Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Wand in the Word - Leonard S Marcus

First a confession - I kept calling Leonard S Marcus' book The Wand in the WORLD, until I started to read it. Apparently I'm not the only one who's mistaken the title of The Wand in the Word in this way. My second confession is that I somehow expected the pieces in this book to be weightier. I think I had the idea that they were essays edited by Marcus, rather than interviews with the 13 authors which were conducted and transcribed by Marcus.

Of the 13 writers whom Marcus interviewed there was only one (Franny Billingsley) of whom I had never heard. Of the remaining dozen, I have never read books by Madeleine L'Engle, Brian Jacques, Tamora Pierce or Jane Yolen. Of the other half dozen, I've read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles (but I've added more of his books to my "Want to Read" list), Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" sequence, Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, many of Diana Wynne Jones' books, all of Ursula K Le Guin's fantasy books (except the sequel to Gifts), and almost everything written by Garth Nix, Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman.

The interviews cover broadly the same questions: what was the author like as a child, were there any storytellers amongst the adults they knew, did they use the local library, why/how did they start writing, why do they write fantasy and what role did the World War have in their lives. I was particularly interested in the last question. Tom Shippey, in his biography J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century, discusses the fact that many of the fantasy authors of the mid-20th century (Tolkien, Orwell, Golding and Vonnegut in particular) were caught up in the First World War, and that this led them into writing fantasy as a means of commenting on the horrors of war. Marcus finds a similar link for most of the 13 authors he interviewed as all but one of them were born around the time of one of the World Wars: Garth Nix was born in 1963, so he missed even the rationing that followed the Second World War; Lloyd Alexander and Madeleine L'Engle were born around the time of the First World War; the others were all born a few years before, during, or a few years after, the Second World War. Diana Wynne Jones comments on this: The two World Wars were the worst kind of madness. Fantasy helps you think more clearly when things are mad. (p. 85) Something I believe still holds true today.
Lloyd Alexander explains why he writes fantasy:

Because, paradoxically, fantasy is a good way to show the world as it is. Fantasy can show us the truth about human relationships and moral dilemmas because it works on our emotions on a deeper, symbolic level than realistic fiction. It has the same emotional power as dreams. (p. 13)

Franny Billingsley says that
Fantasy allows you to step outside our world and look at it with a little bit of perspective. It can take something in our world, for instance, "identity", which has only an abstract reality, and it can make it palpable. (p. 26)

Terry Pratchett says:
Fantasy is like an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it does exercise the muscles that will. (p. 159)


This book is full of similar thoughtful comments on both fantasy and writing (Brian Jacques refers to words being "as wild as rocky peaks [...] as smooth as a millpond and as sunny as a day in a meadow", p. 74). I also liked the "Reader" that's provided for each author, although none of them are extensive (Terry Pratchett's was oddly short, referring to only two of the three Johnny Maxwell books). I certainly added some new titles to my "WtR" pile as a result of reading this book !

I've also started making a list of authors I wish Marcus had interviewed - so far I've got Robin Hobb, Geraldine McCaughrean, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip and Juliet McKenna.

9 comments:

Little Willow said...

Read THE DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC by Jane Yolen. You won't be disappointed.

Michele said...

I'll have to see if the library has it. Unfortunately, provincial libraries (even in university towns) aren't that well stocked with American published books, and finding such books can be a bit hit and miss - they've only got a handful of Tanith Lee's books (for example), but a fair few more of Tamora Pierce's !

Michele said...

OK. I looked it up on the OPAC and there's one copy in the Oxfordshire library system (although not in the Central Library), so I've put a reserve on it !

Hallie said...

I had exactly the same reaction to The Wand in the Word, though admittedly I only looked through it a few times in a bookshop. Not entirely fair, I guess, as I'd read so much about some of the authors I like most already, but it still seemed more pretty coffee-tabley than I'd expected. Franny Billingsley is very good (especially The Folk Keeper) - hope she's one of those who've gone on your TBR pile!

Michele said...

I confess I haven't looked to see if the library service has anything by Franny Billingsley - but I will now !!

Sheila said...

Keep in mind that the audience for the book is pre-teens and teens: the Candlewick Press web site lists the audience as "Ages 12 and up." It's not intended to be a scholarly work for us older folks.

Middle school seems to be the age when kids start to really become interested in writing and authors, and start to think about the possibility of themselves as writers. The Wand in the Word seems perfectly geared towards this age group, and I think middle-schoolers will find it fascinating and inspirational.

Michele said...

Sheila, I had suspected the book wasn't aimed at adults once I'd read a few of the interviews. And don't misunderstand me - I very much enjoyed reading the interviews !

Sheila said...

Sorry, I think I was reacting more to hallie's comment that the book is "coffee-tabley." But you're right, I enjoyed the interviews also. I had never heard of Franny Billingsley either, so I'll definitely have to add her to my TBR!

Michele said...

Fair enough Sheila !

Hallie, the library only had Billingsley's The Folk Keeper available - but I've put in a request for it...

I can't seem to get anything by Lloyd Alexander, though, except for The Chronicles of Prydain, apart from The Fantastical Adventures of the Invisible Boy - the alternate name for The Gawgon and the Boy...