I want to write about Terry Pratchett, and I don’t even know where to begin. He wrote so many wonderful and consoling things about death (or, y’know, Death) that I feel the tiniest bit guilty for being so very sad he’s gone. I feel like I should be able to face it with some kind of humorous equanimity, something like:
“DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING, said Death. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.” — Good Omens
Ahahahaha! And yet. I has all the sad. I’m afraid I’m going to have to play it straight.
I never read any of his books until I moved to Canada, and even then I had several false starts. I tried reading The Colour of Magic and I didn’t get very far. It looked like a pile of undifferentiated jokes to me, and while the jokes were individually hilarious, in a heap they were rather overwhelming. It was like eating nothing but cake, all the time. Another one that I remember disliking was Maskerade, which as far as I could tell was nothing but a send-up of Phantom of the Opera. It was funny enough, for what it was, but I honestly couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
I’m not sure why I kept trying.
Well, that’s not quite true. I kept trying because I had just moved to a foreign country where I knew no one outside my own household. I kept trying because I missed my friends back in Philly, and I’m pretty sure they were the ones who’d recommended Pratchett to me in the first place. I kept trying because I really, really needed a friend right then, and miraculously, I found one.
Going Postal was the book that finally opened the door for me, the one that made me realize there was a human behind the mountains of jokes, a human who was preoccupied with many of the same things I was. The Tiffany Aching books followed close on its heels, as well as Thud!, and by the time I’d gotten through those I felt like I knew exactly who I was dealing with.
And he was something remarkable, something I’d never quite seen before. He was using the twin fists of humour and fantasy to punch the world in the face. These were, in fact, extremely serious books about difficult and hard-hitting subjects, but he’d disguised it so cleverly that you couldn’t quite tell. I think the mask did slip a bit in his later years, and that was why I found his more recent books more accessible. I find it easier to read the early ones now that I’ve glimpsed the wellsprings beneath them; his preoccupations have been the same all along, and now that I know what to look for I see them everywhere, shining like diamonds.
I wrote a little tribute to him on the Terry Pratchett Appreciation Tumblr a couple years ago, and I don’t think I can sum up his influence on my writing any more perfectly than this:
Nothing was out of bounds, not death, love, politics, or religion. A fantasy writer could say exactly what needed to be said and could run any thought experiment conceivable. It was a revelation, and it set me free.
I cried when I learned that he had died, and I cried again later that day when a middle-school student asked me who my favourite writer was. “Isn’t it amazing,” I said, “how deeply books can move you, and what a strong connection we can feel to someone we never met?”
I used to call him, only half-jokingly, my long-lost time-travelling twin, or my spiritual uncle, because we were preoccupied with so many of the same kinds of questions. We didn’t always come to the same conclusions, but his were always humane, hilarious, and well worth considering.
“Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” —Reaper Man
Thank you for everything, old friend. I’m going to miss you.
It’s been a long day and I have to get up early to fly to Seattle, but I just wanted to say that the party at Kidsbooks was just wonderful. Thanks to everyone who came out for it. My husband didn’t take a lot of pictures because our friend Liz was taking a LOT of pictures and her pictures are the best. But here’s one of me pontificating:
I also got some flowers from the lovely folks at Doubleday Canada. Thank you Amy, Pamela, and Trish!
That’s not very coherent, but it’s all I’ve got tonight. Thank you everyone who sent me kind notes or happy tweets today. It was the best book birthday ever.
It’s super exciting, although for some reason I still have to do laundry and clean my kitchen. I had hoped that maybe by this point in my career those things would magically happen by themselves, but they don’t seem to.
Be that as it may, here’s an amusement to tide you over: a lovely conversation I had with Christopher Paolini about Shadow Scale, writing, dragons, and music. And probably other stuff, too. It turns out I do babble on. The interview also contains my trademark giggling in copious quantities, so you really don’t want to miss out on that.
(Seriously: I laugh a lot. If you ever meet me, you will notice. If you meet me and I’m not laughing, chances are I’m storing it up for later.)
