So there we were in Nürnberg, aka Nuremberg, home of the polymath who drew hares and hands (does he make anybody else think of Alan Rickman in that first image, or is it just me?) and of my favorite shoemaker-poet-philosopher-opera star, and I was cussing out my handy.
Excuse me: my mobile/cellphone/smartphone, for you English-speakers. A strange confluence of business and private stuff (Peter’s 55th birthday, aka “The Day Before The Rapture Didn’t Happen, AGAIN”) had brought us to Germany for a few days. Since we seem to keep winding up there, I’d just bought a local cellphone SIM so I wouldn’t keep getting smacked by utterly extortionate data roaming charges by my home provider every time I turned on Google Maps to find my way around. For reasons best known to itself, the new Fonic SIM, though correctly authorized in all possible ways, was refusing to receive or transmit data: thus causing the cussing. And then while flailing around trying any old thing to change the parameters of the problem, mostly by fiddling with the phone’s network settings, I did something or other to it — the Powers that Be only know what — and data suddenly started to flow. There was general rejoicing, and over the next few minutes I checked the email, and then loaded Tweetdeck. And what’s the first thing I find a tweet pointing to in the “mentions” column after several days away from the @ end of things? This.
Jo is a peer and colleague and a thoughtful reader, and her assessment gave me the chuckles. Partly because parts of what she’d written seemed to me to be hilariously right on the money, and partly because other aspects of it were amusing for, well, some of the wrong reasons. See below. But let me first thank Jo for the really nice things she had to say about the book (and also the positive comments from the other folks who responded to the posting). However, one note in passing: insulin shock is what you get when there isn’t enough sweet stuff in the bloodstream. Jo was most likely thinking of hyperglycemia. (I leave as an exercise for the reader the issue of what writers one should read to produce insulin shock.)
The burden of Jo’s posting, though, is that The Door into Fire worked for her some time back, but doesn’t seem to work now. She says that after a recent reread, she’s found it just too sweet, and she doesn’t care to reread the sequels. (BTW: the timing of Jo’ s initial reading of Fire could be even earlier than she thought, as there was a Methuen/Magnet UK edition in 1981, featuring a truly goofy, inappropriate and anatomically challenged cover — one which had also been used on a book by Andy Offutt a couple of years previously. See the second image in the “graphics” area of Fire‘s publication info page for the wonderful awfulness of this cover, rivaled only by that of the US paperback first edition.)
While any writer is naturally going to be disappointed to hear that someone doesn’t want to read a given work of theirs any more, it’s more useful to consider the whys and wherefores than to waste time bewailing the circumstances or complaining that the reader is interrogating the text incorrectly. (Immediate image: Third-degree room with blazing Luxo Sr. lights pointing at a plain wooden chair. Copy of TDIF strapped into chair, struggling futilely against its bonds. Shadowy figure beyond the lights growling, “We have ways of making you talk.” TDIF glares into the light with steely composure. “You’re wasting your time,” it says in Pierce Brosnan’s voice. “You’ll never break my contextual integrity — ” …See, this comes of all that ’80s animation writing. Never mind….)
A good place to start is to admit where the complaining reader is plainly right. TDIF is a first novel, and it’d be useless to deny that there are … infelicities. While tidying up the text for the ebook edition of Fire, I kept running into bits of attempted prose that repeatedly left me thinking migod you didn’t ort to write a sentence like that molesworth or variants on that theme. Finally I gave up and tweaked some things, because I simply couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them the way they had been — and after thirty years and more than fifty novels’ worth of progress as a writer, I don’t think anyone would blame me. However, 98% of the material was left as it was when the book was last in “physical” press in the US, as I thought that people who sought it out in ebook form would be wanting something that closely matched the book they’d originally read. Was I occasionally appalled enough to wish I could rewrite the whole thing, or to wish I’d been a way better writer thirty years ago? Naturally. Would attempting any kind of serious rewrite have been a smart idea? I really doubt it. From somewhere in James Blish’s Spock Must Die I can hear seriously-good-SF-critic!Jim saying, in Spock’s character and voice, “The true scholar prizes all drafts, early and late.” So Fire gets to stay pretty much as it was.
