This month I began experimenting with a new way of republishing short fiction. I have the first story from The Serpent Bride, originally published by Thistledown back in 1998, up at Curious Fictions; you can support me by visiting my Curious Fictions author page to subscribe and read it. I’ll eventually be posting all the stories from The Serpent Bride, if this goes well. Although the book itself is out of print, I have the last copies, so if you’d like to have the stories in their original form, you can get a copy of the book from me for ten dollars plus shipping to wherever you are.
I’m a fantasy writer — of course if I write picture books, they’re going to form a trilogy!
Not really. But that’s how it turned out.
I wrote the three ‘Pippin and Mabel’ books inspired by my dog Pippin, who was a big yellow husky-ish dog. The book-Pippin is female and not husky-ish at all, and lives in a little house near the woods with Mabel, an artist. Whether it’s fleeing up hill and down dale to avoid a bath or discovering things like kittens and mysterious bones in the woods, Pippin always keeps Mabel’s life from being boring. They came out in 1999, 2000, and 2001. I received a Lieutenant-Governor’s Early Childhood Literacy Award (now renamed the Dr. Marilyn Trenholme Counsell Early Childhood Literacy Award) in 2000 for Pippin Takes a Bath.
The real Pippin really did dig up my tomato plants to bury a bone and carefully put them back into place and pat down the earth so I wouldn’t notice. Unfortunately he wasn’t a botonist and got which end up a tomato plant should go wrong. All the roots sticking up in the air was a bit of a giveaway. And he also really found and claimed a stray cat, whom we adopted — thought that was after I wrote Pippin and Pudding. He never found a Mastondon, though.
My novel Blackdog is dedicated to Pippin.
The three Pippin books were illustrated by Bernice Lum. French translations (translated by Cecile Gagnon) were published by Scholastic.
The Serpent Bride, my second published book, was a collection of ten short stories that were literary fairy tales, retellings of ballads from Medieval Denmark, was published in 1998 from Thistledown Press. (For non-Canadians, that’s a venerable small literary press out west.) I started off reading Victorian or early twentieth-century translations of some of these but then switched to reading the originals. Since my Danish is limited to God/Glaedelig Jul, Ja, Nej, Bedstefar, Rødgrød med fløde, and Tak for kaffe, this was a slow process. However, I’ve studied languages and around the same time had begun a correspondence with a great-uncle who had no English, so for a while there my (non-oral) Danish was improving. I choose to use some of the weird Victorian Anglicizations of names that I found in one collection, though — now I have no idea why. That’s something I’d definitely do differently if I were writing these again. I mostly stuck to the plots as given in the ballads, aiming to give flesh, bone, and blood to the sketches of the characters found in ballad form. I left my dragon-prince a shapeshifter, though, rather than under a curse. Had to get one voluntary shapeshifer in there, at least!
One significant change I made for the published version was to write a victorious ending for the hero of “Germand Gladensvend”; after defeating the troll and tearing it to bits — as she does in the original — she finds her husband alive. In the original version she only finds his hand. I wrote a version that ended like that, too, which I quite liked, but decided one tragedy among nine triumphant love stories was going to be jarring.
Why did I set out to write these? I have no idea; I have no memory of deciding to do it. It wasn’t that I came across a Danish ballad and thought, I’d like to retell this story. I don’t remember it being an idea at all; there’s just a point in my memory where that was what I was working on. Strange.
I still quite like them; as in the originals, they’re stories about forthright young women going out to solve their own problems — even if that means finding a knight to kiss you to break a curse, you can still take charge of the situation. They have a bit of quirky humour — some of it mine and some of it, like the nun wishing ‘God would send her such an [implied – sexy] angel’ original to the ballads. They’re stories for all ages, as folk or fairy tales always have been. Good fun, if I do say so myself, both to write and to read.
