Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Influences: Tad Williams

I grew up reading. I was that kid in school, the one who read 20 books when the teacher challenged the class to read 10. My favorite store was a local book swap and when the first Barnes & Noble opened in my hometown (I guess I'm dating myself there...) I looked on it like my own personal Mecca. I learned how to use a computer at twelve-years-old (Wow, now I'm really dating myself!) so I could write my first novel. I have always loved books.

Well, there was a stint in the third grade where I rebelled and declared I hated reading, but I really don't think you can reasonably hold a few months of being eight against me.

My memories are littered with books. I vaguely remember having about a bajillion Little Golden Books. I also remember a lot of Judy Bloom when I was in elementary school and every Babysitters' Club and Sweet Valley Twins book I could lay my hands on. By the time I got to middle school I’d learned to love visiting my grandparents because my grandmother's closet was full of Harlequin romances she'd let me borrow.

Eventually I started secretly raiding my mom's closet instead--her romances were, shall we say, a bit racier.

When I got to high school, reading started to be all about preparing for college and my bookshelf filled up with classics and history and poetry. I remember one particularly dreary semester where I had to force myself through both Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. I got to read a bunch of Shakespeare that semester too, though, so it wasn't all bad.

When I finally had time for pleasure reading again, I decided I was too serious a person to read "trashy romance novels", and so with all the impertinent elitism a 20-year-old can muster, I turned my attention to... murder mysteries and legal thrillers. I tried sticking to the classics and literary fiction, but I just couldn't do it. I’m a genre fiction girl at heart. At least with the mysteries I didn't have to worry about my boss catching me reading a book with a naked women under the flap during my lunch break.

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with science fiction and fantasy novelist Tad Williams? And how, if I spent all my time reading romance and history and mystery, did I end up writing books about demons and witchcraft?

I'm glad I imagined you asked!

When I was in college I had a friend who was a huge fan of Tad Williams. Seriously huge fan. He once convinced his girlfriend to drive hundreds of miles just to go to one of the man's book signings. (Washington DC is a really long way from Florida, especially when you're college-student poor. I don't think I'd have traveled that far just to get a book signed, but to each his own.) And about ten years ago, my friend gave me a copy of The Dragonbone Chair.

I'd never actually had much exposure to fantasy before that. I mean, I'd gotten myself hooked on television shows like Buffy and Angel and Charmed thanks to dorm life and The Lord of the Rings trilogy got very popular again while we were in college, so I'd read those. But that was about it.

Yes, I spent all those years reading and reading and reading and at no time did a science fiction or fantasy novel make it onto my bookshelf. Science fiction and fantasy was for boys and geeks and I wasn't interested in being either of those things. Girls liked loves stories and serious young adults liked proper literature.

Don’t give me that look. I know I had a lot of stupid in my head back then. Let's not get into the fact that sf/f isn't exclusively for boys or that I most certainly have always been a geek, no matter how much I tried to hide it in my youth, and just skip straight to the part where I tell you I’ve since learned my lesson.

Here’s how:

I loved The Dragonbone Chair. It was like Mr. Williams had taken all the things I’d loved to read over the years--mystery, romance, history, politics, and even going all the way back to figuring out what it meant to grow up--and mixed them together, with some magic and monsters and adventure tossed in to keep everyone’s heart rate up.

And, as I am wont to do with all books that I love, as soon as I finished it I made a trip to the bookstore, with the intention of buying every other book they had in stock by Tad Williams. And I discovered something amazing there. There was this whole section of the bookstore I had never spent any time in before.

How was this possible? I’d practically lived in Barnes & Noble as a teenager. I’d spent I don’t even know how many hours growing up roaming through those aisles, drinking hot chocolate (I had not yet discovered the joy and wonder that is coffee) and picking out new books to devour. How had I ignored several aisles of lovely shelf space over and over again?

Oh, right, because the signs at the top of the shelves that said “Science Fiction/Fantasy” had somehow ended up reading “BOYS/GEEKS” in my brain.

I paused. These books weren’t for me. Were they? No. No, they weren’t. Even this one my friend gave me, the book which I had loved and which had driven me into the bookstore in the first place, was really a “guy book”. I mean, it was about a guy. And written by a guy. And, heck, it was even given to me by a guy.

But. . .  but. . .  I liked it. And it’s part of a trilogy (sort of) and I want to know what happens next.

Then to hell with what anyone else thinks, I told myself, in what was probably one of the bolder mental moments of my life. I translated “Science Fiction/Fantasy” to “AWESOME/MUST HAVE MORE” in my brain instead and proceeded to read my way through everything that caught my eye. Including, yes, every other book they had in stock by Tad Williams.

I started seriously considering writing as a career a couple of years later. We’ve talked about the epic fantasy trilogy of doom before, so I won’t get into that again. But it’s probably worth noting that, when you get right down to it, all my stories are about mystery, romance, history, politics, and figuring out what it means to grow up, with some magic and monsters and adventure tossed in to keep everyone’s heart rate up.

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