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Today’s guest is Diane Duane! She was a finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 1980 and 1981 after the publication of her first novel, The Door Into Fire. Since then, she has written more stories and novels, including those set in her Middle Kingdoms and Young Wizards universes as well as in established universes like X-Men, Spider-Man, and Star Trek; comics and graphic novels; and scripts, including work on the TV shows Star Trek: The Next Generation, Batman: The Animated Series, and one of my own favorites, Gargoyles. She is a New York Times bestselling author and a two-time Mythopoeic Award finalist.

The Door Into Fire by Diane Duane - Book Cover The Book of Night with Moon by Diane Duane - Book Cover

If there’s any truth to the concept that you can tell a lot about a writer from the books they’ve got in their office, then I’m afraid one of my great passions is instantly obvious to anybody who walks into my workspace (which doubles as the living room in the little cottage where we live). Besides the books on world mythologies and fairy tales, besides the Compact OED and the other assorted dictionaries and guides to other languages…  there are also about two hundred cookbooks.

Food—reading about it, making it, eating it—is a passion with me. (Fortunately one that my husband and fellow fantasy writer Peter Morwood shares.) In this time of COVID, and the limitations it’s brought to many of us on where we can go and how far, a constant theme around here is the thought of what restaurants we can’t wait to get back to when we are free again and vaccinated, and it’s safe to go out (or as safe as it’s going to get). That Xi’an street food place up in Dublin, that Bourgognaise café in Paris, that train-station buffet halfway up a mountain in Switzerland where they do pizza on a rösti base, that wine festival in southeastern Germany in July… Around here, the edible is a constant undercurrent to the readable. After all, we’ve all got to eat. And thereby hangs the issue of a favorite tool for me in fictional worldbuilding: food.

Looking back over the last decade or four, careful examination shows me that food and various issues surrounding it have turned up in a majority of the novels and screenplays I’ve written. In the beginning, its inclusion was mostly unconscious—a side effect of the “write what you enjoy” principle. But eventually I became more consciously aware of its tremendous usefulness in the worldbuilding process in both SF and fantasy, and started exploiting it more purposefully.

Food can be such a gateway to meaning. In already extant cultures, whether you’re familiar with them or not, food will tell you things if you’ll let it. Every culture on this planet has deeply held traditions surrounding eating, favorite dishes, manners at table (in places where tables are an issue, or a thing); deeply held opinions about what it means when people eat one way and not another, or what it means to eat one food and not another. These traditions add depth to all kinds of transactions among human beings, often unexpectedly revealing what they feel is most important in their culture. If your goal is to immerse the reader in another world, it seems to me that similar depths are absolutely worth building into a created culture from scratch, so that you can exploit these resonances to maximum effect—both to make your world feel more real, and to make your characters’ interactions with and inside it feel genuine and organic.

There do seem to have been times when this general approach seems not to have struck fantasy writers as all that useful. For example, in quest fantasy that came out in the third quarter or so of the last century, food culture (not to mention eating) seemed liable to fall out of the worldbuilding picture almost completely. Sometimes food might only come up for consideration when characters didn’t have it (and were starving), had too much of it to describe (when feasting), or were so occupied with strictly action-oriented events that eating was hardly ever described as happening at all. In her satirical “travel guide” The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones (doubtless having read way too much of this kind of thing during her career) went straight to the heart of this problem by describing pretty much all quest-fantasy food as having been reduced to two categories: WAYBREAD and STEW (“…though there are occasional BIRDS, FISH, RABBITS and pieces of cheese”).

At least these days matters have improved somewhat over the… let’s call it “minimalist” approach… that so annoyed Wynne Jones. Leaving aside for the moment their value in worldbuilding and culturebuilding, plainly lots of other writers have noticed over time that meals and eating in written work can be hugely structurally useful. For example, scenes set over the dinner table, be it a small intimate dinner-for-two or a huge extravagant feast, can be a great place to handle exposition (and the characters’ reactions to it). Any such scene comes with easily-imagined, almost built-in breaks for interactions that make large amounts of info—which might otherwise feel “dumped”—a lot easier to swallow.