See you tomorrow, friends. Thank you all for your support, your patience, and your high tolerance for silliness.
Yesterday I went and spoke at my good friend Susin Nielsen‘s class. I’ve done this before; I go in and she asks me a few questions and I tell the convoluted tale of my road to publication. It was nothing I’d usually be nervous about, but I must have been a little bit worried because I had an anxiety dream the night before.
It began as the most hackneyed of all anxiety dreams: the one where you suddenly realize you have to take the final exam but you haven’t been attending the class. Maybe you forgot. Maybe you hadn’t realized you were enrolled. Whatever the reason, it’s too late now, the final is here and you’re going to flunk it.
In this dream, however, I was able to go talk to the professor beforehand. Lo and behold, the professor was John Oliver! So I thought to myself (in the dream), “Y’know, I’m not completely ignorant of World History. I might be able to fake my way through this exam. And he’s a comedian, so if I write really funny answers, maybe he’ll overlook the lack of facts.”
Then I thought, cheekily, “After grades are in, I wonder if he’d go out with me?”
Alas, the dream ended there, so I never did get to find out whether Professor John Oliver would go out with undergrad me. It’s probably just as well. What really strikes me about the whole thing was that I walked into a classic anxiety dream and then turned it on its ear. I was going to boldly bluff my way through the dreaded exam and then, ye gods, the gall of me.
I sometimes feel like I move in circles. Here I go again, toward another book launch; Brian’s comment on yesterday’s post made me realize that I’m coming toward it from a different mental angle than before. Maybe the dream was about my Shadow Scale tour, and not about Susin’s class at all.
One of her students asked a relevant question, about how to avoid feeling discouraged when a story doesn’t turn out as beautifully on paper as it seemed in your head. I gave her my mother’s analogy, how writing is like portrait painting: you have to compose very generally at first, figure out the basic shapes and where everything goes. Then you add greater detail with each subsequent pass, and only at the very end do you add the finest details, like eyelashes. The key is to be patient, and to remember that you will be going over the whole thing again and again, making it better each time.
Circling back around. This time you see more clearly; this time you understand more about what you’re doing. It’s very Groundhog Day. We get chances to do better all the time.
And so here I am, also, working on the first draft of the next thing, trying to roll with it and not worry. It really is a question of being patient and trusting that it will work the way it has always worked, and even if it doesn’t, that I’m capable and can fake my way out in a pinch.
It’s still hard to be patient, though, even when you see the point.
So I’ve been thinking how best to appreciate dragons today. If I were any kind of baker, I’d have made a cake, but since I’m a writer, I fear you’re going to have to settle for words. They’re less fattening, certainly, but maybe not quite as tasty.
Over at Suvudu, they’re celebrating by excerpting the first chapter of Shadow Scale. I know some of you are being patient and won’t go for that, since it will just leave you hungry for more (hm! Maybe words are tastier than I give them credit for). Your patience will soon be rewarded: less than two months to go. Still, even if you don’t care to read the excerpt, go give Suvudu a hug for me. I’m so grateful for their support and enthusiasm.
You can find lots of excellent pictures of dragons on Twitter by following #AppreciateADragonDay. The medieval manuscript art is my favourite, but there are also Komodo dragons, Smaug, Toothless, something for everyone. The good folks at Random House have also compiled a “Seraphina Playlist” of recent tunes:
(NB: “Cold War” was my suggestion; the rest were suggested by people more knowledgeable of recent music than I am. There will also be a playlist of songs I actually listened to while working.)
Updated to add: Here’s my playlist! It’s a more eccentric mixture, I’ll grant you that.
For my own part, I’m going to answer the question posed by my husband last night: Why dragons?
It’s a good question, and one that’s actually kind of difficult for me to answer because I started loving dragons when I was quite young, before I was able to articulate any kind of reason beyond the fact that they were powerful and super cool. Other supernatural creatures couldn’t compare, in fact I don’t think there’s a one that holds my interest like a dragon.