(BTW, I think the piece of verse that set Jo’s teeth on edge is supposed to be sort of clunky due to originally being a jumprope rhyme. If it doesn’t say as much in the original TDIF, I should go in there and amend the citation. [I know a similar rhyme is so denoted in TDISunset.] In the meantime, it’s always possible the rest of the poetry in the book really isn’t worth anything. Poetry is so tough to judge at the best of times, and possibly toughest when on the execution end. So this is an issue probably better left to the readership, though I’d also suggest that Jo’s opinion, after publishing a bunch of poetry collections, is to be taken seriously.)
The issue of liking a book once upon a time and not liking it as much, or the same way, later on, is complex from both the reader’s and the reader/writer’s side. Both sorts of viewpoint are likely to change without warning due to satiety, boredom, or the mere passage of time and the long slow shift of preferences that can sneak up on you while you’re not looking. And Jo wouldn’t be the only one to have this going on. Eddison, for example: I don’t read him the same way now that I did ten years ago, or twenty. Or C. S. Lewis. Or Heinlein. Maybe it’d be a poor reader whose tastes didn’t shift at least somewhat with his or her own increasing accomplishments as reader and (in Jo’s case) writer; and this being the case, a book that worked for you ten years ago just may not cut the mustard now. (Though routinely I’ll try a book again after a few more years, on the off chance that something was going on with me that I was missing.) So as regards this issue, Jo’s entirely off the hook as far as I’m concerned.
It probably wouldn’t do any harm, though, to do a little light writer-side analysis as regards the sweetness issue: the kind one of my psych instructors in nursing school suggested was useful when trying to get a lead on a patient’s motivations. You simply ask yourself “How do you raise a person so that they come out like this?” — and then see if anything in their past maps onto the educated guess, or vice versa. One fragment of the (usually complex) answer revealed by this technique may be useful in finding some other fragment of it: the way the patterns on a few jigsaw-puzzle pieces can help you intuit the shape of a missing one and search for it in the pile of pieces yet to solve.
So the answer to “How do you raise a writer so she grows up to write The Door into Fire?” might look something like this:
Start with a NY suburbs kid, routinely the skinny, booky, bullied one, with very few exceptions living a desperately banal suburban life — one nonetheless rich with Tolkien and Norton and Heinlein and the other late-50s-early-60s greats. Into this life, between ages ten and sixteen, drop both the profound grief associated with the loss of a beloved parent, and another significant personal trauma which we’ll deal with briefly later. Both these events leave the kid with a sense that in various important aspects — about which apparently nothing can be done — the world really, profoundly sucks. Then add to this initial clinical picture the fact that the kid’s been writing fanfic (first Tolkien, then Trek) for most of her life, not knowing that’s what it was or would come to be called.
You could make a case — says the analyst in me — that such a developmental history could in later life very well produce a writer with a fondness for constructing utopias, or at the very least worlds where people were kinder and nicer to each other, and things worked better than in the present one.
This kid went to college on a NY State Science and Nursing Scholarship with dreams of becoming a professional astronomer. These dreams foundered abruptly when the dreamer discovered that she couldn’t handle calculus and other necessary higher math. She then promptly used the other half of her scholarship to go to nursing school at a gigantic state hospital, where along with the anatomy and physiology, medical-surgical nursing, public health nursing and pediatrics, she discovered psychiatric nursing.
The psych nursing, strongly based as it is in the understanding of human motivation, became her first great strictly intellectual love. But as this process went forward and developed, the writer-in potentia found herself dealing with many chronically mentally unwell people, many seriously physically old and sick people who had no hope of ever becoming well, and a whole heap of corpses. It’s one thing to see dead people at a distance. It’s another thing entirely to have them repeatedly die in front of you, or very close by. (The thing about people being more likely to die at 4 AM? It’s true.) It’s yet another matter to be the one who washes these people postmortem and wraps them up, sometimes two or three times in a shift, and turns them over to their relatives… or worse, hands them over to the guy who takes them away for burial in the hospital’s Potter’s Field because the former patient’s relatives dumped them here after diagnoses of dementia, and don’t give a shit what happens to them now. All the above can seriously color your outlook, driving deeper the sense that Life Often Really Sucks (especially the Death part of it) and it would be nice if there was somewhere it didn’t suck, or at least not so much.
So, to the earlier picture of a writer with a tendency toward the construction of utopias, we can here safely add the suggestion that pretty serious overexposure to death/entropy relatively early on is going to mean that these themes too start turning up and working themselves out in the writer’s work, in a relatively unaccepting mode. Nothing so crude or simplistic as denial… but a repeated suggestion that mortality in these other worlds can sometimes be hornswoggled, or that entropy can sometimes be fought to a standstill. Fantasy, of course, and understood to be such. But personally satisfying.