Spider-Man: The Venom Factor by Diane Duane - Book Cover

Additionally, characters can become incredibly revealing—to each other, or to the writer—over a good meal. (Nor does this necessarily have to do with alcohol, though of course that can help.) Some years back, when writing Spider-Man: The Venom Factor, my first Spider-Man novel, I had more fun than was probably strictly legal by sitting Spidey and Venom down together in a posh Manhattan restaurant, under the supervision of a character based on a very senior restaurateur who in his time had made even Mick Jagger behave himself, and forcing them for just a little while to deal with each other as something besides superhero and supervillain: as—to whatever extent was possible—fellow human beings. That chapter (which Peter and I routinely referred to while I was writing it as “My Dinner With Venom”, and for which I asked him to choose the wines) turned out to be one of the high points of the book for many of its readers, who said they loved the shift in roles and tone.

And those larger feasts, too, when they come up, can routinely be evocative of other cultural depths that the writer wants to hint at. For example, I’m writing this during the Passover/“Holy Week” period, when for some of us the intersection of food with cultural history—old triumph or tragedy, the challenge of sacrifice or of sudden life-changing contact with the divine—slides noticeably into the foreground. At such times it’s hard not to start thinking about what similar (or very different) practices there might be in a culture one’s thinking about building.

A whole spectrum of possibilities spreads itself out, with endless options to recall own-world cultures or differ from them. Are there perhaps food-based traditions of worship now abandoned or forbidden, or lingering though their meanings are near-forgotten (like the “ear of grain reaped in silence” of Eleusis, of which at this end of time we know absolutely nothing else)? And then the issue of how viewpoint characters may react to these comes up, in terms of the more urgent issues taking up the day-to-day business of their lives. Are the old ways a nuisance, or a source of secret curiosity? Are they a source of amusement, or of horror—something that haunts a character’s nightmares (or dreams)? In any case, such cultural backstory can be buried as deeply as the writer needs, to best serve the narrative. It doesn’t have to show at all… or can be suddenly exposed in an offered cup of wine.

I went a little way down this road in my first novel, letting a meal in a riverside tavern veer toward the numinous (though mostly in retrospect). In The Door Into Fire, the questing characters almost accidentally discover that the innkeeper of the isolated hostelry they’re visiting at the edge of the lands men know is in fact the Goddess who made the world… taking this opportunity to say goodbye to them as they walk into deadly danger, because (while they live, at least) She may not get another chance. And what they discover about Her there over dinner—besides some individually telling points about themselves—is that She’s a pretty fair cook.

Dinner was cold eggs deviled with hot whitefruit and marigold leaves, roast goose in a sour sauce of lemons and sorrel, parsnips roasted in long-pepper butter, blanched fern-fiddles tossed in smoked bacon fat, and winter apples in thickened cream. [One character] made a lot of noise about the eggs and the goose, claiming that the powerful spices and sours of Steldene cooking gave him heartburn; but this didn’t seem to affect the speed with which he ate. There also seemed to be an endless supply of wine, which the company didn’t let go to waste…

And of course thereafter the dinner conversation turns casually to local news, and recent politics, and directions on how to get quickly and safely through nearby terrain (because doesn’t it usually?). Even in other universes, a good meal has a grounding quality to it, reminding one of the things that matter: needs satisfied, life behaving at least something like normally, family and/or good friends close by.

In such times as we find ourselves in at the moment, it seems to me this might be something we need more of. (Even if lockdown conditions do start people looking more closely at some of those mealtime spreads, and demanding ingredient explanations and recipes… because as we’ve recently seen, when you can’t travel, the urge to cook at home can get unexpectedly strong.) That reassuring quality of the shared table, even if only on the page, of a however-imaginary food culture with its own quirks and specialties that sound like they might be fun to try… and of comfort food that doesn’t even have calories? Sounds tailor-made for where we are (and where we will be, I fear, for a while yet).

I hope more of my colleagues will, in the long term, sit down at this end of the creative “table” and help themselves to the buffet. Meanwhile, locally speaking—I’m half afraid I’m going to wind up adding one more cookbook to that shelf in my office; and it won’t be “mine” just because I bought it…

