I Happen to Be a Fan of Things

I consume a lot of media. Books, comics, TV shows, films, music. It’s all media, stories and concepts and characters and thoughts carefully crafted or haphazardly slapped together by creative people. When I was a kid, I was all about Star Wars and Tolkien’s Middle Earth books. By extension, I was into Kurosawa films and fantasy stories. As I got older I discovered Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sam Raimi, and dozens of other people whose works nurtured and challenged me at a time in my life where I needed a little of both. I like more things now. For the past four years or so I’ve been more than a little obsessed with the Year 24 Group, particularly Hagio Moto.

I like a lot of things, is basically what I mean to say. In recent years I’ve liked a few things enough to try to connect with massive hordes of other people who like them through the social phenomenon of fandom. For those not already aware, fandom is a term for a sort of nerd subculture based around mutual enjoyment of something. The concept is older than you might expect, and I haven’t been alive long enough to be certain it wasn’t always filled with absolute nutters.

That is not to say that all other geeks are crazy. I’ve known many a well-balanced and grounded nerd and don’t want to contribute any more to the prevailing notion that sci-fi/fantasy/anime/video game/comic book fans are inherently messed up. However, I think that Sharyn McCrumb made a good point about fandom in her book Bimbos of the Death Sun and subsequent commentary on the book:

Bimbos of the Death Sun was intended to be an observation of the culture of fandom, and a gentle warning. Science fiction writers build castles in the air; the fans move into them; and the publishers collect the rent. It’s a nice place to visit, but please don’t try to live there.

Since my introduction to internet fandom, I’ve noticed a passive withdrawal from reality and a powerful undercurrent of nastiness veiled in strained consensus. Both things, I think, are facilitated at least in part by the internet.

The constant availability of new facts, new discussion, and new content (much of which is generated by other fans) makes it so much easier to hole up in those sky castles. It isn’t often a conscious choice. I think it’s normal to respond to having yet more enjoyable things by gobbling them up. However, when the flow of new material becomes constant it can be difficult to ween yourself away from the supply and try other things. Or even leave the house.

The internet also presents people with some paradoxical opportunities: You can, in theory, interact with hundreds of people who share you common interest. You can also use screening features to shutter yourself away from opinions you don’t share. You don’t have to have a discussion with anyone you either don’t agree with or aren’t angry enough at to pursue.

So in effect you’re shut up in your room on the computer focused with laser precision on a single topic, and you don’t talk to anyone unless your views are being reinforced or you’re enforcing them on someone else. It’s a scary, confusing place to be when you haven’t been steeped in the law and lore of the land. I still have no functional idea of how to navigate any social situation within internet fandom. If you feel inclined to tell me in the comments section that you can easily treat it just like any other social situation, I hope you enjoy being wrong. 

After my short stint browsing around fandom, I don’t think I want to count myself as a member. I don’t have the laser focus, for one thing. Even now my obsession spreads across about a dozen things, many of them very different from one another. I don’t have the time, either. You’d be surprised how time consuming obsession can be, and I’m spread thin enough as it is enjoying things alone. Mixing other people up in it is just inconceivable.

Why Write Dark Stories for Kids?

I write almost exclusively for kids, specifically young people in the age range of around 12 to around 19. Stuff you’d find shelved in the ‘young adult’ section. There are several reasons for this, one of them being that it was during this time of my life that it was most difficult to find books ‘for me’ that I actually wanted to read. I spent most of my tween and teen years making up stories rather than reading them and still want to write books for my 12 year old self.

One criticism I’ve seen lobbed against young adult fiction is that some of it is just too creepy, or too dark, or too intense for people too young to drink. Do a Google search for any reasonably popular kids’ book and you’ll likely find several results criticizing the book’s age-inappropriate content on the grounds of it being some ill-defined sort of unsettling. These complaints are, of course, made by adults. There’s the problem.

Pictured: Every single road you ever walked down at dusk as a kid.

As we grow older, I think we gradually allow ourselves to forget just how upsetting and, yes, creepy childhood actually is. Our imaginations shape our expectations far more than our limited experiences, and we often imagine the worst because our developing brains see that as the best way to be prepared. You’re small and weak in a huge, unfamiliar place full of malice, and confusion, and all the lurking dangers your parents and teachers make absolutely sure to tell you about. On top of that no one with any power in the world takes you seriously. That weird neighbor you’re entirely certain is a serial killer? Nobody’s going to listen to you. Absolutely nobody. In retrospect, as a rational adult, it seems absurd. Not so much when you’re eleven years old.

