Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Long Shadow of Little Shire-folk

You may have heard me mention what a rabid Conan the Barbarian fan I was growing up.  How I discovered him in the comic shop near where I lived.  How, later, rummaging in one of Portland, Oregon's many used book stores, I discovered something so fantastically amazing, so utterly, breathtakingly bizarre that I'm sure my 11 year old brain flipped inside my head.  In fact I'm pretty sure the world spun:  There was a whole section of sword and sorcery books (conveniently placed nearby "Conan's novels") that did not star my favorite barbarian.  They were called fantasy novels.

What in... THE HELL????  Where did all these come from?

Well, I was hooked.  And soon thereafter I discovered my new hero - actually it was a family of heroic little guys that went by the name of Baggins - Again, soon thereafter, my little twelve year old imagination began to wonder what went into making a world like that.  I began to draw maps, and make up hero names.  Not like Baggins or Brandybuck.  More like Kickbutticus MacSwordbreaker.  And I begain to wonder:  is it possible to write a story like that?  I doubted it.  I mean, I went to the bookstore and the shelves were all full.  Just stuffed end to end.  It didn't seem like they needed any more books.  I even asked the guy at the register - which turned into an embarassing scene that ended in my running home and telling my mother, "I don't want to talk about it, mom!"

Still my mind returned to the notion:  could my boook ever be up there next to The Hobbit? 

The answer would eventually be yes.  Sort of, lol.  This morning... I could not believe it.  Seriously.  I had to refresh the page - imagine my heart-numbing shock when I woke to find Mandragon ranked right under The Hobbit.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Uncle Tolkien

Imagine knowing Tolkien.  Personally.  Not  the affable old pipe-smoking Oxford Don, his accent so think he is barely comprehensible, scribbling about holes in the ground wherein live hobbits.  Let’s just start with the young, scholarly roughneck, i.e., a guy named Ronald who has alread kicked his share of both mental and literal ass.  A rugby player throughout his school years, by the time got his scholarship to Oxford, he had broken his nose, cut off a chunk of his tongue, and gained a firm, well-deserved reputation as the wrong dude to mess with.

And yet, when he got there, he and his friends translated nursery rhymes into Anglo Saxon.

It would boggle the mind.  We'd probably laugh, and in our meaner moods, talk about him behind his back:  

That guy is nuts.  Who does that?  That’s just insane, lol. 

And he did this while already regularly smoking his pipe… which he would later in life fill with a special cocktail of tobacco and opium.

And from there, it just gets more bizarre:   

He disliked Shakespeare.  With a passion.   And anything French.  The language.  The cooking.  All of it.  He was the one who converted C.S. Lewis back to Christianity.  And he and his wife are buried in the same grave… below a tombstone inscribed "Beren" and "LĂșthien," in honor of two characters from The Silmarillion.

… and have you read The Silmarillion?...  Good googly moogly.

So how on Earth did he describe us so well?... What I mean to say is that, while almost none of us consider ourselves very Tolkienesque, we can all find ourselves a bit hobbitish from time to time, can't we?  His heroes are chubby, for God's sake!  How fantastic is that?  They love to eat, just like us.  They want to drink a bit, dance a bit, and get into just a little bit of trouble... 

And yet, there he sits, Tolkien.  Off in a corner of our mind, war hero, eccentric, perched there like some uncle we will never fully understand but always love.   He taught many of us our love of language and made a simple, green life far less hippy-ish and political.

It boggles the mind beyond boggling....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Encouragement from Patrick Rothfuss and my preschool niece

A while back, I read something interesting.  I should have mentioned this article when I first read it.  But it made me think of my current favorite author, Patrick Rothfuss, and I wasn’t sure why.

The NYT ran the article I’m talking about:  It’s about urging reluctant boys to read. In it, Michael Cart has some interesting points to make, one of which was:  “We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become.”

Which is exactly why I thank God there are still writers like Patrick Rothfuss afoot.

Kvothe, his lead character, is the kind of man any dad would be proud to call son:   Intelligent but humble, and ferocious yet compassionate.

And more importantly to young dudes:  He’s cool.

But on a personal note, that’s not what made me think of him.

I started thinking of myself as a young reader.  Even then, I thought about writing too.  For years, though,  I did nothing but think about it.  But Patrick is an inspiration to the thinker and the artist alike.  In fact, when he wrote “The Name of the Wind,” he inspired the hell out of me.

No, my stuff isn’t as long or, and I mean this, as good as the Kingkiller Chronicles.  It isn’t meant to be.  Instead, Patrick Rothfuss has shown me how to be MY OWN writer.

