by JA Clement
I write fantasy, and I’m just coming down from the mad amounts of work involved in a new release. I’ll not talk about that now, except to say that one of the aspects of it that I’ve really loved over the last couple of weeks was getting emails from readers who were as excited about it as I am. In particular this has meant a lot because for a lot of years when I was younger, there was no-one I knew who liked fantasy, so there was never any point in enthusing about it at all.
When I was a kid, I was considered very odd by my classmates because I hated Sweet Valley High and preferred to read fairytales. As far as they were concerned, I was still reading baby books; but I loved the endless possibilities of dragons and witches and giants, and there was nothing that called to me, as a clumsy, unfashionable girl who was no good at sport, in a set of books where shapely blonde teenagers vied for the attention of handsome young men, apparently through the medium of cheerleading.
At ten or eleven we moved to upper school, and the difference became even more pronounced. In my school library there was shelf after shelf of “girls’ books” like Judy Blume (in all fairness, her stuff was very good) and Malory Towers. All the good adventure books were apparently “boys’ books” or classics, so that’s what I gravitated to for a while (my reading choices became a source of ongoing puzzlement to the librarian, a lovely elderly lady who was very much a product of her time) but then one day hidden right at the back, at the bottom of the Reference stack, I found a pretty good beginner’s selection of sci fi and fantasy.
In the ten minutes it took me to skim a few blurbs, I was enraptured. There was just half a shelf, some very old, but there were swordfighters, robot civilisations, magic, spaceships, witches, new worlds, dragons – all by names I would soon come to recognise such as Asimov, Clarke, Pratchett, Andre Norton, and McCaffrey. I devoured them over the next couple of weeks, and the token novel they had for each new author was enough to send me down to the town library, a great hulking Victorian place where amongst what seemed like acres of books, they had a whole shelving unit full of all the rest of these authors’ works. Bliss! From then on, I would save up the change from my dinner money and buy book after book. I got a Saturday job in a bookshop – at the end of a year I had four pounds in my saving account and pretty much a year’s wage in books on the shelf…. But the only thing was, no-one I knew was at all interested in sci fi or fantasy, so every time I found a new author and came home bubbling about it, there was no-one to tell. It was very frustrating.
With the burgeoning of social media, I met a few likeminded souls, but through Uni and my earlier working years, there were not many. Gradually this started to change, and is changing faster all the time now: in recent years fantasy has become very much more widely-read, and more accepted. With the ascent to fame of such authors as Robin Hobb and George RR Martin, fantasy has changed tone considerably – even Pratchett changed from the silly, funny earlier books to much darker and more nuanced later novels (I love the earlier ones, but for me the later ones like The Night Watch are where it really became gripping). It’s a long time since fantasy was just for kids…
For me the real epiphany was when Worldcon came to London. I went, and did a couple of panels etc, but for me the shared references and commonality of taste meant that people-watching was the real fun. There was a joyful gusto about the whole thing – an uninhibited sharing that really lifted the heart. Everywhere there seemed to be fun – four jawas dashing about pushing a hostess trolley on which crouched Spiderman in full regalia; the very impressive Darth Maul who engaged in a lightsaber fight with a six year old Jedi and allowed himself to be horribly slain in the main hall with much groaning and theatrics, leaving the kid in fits of giggles (and the parents and most of the onlookers too). I saw Patrick Rothfuss take a selfie with two fans dressed as Adem mercenaries, and all three of them were geeking out as much as each other. I suddenly realised, with a shock of delight, that I had found my tribe, and there was a whole conference centre full of them… It was a truly magical moment.
These days I’ve got my whole family interested in fantasy. Even my mum, who thought fantasy was silly for about sixty years, got interested with the films of Lord of the Rings, progressed through Robin Hobb and is now as up to date with the lighter end of fantasy as I am, if not more so. It makes it all so much more fun when you can discuss your latest book with others, and hopefully pass it on for their enjoyment as well.
That community, that gleeful sharing is a large part of what keeps me going as a writer. I’d be writing anyway because I get twitchy if I don’t, but I go to the length of publishing for that magical moment when someone ‘gets’ your story, when these amazing tales and characters and events that play in your head like films translate well enough that someone else loves them too. That is a really magical sharing, an incredible privilege. That’s like a little bit of Worldcon right there….
So shout-out to you guys, to the readers. We do what we do for and because of you, and your words of encouragement are what keep us writing. I am still in touch with a handful of people I only ever met at Worldcon, people from all over the world, and I continue to meet interesting new fantasy fans all the time in cyberspace (and sometimes even in real life). I love that. It’s all about the sharing. And it all started with half a shelf of elderly books in the school library, Pratchett and Norton and Asimov.
Now, I have a couple of my own paperbacks on the shelf and mostly read ebooks – I only tend to buy the ones I really like in paperback now due to lack of space. I’m just catching up on a Lindsey Buroker or two, and next I’ve got a choice between rereading Rothfuss, a new book by N. K. Jemisin or a short by Mhairi Simpson, depending on what suits my mood when I come to choose. Decisions, decisions….! Or, of course, get on with writing the next one of my own. It all feels more than a little luxurious.
So that’s how I got into fantasy… Now it’s your turn – what was it that brought you to fantasy? Authors? Books? Films? Events? What are you reading right now, and what’s next on the list?
And what is your all time favourite fantasy or con-related memory?
Find out more about JAClement and her books at http://jaclement.wordpress.com