Talisman Books

There are novels you read over and over again, books that seems to resonate through you, novels you’d brave fire for. Blogger Alison-Goodman calls them talisman books, those “that ward off the disappointments and insecurities of everyday life.”

There are probably three talisman books I’d rescue from a burning building.

1) My dogeared paperback copy of Lord of the Rings – yes, I know the book is replaceable easily enough, it isn’t as if it’s out of print or anything like that, and anyway I could probably quote you the entire damned book chapter and verse if you asked.  But sometimes it isn’t JUST THE BOOK.

And this book – broken-spined, tattered, beloved – this book was probably one of the first thing that made me kneel at the altar of fantasy and begin SERIOUS worship there. Tolkien made me realize that the big epic dreams that crowded my imagination were FOR REAL, and were valuable. This book is the physical embodiment of that realization for me. It’s a talisman, not just because of its identity but because of what it represents, the kind of hugeness and wonder and awe and the way it made me cognisant of my place in this world.

2) I’d like to say “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay, because as I keep telling everyone it’s one of the best BOOKS I’ve ever read, genre quite aside, the writing and the story make this amazing for me and so does the visceral emotional connection I feel to the underlying themes of the book.

I’d like to say “Nine Princes in Amber”, the now out-of-print paperback edition that made Roger Zelazny lift his eyebrows in utter astonishment when I gave it to him to sign and ask me where on earth I’d got that copy because it had been out of print for YEARS – because of the legacy that Zelazny left me during the writing workshop which he presided over and which I had the privilege to attend (in the year that he died).

I might, in fact, say all too many names and hesitate before my bookshelf too long and burn up with my beloved books before I could decide which of the novels on the shelf would be worth the saving (and in the end I’d probably grab at random anyway).

But in the end I might reach for a volume of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, because all stories live inside that book, and I could read them and dream up the rest of a lost world by his tropes.

3) My third choice would be a book that’s irreplaceable. It’s a really disreputable ancient and ill-favored old-fashioned hardcover book with dull gray covers which give nothing away and which have been chipped away at the corners and on the spine – a broken down book, loved well long before I had my hands on it, with scribbled commentary in the margins and on the bottom of the pages. You’d think it was a worthless old thing if you set eyes on it; you would pay ten cents for it at a yard sale. You probably wouldn’t take it if it was pressed into your hands for nothing at all. You’d think it had no value beyond being something to start a bonfire with.

You’d be wrong.

This is the book that lived beside my grandfather’s bed, the book that he read and re-read and re-read, the scribbles in the margins are his thoughts, and in his hand. He’s been gone these twenty years. He’ll never speak to me again except through this book, and I WOULD go through fire to get it.

But those are talisman books in the purest and most glittering sense of the word. There are many many books that I love, and have adored over the years.

There were the books which drew my tears – “Les Miserables”, Howard Spring’s “My Son, My Son”, Karl May’s “Winnetou” (although it took me YEARS to unlearn all the “facts” I though I knew about the American Indian culture in general and the Apache in particular after I finished reading his work), Jack London’s “Call of the Wild”, almost ANYTHING by Ursula le Guin, a book not many people reading this will have heard of but whose title translates as “The Time of Death” by a writer of my own tongue and tribe by the name of Dobrica Cosic and another book by one of my own, Ivo Andric’s “Bridge on the Drina”.

Lest you should think that I spent my entire reading life weeping, there are books that drew my laughter – Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, T. H. White’s “Once and Future King”.

And there are the comfort books I return to because I have loved them and  because I know them and because if I am sick or tired or ailing I know I can go back to them and find solace there – “Song of Arbonne”, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, “Shadow of the Moon” by M. M. Kaye or any fat historical novel by Sharon Penman (but particularly “Here Be Dragons”), Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”, lots of stuff by Pearl Buck, books by Henryk Sienkiewicz, John Galsworthy, Boris Pasternak, Nikos Kazantzakis, Daphne du Maurier. Of more recent vintage, Catherynne Valente whose poetic vision enthralls me or Neil Gaiman whose dark and sardonically twisted tales and characters draw me in and China Mieville whose surgical command of the English language leaves me breathless and humbled.