Ahjvar came into the Marakand story as a catalyst for disaster, the assassin who kills the Lady, or the Voice of the Lady (when I first conceived the story I hadn’t quite settled on how the Lady and the Voice interacted or if they were even truly separate entities), and sets off the civil war in Marakand. He was grim, angry, very troubled, and under a curse. And a grim, angry, very troubled guy wandering around entirely on his own is — really rather dull. His character needed a foil and gave birth to one almost at once as I began writing him, and thus Ghu was born. Ghu, very briefly, was one of those orphaned children my characters seem to acquire. (I blame Glen Cook.) That lasted for one draft of a few pages, and then Ghu gave me a Look and became Ghu, a young man nineteen or twenty-ish, age somewhat indeterminate both because he doesn’t know and because sometimes he finds it useful to be assumed younger than he is, an innocuous youth. Time’s a bit of a confusion for him anyway. Already, though his nature is a bit of a mystery, he seems possessed of a deep calm and assurance, a watchful stillness. Definitely not Ahjvar’s servant, whatever the two of them choose to let people assume. He’s appointed himself to look after Ahjvar. Why? If Ahjvar needs him for some grounding in his fading sanity and humanity, Ghu just as much needs Ahjvar, who gives him, he later thinks, words. And the warmth, the affection and acceptance his abuse-filled life has so lacked. That first scene of the two of them sitting together by the wall on the clifftop keeps coming back in subsequent times, right into Gods of Nabban and beyond.
Ahjvar, without Ghu, wasn’t likely to ever have been more than a passing character, an instrument of the plot, swiftly doing his thing and coming to an end at the Lady’s hand, leaving chaos for Holla-Sayan and that late lamented main character who got cut from the story to sort out. With Ghu, he became a hero, however filled with internal struggle and darkness his road.
Ghu, too, became more, because of Ahjvar. Not a holy innocent, not a merely a foil for Ahj to show up against, he was growing all the time, revealing more and more of his secrets — needing to, as Ahjvar fell further into darkness. Neither worked as a character without the other, which, as I realized that, began to shape them both. That other significant couple of the stories, Moth and Mikki, could exist and act without one another (though they’d both be different people if they’d never paired up, of course). Ahjvar and Ghu could not, without it being so shattering a thing that, if I did it, the separation of the two would have to be the heart of the story. The Ghu of Gods of Nabban could not exist without Ahjvar as part of what he is; by the end of The Lady, Ahjvar could not exist, literally, but for Ghu. (Read that sentence twice, paying attention to “for”; it works both ways.) Even by the end of The Leopard, it’s Ghu shaping the story of these two, not Ahjvar.
And emotional and psychologically-tangled as that is, that’s all something that exists alongside the other aspect of their relationship, the fact that from the start, Ghu’s complex — or maybe burningly simple — love for Ahjvar had a romantic and sexual layer to it. I didn’t send Ahjvar and Ghu to Marakand intending for that relationship to develop as it did, though in the caravan road world there’s no stigma attached to same-sex relationships. Ivah’s mostly attracted to women; Nour and Kharduin are a long-established couple (and their past was a romantic story I did want to write, but it didn’t fit in as more than an anecdote — someday it’ll end up a short story, maybe. And the story of Ivah and her poet-consort, too.) Ghu was from the start bisexual, which wasn’t something I thought about consciously. Like so much else about that character, it just was who he was. And Ahjvar’s past relationships had been with women; that was just him, too.
Ahjvar and Ghu very clearly loved one another, needed one another, but that didn’t have to mean a romantic love or a sexual relationship and at first I wasn’t thinking of it implying one. There are many loves and that there aren’t many really devoted non-romantic loves between non-siblings in fiction doesn’t mean that such relationships don’t exist, in reality or fiction, and initially that was what I thought I wanted to explore — a really intensely-felt, mutually dependent, non-sexual relationship. The fact that Ahjvar was rabidly celibate and that his distant past relationships had both been with women might also have seemed a bit of a hindrance to anything romantic Ghu might want to develop between them, except that when I was partway through the whole Marakand story and reread it, I realized that for a man who was a) rabidly celibate and b) presumed not to be interested in men, Ahjvar seemed awfully physically aware of Ghu, all the time.
All right then, I thought. If that’s what he wants, whether he knows it or not, let’s see where that goes, as another facet of their complex and mutually-dependent existence, and how that affects other things in both their lives and the larger plot as the story flows from The Lady into Gods of Nabban. And beyond.