Saturday, January 20, 2007
Fantasy & Escapism -- & my first book signing!!!
My first book signing! Jim and I just got back from the ALA (American Library Association) Midwinter Conference in Seattle, where I got to meet my editor in person for the first time, talk to lots of librarians, sign advance copies of my book AND fill in on a panel at the last minute for Mercedes Lackey, who couldn't make it. Wow! It was SUCH FUN. The panel topic was: the rise in popularity of sci-fi and fantasy in the post-9/11 world, and the other writers on the panel were R. A. Salvatore and Timothy Zahn, both seasoned sci-fi/fantasy writers and wonderfully nice guys! Here we all are:
A big "hello" to everyone I met yesterday, and if you're one of the people who got a copy of Blackbringer, I hope you enjoy it! It's so exciting for me to know you're out there in the world with my book in your hands and I would love to hear from you when you've read it! I said I would post the text of my talk, so here it is:
I wish a dragon egg would hatch at my feet. I wish I would grow wings, and maybe even a tail. I wish I could study magic at Hogwarts, and ride an armored polar bear across the arctic tundra. I want to fight Thread in the skies of Pern, and I want to hunt devils with a gang of crows. I wish a tree could tell me everything it knows, and I wish that I could distill moonlight into a liquor that helps you remember your dreams. I wish people wore hooded cloaks, and strapped knives to their thighs. A part of me even kind of wishes vampires were real. Just a small part. Faeries definitely though. Right now, at this moment, I idly wish and want these things. I whimsically want them. But there are times when I’m under the spell of fantasy that I really WANT them, that I want to climb inside a book and live in it, and when that book ends and the spell begins to evaporate, my heart aches a little.
I read fantasy and I write fantasy because it’s the funnest thing there is. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do it. There are certain things in life I can’t get my mind around. One of them is why people don’t paint their houses brighter colors, and another is why more people don’t read fantasy. (I secretly suspect these might be the same people.)
Sometimes these people use the term “escapism” and there can be a note of disdain in that, as if there’s something wrong with wanting to hightail it to another world for a while. I certainly want to. I mean, I adore this earth that has brought us miracles like mangoes and snow and silkmoths and Komodo dragons, just to name some of its greatest hits, but it’s a terrible world too, going through a terrible time, a highly televised terrible time. War and hatred and doom seem to be rolling toward us like thunderheads, and the news teams are there to show us all the bloody details, and instruct us on the newest and best things to be afraid of.
I said I read and write fantasy because it’s fun, but there’s more to it than that. I grew up between wars, if you don’t count the Cold War, which was an easy kind of war for a kid to ignore. I was a Navy brat and I heard things. I always knew that in Vietnam my father had killed people, and that my mother’s first fiance had sent her home polaroids of all his marine buddies and later, when he came home, had gone through the stack pointing out dead, dead, dead, dead, to just about everyone in them.
I knew my way around a ship as a kid, how to go up and down the ladders like a monkey. One of my favorite things to do was watch horror movies in the officer’s mess, and once when I was ten I was held at gunpoint for minutes because I wandered off during a security drill and the guard didn’t know what to do with me. And when the marine barracks in Beirut were bombed in 1983, my father’s ship was one of the first sent to Lebanon in response. My highschool in Belgium had an army guard who walked down the aisle of every incoming schoolbus with a machine gun. We had bomb threats and were told not to wear our school letter jackets into town because anti-American sentiment was too high. Later, when the wars of my lifetime -- so far -- really kicked off, I watched on TV, knowing my father was there.
But I don’t remember ever really being afraid, then. I didn’t develop my current sense of doom until the last few years. I’ve always loved to escape into fantasy, but that escape didn’t have the same urgency of wishfulness that it has now. Even though I know myself to be a rational adult and a skeptic, I still catch myself wishing fiercely for impossible things. Not expecting my wishes will come true, but feeling a surge of wretchedness at the injustice of it, nonetheless. When I saw the recent Superman movie, there was a scene in which an earthquake had rippled through Manhattan and Superman zipped around, catching window-washers as they fell off their platforms, rescuing people willy nilly, and I felt a kind of despair that there wasn’t someone to catch real people.