During this period, the writer’s Tolkien fanfic gradually veered into a different direction. A new universe got established, a lot of backstory got laid down, and some of it crystallized out into a single plotline that eventually started becoming The Door into Fire. This work continued through the time the writer graduated nursing school, completed her certification exams and became an R.N., and went to work at one of the best psychiatric clinics in the US (now a part of NYU/Cornell Medical Center). With her work’s increased focus on human interaction and motivation (surprise, surprise), these themes also started working their way through into her writing… while local circumstances continued to reinforce the sense that, Death aside, a lot of the behaviors of living people weren’t really very nice either, and if one couldn’t significantly offset this trend in one universe, it’d be nice to offset it in another.
After that, all that needs to happen is for the subject to meet people who actually make a living as writers (this concept had never previously occurred to her in terms of her own work, which tells you exactly what an innocent we’ve been dealing with here). She writes her first novel, with all the influences described above operating at full. The book goes off to Dell Books, and it’s bought two weeks later.
…Enough of case-study mode. And yes, of course this is all a posteriori stuff, especially since I’ve been drawing the conclusions as well as describing their precursors. But the reasoning still holds up, and more than adequately suggests reasons/motivations for the tone and mood of The Door into Fire. An undeniably sweet-natured book, especially by this decade’s standards for heroic fantasy. Positively utopian: seriously contaminated, from the present-day writer’s point of view, by visions of a world where some people, as regards sexual orientation and preference, get a built-in fair shake unavailable in our reality — a world born of the writer’s never-answered question to her long-lost mom after a bedtime story, many years previously: “Why can’t the prince rescue the prince?”
So that’s all the apologia Fire is going to get. But, being the first of three books, it doesn’t stand alone… which itself opens up opportunities. If you’re a writer, sooner or later you find yourself looking over your early work and saying to yourself, “Wow, did I ever miss some stuff there.” If you’re writing a series, you often enough have a chance to take another run at issues that got scamped the first time out, or the second: or to put a little more strain on your core assumptions and see how they hold up. Even utopias can do with some stress-testing.
In a reply to one comment to her posting, Jo mentions her intention not to go on to reread The Door into Shadow, apparently because the management of a core character’s problem-resolution is too reminiscent of “hippy-psychology” and would make the reread more difficult for her, not less. This is something I’ve occasionally run across before, so let me touch on it lightly before finishing up.
Psych tends to get popularized with great abandon — sometimes, I suspect, to make it less scary. So I’m used to watching as terms and concepts which my psych teachers and colleagues previously used very precisely are assumed into popular culture and routinely stripped of all but their most superficial meanings and implications. This tendency is annoying, especially as it backwardly devalues earlier, more exact usages in cases where the reader isn’t aware of them: but there’s not much you can do about it.
When Shadow comes up for discussion, some people have occasionally assumed that the self- and other-redemptive arcs in it are an outgrowth of what Jo describes as the open-yourself-up-and-get-over-it school of pop psych. All I can say here is that there’s a certain amount of “write what you know” going on. During my professional practice I assisted or mediated in a number of such prolonged therapy sequences, and a surprising percentage of them were successful. (It irks me a little at this end of time that the new and admittedly often-effective antidepressive and psychotropic drugs are now routinely, maybe too routinely, considered the first line of action for the troubled patient, with one-to-one and group therapies now being casually and a little scornfully dismissed as “talking therapies”. Sometimes words work at least as well as drugs; sometimes way better.)
Anyway, one of the above cases was my own. I can assure readers concerned about the possible philosophical or psychological underpinnings of the core character-business in Shadow that it’s no abstract plot construction, but a prose restatement-and-farewell to childhood issues in my own past life. Lots of writers work out personal stuff in prose, so I don’t think I have to spell out the details here: Shadow‘s readers will almost certainly figure it all out if they have the inclination. I’m sure there may be people for whom the resolution in question isn’t edgy, bloody or retributive enough. The only possible response to such folks is: Tough. Go get your own. Mine worked for me.
…Meanwhile, the scheduling of further stress-testing of this particular universe is still up in the air. All I can do at this end is promise to keep the Middle Kingdoms true to themselves, without rendering the readership unduly hyperglycemic. But now, as with Fire, one way or another I’ll be writing the book that’s in me to write, as well as I can at the time. And whether it’ll stand up to rereading thirty years later, I’m sure the readership will let me know.