Diane Duane has been writing science fiction and fantasy for more than forty years. She is a two-time Astounding Award nominee for The Door Into Fire, first novel in her Lambda Award-winning LGBTQ Middle Kingdoms universe, and multiply award-nominated for her groundbreaking Young Wizards science/fantasy series, the eleventh volume of which is now in progress. She has additionally written novels and screenplays for many major licensors, including the DC and Marvel Comics-based universes (Spider-Man, X-Men), and properties as widely (and bizarrely) assorted as Scooby-Doo, Duck Tales, Gargoyles, Transformers, and Barbie: Fairytopia. She has also written for Star Trek in more forms than anyone else alive. As a result of all this, she is a holder of the “Faust” Life Achievement Award of the International Association of Tie-In Writers. …Her most recent work has been set in the Middle Kingdoms, where she’s in progress on the third of a “prose miniseries” of novellas and short novels, Tales of the Five. Book 3 of the Tales, The Librarian, will be published during Q2 of 2021 via Lionhall Press at Ebooks Direct, the independent ebook store she shares and manages with her husband Peter Morwood. (And who knows…maybe, sometime in 2022, that cookbook will turn up there too.)

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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer Alexis Henderson! Her first published novel, The Year of the Witching, combines the horrors of mysterious witches in a spooky forest with the atrocities occurring in a puritanical society—and kept me riveted, even when I was having difficulty focusing in 2020! The Year of the Witching was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist in both the Best Horror and Best Debut Novel categories last year.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson - Book Cover

Writing Dark Fiction: An Exercise In Self-Acceptance

I often describe myself as a deeply anxious person. As a child, friends and acquaintances often described me as timid or “high-strung.” I often remember being moved to tears—or worse yet terrified into a state of total detachment—by sudden fits of terror. Since the very beginning of my memories, fear has been a constant companion.

So it seemed strange that as I grew older, I chose to devote the bulk of my creative endeavors to the exploration of the horrific. As a person to whom fear is a kind of chronic condition, I didn’t understand why I repeatedly chose to engage the things that frightened me most. I would like to say that writing horror was some triumphant attempt to prevail over the anxieties that plagued me. But I’ve come to realize that’s not entirely true.

On the good days, writing about the things that I fear most is an exhilarating, and yes triumphant experience. On the bad days, it can be painful and even triggering. While writing my own dark stories, I often ached for some reprieve or escapism. I began to question whether or not I have the mental stamina required to excel in my trade of choice. In comparison to the masters of the genre—the Shirley Jacksons and the Stephen Kings—I felt like a pitiful farce. They had learned to prevail as champions over fear while in turn, I floundered, consumed by it.

Over time, my anxiety worsened. My fear took the form of a small demon that lurked behind my ribs, gripped my lungs in its claws. At night it filled my mind with worst-case scenarios that kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning—What if this is the last book I ever write? What if I’ve depleted myself creatively and have nothing left to give? What if I’ve already peaked? What if I’ve broken myself beyond the barest hope of repair?  

These questions became a constant chorus. In turn, my writing began to feel less like a creative act and more like a transference of pain. I began to feel like I was monetizing my nightmares, commodifying the fear that plagued me like a kind of sickness. I tried to write my way out of this slump and failed several times before I stopped trying. Humbled by the increasingly real prospect of my own creative failure, I dragged myself to my writing desk once more. Out of necessity—or perhaps desperation—I let my fears guide my hand. I didn’t try to fight or deny it. I simply gave in, and in doing that was able to make a friend of my fears for the first time.

Through this act of surrender, I learned to form a careful kinship with the dark fascinations that once threatened to consume me entirely. At night, I allowed myself to ask all of the questions that terrified me the most, and I continued to write in spite of them. As time went on, I began to realize that the fears that I believed were a hindrance—to be dismissed, denied, or otherwise discarded—were pieces of myself that couldn’t be divorced from the greater sum of my being. Thus, through the writing of horror, I have learned not just to accept my fears but to accept myself.

Photo of Alexis Henderson
Photo Credit: Marissa Siebert at Hazel Eyes Photography
Alexis Henderson is a speculative fiction writer with a penchant for dark fantasy, witchcraft, and cosmic horror. She grew up in one of America’s most haunted cities, Savannah, Georgia, which instilled in her a life-long love of ghost stories. Currently, Alexis resides in Columbus, Ohio, where she’s learning to cope with the cold.

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Today’s guest is speculative fiction author and editor Leona Wisoker! Her short fiction has been published in Cats in Space, Galactic Creatures, Sha’Daa: Inked, and other anthologies, and will soon be in Abyss & Apex as well. She is also the author of the stories and novels in Children of the Desert, a science fantasy series beginning with Secrets of the Sands. The last novel in the series, Servants of the Sands, was recently rereleased as two print volumes with a new chapter at the end.

Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker - Book Cover Bells of the Kingdom by Leona Wisoker - Book Cover Servants of the Sands: Part I by Leona Wisoker - Book Cover

Of Being So Damn Tired

Grand and sweeping pronouncements about women’s roles, whether fictional or factual, feel stale these days. Examining our historic oppression, whether globally or individually, feels the same. So much has already been written about emerging writers, about convention mishaps, about political fights, about the shifting world we live in. These are all excellently worthy topics, but I’m just not up to discussing them right now.

And that’s the theme, right there, isn’t it? We’re tired. We’re all so very, very tired. It’s been a ridiculous year and so many ridiculous months and so many, many ridiculous days. How often, in fiction, are women allowed to just be tired? When is the heroine allowed to get properly exhausted and collapse for a few days instead of Heroically Forging Ahead?

One of my favorite authors is Tove Jansson, a Finnish author who wrote and illustrated children’s books (and did illustrations for a satirical, anti-fascist magazine as well). She was bisexual in a time and place that absolutely did not accept such things, and her books are heavily queer coded.

Her Moominvalley series follows the adventures of a family of woodland trolls. Early books are highly improbable and whimsical, focused on the children (Moomintroll and his friends Snufkin, Little My, and Sniff, among others) and the patriarch of the family (Moominpappa). They involve comets, floating houses, and magical hats. The later books are where Jansson really sinks her teeth into the complexity of the characters. The magic retreats, replaced with a finely drawn network of connections, and Moominmamma becomes the center of every story — even in Moominvalley in November, when she’s not directly in the story at all.

I find it fascinating that the shift in focus from Moominpappa to Moominmamma is when the stories lose their ridiculous edge and move into deeper waters. Throughout the series, Moominmamma is consistently the voice of calm and reason against her husband’s pompous recklessness and her children’s flighty adventures. She treats crisis with good humor and gets the family through Situation after Situation without showing the least bit of strain — until Moominpappa at Sea, the next to last book in the series.

As Sea opens, Moominvalley is under a summer heat wave and everyone is cranky and snapping at one another. A small fire starts in the back yard, and is quickly put out by the family; Moominpappa, napping on the veranda, is furious that he wasn’t called in to handle it himself. He stomps and sulks and stands guard over the tiny blackened area until he’s sure the family is properly sorry for their offense. Unfortunately, they all think he’s overreacting, and Moominmamma can’t find a way to smooth Pappa’s bad mood this time. She’s getting tired, you see. The kids don’t see Pappa as infallible any longer, and Pappa’s getting grouchier, and it’s just so hot.

So the entire family bundles up into a boat and sails to an obscure island, in hopes of restoring the balance: Pappa being in charge, everyone else — especially Moominmamma — relying on him. The shift to severe isolation in a desolate location, the demand that Pappa do all the work, and the inevitable reality that Pappa isn’t, actually, able to shoulder Mamma’s load — it’s all so exhausting for Moominmamma. She’s given up her beloved garden, her friends, her work, her home, and she has to constantly encourage her flaky husband as he tries to fill a role he is simply, incredibly unsuited for.

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson - Book Cover

This is still a kid’s book. There’s still a lot of whimsy. There are sea-horses — literally, delicate horses that live in the sea and come up onto the shore to prance and laugh; there is a Groke, a terrifying, sad creature that kills the ground she walks on. There are hiding places and exciting discoveries and mysteries. But woven through as an increasingly strong thread is the simple fact that Moominmamma is so damn tired.

At one point, she breaks. She starts painting flowers on the inside walls, and gets angry when Moominpappa tries to get in on that: this is mine, she says, and refuses to let anyone else add to her artwork. For Moominmamma, this is the equivalent of a volcano exploding. She simply never draws that sort of boundary.

As she continues drawing, she finds that she can literally step into her art: she curls up behind her painted flowers, and the family comes and goes, searching for her throughout the day and getting upset when they can’t find her. She ignores them and sleeps on. Again, for Moominmamma, this choice to center herself, to rest, is absolutely epic. She hides more than once, until she comes to a healthy place within herself and is able to rejoin the family with refreshed spirit and take proper charge again. At that point, she finds herself unable to retreat into the paintings any longer; she doesn’t need to. She’s reclaimed herself.

