Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pivotal Reading

They're doing a reread of the Katherine Kurtz Deryni novels over at, and that's spurred me to dig them up and join in. Those were my absolute favorite books when I was in high school and had a lot to do with me wanting to be a fantasy novelist (up to that point, I was mostly trying to write space opera-style science fiction). My earliest attempts at writing fantasy were hugely influenced by those books. I was also rather in love with most of the characters and that world. I got the chance to meet Katherine Kurtz at a convention back in 2010, and there was some serious fangirl hyperventilating, especially when I ended up seated next to her at an autographing. Having one of your idols pick up your book to read the back cover is one of those golden career moments. I did get to hang out with her for a bit, though I mostly ended up hanging out with her husband for most of the convention. She was guest of honor, so she was busy a lot, and her husband and I discovered that we had similar backgrounds as military brats and had even lived in some of the same places, though at very different times. I sort of ended up being the designated Guest of Honor Spouse Sitter for that convention.

I don't think I'd read the original Deryni trilogy since the early 90s, so this is my first time to re-read it after becoming a fantasy novelist in my own right and since meeting her. I liked the Camber era better, so those are the books I've reread more often. It's a little weird to be looking at what was very early work with the eyes of someone who is more accomplished a writer now than she was at that time. There are some obvious early novel signs, but my mental critic ended up getting sucked back into that world almost as deeply as I went back in my teens.

That's made me think about other books that were pivotal for me as a reader and as a writer and whether I should try revisiting them.

In elementary school, I went through a phase in which I'd go around the library shelves, looking for books with key words relating to whatever my obsession at the time was. The children's section of the post library put fiction around the perimeter, so I could walk around the room scanning for things I might find interesting. There was the horse phase in second and third grades, but no one book stands out there. That switched to the witch/magic phase in third grade, probably influenced by the daily syndicated reruns of Bewitched. Oddly, no one book from that stands out. The book that caught me from that phase turned out not to be a witch book at all. It was The Mystery of the Witch Tree Symbol, a Nancy Drew book that was actually about the Amish. But I checked it out because of the "witch" in the title, and then I got hooked on Nancy Drew and mysteries in general. "What Would Nancy Do?" became my mantra in getting through elementary school. I think one of my very first attempts at writing fiction was a spooky mystery story for a class essay. I re-read some of those books in my mid-20s when I was helping collect book donations to start a new library in my hometown, and someone donated a nearly complete set of Nancy Drew books. I picked up a few to read before I delivered them to the library, and while I could see what my 8-9-year-old self loved, they weren't very satisfying to an adult reader. Still, it made for a fun nostalgia trip (though perhaps not the best airplane reading for a business trip -- try reading Nancy Drew in public as an adult, and you get some funny looks).

At the beginning of fourth grade, I saw Star Wars, which got me into science fiction. I started with the novelization, and then my parents gave me the Flinx books by Alan Dean Foster as something similar that I might like (we didn't know until much later that Alan had ghost-written the Star Wars novelization). I read and re-read those books, and also the Icerigger books and his Spellsinger fantasy series, and I branched out from there to other science fiction. I continued on with all those into adulthood, so I think they still hold up.

I got the fantasy bug in sixth grade when my mom gave me a copy of The Silver Chair, part of the Chronicles of Narnia. I ended up inhaling the series, up to a point, when I realized I was almost out of them, and I rationed the last couple of books, which was easier because I also discovered The Lord of the Rings around that time. I'd read The Hobbit in fourth grade, around the time the animated movie came on TV, but while I liked it, it didn't quite hook me the way the big trilogy did when I discovered it. I branched out to whatever other fantasy I could find at that time, like the Lloyd Alexander books and the Oz books. I've re-read the Narnia books as the new movies have come out, and I was surprised by how much detail I seem to have filled in for myself because the books themselves are sparse at times, and the characters aren't exactly three-dimensional. I seem to have used the books as a framework to build my own mental stories upon. I re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in college and found it a tough slog, so I'm not sure how my 11-year-old self tore through those books. I liked The Hobbit when I re-read it a few years ago.

Seventh grade was when I got into suspense thrillers and World War II stuff, possibly because we were living in Germany and had visited the Obersalzburg area on vacation the previous summer. Jack Higgins was my favorite author overall in that genre, and I've re-read some of those books recently, but my favorite single book was Call it Treason by George Howe. I had dreams of turning this book into a movie, and I've only just now discovered by searching for info on this book that it was made into a movie called Decision Before Dawn back in 1951, and now I must find it (it even won some Oscars). I haven't re-read it in a long time. I checked it out of the library repeatedly, then we moved and I didn't find it again until I located a disintegrating copy in a used bookstore. I'd have to read it very carefully.

And then I discovered the Deryni books, mostly because the covers jumped out at me. They were by the same artist who'd done the covers of most of the Flinx books, Darrell K. Sweet (someone I've also met), and that caught my eye. I devoured the first trilogy, was madly in love with the characters, and so when I looked at her other books and found that they were set in a different time with different characters, I resisted reading them. Then I was at a flea market with a friend, who was very excited to show me the used book stall there, and I wasn't interested in anything at the stall but felt like I should buy something because my friend was so excited, and they had a copy of Camber of Culdi that I bought. It was months before I read it, and I discovered that I liked those characters even better. After that, I went on to buy her books new or even in hardcover. And now I'm delving into them again after all these years.

In writing news, I made good progress yesterday, still rewriting some existing stuff, but adding words, and it already feels better.

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