My earliest exposure to dragons — besides Andrew Lang’s fairy books, which surely had dragons in them, but I don’t remember the specifics — must have been C. S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which I read at about age seven. Eustace Clarence Scrubb is turned into a dragon by his greed, and then in the book’s most vivid and memorable scene (to young me, anyway), Aslan peels off Eustace’s dragon skin and turns him human again. It’s a striking image and it underscores an important point about dragons: as much as we might wish to deny it, they’re a reflection of ourselves.
I think dragons combine two warring parts of our nature, the contradiction inherent in all of us, that we may be simultaneously monstrous and wise. Some depictions take both traits to extremes, while others lean more heavily toward the bestial or the godly. Smaug, I think, embodies both. The dragons of Pern, or of E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen veer toward the animalistic end of the spectrum (Owen, in particular, gives us dragons as a force of nature, as destructive – and brainy – as a hurricane). One of my favourite clever dragons is Vollys, from Two Princesses of Bamarre, who finds that vast intelligence can be unsatisfying without an audience.
That’s a lot of variation, right there, but that’s the beauty of the beast. There’s so much scope for interpretation and nuance. My own area of interest has been on the intersection of dragons and humanity — to what extent are we dragons and are dragons us? I do suspect (and honestly, this is NEW, the first time I’m thinking of this) that this interest might just be traceable to Eustace Clarence Scrubb.
Monster or Saint, creator or destroyer, bestial or transcendent, dragons — like the rest of us — are full of vibrant potential.
Happy New Year, friends! It has dawned sunny here in Vancouver, which should absolutely not be taken as a portent for things (especially weather) to come, but is welcome nonetheless.
For the last several years, I’ve been playing my friend Arwen’s New Year Naming Game (I don’t think that’s what she actually calls it, but that’s how I think of it). It involves looking at where you are and where you’re going and coming up with a single word that you hope will sum up – or at least be a recurring theme in – the year to come.
One word. It’s not easy!
I’ve been over-thinking it, as ever. Records on clay tablets indicate that I’ve been doing this since 2012, and my words have been (in order) Perspective, Art, and AUTHORITY (in all caps, as you might imagine). The latter, in particular, was super helpful (last year’s post explains why), and I think I may be at a point now where I am feeling confident in myself again and can afford to back down a little and relax.
And… I was going to pick something else, but now that I think about it, RELAX may just be our winner. Why not? In all caps, of course, with an implied OR ELSE! hot on its heels. There’s a lot coming up this year with the potential to make me anxious, but I see it coming and I have good tools for dealing with it now. I just need a periodic reminder to let go, take care of myself, and breathe.
What’s ahead, as you gaze through your spyglass at the year to come? What word will you carry with you, or scrawl across the top of your map?
IO, darlings! IO!
So we kicked things off last night with our feast. Atypically, we ate at a nice restaurant instead of sweating all day over rock-hard barley rolls. It’s not that we’re getting too old and soft to eat rock-hard barley rolls, it’s just that ever since the Great Flood hit our apartment, our classical cookbooks have been packed away. [Note to self: future Jethro Tull filk, “Too Old for Barley Rolls, Too Young for Rye”] Last night we also gave gifts. I got an ASTOUNDING octopus brooch:
If you’re wondering why I would want an octopus brooch, above and beyond the objective awesome of it, well, here’s a good place to start.
I also got a really big hug… after giving my son a whammy bar for his guitar. He really, really wanted to wham up some songs, apparently. [Note to self: Wham on? Whammerize? Whamminate? Look this up. And you call yourself a writer!] The best thing about Saturnalia is that we can drag it out for several days. Tonight we’re going to see The Hobbit: Battle of Ten Thousand Whammy Bars [NB: look this up, Rachel!], and then tomorrow night my husband and son are going to a Canucks game while I stay home, put my feet up, and pretend I’ve never heard of hockey. A good time will be had by all! I hope your holidays, whichever you wham upon, are full and lovely and happy, too!