I cannot overstate how much it means for me, as an adult looking back, to see that sort of quiet acknowledgement that sometimes our families are just too much and we have to step back, hide for a bit, and rest until we’re recharged. The acknowledgement that kids are kids, and they’re self absorbed, and they’re just not going to notice that we’re in pain. Those of us who are caretakers so often have to handle our own burdens as well as the pain of the people around us, while not showing a sign of struggling.

This past year, these past four years, have been so very, very exhausting. We’re all struggling. We’re all cranky and snapping at one another like the Moomins in a heat wave. Many of us are doing the equivalent of retreating to a remote island in an effort to force control over an uncontrollable situation.

Tove Jansson had a gift for poking fun at society, for shaking assumptions and overturning norms. Terry Pratchett, in fact, pointed to Jansson as one reason he became a writer, and indeed when you look at the two side by side there are definite echoes from one to the other.

Jansson wrote novels for adults as well as for children. She was an artist: she held multiple solo exhibitions, painted murals, illustrated a Swedish translation of The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and other books. She worked to bring her Moomin series to the stage, and as her time in theater went on, she fell in love, at age 42, with the woman who would become her lifelong partner.

Looking at the list of everything Jansson created and accomplished in her life, I can only imagine how exhausted she became on a regular basis. She certainly lived a rich and complex life, and showcased that in her stories. I really wish I’d had the chance to meet her. I could have made it happen — she passed in 2001, just as I was settling into a full-time job and a new marriage in Virginia. If I’d thought to look her up in earlier years, I could have at least contacted her to tell her how much her stories meant to me. It simply never occurred to me.

Part of the exhaustion over the past years, for me, has been a steadily growing realization of just such missed opportunities. A stark awareness that I’ve put my energy into so many things that just haven’t paid me back proportionately. A sense that I’m getting older, and I really just don’t have the interest in saving the world the way I used to. Smaller, simpler, more directly effective actions suit me far more than tilting at windmills, lately. And reading. I’m reading more and more in recent years, and I’m finding my interests changing.

I particularly want to read more stories in which the women get to reclaim themselves and solve the problem, not by charging the enemy or setting a clever trap for the bad guy, but by resting. I want to write those kinds of stories. And do you know what…I just might!

Leona R. Wisoker writes a variety of speculative fiction, from experimental to horror, from fantasy to science fiction. Her science-fantasy series, Children of the Desert, follows several characters through a world slowly coming apart as dangerous secrets are revealed and centuries-long plots move into their final stages. Shorter works, such as Silver and Iron in the Sha’Daa: PAWNS anthology and Dragon Child in the Galactic Creatures anthology, reflect her early love of stories that involve demons and elves.

Leona’s work is fueled by coffee, chocolate, and whisky. She often contemplates exercise, decides it’s too much time away from working on really important things, then returns to creating bizarrities, researching random subjects, or planning her next garden project.

Leona’s web site is leonawisoker.com. She can most often be found on Twitter (@leonawisoker), talking about politics, writing, food, cute pet pics, and gardening.

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Today’s guest is H. M. Long! Her recently released Viking-inspired epic fantasy debut novel, Hall of Smoke, follows a warrior-priestess who is trying to set things right after having failed her goddess—and discovers there’s far more to her world and its deities than she’d been taught. A standalone sequel, Temple of No God, is scheduled for release in January 2022.

Hall of Smoke by H. M. Long - Book Cover Temple of No God by H. M. Long - Book Cover

Creativity in Crisis
Hannah (H. M.) Long

It’s March 2020. I’m hip-deep in drafting my second book on contract and editing my first. They’ve both been challenging but are still on track, thanks to long days alone and lots of time to focus. For a die-hard pantser I’m managing this whole outline thing well, I think, and I’m looking forward to starting a new project in June.

Of course, then the pandemic hit. All the sudden my husband and I were in lockdown with my parents, brother and his girlfriend — six adults in one house during a Canadian winter that stuck around until mid-May. All the ingredients I felt that I need for creativity (solitude, quiet, my own schedule) were chucked into the snow. New stresses and challenges came at me — at all of us — at every turn. Sure, I still had a better situation than many others, but I hit my limit.

