The Dead Authors Before Us

When you first read fantasy books, starting from Brian Jacques as I did to grabbing every Jane Yolen novel in the library, you want to connect with them. Before social media became a thing, I would look for their mailing addresses online and write to them: JKR, Wendelin Van Draanen, and so forth. A few people responded, and I thank Wendelin Van Draanen for sending postcards and letters. Others sent form letters. I had to be told what those were.

Recently, I checked out a book that I last read in high school, I think. It was called Wand in the Word and featured interviews with various authors in the fantasy genre. They talked about their experiences and how that worked out.

Book cover of Wand in the Word, collection of author interviews

The surreal part about Wand in the Word is that half of the authors interviewed in it are dead. They passed on, making it feel like one is reading a piece about ghosts. The authors seem to speak beyond the grave about their experiences. It’s quite eerie; I first read the book as a kid.

Mind that none of these authors have broken their pedestal for me, not really. The closest may have been Philip Pullman but he learned from his mistakes. I won’t bring them up because it’s been several years and this is not the place for negativity.

Terry Pratchett and Lloyd Alexander dying have been hard. We don’t know how a person is supposed to deal with that. They both were masters of the craft. Yet there was a sense of inevitability. Pratchett knew how to make us laugh and face his impending diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, maintaining an aura of dignity.  Alexander was one of the first authors that introduced me to fantasy with a high price and tragedy. He deserved better than that Disney movie, we can all admit that. He also talked about caste system issues in India without getting preachy and understanding the sensitivity of the issue.

Meanwhile, Diana was another story. With how many stories she had under her belt. She gave us reasons to realize that anything could happen in a magical world, and the system could still be fair. My favorite has to be Year of the Griffin hands-down for how magic causes more problems than solutions for apathetic teachers, while the students have to make their own way toward teaching. It’s also super funny. She was nice and diplomatic about the anime version of Howl’s Moving Castle.  Her emphasis focused on how they portrayed Howl accurately, as a charming lady’s man who has the immaturity of a teenager and just as much impulse control. She was certainly right about that part and didn’t want to burn any bridges.

The worst has been Ursula K. LeGuin. While I didn’t understand Ursula a lot, I knew that she had a big heart. Her stories reflected complicated worlds, with lies and cultures that wove into fantasy or science fiction. Levar Burton even read some of them aloud on her podcast. LeGuin also wasn’t afraid to mention how the Ghibli adaptation of Earthsea failed to meet her standards and missed the entire point of the story. She wrote a whole blog about it, and her stories lacked the racial issues that other white authors had in their books. (I’m looking at you, Margaret Atwood.)

Phillip Pullman is still alive, thank goodness, and learned from some of his mistakes. So is Jane Yolen, whom we could consider the lady that kickstarted modern fantasy.

Robin McKinley has also remained with us, for now. She is a tough lady, who lasts through a lot of tragedy and fan nonsense from writing. I admire how she remains steadfast.

Jane Yolen gave us many fantasy authors that would later go on to build careers. Her own books focused on bringing older myths to unaware audiences, processing the horrors of the Holocaust that her grandparents survived, . She edited stories by Bruce Coville and even collaborated with him. I got her newest book and look forward to reading it.

What do we do when our fantasy predecessors leave us, especially when the hits keep coming in one year? It feels hard, that there is no replacing them. We want our heroes to live forever and never break their pedestal.

The first step is to mourn. Life feels too short, that anything can take them away from us. Second, we find ways to honor and remember them as people, flawed but able to give us good words. Rather than rank them high, we see them as they are.

We are all going to die someday. That’s a fact of life. Yet we are here now, able to connect with authors and thank them. Twitter has been a minefield, but there is still email. That also gives you time to compose the perfect message.

After the holiday I may write some emails to those I admire. It’s never too late to tell someone how their books changed your life. The best you can do is stay proactive, and say the words that you never would have otherwise kind ones.

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