My despair was perhaps a tiny version of the despair that gave rise to Superman in the first place, a genesis that Michael Chabon explored so beautifully in Kavalier & Clay, in which he imagines what might prompt two young Jewish men to dream up a savior in the early years of WWII. Batman, and Captain America came out of those years, too; and Spiderman, the Hulk, and the X-Men were born during Vietnam. And it’s not just superheroes. I've known for a long time that Tolkien fought in World War I, but I only just found out he was in the front lines at the Somme, a hellish four-and-a-half month battle in which the British lost 20,000 men on the first day alone, which remains a one-day casualty record even now, ninety years later. Part of the battle’s strategic purpose was to draw German power away from Verdun where the French were suffering terrible losses, and the great tragedy is that at the Somme many more lives ended up being lost than even at Verdun. All told over 600,000 men died there -- a staggering number, and Tolkien walked among those bodies. And when I think of Aragorn and the soldiers of Gondor fighting an impossible war to draw the enemy’s attention away from Frodo and Sam, I can’t help but think of Tolkien at the Somme, and the loyalty and bravery of the characters in The Lord of the Rings are that much more heartbreaking. When I remember how Gandalf showed up with the exiled Rohirrim to save the day at Helm’s Deep, I can’t help but think of all the young men nobody saved in the French mud in those months. I can’t help but think of all the people, every single day, in wars all over the world, who nobody saves.
There’s nothing silly about “escapism.” It’s rooted in a deep and penetrating feeling of powerlessness, like Joseph Kavalier dreaming up the Escapist while his own family is trapped in Czechoslovakia. It’s important to remember that when readers escape into fantasy fiction, they’re not going into peaceful meadows to braid daisy chains with unicorns. They’re going to fight battles and fulfill destinies. Those other worlds are war-torn too, haunted by grave evil, and threatened with doom. The difference is that in those worlds the reader is not powerless. The reader gets to live in the characters’ skin, and ride in with Gandalf on Shadowfax to save Helm’s Deep. The reader gets to rescue the kidnapped kids from Bolvanger. The reader gets to save the world.
What could be more satisfying than that?
Fantasy readers also get to exist for a time in a place where the big, huge, beautiful human things like honor, sacrifice, loyalty, and deep, undying, soul-to-soul love, still exist. These big things seem kind of silly in mainstream fiction -- they have a tinge of unreality and even ridiculousness, like the modern world is “too cool” for honor and true love. They’re not “believable.” But in the context of fantasy, they can be. And people still want to believe in those things, so it’s lovely to create a framework within which they can exist and thrive.
I don’t know if fantasy has become more popular since September 11. As a hermit writer I have very little contact with the outside world. I don’t know if sales are up, but I suspect they are, and I think they would have been even if September 11 hadn’t happened. The snowball was already rolling down that hill -- the Harry Potter phenomenon was well underway; the first Lord of the Rings movie was eagerly awaited; Spiderman was in production and the landslide of other superhero movies had begun.
But I do think that there is a growing sense of doom, tied to environmental devastation and global warming, the feeling that we’re destroying our planet, and the sense of vulnerability that comes of knowing our country is hated so deeply, that war in the Middle East is on track to escalate to massive proportions, that our economy is losing its grip on the world, that our place in the scheme of things isn’t so assured as maybe we once thought. I have a terrible feeling that our golden age as Americans and as humans is in the past; I’m not sure exactly when it was, but I have a really hard time imagining that it’s in our future.
In my book, faeries have been on the far side of their own golden age for many, many, many years and the future isn’t looking too bright for them either. Their world is literally unraveling from neglect and misuse. The dragons are extinct, the faerie champions are long dead, magic is a sad shadow of what it once was, that pest species humans is cutting down the forests and fouling the rivers, and now devils are escaping from their ancient prisons. The world is, to quote myself, “sliding down the far slope of nothing back into the nothing that was before.” It seems a hopeless case.
But I have the extraordinarily great job, as a writer, of dreaming up hope, of cooking up a new golden age and the ones who will usher it in -- a golden age that still lies ahead of us, not behind. I get to save the world -- and so does everyone who reads my book.
That is certainly escapism, and I highly recommend it.
(for more thoughts on "fantasy" see Sunday Scribblings.)
And I loved this -- after I said I wished people wore hooded cloaks, a woman from the audience came up to say hi -- in her hooded cloak!