My creativity died. Poof. No more sudden inspirations, sending me scrambling for a notebook. No more beautiful sentences pulling together in the back of my mind. No more vivid characters leaping onto the page. I didn’t even have the will to sit down at my computer, and when I did, everything I wrote felt strained. Wooden. Flat.

I floundered around for a while, battling for focus, let alone creativity. I lamented with my artsy friends, and found them saying similar things. There was simply too much going on, too much worry and noise, to create — at least not joyfully, or freely.

This got me thinking a lot on the nature of my creativity. What is it, to me? What does it need to grow and flourish? How could I bottle that up and protect it, contain it in a world suddenly turned on its head?

This is what I came up with, the things that got me through that I’m still relying on today. These aren’t great breakthroughs or lofty scientific discoveries. They’re probably things everyone’s heard before. But it’s the simple reminders, I often find, that I need most.

Space and silence. For me, my subconscious needs space to cultivate creativity, and quiet to let it grow. By space I mean freedom from restrictions, schedule and obligations — which adulting really isn’t conducive to. This is that “inspiration in the shower” phenomenon, that moment when all you have around you is hot water and tile, you’re mechanically doing a routine you’ve done 10,000 times before, and your subconscious is free to run. Then, that shiny new idea suddenly makes itself known.

But how to recreate that? I found that small, simple steps made a world of difference. Whenever I could, I shut my phone off for a few hours in the morning. The rest of the time, I turned off notifications from everything but calls. I stopped watching the news. I’d take long walks in nature — without my phone. (Notice a trend?) I also got a proper schedule book and started to use it religiously, and when we got the chance, my husband and I decided to leave town and moved to a cabin in the bush. That last one isn’t a very accessible change, I know, nor an easy one. But my word, did it help. No longer was I soaking up the business and anxiety of pandemic town life. (Now, all I have to worry about are the bears and moose — but that’s another story.)

Structure and reliability. Quite opposite to freedom, sometimes creativity needs to be fenced in. It needs expectations and guidelines, boundaries it can run free inside. It needs to be sat down at a desk and given a blank document, whether or not it feels like working that day. It doesn’t always cooperate, but it can be trained like a muscle. And, like a muscle, it must actually be worked in order to grow. Sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike is romantic, but impractical, especially in an unpredictable world.

Those three hours in the morning where I shut my phone off? That was all the structure and reliability I could give myself, so I took it. And, little by little, creativity showed up. Sometimes I’d write 500 words. Sometimes 3000. Sometimes I’d delete chapters. Sometimes I’d just end up eating cookies and staring at the wall. But I showed up. I gave myself that time and space, and something happened.

I wrote two novels this year, and edited another. I’m proud of that, because I know I fought for each and every word. Yet I’m prouder of what I learned through it. Learning how to be creative in the midst of crisis is a skill I hope I’ll continue to refine throughout the next challenge, and the next. And though every person, creation, and situation differs, I hope something here has resounded with you, too.

Photo of H. M. Long H. M. Long is a Canadian fantasy writer, author of HALL OF SMOKE and TEMPLE OF NO GOD, who loves history, hiking, and exploring the world. She lives in Ontario, but can often be spotted snooping about European museums or wandering the Alps with her German husband. She tweets @hannah_m_long.

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Today’s guest is E. Lily Yu! She received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012, and her story “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards for Best Short Story that same year. Her short fiction has been published in numerous magazines, including Tor.com, Lightspeed, and Uncanny, and been selected for several “best of” anthologies. On Fragile Waves, her first novel, was released earlier this year.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu - Book Cover


Unlike the limp little infant in Perrault and Grimm, blitzed with all kinds of blessings she never asked for, the young reader and pupal writer can choose her fairy godmothers and the gifts to receive from each of them.

To celebrate women in fantasy, here are four of my fairy godmothers and the gifts their books gave me.

* * *

Tamora Pierce gave me the wrong dreams, by which I mean precisely the right dreams for a sensitive and imaginative child, beginning with the Song of the Lioness cycle.

One must always carry a dream of some sort in one’s pocket for direction, like a sailor sighting on a star. Even if the dream is infeasible, it may lead the dreamer toward courage, say, or endurance of suffering, or an encyclopedic knowledge of the various pieces of a suit of armor.

Long before I dreamed of becoming a Mars mission scientist, a physicist, or an English professor, I was determined to become a knight, sword and all. I told the author as much, when I finally met her at a signing.

“What are you doing instead?” she asked.

