may be even better than the fiction is that between the stories are short recollections by the writers of their favorite Hallowe’en memories. I get this book out every October and read around in it.)

List #2: Honorable Mentions:

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (His best book — and the single greatest influence on Dragonfly — there’s even a balloon.)

2. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (I’ve met him and heard him preach at the church he once served [he’s a Lutheran pastor] in Evansville, Indiana.)

3. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (I remember crying in Miss Logan’s first grade classroom as I finished this book. It’s the book that taught me that stories that make you hurt can be among the most effective — and that really good endings are what you should aim for as a writer.)

4. The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany (My Cricket story “Ren and the Shadow Imps” is a tribute to this one.)

5. The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser (Wonderful, wonderful stuff — Millhauser finds the details that recapture all our childhood longings — longings, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis said, for things that do not even exist in this temporal life.)

6. It, by Stephen King (In my opinion, this is Stephen King’s best work: it doesn’t get any better than this. I read most of this book in the summer just before I left for Japan, and finished it up in Tokyo.)

7. ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (His second-best book. Vampires!)

8. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling (Ever heard of them? They’re kind of obscure, but you can probably find some somewhere. . . .)

9. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

10. Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog (This book inspired my next-door neighbor and me to climb everything in sight: the barn, trees, buildings. . . . And to take grainy photos of ourselves at the summit.)

11. The Book of Lies, by Agota Kristof (Search for her name, not for this title: I don’t think the three short novels that make it up were released under this title in the States. This book is not for everyone — it’s very disturbing in places. But for virtuosity of technique and construction, it’s brilliant!)

12. Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith (Happy memories of dusty crypts and sere mummies that creak as they walk. . . . I saw a new release on Amazon of some of Smith’s stories.)

13. The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle (A South American plateau on which dinosaurs still live . . . for a pre-teen boy, Heaven.)

14. The Land That Time Forgot and its two sequels, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Fun, fun, fun, fun!)

15. The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by Jim Corbett (He was a big-game hunter hired by the local governments of India’s Kumaon district whenever they had a problem with a big cat that turned maneater. It’s a factual account of his showdowns with various tigers and leopards. Not a “chick flick” at all, but I’ll bet some of you chicks would like it. . . .)

16. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Never would have read this if I hadn’t gone to college. Glad I did.)

17. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (I saw this performed, too, outdoors on a summer night. Just as much fun as the play was seeing the cast milling about under the trees before and after the show — all these people dressed as fairies in the light of the moon, taking part in this magical experience that is a theater production, which happens briefly in life and then is gone forever, but never forgotten. . . .)

18. The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel (If you’re going to read just one book on Fortean subjects/the paranormal, this should be the one.)

19. Shiokari Pass, by Ayako Miura (A story of what it means to be a Christian in Japan. I’ve been there — I’ve stood in the actual Shiokari Pass on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido. If you’ve seen the movie — I was there!)

20. Run, Melos! by Osamu Dazai (A collection of short stories by one of Japan’s darkest writers — when I was a young, tormented twentysomething, I loved it — “He understands!“)

21. Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne (Um, yeah. Doesn’t take much to see the influence this has had on me.)

22. Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn (The title means Weird Tales. Hearn was a westerner who moved to Japan and spent the end of his life there, documenting the ancient, strange folklore of Japan for English readers. In your readings of ghost stories from around the world, if there’s ever a Japanese ghost story, I guarantee you that it came to you via Lafcadio Hearn. This book’s shadow falls large across Dragonfly.)

23. The short stories of Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce (Particularly “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” by Blackwood and “The Damned Thing” by Bierce. I have delightful memories of reading these in the pine grove in my first years in Niigata.)

24. In Evil Hour, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And finally:

List #3: Books Recommended to Me by Those Who Know Me and Whom I Greatly Respect:

1. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg

2. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

3. Zod Wallop, by William Browning Spencer

4. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

6. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

7. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer

8. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

9. Montmorency, by Eleanor Updale

10. Inkheart and Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

11. Cloud Atlas,  by David Mitchell

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

14. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

15. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

16. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

17. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham

18. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

19. Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien

20. Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

21. Stravaganza: City of Masks, City of Flowers, City of Stars, City of Secrets (4 books), by Mary Hoffman

22. Surprised by Joy and Till We Have Faces,  by C.S. Lewis

23. Phantastes, by George Macdonald

24. “The Golden Key,” The Light Princess, and The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald

25. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

26. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski

27. “The Door in the Wall,” by H.G. Wells

28. The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges

29. The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

30. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

31. “The Mezzotint,” by M.R. James (Actually, I think I may have read this one: was it reprinted in Mooreeffoc?)

32. Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock

33. “The Lonesome Place,” by August Derleth

34. The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

35. No Clock in the Forest, by Paul Willis

36. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

37. Song of Albion, by Steven Lawhead

38. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

39. Unlundun, by China Mieville

40. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Think that’ll keep you busy for awhile? Happy reading!

Two Wild Horses

March 4, 2009

“In [man’s] mouth is ever the bitter-sweet taste of life and death. . . . Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell.”  — Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

Memory and hope, two wild horses, dragging us without respite. . . . The taste of life and death always in our mouths, bitter and sweet. . . . The reason Lud-in-the-Mist belongs on our small shelves of the ten or so greatest works of fantasy is because Ms. Mirrlees understood: she truly got what it is that makes us human. Her book is full of that agonizing, ecstatic interrelationship of time, nature, and us feeling mortals.

