Monday, April 29, 2013

A blog for Mrs. Neese

I’m neck-deep in two books right now, so here’s a blog entry inspired by my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Neese.

If you knew Mrs. Neese, you’d be really excited by that sentence. From second through eighth grade, I attended a school that I’m still convinced was actually an outer ring of hell. I was miserable. Mrs. Neese was one of only two teachers I had during that time who had the good sense to take a highly self-motivated low-level genius and, rather than making her sit still and do what everybody else was doing, just let her run. One of those teachers put me in the school spelling bee so I got my longed-for chance to show everyone that I really was good for something (albeit not sports or being pretty or having rich parents). Mrs. Neese just let me write. 

I was in middle school by then, and she made clear early on that she was totally fine with my writing stories in her class as long as I also did the homework. And she was surprisingly flexible about the homework part. She let me write weird takes on her in-class assignments, like a love story with only one onstage character in it (he dropped dead at the end) and a legend in which the god of dreams was really a frustrated actor. The very first sentence of the very first story about Rae—which happened to be the very first story in what became the Masks universe—was written in her class. I even remember the seat I was in that January day: in the back row, the seat on the far left as I faced the chalkboard, the northeast corner of the room. I remember looking up and seeing her glance my way as I scribbled frantically in the notebook I’d stolen from the supply cupboard at home. There’s no way she believed I was doing eighth-grade homework in a 300-sheet three-subject spiral notebook. But she didn’t stop me. 

So when Mrs. Neese (a fan of Masks on Facebook, because she’s awesome like that) suggested recently that I blog about writers who have inspired me, I couldn’t exactly say no, could I? Here, then, is a by-no-means complete list of five authors who have something to do with who I am and what I do today …

1. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – All right, nobody’s ever going to accuse me of writing fantasy in the style of either of these two men. My writing is about as far as you can get from the plummy Oxfordian tone of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or the lyrical high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings. These two make the list, and make the list together, because their books are some of my earliest memories. My dad read me The Hobbit and Farmer Giles of Ham when I was four years old, and the Narnia books followed soon after—in their published order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not the stupid retcon order beginning with The Magician’s Nephew. And say what you will about Lewis’s many shortcomings as a novelist or Tolkien’s bouts of academic logorrhea, they didn’t matter to me when I was too little to be reading tiny print by myself. Those stories showed me what was possible—that kids could wander into alternate worlds through mysterious objects called wardrobes, that animals could talk, that a creature called a hobbit could find himself on an adventure with dwarves and a wizard but keep worrying about his kettle and his pocket-handkerchiefs. Even though I didn’t go into fantasy writing as an adult, and I don’t even read much fantasy now (I joke that Tolkien set the bar so high that no one else will do), that baseline informs much of what I write now. If you ever wonder why Rae talks to figures of legend and why I think it’s totally okay to have a zombie arrow sitting next to the death ray at a supervillain auction, it’s because somewhere in the back of my brain is a five-year-old who knows that dragons exist, and that their scales can be pierced by arrows and by lion claws …

Best jacket photo EVER.
2. Timothy Zahn – This author made the list because where Tolkien and Lewis were the foundation of my childhood reading, he formed the basis of my “grown-up” reading life. I got into Zahn the same way most of his fans probably did—I read his first Star Wars tie-in novel, Heir to the Empire. I was ten years old and had just seen the original Star Wars trilogy, and I was starving for more Luke/Han/Leia action. But two things stuck out to me in that first book and never really went away. 

The first was that Zahn wrote one-sentence paragraphs. Heck, some of his paragraphs were sentence fragments. And it worked for him! I’d never seen anyone do that before, but for him it worked perfectly. He’s to blame for every one of my sentence-fragment paragraphs since then. The second standout point was the way he ran multiple plotlines simultaneously—something I hadn’t seen done much up to that point—and more importantly, several of those plotlines were intensely emotional. I was used to stories that painted human emotions in broad, melodramatic strokes; things like rage and grief and joy all served to advance the plot. Zahn used subtler emotions to color his scenes, to move his story along without requiring those emotions to spur an action, and occasionally to gut-punch his readers. For example, after a plot-heavy scene where a ghostly Obi-wan Kenobi tells Luke some plotty stuff and then says his final goodbyes, Luke’s reaction really stuck with me: “For the third time, he’d been orphaned.”
I admit, my ten-year-old self hadn’t thought about the situation that way; that sentence hit me like a wave. Suddenly the story wasn’t about space battles and laser swords anymore; it was about a kid who’d lost his family three times over. Lightsabers, hell; I read the next three books looking for more of that feeling. As soon as I finished that trilogy of novels, I tracked down every other Zahn book I could find, hunting for that thread of human emotion tangled up in his knotty sci-fi plots. And more fragmentary sentences, of course. (I also listened to several of his more action-oriented books over and over on audiotape, so he’s probably had a bigger influence than anyone else on how I write fight scenes. I even hear his readers narrating them in my head.)

Also the best author photo ever.
"What duck?"
3. Terry Pratchett – Good Sir Terry is a more recent addition to my list of influences, but he’s an important one thanks to my years-long battle with insomnia. Not long after I discovered Pratchett’s brilliantly satirical Discworld books, I began to have trouble sleeping at night, and my doctor advised me to set a rigid bedtime routine—the same actions repeated at the same time, every night, to cue my body and brain that it was time to power down for a while. The doctor recommended that I include reading in the regimen, as most people find that a relaxing activity. However, I tend to get really intensely excited while reading, so perhaps in hindsight it wasn’t such a great bit of advice. For several nights, I lay awake thinking anxiously about whatever I’d been reading before bed, wondering how the story would turn out. I finally decided that I’d have to read something so familiar, so utterly predictable, that I could go to sleep without thinking about it. I grabbed the nearest Discworld book, which I’d recently read two or three times, and started reading a few pages a night.