I am a certified bookworm, rarely without a book halfway through somewhere in the house, often several in different parts of the house. And if I’m not reading them, I’m writing them…

Would you forgive me if I added #4 to my Talisman Book list, above? One of my own, a hardcover edition of “The Secrets of Jin Shei”, the book to remind me what I am,  what the culmination is of all the gifts that all my other books have poured like gems into my waiting spirit.

The truth is that I haven’t actually re-read the whole thing, not once, since it was first published. Possibly I am too afraid to, afraid of what I will find within those pages whose origins lie so deep within myself, afraid of all the things I will possibly – no, probably – find in there that I would have done differently, or would change even now if I could. But even if I never read those words that I wrote again in their entirety I’ll take a copy with me. And show it to people, after, if I lose the power of speech and they ask me who or what I am. Because that is what I am. Will always be. I am the creator of THIS THING, this book, this collection of words, this story… this talisman.

I am someone who loves books. Someone who loves reading them, who grew up to live and breathe writing them. A once-and-future writer – with hands and spirit overflowing with the talismans of language, of words. Someone who was lucky enough to have had poetry poured into my soul when I was just a child, and who was allowed to wander through the wild wood of story unfettered and free to taste of whatever fruit or stream I could find. I grew up in an  Eden of Word – and I still live there today.

With all my talismans safe beside me.

So – what are YOUR talisman books…?

Books and mirrors

A Q&A about my newest book.

1. What is the working title of your book?

It started out as just “Spanish Gardens”, then morphed into “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” as the time as well as the place began to be nailed down, and emerged from the chrysalis as “2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

There’s a real place – there WAS a real place – known as Spanish Gardens. I used to go to the restaurant when I was a student at the University of Cape Town – it was a place of true magic, and I’ve carried it within me for decades. It’s a memory caught in amber, ageless and eternal, and it’s something that demanded its story. And here it is. I hope you’ll follow me into Spanish Gardens, that you will recognize the place somehow as somewhere that magic lives, that perhaps you will find yourself thinking about the magical places in your own lives. And the choices you made there over the years.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Contemporary fantasy, I guess – but it’s basically a story of people and how they change, with a sprinkling of magic fairy dust over the top, just to make it glitter.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I would love complete unknowns – people who would lend their faces to my characters, who would then BECOME those people in the minds of the people who were taking in the story – rather than casting well known actors who would distract from what’s happening up there on screen. But I’d love to know, here, who my readers might cast as these characters. Any reader want to tell me your dream cast?

5. One-sentence synopsis of the book?

What is the most important thing in the life that you have been given to live – and what would you be willing to give up if you were given a chance to change your life completely?

6. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Well, one recent review compared it to Haruki Murakami’s work, which was a little startling but nonetheless a compliment. So that’s ONE opinion. Another one for you, readers. Did it make you think of any other stories or writers?

7. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The memory of that place was the inspirawion for the setting. But married to the end-of-the-world scenario as applied to 2012 – it became something else again, something rich and strange. This became a novel about telling the truth, about living a lie, about settling or reaching for the stars, about love, longing, betrayal, and most of all about choices.

8. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It asks questions that everyone has asked themselves about their own lives at some point – what if I had chosen THIS instead of THAT, one person over another, a different direction?

 Many of the reviews basically begin with the reviewers asking those questions of themselves. They couldn’t help it; the book appears to function as a literary mirror. The readers look into it and somehow past the characters and see… themselves. It may not be an entirely comfortable place to be. But it’s a fascinating one.

All fiction is fantasy

An excerpt from an interview Voicu Mihnea Simandan did with me.

VMS: But why (do you write) fantasy?

