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A Novel History

January 30, 2010

I promised I’d tell the story of the novel I’ve been writing on-and-off for the past twenty years, of where the idea came from and how it came to be.  Today, I begin to tell this tale.  But right there, I’ve already given you the real gist of it: I’ve been writing this book, on-and-off, for twenty years (give or take a couple).  Without disclosing my actual age (though I’m old enough or young enough to be a new father and in Grad School), that does mean I was a child when I started writing it – though my memory is hazy enough that I’m not sure if I was in the single-digits or in the double-digits.

As a kid, I very quickly developed a love of story-telling.  I have an early memory of sitting in a circle with my classmates at school while a man dressed as a knight or a viking or something from the middle ages (complete with sword, a prop that would be a big no-no today) told us fantastic stories of knights and dragons in a traditional oral style.  That was probably one of my earliest encounters with the fantasy and magic of story-telling.

One assignment in elementary school required us to write a few stories.  These would be bound up in a hand-made book, and all of the students’ books would be on display, available for reading and commentary by all of the parents on the big parent-teacher night.  I can’t speak much for the other students’ experience with this activity, but I recall the difficulty I faced with this assignment: I’d written so many stories to include in my book that the manual binding process we were supposed to use wasn’t quite able to handle the thickness of my book.  Though the result looked like a bit of a mess from that, I nonetheless got glowing commentary – from other kids’ parents whom I’d never met! – on stories like “FF – the Fighting Force” (about a crack team of G.I. Joe-like action heroes) and “The Voyage of the Sea-Maiden Queen” (about a golden pirate ship with a crowned mermaid on its prow).  They were about as good as a six-year-old could produce, which is to say, not very good, but it was far more extraordinary that I had produced so many of them.  It was clear to me, even then, that this was my true calling in life (visions of becoming a lunar archeologist, an astronaut who digs up dinosaur bones on the moon, notwithstanding).

In 1985, Disney’s animated adaptation of Lloyd Alexander‘s Prydain Chronicles, entitled “The Black Cauldron“, was released to theaters.  I may have discussed this before, but it bears repeating in the context of my story.  The timing is somewhat significant, because my family had just moved to Germany the year before, where my dad was stationed at a US Air Force Base.  Theaters on military bases at that time were normally on a six-month-to-a-year lag when it came to getting new film releases and, being in Germany, I can only imagine that it must have been at the worse end of that spectrum before “The Black Cauldron” came to our base.  It’s impossible for me to say exactly when it did show there because, though I really wanted to see it, we missed it.  That was because the theater was usually only open on the weekend, and usually only had one showing of each movie.

Whatever happened, I can’t say for sure – time does funny things to your memories – but I do know that my parents got me a copy of a comic-book format version of the film (with drawings in the same style as the movie, though I don’t think they were actual movie stills), which I read with great enthusiasm.  (As a side note, years later I finally did see the movie when Disney at last deigned to release it on VHS and DVD; it was very enjoyable, and I highly recommend it, with the caveats that it is not a particularly faithful adaptation of the books, and the Ghostbusters-style film score – the two movies had the same composer, and it shows – clashes with the the style and tone of the film, in my opinion.)

The surprising discovery for me, though, was in the little copyright notice in small print on the back cover (or wherever it was located, my memory tells me it was the back cover, but could’ve been the inside front cover) which revealed that “The Black Cauldron” was not an original work, but adapted from Lloyd Alexander’s novels.  This was a curious thing to me.  There was a book about this movie; the book came first, and there was bound to be more to the story in the book than was in the movie!  Not only that, but further research revealed that The Black Cauldron wasn’t even the first book in the series, it was the second!  I made short work of discovering all this at my school’s library and promptly set to work at reading them.

It should come as no surprise, at this point, that I loved those books.  For some people, The Hobbit or the books from “The Chronicles of Narnia” are the quintessential classic children’s fantasy books and don’t get me wrong: I’ve read them all and they are all magnificent books that I would not hesitate to recommend.  But for me, the best examples of children’s literary fantasy without doubt are the books of “The Chronicles of Prydain”.

It must have taken me a year or more to read the whole series.  I don’t believe any particular book took me very long to read, but I recall having some trouble tracking down copies of the last two books.  And I’m not sure at what point while reading these books, or after, that I began writing my own novel.  But there is no question that Lloyd Alexander’s books were running through my veins, becoming a part of me, and spilling out into my own stories.  They are very clearly the inspiration for the earliest draft of my book that I started writing (by hand) as a child.  Of course, I knew nothing then about how to write a book, so it was very, very badly written.  But I knew how the story was to begin, and how it would end.

I recently read a wryly critical humor piece, linked off of John Scalzi’s blog, about the evolution of a speculative fiction writer – a writer of sci fi or fantasy.  The process, it suggests, begins when a reader of such fiction suddenly realizes that he or she can write better than what he’s been reading, and sets out do so.  My story doesn’t go that way.  Rather, I was inspired by what I had read.  I felt as though the magic of it was propelling me to great heights, that it was calling me.  I wanted to do what those books had done for me: fill others with a sense of wonder and deep emotion, and to tell a tale that captures and enthralls.  I’ve always struggled to improve my craft, though I’ve no way of knowing whether I’ll ever achieve the heights I seek in my work.  But the need to strive for it are as imbedded in me as my heart is in my chest.

But this is just the first act in the story of my book; and it’s gone on over-long already.  On Monday, I’ll continue the story.  Tomorrow, the second episode of the new series of weekly writers’ quotes.

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