I was the quiet kid growing up. The one off in the corner with her own toys or, later, with a book. I can’t remember when I picked up the Book Worm Virus, only that I always had it. In the same way, it’s difficult to pick any specific author as my Official Influence, because every book I’ve read has made me the author I am, today.
Yes, even Bunnicula.
Listing them all would take ages and nobody has that kind of attention span. But I can point to three authors who are, if not the Official Influence, at least good examples.
1. Anne McCaffrey. If her books were not my first true foray into adult fantasy, then they were at least the most memorable. My father kept the living room bookshelves well-stocked with fantasy of all types and most I passed over initially, but these had dragons. And dragons are cool.
Thankfully I was young enough that all the sex and relationship stuff just passed right over my head. I tore through every Dragonriders of Pern book we had and then biked to the library for more. McCaffrey taught me what to expect from a series: while each book can (and should!) stand on its own, there’s still an overarching plot. Characters can fade in and out of the narrative, a side character in one book can become a main character in another and vice versa, and each contributes and is worthy of their own story. And it’s been a while (*coughdecadescough*), but Pern was my first fantasy without any straight-up evil characters; only the constant threat of Thread.
McCaffrey also taught me that the line between science fiction and fantasy is less of an enforceable border and more of a suggestion. And some really interesting things can happen when you explore that border.
2. Annie Dillard. An American Childhood was the first book I read which simply delighted in words. And that delight told the story. It was poetry become prose, and it was beautiful. Moreover, Dillard focused on the tiny moments, pausing time until you could see and feel exactly what she’d felt. Dillard used every sense available to convey that half second, to see extraordinary in the ordinary.
Emotions, even those that only lasted a heartbeat, were important, worth recording in words. In her collection of short philosophical essays, For the Time Being, she marvels at a diarist who records the clouds he saw each day, as if something so fleeting mattered. Because it does, it has to, if even our short, fleeting lives matter – then so do the clouds. So does the sand. So do the lives before ours and the lives after.
3. Seanan McGuire. Where do I even begin? On that bright winter day at the Tucson Festival of Books when I picked up the first in her October Daye series? When I learned about her past and present writing fanfiction and her staunch pride in that fact? Or that evening when I reached that chapter in Feed and had so many of my preconceived notions of narrative and POV shattered?
If McCaffrey was my Intro to Fantasy 101, McGuire has been every Advanced Topics of Fantasy. From inclusive storytelling (did you know side characters can just be gay? I, a gay, had to learn this) to utterly unexpected plot twists (you can’t do that to a narrator! …oh but she did), McGuire took everything I’d thought I’d known about writing and plotting and characterization and showed me all the bright, gaping holes.
More than that, she taught me that you could write a fast & fun read and still keep it complex, keep it diverse, keep it unsettling and unexpected. You can write a story where all readers can see themselves, be they gay, straight, cis, trans, abled, disabled, black, brown, or white. You can write a story that one reader can enjoy in a day and another can pick apart over weeks. You can write a long, twisting series or you can write a one-off short story or you can write horror that approaches science more than fiction or you can write exploratory novellas or you can write painful fanfiction – the important thing is that you write and you keep writing and you never listen to the voices that say you don’t belong here, that fantasy isn’t for you.
And there you have it. In McCaffrey, my foundation. In Dillard, my lyricism. And in McGuire my constant striving to do better.
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