You might think Patrick has written a book about writing too.  But as far as I know, he hasn’t. Patrick Rothfuss writes fantasy novels, and damn good ones.  The Onion A. V. Club called “The Name of The Wind” the best book, in any genre, of the past decade.  He also cares about readers, doing numerous signings and readings on incredibly long (and what must be incredibly exhausting) tour dates.  Beyond readers, he’s genuinely concerned about humanity, donating huge chunks of his profits to Heifer International (www.heifer.org)   

But, and I am kind of embarrassed to admit, being able to one day support my favorite charity is not what inspired me either. 

It’s not even his epic beard.

What inspired me about Patrick Rothfuss is this:  My niece.

As kids often do, she made a completely random and kind of hilarious remark about her preschool teachers.  She said, "Uncle Thomas, I like my teachers."

"Oh yea?"

"Yep.  They both have yellow hair, but they both have a different voice."


I thought:  That is it! 

Patrick - He doesn’t shy away from his own voice … I swear, I think I could detect his writing if he were filling in those little circles on a standardized test.  The man doesn’t just have a way with words. He has his way with words.  Okay… that didn’t come out right, but you get the point.  His novels, in my opinion, could never really be emulated. 

And how cool is it to know your voice is your own?

So I got off my ass.

And I wrote.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Day the Earth Spat Fantasy Novels

When I was 9, a rabid “Savage Sword of Conan” fan, I would run to the local comic shop and, even before the issue was done, begin forming a letter to the editor in my head.   Every month.  Nope, he needs a bigger sword.  No sir, you never want to enter a tavern without a shield.  I actually remember thinking:  Oh come on.  What kind of fool has a meal without his shield?... Conan's no fool.

Then I'd realize that they hadn't printed my last letter.  What!  Those crazy people.  

I don't know that I ever "got" that people do not, generally, keep a sword with them at absolutely all times.  I'm not entirely certain that I even got why the Conan novels didn't include an address for my suggestions.  Nonetheless, I was hooked. 

"Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."

Oh, man.  Good stuff. 

Then, rummaging in one of Portland, Oregon's many used book store, I discovered something so fantastically amazing, so utterly, breathtakingly bizarre that I'm sure my 11 year old brain flipped inside my head.  The world spun:  There was a whole section of sword and sorcery books (conveniently placed nearby "Conan's novels") that did not star my favorite barbarian.  They were called fantasy novels.

What in... THE HELL????

Where did all these come from?

My world was all at once rocked and expanded.  And my love of old school fantasy carried on.  When I was 29—in the work van.  On the way to the construction site downtown.  I'd be reading some kind of old sword and sorcery yarn like "The Black Company", just enjoying the hell out it.  

And now at 39, I still do it.  There’s something about that old school fantasy I can’t give up.  Love Glen Cook.  David Gemmell.  Robert Howard.  I may have read them with a smirk at fourteen years old, a sarcastic sense of nostalgia at twenty, but by age thirty I had quit making excuses.  I loved it.  Still do.  Yea I read the “serious” stuff:  Jonathon Franzen, Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer winners...  The greats.  I even started to think of fantasy as a guilty pleasure and I was “relieved” when reviewers called Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind” a thoroughly adult meditation.   

But then I thought.  Hey.  Hold on.   Guilty pleasure.  Innocent pleasure.  Work-release pleasure. Who gives a damn.  It’s a pleasure.  Even that masterwork of speculative fiction, McCarthy’s “The Road” was bit a depressing for my taste.  Dark, I like.  But depressing is not what I’d call a pleasure.  When, I would ask myself, is someone going to pick up a sword and stab a damn Moon Yeti?

And alas, *spoiler alert* McCarthy's “The Road” had no Moon Yetis.

But that’s cool.  Because it was Cormac McCarthy Fantasy

Which brings me to why I’m telling you all this: I want you to download a Thomas Head Fantasy.  I think you'll get a kick out it.    But at any rate, this ain’t your Moon Yeti fantasy.  Or Pulitzer Prize fantasy.  It’s something in between.  Like I said, Thomas Head fantasy.  I promise it’s totally adult without being brooding.  Dark without being depressing.  And, at turns, it's funny.   Not silly funny.  Or parady funny.  You'll see what I mean.  You'll get it.  You’re gonna love Magnatius - an introspective swordmaster and tough old goat, so bleak he views hope as a fairy tale, one told by ghosts.  Gamble - a zaftig, gluttonous nun.  And Celli - a poet who gains his fame through intentionally bad prose.  Not to mention the rest of the villians he has to cut down for lack of moon yetis.

I like to think of it as something the earth might one day spit into a bookstore.

A what?

Something between a moon yeti and a Pulitzer prize?...  lol, whatver you wanna call it, thanks for having a read.  Have a fantastic day, God bless you, and thank you for your time!