All fiction is fantasy – by definition. It’s ALL lies.But some truths are best told when wrapped in a layer of sweetener, a layer of true fantasy and made-up-ness, and the lessons are learned without the student being aware that they are being taught.

I believe fantasy – the accepted definition of it – plays a huge part in shaping our children’s minds, and hearts, and spirits, and ethics. I grew up on the world’s original savage fairy tales, and they taught me everything, they made me into who I am today. I can offer my own fantasy writing to the young readers of this world and hope that they get something as valuable out of that as I got out of my own immersion into fantasy when I was a child.

VMS: We were both born “on the banks of the Danube.” When NATO started bombing Yugoslavia in 1999, you took it upon yourself to let the world know “the truth” and, the same year, you published ‘Letters from the Fire’. More than a decade after these events, what is your current position on the breakup of Yugoslavia?

AA: It still hurts to look at a modern atlas and see the land of my birth dismembered into so many small and dysfunctional parts. The last time I was there, I went to the banks of my river and mourned the bridges that were gone, the bridges that spanned the river of my childhood, which my young nieces will now never know or remember.

But in some ways that is only a metaphor, a symbol, and what I was mourning was the loss of something far bigger and probably irreplaceable. The loss of my grandfather’s unshakable ideals (“Europe will never let this happen!” he said, and believed it to the day he died – and I am just as glad that he never lived to see the legacy of what Europe not only permitted but encouraged to happen in the land that used to be known as Yugoslavia.); the loss of a state of mind; the loss of an idea sacrificed to the ambitions of outside empires who seized the chance to pursue their own interests in the region no matter what the costs on the ground were to the people who lived there.

Full interview here .

What is fiction for?

Why on earth do we read fiction?

One of my husband’s favorite “writer” stories concerns a writer with a very Southern mother whom he called up to tell her that his novel was being published. After a pause, the mother asked, a little desperately, “But do they KNOW it’s a LIE?” When he said yes, his mother sighed, “I will NEVER understand that.”

That’s what writers labor under – coming up with stories that you and I and those who pay us money to publish us and to read us KNOW are absolute filthy lies, made up to a word, sometimes literally impossible or unimaginable given the known rules of physics and biology in the world as we know it – genre is particularly guilty of this, because we lie egregiously about the possibility of interstellar travel in times that make it possible to set a story in such a Universe (as opposed to a thousand years to get from one star to the next) or the existence of vampires, werewolves, angels or fairies at the bottom of your garden.

And you, the reader, know that we are making it up as we go along. And you are willing to follow us on that journey. Few readers who read a fairy tale about brownies in the home will then go on to start leaving milk and cookies on the hearth from then on or wander off to the bottom of that garden with a flashlight and a magnifying glass to look for those fairies. Instead, you close the book with a happy sigh, and you go on with your own mundane everyday existence, secure in the knowledge that no brownie will wash the dinner dishes.

And then you come back, and you pick up another book. Of fiction. Of lies.

Yes, we all read non-fiction too – news, a travel guide, a history book, instruction manuals, textbooks for school, and political manifestos. But when it comes to many of these things we are already armored with a set of opinions and attitudes, and reading items which challenge those opinions and attitudes are generally greeted with skepticism if not outright hostility – because how DARE those other people try to shove their silly, ludicrous, ridiculous, astonishing, and dammit downright dangerous ideas down our throats?!

But here’s the thing. People WILL read about those “other” ideas in fiction – sugarcoated as they are in the “lie”. Kids who are being bullied or otherwise mistreated because they are different in whatever way from their tormentors – because they are gay, or black, or Jewish, or [insert quality of choice here] – might take heart from a novel which tells of a teen who is being bullied because he is a blue-skinned singleton on a planet full of orange-skinned people and looks DIFFERENT – and somehow overcomes this in the story.