I’d become a writer, I said.

She laughed wickedly and steepled her fingers. “My master plan is working!” she said.

* * *

Patricia McKillip showed me the sorcery of language and syntax. Her sentences awed me with their elegance. Take this example from The Tower at Stony Wood, a list-making of images that leaps into the fateful arrival of a stranger, full of assonance, consonance, and slant rhymes (ornate mirror, hawk/water, scatter/blackbirds, bright sky):

“Beyond her, the images in her ornate mirror changed constantly: a hawk plunging out of the sky straight down into water to drag a fish out of the current, the pepper-scatter of blackbirds against the bright sky, the rider just coming into view down the road.”

Almost any sentence of McKillip’s would do.

What she accomplished with language was to me its own kind of magic, an incantation in text, impossible to reproduce in film. Before I studied rhetoric and Latin, her books taught me asyndeton, polysyndeton, other such devices, and a love of the precise use of semicolons. Long before I read Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, and the Breton lais, The Throme of the Erril of Sherril showed me the playfulness of antique English with a charming cnight in a norange orchard.

* * *

Diane Duane taught me the alchemy of real places and things.

I read The Book of Night with Moon before I ever visited New York City. As a result, the first time I went, I insisted on seeing the backwards constellations in the sea-green ceiling of Grand Central, and the computer catalogues at the New York Public Library with their CATNYP screensavers, neither of which are, as far as I know, ordinary tourist attractions, and both of which delighted my heart.

These anchors in reality, along with a papyrus fragment I saw in a book that I am certain the author saw also, illustrated with a cat cutting a serpent with a curved knife, made the world suddenly and wonderfully strange. For if Duane could describe what existed, what I could visit and see and confirm with my own eyes, in a beautiful and coherent vision of the world that included what couldn’t and didn’t exist, then much more was possible than I had ever thought—at the wise and worldly age of twelve.

* * *

A friend gave me A.S. Byatt‘s Possession for my seventeenth birthday, I think—my memory is inexact—and it immediately burned itself into my sky, as one of the stars that I navigated by.

Though Byatt writes short fantasies elsewhere, Possession, in spite of its cover painting of Merlin and Vivienne, does not break the rules of our ordinary world. And yet speech, characters, places, poetry, and detail, from a garden flat with forbidden garden to a rucked-up bedsheet, are charged with all the richness and mythical power of high fantasy. Until I read Possession, I did not know that this could be done, that a book could be an enchantment without magic, a bewitchment without witches, that prose alone could make this drab gray quotidian world seem deeper and more gorgeous for the length of a novel.

* * *

By some mystery of the universe, books often come to us when we need them, when we are ready; these writers’ books arrived when I could learn from them.

There are, of course, far more than four authors whose books have been gifts and teachers and keys to me. There are far too many of them to count. But these are some of the countries of mind I walked when young, that I might not be able to walk again if I tried now.

So it goes with the world.

My hope is that, by the same magic, my own books also find the readers who need them at the right time. If I’m lucky, in twenty years or so, I’ll meet a newly minted writer, shiny and nervous, handing one of those books back to me for a moment. Perhaps I’ll laugh as wickedly as the thirteenth fairy over the stories they must spin and the dreams they will dream.

Or perhaps everything that should be said will already be written.

E. Lily Yu is the author of the novel On Fragile Waves, published by Erewhon in 2021, as well as thirty-five short stories in venues from McSweeney’s to Tor.com. Her stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards, and have appeared in twelve best-of-the-year anthologies.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Women in SF&F Month 2021 is now underway; thank you so much to all of last week’s guests!

There will be more guest posts Monday–Friday, following the schedule at the end. But first, here’s what’s been posted so far this month in case you missed any of last week’s essays.

All of the guest posts from April 2021 can be found here, and last week’s guest posts were:

And there will be more guest posts throughout the week, starting tomorrow! This week’s guest posts are by:

Women in SF&F Month 2021 Weekly Schedule Graphic

April 12: E. Lily Yu (On Fragile Waves, “The Time Invariance of Snow“)
April 13: H. M. Long (Hall of Smoke, Temple of No God)
April 14: Leona Wisoker (Children of the Desert, “Dragon Child“)
April 15: Alexis Henderson (The Year of the Witching)
April 16: Diane Duane (Middle Kingdoms, Young Wizards)