Memory: from our earliest years, are we not filled with nostalgia for the past? Are we not haunted by things which were but no longer are? As we age, memories pile upon memories, the falling of golden leaves. These shape our identities; they are treasures which give us pain and strength. Perhaps there is no strength without pain, in the same way that our growing bones hurt before they lengthen. And when we try to envision Heaven, do we not search among the troves of our memories, seeking out those moments which, in the gentle rounding of time, seem to have been far better than the ordinary days in which we now find ourselves?

Hope: from our earliest years, do we not choose to live, when we close our eyes or gaze into the distance, in the realm of what we fancy will be? Hope colors all that we do, for we look to the light of possibility that shines just ahead of us, glowing in the open door. In a little while — so we tell ourselves — when the seasons change, when we reach the clearing or the landing, all will be better, and there will be again something like the joy of the golden moments that are gone.

I can’t help thinking of the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

So we are odd creatures, trapped in our freedom, hurt by our joys and rejoicing in our hurts. “For the great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad: for all their wars are merry, and all their songs sad.” We ride our carriages pulled by Untowards; we are made full only by what lies behind and by that unknown country ahead.

Groink!

Updates on The Star Shard: my agent is enthusiastic about the revisions, and he is sending it on to the book editor who has expressed a strong interest. That editor, if he is equally excited about the rewritten draft, then will have to convince his fellow decision-makers of the book’s potential. So — there are hurdles yet ahead, but right now, things are going well! Many prayers. . . .

Finally, I referred several postings ago to a contest held by Cricket in which they encouraged their readers to try writing poems/songs the Urrmsh might sing. [The Urrmsh are a race of beings in my story “The Star Shard” which is being serialized in Cricket Magazine right now.] The winners of that contest have been chosen, and the editors have graciously allowed me to read them. The work is absolutely amazing, and again, I can’t describe the feeling of having young people all across the nation writing poetry based on these characters in this story. They turn their poetic spotlights not only onto what is made clear in the story, but also into the dark corners; they delve into the parts of the greater tale that lie beyond the borders of the pages. One, for instance, explores the journey of the Urrmsh toward their present state; one focuses on the romance between Cymbril’s parents. I see Cricket‘s wisdom in launching the contest precisely when they did, when just enough has been revealed to give the poets maximum grist.

A fascinating thing I’ve noticed about the poems is that the poets seem most drawn to the conflict Cymbril feels — should she go or should she stay? How can she move forward? How can she say goodbye to the Rake and her friends there? What lies ahead?

And does that sound familiar? Does it sound like the opening number of this post? Cymbril, too, is “dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope.”

I believe all the winning poems will be published in an issue of Cricket coming up soon — start watching with the April 2009 issue, in which “The Star Shard” will come to its end. They really are beautiful, outstanding pieces.

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us: but unto Thy name be glory given.”

Looking from a Certain Angle

April 29, 2008

“There is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.”

–Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

I’m about a third of the way into the extraordinary book quoted above. It was recommended to me by four different friends, and I’m finally getting around to reading it. It is truly wonderful. Most definitely it belongs on the “small shelf” of the most treasured books in the library of a serious lover of fantasy. It was written just shy of a century ago, but don’t let that discourage you. Ms. Mirrlees wrote in a clear, elegant, uncluttered style that makes for smooth, pleasant reading. Moreover, she knew how to tell a story; I found myself drawn in at once to the lives and adventures of the Chanticleer family and their associates.

Like so many of my favorite writers, Hope Mirrlees was clearly as enchanted by the natural world as by any fantastical elements of a fairy tale; or rather, she rightly understood just how numinous the created world is, in and of itself. What, she asks, is more magical than a hawthorn tree coming suddenly to life in the spring?

Anyway, her words that I quoted above express, I believe, one of the fundamental concepts upon which any discussion of writing fantasy fiction should be built. Tolkien said essentially the same thing in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” And Leonardo da Vinci reportedly told his art students that they should stare at the cracks in the walls until they saw whole worlds pouring out of them.

Where do ideas come from? How can we write about Faery when we’ve never been there? The ideas are all around us, and I’d contend that we live all the time with one foot in Faery. It’s a matter of knowing how to see, how to listen. Lilacs are blooming just now in the northern hemisphere. Go out and press your nose into their twilight-colored clusters. Drink in that fragrance like none other on Earth. If you would see fairies, they’re dancing there, among those dusky, heart-shaped leaves.

We knew this well as children. Were we not all experts at taking “homely things” and making of them the equipment we needed for our adventures, no matter how fantastic? I recall the rusted wreck of a bicycle that, overturned and stood upon its handlebars and seat, became the wheelhouse of my imaginary “shark-fishing boat”: the bicycle’s tire was the ship’s wheel, and the kickstand was the throttle (its rusty resistance so mechanically satisfying when it was shifted up or down with a grrooiiink!). The bike’s pedals were the winch-crank for raising and lowering the anti-shark cage.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, English teacher Mr. Keating has his students stand, one by one, atop his desk in order to view the classroom from that vantage point–an angle from which they’ve never seen it.

So we, too, if we set out to write fantasy, must stand in places we don’t normally stand. We must look around, and listen to the quietness and the whispers of leaves. Let us remember what we knew before we ever opened a textbook: that the wonders are here, more than any book can contain. Grab hold of one and write about it!