One from the Archives: My First Fantasy Novel

Yo, minions, do you follow the Enchanted Inkpot? If you like fantasy fiction you really should. Right now, for example, they have an interview with author R.L LaFevers, author of the Theodosia Throckmorton and Nathaniel Fludd books, which are some of the best middle grade fantasy novels around. You may not know that I was a founding member of the Inkpot, although I left them because really, the Inkies just would not buy into my plans for galactic and interdimensional conquest. They were so focused on stuff like reading, and writing, and books and publishing and so on. It was really interfering with the growth of my evil Twitter empire. But I must secretly confess that I retain a high level of affection and respect for the people of the Inkpot, especially since they said I can recycle this post I wrote back in June of 2009.

My First Fantasy Novel: DRAGONSONG
DRAGONSONG by Anne McCaffreyDuring my preteen years I received a tremendous gift from a favorite group of cousins: an open invitation to plunder their bookshelves. In those days I spent the most time with my youngest cousin Peter, but it was among the volumes hoarded by his two sisters (both several years older than me) where I found the book that introduced me to fantasy fiction. That book was Anne McCaffrey’s DRAGONSONG.

I catapulted through it in one long summer day, grudgingly pausing for dinner with my brothers and cousins. After the meal I retreated with my prize to a secluded corner of my aunt and uncle’s house in the Hollywood Hills, staying up much later than my parents would have approved of (had they only known). Cousinly banter, after-dark games of Marco Polo and cable TV were all well and good, but on that night they could not compete with Menolly’s adventures in melodic herpetology.

Why did this book (and its companion book, DRAGONSINGER) leave such an imprint on me? Descriptions of food were certainly part of its appeal – I am, to this day, an unabashed devotee of raw fish, rolled-up portable meals, and diminutive pies, and am instantly smitten by any book with ample descriptions of tasty vittles. I like a good yarn about an underdog overcoming adversity as much as the next person, and Menolly certainly overcomes her share of barriers, whether it be a deadening home life, a grievous hand injury, or a gaggle of entitled alpha females from high-society families. Airborne reptiles (large and small) who make strategic use of their fiery halitosis always provide massive entertainment value, of course. However, these books gave me more than just tiny pastries and thyroidal gila monsters on the wing.

I grappled with the vocabulary, first of all, and found that I rather enjoyed the process. I was not familiar with the idea of world-building; not that I conceived of it in those terms, but my favorite books until that time were placed in settings that gave at least a cursory nod to my actual, real-world surroundings, even if the main character was (for example) a motorcycle-riding mouse or a musically inclined cricket. It was intriguing to immerse myself in a fictional world that identified recognizable structures and activities with entirely different terminology. I thus experienced minor-but-entertaining epiphanies such as “Oh, ‘necessary’ means bathroom! Duh!” and “What the &%$# is a wherry?” Wading through McCaffrey’s lexicon of Pernese verbiage was one of the first times I remember making a focused effort to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words through context, a skill that has since escorted me through an endless parade of lazy, sans-dictionary moments.

I also identified with the character of Menolly in several ways. I wasn’t yet a teenager, but I was always the sibling (and cousin, for that matter) who drifted outside of my family’s jetstream of personality types and conversational dynamics. I found tremendous romantic appeal in the thought of running away from home and living in a cave with only a bunch of lizards for company, and ensuing satisfaction in the idea of finding a community that not only accepts left-of-center personalities and abilities, but values them, lifts them up and puts them to enjoyable, meaningful use.

Menolly’s main distinguishing characteristic is her musical ability, of course. I can’t claim a similar level of once-in-a-generation talent, but I have always enjoyed making music, and therefore felt a real fascination with the exploits of Menolly and her compatriots at the Harper Hall. Over time I also became captivated by the idea of a world where music is the primary means of educating the young, and where a musician like Masterharper Robinton is not just a glorified choir director, but also a historian, diplomat and policymaker. McCaffrey creates a world where art has political heft as well as cultural value, and where a creative professional rates a seat at the table of global leadership. Imagine that.

As I get older and the pace at which the little hands go around the clockface speeds up I re-read fewer books than I used to, which saddens me a bit, but DRAGONSONG is one of the relatively few books that I’ve gone back to more than once. The first time was when I was in college. I was spending the night at my cousins’ house enroute to my parents’ home on the opposite coast, and my older cousin Grace was the only one of the three cousins present at the time. Somewhat bored, I went digging through her bookcase as I’d done so often in days of yore, and lo and behold, the very same copy of DRAGONSONG was still on the shelf. The college years were difficult for me; happy endings felt scarce, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to find solace in a fictional happy ending that I’d previously read, although I had yet to go quite so far back in time. In a fit of mingled whimsy and melancholia I purloined the book once more and sequestered myself on a living room couch. Sometime later Grace wandered along, peeked at the cover, and said, all innocent curiosity:

“Isn’t that a book for kids?”