Yes, we all know it’s all a lie – but I believe it was Tolkien who once described fiction as a lie breathed through silver. But fiction is an incredibly important medium for getting the truth out there – even when you pretend that it only happens to other people, or to people who cannot exist or will never be real. A generation of readers breathlessly followed the growing up and the growing wise of a young wizard named Harry Potter without EVER doing a single magic spell themselves. A girl called Scout learned about discrimination and courage in a NOVEL and a different generation of readers learned about those things with her. The list goes on.

The best books, the ones that we instinctively keep, the ones we go back to again and again – they succeed as entertainment, yes, and they can be as riveting as anything – but they leave you knowing more and feeling more deeply than you had been capable of before you read that book. They leave you empowered. They might have lied to you about the context and the circumstances – but the truth that lies within those false parameters is nonetheless the real truth and some part of you knows this, recognizes it, values it. People say about certain books, “This book changed my life”. Sometimes, they even mean it.

And that’s the power of fiction.

THAT is what it’s all for.

Tesla and things

So – I can’t really get out there and support nearly as many of these crowdfunders as I might like to – and there are plenty, certainly, that deserve that support – but THIS one just got a roar of “ABOUT TIME!!!” from me, and I sent them $10.

Not enough for any of the “perks” – but dammit, I don’t need a glossy picture of Nikola Tesla, or a poster signed by his last surviving relative – I might have liked an invite to the Tesla event, but I don’t have the thousands that this particular perk costs, and as for the New Yorker Hotel, been there, done that, kind of thing. Here’s proof:

Room 3327 is Tesla’s room, the one he lived and died in at the New Yorker. I spent a night there – it is not remotely “his” room, the thing has been remodelled twenty times since then and probably the original room 3327 was composed of the room I was in and the room next to it. But it was where Tesla – the living, breathing, man – once stood and slept and breathed. I looked out of the windows that he looked out of, at the city that he saw (different, to be sure, from the one in his day, but it’s still New York…) I walked in his steps. I watched pigeons flying outside the windowpanes, into the sunset.

He was known as the New Wizard of the West in his own lifetime. He was a genius, a man of honour, and probably just a little bit nuts (those pigeons. they meant something.) But I admire him passionately, I think the world is profoundly ungrateful to have covered up his memory with so many layers of oblivion, and I applaud this attempt to turn what might have been one of his most fundamental and lasting achievements if the world hadn’t screwed him over, Wardenclyffe, into a Tesla museum. If they can raise a certain level of funding, the State of New York has apparently promised to match it and this museum might happen, might really happen – and dammit, if ever it was deserved, this is. So if you have a few bucks to spare and you like the century that you are living in and you want to honour the man who built that century – go throw some pennies in their bucket.

If you want to do it another way, you can always buy one of my Worldweavers books – “Gift of the Unmage”, and particularly “Spellspam,” “Cybermage“, and the upcoming all-new Thea Winthrop adventure “Dawn of Magic” – books where Tesla is a major contributory character – and tell me you’ve done so, and I’ll kick in an extra few bucks myself from the proceeds of that…

And just in case you didn’t REALLY know that I was a Tesla Girl – ( here’s more evidence )

So – forget Harry Potter and all that crowd are you on Team REAL Wizard?… GO NIKOLA TESLA!

Where the wild things (no longer) are

As far back as the 1960s, my husband remembers someone reporting that within 20 years all land on this planet will be *owned by somebody*. There is no reason to suppose the person who said was far wrong and I am sure it came to pass.

All OWNED by somebody. No more wild places.

What will this means to us, the human race, as a species, as storytelling beings?

We began telling stories about the things that surrounded us and for which we had no explanation – and which thus had to occur through the agency of something beyond and outside of us, something divine, something wild. We created gods who lived in inaccessible places – sometimes odd and made up ones, fanciful and wonderful, or real ones which were hard or impossible to get to  and therefore gained an air of mystery and mysticism, like the top of Mount Olympus. And we gave into their hands the power of the thunderbolt.

As human culture and civilization grew and our knowledge and insight increased, our stories grew and changed. The things that we knew in the present moment quickly slipped into yesterday, and yesterday slipped into history, and history slipped into legend, and legend turned into myth.
And it was all born of that wilderness that existed outside of ourselves, the things that were NOT of Man but were greater or weirder or stranger or more worthy of awe or veneration.