I want to emphasize that the works of Terry Pratchett, lyrical and innovative and side-splittingly funny as they are, don’t actually make a very good soporific for most people. But when you’ve read them enough times to know most of the jokes by heart, they at least won’t keep you up at night. Over the next several years, I read almost every book in the Discworld series, except for a few of the earliest volumes that I didn’t like so much, over and over and over again. There are about 20 Pratchett books on my shelf that just rotate across my bedside table. Right now I’m probably on my tenth reading of Monstrous Regiment, averaging 20 to 30 pages per night. That much exposure has to seep in somewhere, and I’m beginning to notice little signs: more absurd situations creeping into my stories, a certain renewed interest in wordplay, and an awful lot of British slang that I have to delete on the rewrites … 

4. Spider Robinson – Where I grew up, “hippie” was a dirty word. All that peace-love-dope stuff was for cowards and sissies. In my town, the most important social events were all held at the local shrine to Richard Nixon (it had a topiary effigy of Checkers in the garden and, at least when I was a kid, no mention of Watergate anywhere). Consider, then, the effect of Spider Robinson, a proud self-identified hippie best known for a series of witty and unexpectedly touching humorous SF stories set in a Long Island bar. The short stories in his Callahan series made me giggle, and then immediately made me think. While I won’t claim to agree precisely with Robinson’s views on everything (we will always differ in our opinions of the Beatles), he never stopped impressing me with a) the speed and subtlety of his wit and b) the breathtakingly human heart that beats in every sentence he writes. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more human writer, and I mean that in the best possible way. When he’s not writing about drinking games, punning contests, and intergalactic insanity, Robinson likes to wrestle with Big Ideas. He doesn’t always win, but how can I not love a man who defines what it means to be human as “to live forever or die trying … to strive in the face of the certainty of failure … to persist”?
I freely admit that I stole his definition of personhood—that a person is anyone who voluntarily says or otherwise communicates, “Excuse me”. (Thus, several dogs of my acquaintance are people, and a great many humans are not.) Robinson taught me not to shy away from the big stuff.

He also taught me that talking dogs are always funny if you write them right. (You’ll see what I mean by the end of Volume 2, if I can keep that bit about eggs from getting cut …)

5. Peter S. Beagle – This is the most recent addition to the list, but he has to make it just because I’ve spent the last couple of years tracking down every book of his available in every local public library. He got me into fantasy again, pretty much, because he wasn’t writing Tolkien wannabe material. Instead, Beagle’s stories focus on the liminal spaces where ordinary life interacts with the extraordinary bits of fantasy. His most famous book, The Last Unicorn, combines the familiar tropes of fairy tales with a very modern schlemiel of a wizard and a breathtakingly alien force in the unicorn herself. For my money, though, it’s his short stories that are best—like “The Rabbi’s Hobby”, in which a rabbi and a 12-year-old would-be bar mitzvah take on the case of a mysterious young woman appearing in old photographs, and end up unwrapping a tale of ghosts, and regrets, and unexpected uses for antique keys. Or there’s “Oakland Dragon Blues,” in which a dragon (loosely based on the dragon cut from early drafts of The Last Unicorn) comes to life in Oakland, California and goes looking for the author who stopped telling his story before it was done. And for my money, “Mr. Sigerson” is one of the best Sherlock Holmes pastiches I’ve ever read, focusing as it does on the exiled Holmes, now a violinist in a tiny backwater orchestra, becoming involved in a tricky local mystery and learning an unexpected thing or two about his own long-denied humanity. 
While I’d like to cite Beagle’s glittering, lyrical prose as an influence on my own, I’m not that good (yet—I hope!) and he’s really on this list for two other reasons. First, his stories gave me the guts to write poetry for the first time since high school, and that’s something I desperately needed for Teh Novel. And second, the very fact of those stories’ existence—the way they shine like perfectly cut jewels—makes me want to write, and write better, and finish things well. I’ve met Mr. Beagle twice at conventions, and both times he has been a faultless gentleman and a warm, wonderful human being. For all I know it’s a clever act and he’s really a total jerk, but at least when I talk to him, he makes me want to be a better person and a much better writer. He’s over 70 years old, though, and you never know with older authors and their health, so I’m hammering away at my current projects, hoping to finish something worthy of being presented to him someday, before I run out of opportunities. I want to thank him for the lessons he’s taught me with his stories, and for the encouragement he’s given me when he didn’t have to do any such thing. Peter S. Beagle and his writing make me want to create something worthy of them both; I hope someday to hand him a copy of a published novel with his name in the acknowledgments, or even the dedication. Even if he never reads it. Even if he never opens it. I just want to thank him properly. Some people are like that.

There are more than a few authors who didn’t make the cut—Jim Butcher, for example, whose joke about his writing motto being “Suffer, Harry, suffer!” inspired my own joking mantra Suffer, characters, suffer. And I can’t go too long without mentioning Homer’s Odyssey, my favorite work of Greek literature, or the original Sherlock Holmes stories, or Neil Gaiman’s Neil Gaiman-ness, or the glorious pulp adventures of Johnston McCulley and Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Michael A. Stackpole’s short story “Peer Review,” which taught me that prose stories about superheroes were a thing. And Stan Lee? Oh, yes.

But for now, these five will do. And I hope I’ve done Mrs. Neese proud, sentence fragments and all.

1 comment:

  1. I am both humbled that your memory of me is one of fondness and delighted that we share so many favorite authors.

    This is a great list! Well done.

    Mrs. Neese :)