I’ve been hearing variations of that infernal phrase ever since, even before my first sputtering attempts at writing my own children’s novel. My teen years were not distinguished by an astounding level of wit and articulation, so I mumbled something unintelligible and went back to reading. It’s worth noting that I didn’t succumb to embarrassment and STOP reading, however. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, if the Force has power over weak minds, any Jedi worth his or her salt would have had me at their beck and call. Therefore I can look back at that moment with a spicule of genuine pride, because although I did not fire back some kind of dagger-like riposte, I also kept reading the book. When I was done, I went back and found that old copy of DRAGONSINGER, committed a rather outrageous bit of larceny by stuffing it in my carry-on bag, and re-read it on the next day’s flight, mentally thumbing my nose at the mean old world and its sneering packs of adult fictionistas.

Was it a watershed moment? That might be overstating it, if only because I did actually steal the book from my own cousin (only for a few days, I swear). But it is one solid brick in the road that I’ve been shuffling on during my pursuit of a career as a children’s fiction writer. It’s also a moment that I look back on with a perverse kind of affection, because it does make me feel like I’ve experienced an irritating-but-amusing little rite of passage.

Two decades later I picked those books up again for the purposes of this blog post, which brings me to the final, possibly most meaningful thing they’ve done for me. There is an abundance of details from the books embedded in my consciousness– Menolly strapping a hideful of butchered avian flesh across her forehead; her gulping sobs of unaccustomed happiness as the people of Benden Weyr fuss over her clothes and hair; the shine (with just a hint of purple) she creates in her reed pipes by rubbing in a warm compound of packtail oil and sea grass. While enmeshed in those pages I could smell the malodorous cup of fish grease she uses to doctor her fire lizards’ patchy hides; I could feel the gritty sand covering the yellow-veined greens she collected halfway down the coast; I could see the blue leather of the boots she wore on her final triumphant walk between tables.

More than that, however, I could detect a whiff of chlorine from my aunt and uncle’s swimming pool, and feel the roughness of terry cloth around my shoulders. I could hear my cousin Cathy’s voice exclaiming “oh, there you are!” as she discovers me, yet again, squirreled away in some quiet alcove with my nose between the covers of a novel. I could feel  the texture of wet cement beneath my bare feet, and the balmy weight of a Southern California summer night, back when summer nights were still chased by leisurely summer mornings. By evoking images from within its pages AND sensations and memories from a distinct chapter of my life, the Harper Hall novels manage a nifty dual-purpose trick that – in my experience, anyway – is the sole province of treasured books from my youth.

I admire Anne McCaffrey’s writerly craft and artistic talent, and her books’ ability to create this bridge between my inner life and my outer life touches me deeply. Not too shabby an accomplishment for any author, right? It took me three times through the book to figure it out, but I now know what I’ll say if I find myself reading DRAGONSONG yet again, and someone gets up in my grill with “oh hey, isn’t that a book for kids?” I’ll say four things, in fact.

Yes, it’s a book for kids.
It’s actually a classic piece of children’s fiction.
It’s a treasured emblem of my childhood.
And thirty-odd years ago, it was my first fantasy novel.

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7 thoughts on “One from the Archives: My First Fantasy Novel

  1. That is spot on. McCaffrey’s books are so rich with sensory triggers they lock right into the structure of memory. I’m glad to think of them today–thanks to you.

    Sweet.

    1. Thanks Blythe! Yeah, it’s remarkable how those sensations came flooding back when I re-read the books…

  2. That was an excellent post back then and still is now. LOVED that book. Didn’t read until I was an adult, training for Youth Services in the public library-it was on my required reading list. It (and THE DARK IS RISING) opened up the world of fantasy, something I’d only read in bits and pieces, thinking it wasn’t “my thing”. Hah! Right now I am reading DREAMDARK: BLACKBRINGER by Laini Taylor…oh my. Can I just say fantasy ROCKS!

    1. Wow Deb, thanks for reading it (both times!) – yes, fantasy is great stuff, and while I don’t write traditional fantasy novels right now, it’s not terribly hard to imagine myself giving it a whirl sometime in the future. Can you believe I haven’t read THE DARK IS RISING? I gotta remedy that situation…

  3. Ooh, flashback time! I was a huge McCaffrey fan, thanks to the elementary school librarian who read us the first chapter of Dragonsong. I read the Harper Hall Trilogy (& the more adult Dragonrider Trilogy) over and over again. I vaguely remember trying to make my own audio book of it, and I did draw lots of pictures of dragons & fire lizards. Any “kid’s book” that’s still readable 30 years later transcends attempts to categorize. Oddly enough I could never get into The Dark is Rising series as a kid, but enjoyed it as a so-called grown up. I’ll put a plug in for Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series which gets labelled as YA but is really inseparable from his larger Discworld series.

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