I decided that, after a trilogy, I needed something shorter. But not an anthology (for once). Instead, I went to one of my holiday presents from a friend (I got a lovely number of books this season, and appreciate every single one of them). This was The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus. I thought it might be essays, but instead, as the title said, it’s literally a set of interviews that the author had with a number of famous fantasy writers. When first presented with the book, I was thrilled to see some of my old favorites as well as those I’d discovered more recently on the cover.
When I picked it up last night, I had to wonder how many of these authors were still alive. I knew that Brian Jacques, Diana Wynne Jones, and Terry Pratchett had passed on, but several of the others had to be pushing it. I’d actually been thinking that while reading Meredith Ann Pierce’s books: The Darkangel’s cover bears a quote from Madeleine L’Engle while A Gathering of Gargoyles showcases Lloyd Alexander, both of whom were featured in today’s book. But the era of their primacy has long since passed. A Wrinkle in Time and Prydain are still widely regarded as modern classics, but I know these books were near the end of their time in the general public’s awareness when I discovered them as a child on the library shelves. (Well, A Wrinkle in Time was on the basement shelves. Same difference.) Since most authors don’t seem to hit it big until they’re in their forties or so, it seemed logical to me that these two in particular would be quite old. Possibly dead.
Definitely dead, as Wikipedia tells me.
Well, damn. That’s five out of the thirteen authors within. Kind of makes me wonder why not Anne McCaffrey – she was still alive when this was published in 2006 – and then I remember that McCaffrey’s work is predominantly science fiction, not fantasy. Okay, why not Peter S. Beagle? He’s not dead yet, though I hear his mind is going and that’s why they cancelled his appearances on the movie tour for The Last Unicorn. Again, that was more recently, within the past few years, and not when this book was being compiled. I would ask why not Andre Norton, but she wrote as much science fiction as fantasy, if not more so, and died in 2005. I don’t know when all the interviews took place, but I would guess her health was probably failing when they did.
Still, there’s the actual content of the book. The author takes the place of all the hundreds of millions of fans of these people and asks many of the questions we have always wanted to. The end result is quite charming, as the responses have been faithfully transcribed from the recordings and emails and thus I get a sense of the normal voices of the authors whose work I’ve avidly devoured over the years. Sometimes they sound very different from how I imagined. Others, like Ursula K. Le Guin, speak in the same way they write. It’s a fascinating game of compare and contrast.
There’s odd little anecdotes and facts strewn through each interview. Lloyd Alexander talks of playing the violin – something he’s apparently terrible at. Garth Nix relates that the real-life inspiration for the Clayr’s Great Library is in reality tiny. Brian Jacques’ last name is actually pronounced “Jakes” (and they say we Americans mangle other languages!) and tells of how the owl in Mattimeo is based on a real friend of his. Philip Pullman only read The Lord of the Rings once, and has an opinion similar to mine. He said
I’ve only read it once. I tried to reread it later but gave up because there’s nothing that satisfies me in it now…There’s nothing truthful in it about human nature, or society, or men and women. Nothing true in it at all. It’s all superficial adventure.
Considering that I only managed to read the books once myself, finding them to be very dry among other things, this particular quote resonated with me.
Of the thirteen authors, there is only one whose work I’ve never read. Two names were unfamiliar at first, but a quick check on my short story library assured me that yes, I have heard of Nancy Farmer and own three of her briefer works. The other, Franny Billingsley, strikes no chords whatsoever in me, and the list of books after her interview is very short, with only two titles. At this later date she now has four books available, making her the least prolific of the lot. I suppose I should make a note to investigate her work when I spot it, but nothing in her interview struck me strongly enough to justify the effort of memory.
For the record, the authors included are Lloyd Alexander, Franny Billingsley, Susan Cooper, Nancy Farmer, Brian Jacques, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’engle, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, and Jane Yolen. It’s interesting to look at that list and consider when I enontered each of them. Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper hit me right in the childhood – these are books I found on my own in the school library. Though I never did finish reading The Dark is Rising sequence. I can’t remember if I failed to touch the fifth or the fourth and fifth books. I’ve never gone back and reread the Pit Dragon trilogy either for some reason, but Jane Yolen keeps popping up in anthologies and other places. When I was at the used bookstore last, I found a picture book that I knew my friend had to own: How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. I never reread Prydain either, though after I read it the first time, I could never again enjoy Disney’s adaptation of book two: The Black Cauldron.
(I always find it fascinating that Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper both wrote quintets that are considered modern classics and the best-known book in each set is the second. I also found these books within a couple years of each other, so they tend to be irrevocably meshed in my mind.)
I was introduced to Brian Jacques when one of my reading teachers took me aside, pulled a thick book out of a basket and said “you should be able to read this.” It was The Outcast of Redwall and I loved every minute of it, remaining an avid reader of the series for years. Later, by the time Loamhedge was released I realized that I wasn’t having fun anymore, that these were really just the same book over and over again. Now I’d phrase that as “seeing the construct before the story” because that’s what the problem was – knowing the way Jacques laid out a story so well that I could no longer immerse myself completely. I still have a few Redwall books though; the ones I loved best.
Tamora Pierce and Philip Pullman were both authors that my mom picked up for me randomly, like she did, so I read Alanna: The First Adventure and The Golden Compass. I still have all my Tortall books, although The Magic Circle books simply aren’t for me. I recently gave away my set of His Dark Materials because while the books are good and I enjoyed them when I was younger, I just don’t see myself rereading them ever again. I don’t care for Lyra very much as a person, Will is boring to me, and the scientist lady in The Amber Spyglass is by far the most interesting character in the series. Also I took a semester long seminar on the trilogy in college. It was utterly fascinating, but now I have even less reason to reread the books.
Madeleine L’Engle, as I mentioned, was in the basement, and I have my dad’s creepy early 80’s copies of the first three books to prove it. At some point I do intend to reread them for the first time in more than a decade, and I can talk about the covers then. I also added my own early 90’s copy of Many Waters to that set. On the flip side, I’m sorry to say that Terry Pratchett ended up in the basement. My mom picked up Guards! Guards! because it had a dragon on the cover, and I’ve been told it’s not a bad book to start with, as it’s the beginning of a Discworld cycle. I…didn’t like it. At all. And I’m sorry to say it must be Pratchett’s writing because I didn’t like Good Omens either, and I’m a Neil Gaiman fan.
Diana Wynne Jones I picked up not too long after I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle. The paperback was sitting there in a rack at the library, and I saw no reason not to read it. Aside from that series, it wasn’t until after Jones’ death that I began looking into her other work, and I’m still working my way through. Garth Nix I started reading around the same time, I think. I don’t remember if my mom picked up Sabriel or if I did.
As for Nancy Farmer, I checked my short story database and didn’t recall anything about the three I have: “Falada: The Goose-Girl’s Horse” in A Wolf at the Door, “Remember Me” in Firebirds, and “A Ticket to Ride” in Firebirds Soaring. Still remembering nothing, I pulled out the anthologies and glanced at the stories. The two Firebird stories I remember now as being good. Not something that I think back on, but perfectly good reads. It’s been longer since I last reread A Wolf at the Door, so I can’t recall anything there. I don’t see myself as seeking out more Nancy Farmer, though I will probably use her name as a plus for picking up new anthologies.
The Wand in the Word wasn’t what I expected, but I really didn’t know what to look for. Still, it was an enjoyable break from stories and novels, and I’m glad my friend thought to get it for me.