Review of the Day: The Wand In the Word
I have an extra crunchy treat for you today, poppins. If you haven't seen this book on your local independent bookstore's shelves, go today and locate it. No one sees this book without salivating all over it. This makes the book slightly slippery, but no less wonderful.
I was into Leonard S. Marcus before it was cool. Really! Okay, fine. I wasn’t. In fact, until I read his collection of the letters of Ursula Nordstrom (“Dear Genius”) and heard about his Margaret Wise Brown bio (“Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon”) I didn’t know just what a great editor and writer he could be. But now that he’s come out with “The Wand In the Word: Conversations With Writers of Fantasy”, I have a feeling his star is going to rise pretty high. Anyone could write a book with an interview by Jane Yolen. You might even be able to squeeze out some interest if you included a talk with Garth Nix. But a glance at the people included in this book and it begins to get a little silly. Lloyd Alexander? He’s still alive? And Nancy Farmer? How did he get her? Susan Cooper!! Omigod I LOVE Susan Cooper! There are only thirteen fantasy writers contained in this volume, but with the notable exception of J.K. Rowling, they are undoubtedly the greatest living fantasy writers working today.
Most of the interviews were done in-person or over the phone. Two were done via e-mail as well. It’s a testament to Marcus’s skills (and the verbal gymnastics of his subjects) that the casual reader is unable to distinguish between the live and written. In fact, the eloquence of each of these fantasy writers is the most startling similarity they have between one another. The interviews are presented in alphabetical order with Lloyd Alexander first and Jane Yolen last. In between, Marcus includes photographs of each author’s early drafts, pictures of them as children, and the occasional shot of what their workspace looks like. Who knew they even made Terry Pratchett figurines? Marcus asks a sets number of questions of each author. What did they read as children? How did World War II affect them? What becomes clear as you read through the book is that the greatest influence this crew ever had was Tolkien. In fact, they have very different opinions on the man. Susan Cooper found his lectures “wonderful” whereas Diana Wynne Jones (who you come to trust in this matter) found them “absolutely appalling”. Philip Pullman even had dinner with him, though again the great man does not come across as particularly appealing. Each author mentions what they advise up and coming writers, who their inspirations have been, and what their lives were like. All in all, it makes for a truly stunning series of interviews.
Being the twisted soul that I am, I was most interested in the authors that were prone to saying particularly odd things. If I got to sit down and have dinner with four fantasy authors based solely on their interviews, I think my choices would have to be Nancy Farmer, Diana Wynne Jones, Brian Jacques (a surprise for me), and Terry Pratchett. Perhaps Philip Pullman too, but we’d have to keep the conversation well away from touching on C.S. Lewis. After a while you do feel like quizzing your other fantasy loving friends. “Did you know that Nancy Farmer worked in the lab of a mad scientist, “felt like a fruit fly pimp”, and was a holy terror in school? Did you know that “A Wrinkle In Time” was turned down twenty-six times by different publishers? Or that Tamora Pierce has “twenty-two baby name books, plus three URLs for baby name databases, plus a CD-ROM”? It’s all true. It’s all here.
I suspect that some well-meaning kids will complain about the people not included in this book. Where’s Cornelia Funke? Or Christopher Paolini? I, personally, was very very happy at these exclusions. Obviously I would have liked Rowling to have been included but what could she say that she hasn’t already mentioned in the roughly five billions interviews she’s done worldwide? Less explicable is the fact that Anne McCaffrey isn’t mentioned. A quick check of a “Dead Or Alive” website confirms her status of “Alive”, so what gives? And what about Robin McKinley? That said, the list Marcus has already come up with is pretty close to perfect. You could argue that Billingsley hasn’t done enough to gain a spot with this crew (and Yolen, perhaps, too much) but that’s neither here nor there.
Sometimes when I finish a particularly good book (for example, “Fly By Night” by Frances Hardinge), I feel depressed. Like so many other people out there, I’d like to be a writer but I get intimidated by really really good authors already in existence. “The Wand In the Word” had the opposite effect on me. These are the best authors of their field and their advice and enthusiasm is easy to catch. I dare say budding fantasy novelists everywhere will be able to take a page out of Marcus’s newest book and create their own entirely new little worlds. It’s a wonderful collection and a necessary purchase for anyone who considers themselves a serious fantasy fan.