Dispatches from the Desk: Books for the Bad Times

A conversation on Ellen Kushner’s Twitter a while ago, to which I had added that one of the reasons for writing was “To do for someone else what someone once did for you in a bad time,” got me thinking about those books we turn to in the bad times, not only the ordinary ‘having a lousy day’ bad times, which just about any book you enjoy can redeem, or the times when the cumulative stresses of life, endurable when they come at you one at a time, gather in a horde to swamp you. It was books for the deep ones I really got thinking about, the ones where the world seems to be falling apart and you have to keep going on, somehow — illness, heartbreak, grief, depression, death — books for the inescapable that must be endured. Why do we return to those particular books? It’s not so simple as seeking mere escape or the comfort of the familiar.

Escape, as I wrote over a decade ago in Quests and Kingdoms, “. . . is important. . . . Escape is not denial of reality, nor an inability to cope with the real world. Healthy escape does not confuse fiction and reality. To remain healthy and balanced, the spirit needs to refresh itself: the mind needs to play, the imagination to stretch. Recreation implies restoration, renewal” (13). I was talking about the accusation that fantasy literature is ‘mere’ escape, but that accusation was levelled against all novels at one time, when poetry was the serious form for literature. Novels were escape, a weakness, a retreat. But retreat is not surrender. It is not a giving up. It can be the only feasible tactical move. Retreat, regroup, gather strength, set out again. It’s likely everyone has particular books that give them that space, that nourishment they need in such a time. It’s hard to define what it is that makes those the right books for the worst of times, though; I suspect a lot of it, when it’s particular books for the very worst, has to do with what that book gave someone the first time they read it (which they might not even have been aware of at the time), and how familiar it is now. It can be a falling back into that place, like turning to an old friend, who will say, ‘Maybe I can’t do anything — but I’m here, even at three in the morning.’ It’s not just one type of book, either — my own reading for seriously bad times has ranged from Tolkien through Ransome, Sutcliff, Farjeon, McKinley, Bujold, Cherryh’s Fortress series and Diana Wynne Jones to Glen Cook and Donald Jack.

I retreated to books a lot as a child, and I had very particular tastes. Fantasy, historical fiction, adventures in other times and places. That was what books were for. They took you away, and away, when you are the weird kid, is good. They also made the world a whole hell of a lot bigger. As a storyteller, a writer, I want to write books that will take readers out of themselves, give them someplace else to be, whether that’s for adventure, contemplation, exploration, or to get away from other things for a while. When I write now, whether for children or adults, I want to give readers emotionally mature or maturing people with integrity — some of them — and passion, and honour — or a notable lack thereof. Both protagonists and antagonists with layers and shadows all the way down. Horizons, with intimations of mountains even out of sight. Forests and darkness and sudden shafts of light. People on the edges of things doing what those in the centre will not or can not. Tragedy hovering, some people who can look at themselves and their world ironically. I want it to be exciting, entertaining, emotionally moving, perilous on both the physical and — let’s metaphorically call it the spiritual — levels for the characters, thought-provoking . . . . Those are all elements of a story that will suit my taste at any time, but for that one person who finds their own shadows in it at a time of need, echoed and acknowledged and perhaps, driven into the light, I can hope that it might be something more.

I wrote the first draft of what would become my first published book, Torrie and the Dragon, during the last summer of my father’s life. He was very ill and it was a time of desperate pretending all round that somehow this was going to get better, papered over knowing it would not. It ended up a light, funny quest story of the kind I would have wanted to read when I was nine; it was shallow, I recognized, shallow, and when (many revisions later) it was published, the enforced short length of a Canadian children’s novel in those days meant that the things I wanted to develop further, I couldn’t. I was not completely happy with it but had moved on to work on other things. But it had shadows of searing loss in it, even if only I could see them, and the things that had comforted me as a lonely child reading — friendship and honour and anger under the surface, distances to be travelled, wilderness, and mountains on the horizon — as well as the things I had sought in my own reading as a young woman facing a parent’s death, which I think were very similar. Then rather more years later I met someone who said they had loved that book as a child (you know you’re getting old when …) and that they had gone back and reread it more than once, found it a place of comfort and retreat during a family member’s final illness. They told me that at a time when I was particularly discouraged, and I just about ended up crying, because of that connection between their return to that first Torrie book* and the period of my life in which I had written it. I’d got something right, offered something that was needed. That mattered.

It’s not the only reason for writing, but it’s one of them.

*A greatly revised and expanded version of that book, which does more of what I had always meant it to do, is still in print today under a slightly different title, Torrie and the Dragonslayers.
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About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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3 Responses to Dispatches from the Desk: Books for the Bad Times

  1. Jeff P. says:

    Lovely post – and reflecting my reality at the moment as I am struggling with a parent’s recent passing. I’ve got some dear friends helping me through: Diana Wynne Jones (Charmed Life) and Tove Jansson (Moominvalley in November). Something about the pacing of the latter made me do a little research and I learned it was likely reflecting the passing of Tove’s mother as she was writing it. The interconnectedness of all things, I guess. Sharing at a universal level.

    For the moment, it’s my old friends that are walking me through this, step by step. At some point I’ll be ready for some amazing new favourites, but for the moment I’m embraced by the comfort my books are bringing me. Thank you for putting something that’s escaped me until now into words

  2. KV Johansen says:

    I’m glad this post resonated with you, Jeff.
    I didn’t know that about Moominvalley in November. Thanks for taking the time to pass on that bit of research.

  3. rounding30 says:

    “To do for someone else what someone once did for you in a bad time.”

    I love this! Great insight…thanks for sharing!

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