The stories we told our children – all the fairy tales ever told, all the fables, everything – were rooted in the wilderness. In the Wild Woods, where ancient and gnarled trees grew in the gloom of spreading boughs, never before seen by human eyes. In the empty open places of the deserts. Atop great craggy mountains wreathed in cloud.

But that was BEFORE. Before that “every inch of this planet is owned by somebody” days. That was in the days where the gods and the creatures who inhabited our myths and our legends and our fairy tales had room to live and thrive. Centaurs and dryads and rusalki and Koschei the deathless and the firebird and Quetzalcoatl and talking golden carp and the little mermaid and ifrit and djinni and flying horses and dragons and elves and witches and wizards and evil gnomes named Rumpelstiltskin who knew how to spin straw into gold. All of these, and more. They lived in those wild places where humans dared not go, and they loomed huge in the imaginations of generations of children.

No longer.

The wild places are going, or gone. There are no more tracts of forests into which no human has ever penetrated. There are no deserts where no human has ever been. There are no mountains which no human has ever climbed. We have gone to all of our wild places, and explored them, and mapped them, and conquered them, and… and tamed them.

We have gone to all the places where the wild things were. And they can hide in those places no longer. Revealed, they are… diminished. There is less reason to fear something you can classify, and sort, and put into textbooks, together with means by which it can be defeated.

We own our planet, but we no longer have a place where our minds and imaginations have a chance to escape, to play, to invent, to learn.

Perhaps the explosion of fiction of the ilk that is now known as “urban fantasy” owes something to this phenomenon. The creatures who used to be the wild ones have been driven out of their refuges and hiding places – and they have evolved to suit their new niches, the dirty back alleys of cities, the glass and steel metropolises. Our werewolves are no longer the shaggy feral creatures who came howling out of the scary night to frighten our ancestors – they now prowl the underground of our cities. Our vampires no longer live in distant castles behind high walls with creaking wrought iron gates – they are among us, and some of them (God help us) even sparkle. Even the Fae have found their way into the city lights. Everything is changing.

What does it mean to the Wild Things when the ownership of all the places which they once thought belonged to them is now claimed by us? If a human being signs the purchase papers for a stand of enchanted trees, does that human being now also own the dryads whose trees those are? Do the dryads now have to pay rent now? Does the human being who purchases a mountain and the mineral rights to everything within it also own the dragon’s hoard in the caves deep inside?

How are these bargains to be enforced on the creatures of our imagination, the creatures of the Wild? Are they really to be considered something that we can own? Has slavery returned to haunt humanity? Will the creatures we are buying and selling – in the end – rise up and fight for their rights? (Occupy The Wilderness…?) Do we have any right to fight back? What, after all, would WE do if the tables were truly turned and they came to us and told us that THEY owned the land, and therefore US?…

There are still stories here. But they are very different stories to the ones we have traditionally told. And they are getting harder and harder to hunt and find.

We’ve put the stamp of ownership on all of our wildernesses, and somehow we have thus closed the fences around ourselves. We are milling around inside those fences, thinking ourselves free, thinking ourselves mighty, while all the time the wonder and the glory of the wilderness is leaching away from us, leaving our memories, leaving us helpless and disarmed should something come up for which we no longer have the dark places of our world or our spirits to search for antidotes in.

Perhaps there is only one way left to go – up. Into the sky. Into the last wilderness of stars and space.

It is a tragedy that this last great journey of mankind will probably be undertaken with a single driving urge – to find out how we can stake our claim on these, too, and “own” them just like we now “own” every inch of planet Earth.

And maybe the last and best hope of humanity lies in the possibility that we will finally fail, and accept that we can only end with what we began – the wild places which we do not understand, and whose creatures we can invoke to frighten us into becoming bigger and better than we thought we could be.