Dovetailing nicely into this is the fact that people tend to like having their fears, rational or not, validated by the fiction they consume. It’s nice to be told that we were right all along even when it’s a work of fiction vindicating us. Think of all the airport fiction with plots hinging on diabolical terrorist schemes that are, big bonus here, taken out by characters oddly similar to the target audience’s ideal selves. These desires aren’t limited to 50 year old guys on cross-country flights, or even to adults in general. They’re basic human wants. We want to be told, “Yes, you’re right, the world is scary. But someone like you can set it right, and getting there can be really exciting.”

Artists Who Inspire Me to Write

I take my inspiration from many places, though few things send stories and passages rolling out of my brain like sound and sight. Today I want to talk a little about images, specifically the work of three artists: Arthur Rackham, Michael Whelan, and John Bauer.

Arthur Rackham

In the United States, Rackham is best known for his illustrations of Richard Wager’s Ring cycle. For those of you not familiar, that’s the one with Ride of the Valkyries in it. For those even less familiar, it’s the song old cartoons commonly played over dogfight scenes. Rackham didn’t do any plates for the particular opera the song is from, but now you know basically what I mean: The pictures to accompany music like that.

Rackham used a method unique to himself to create the blended, muddy colors over his gritty, realistic lines. The level of detail in his work is astounding, especially when you take into account how personalized his style was.

Something about Rackham’s grungy, earthy art holds a great deal of majesty for me. It is fantastic but not garishly colored; it seems so much more real and tangible. As a slight nod to Rackham, the hero of my current project has the same absurdly curly blond hair as Siegfried in the above Wagner plate.

Michael Whelan

Whelan may not be an old master like Rackham, but his work has affected me all the same. You may recognize his style from scifi and fantasy covers. I know that’s where I first saw anything he did, being fourteen and having no real admitted interest in art.

If Rackham is my subdued but majestic inspiration, Whelan is my extravagant and fantastic inspiration.

Whelan’s greatest strength, to me, is in conveying a sense of place. He illustrates some of the strangest, most gorgeous landscapes in a way that, for the barest moment, transports me.

Around two thirds of my current story takes place in a world that is not our own, and even when I don’t intend to I feel I must be siphoning off some of Whelan’s imagery, pulling out choice snatches of sight from memories of earmarked covers of books I bought for the pretty picture.

John Bauer

To the casual observer, Bauer’s work looks a lot like Rackham’s. His colors are earthy and washy and his lines are fairly detailed. However, Bauer’s work has a softer, loopier feel than Rackham’s gritty illustrations. It’s not as realistic, it’s much simpler. Lots of curly, wavy lines.

Above all, I appreciate Bauer’s depiction of natural things. The shapes strike a good balance between realism and stylized loopiness, and the combination just draws me in.

I know a few writers follow me, so I’m wondering: What images, if any, stir inspiration in you?

Get Me Out of Here

As a kid, my reading was almost entirely fantastical. If the setting wasn’t some far-away invented place, it was another time or another planet or some supernaturally-tinted vision of our own world. I didn’t like to read Beverly Cleary and other writers who primarily worked in the mundane world. I remember holing up in my treehouse like a brown recluse spider, reading through The Lord of the Rings and being quietly blown away by Eowyn’s big I’ll Cut You spiel to the Witch King.

But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.

The same feeling, the same nameless Something came over me many times while reading many stories, but I couldn’t identify or articulate it for years and years. It dangled just out of reach in the heat haze. I came to realize as I grew older that this was the feeling of new and unexpected experiences, however vicarious, making their impression on my developing brain. It was the distant tingling of seeing things and people and acts I had never imagined could exist, things that I had no access to in my backward hometown. To have a forceful and charismatic personality was a distant ideal, and I had up to that point seen no broad swath of country that did not closely match the pattern of pine tree-pine tree-WalMart-pine tree-factory farm-pine tree-church-pine tree-pine tree-cemetery.

Reading what I read could take me at any time to a place that wasn’t where I was, and show me people entirely unlike the people I knew. It opened me up to the possibility that amazing experiences and places and people did exist, and that not everyone had to be crazy or boring. It was an incredibly freeing revelation each and every time, even though I wasn’t aware that I was having it.

I am a huge supporter of escapist fiction. For kids, for adults, for whoever. We are all trapped within one circumstance or another that we wish to escape at some point, and often we are given no opportunity to escape it in any sufficiently quick way. We may never fully escape some situations and circumstances. If we allow our minds to drift to somewhere better, to see better people, maybe we can take away more than comfort and a few hours killed. And even if that’s all we get, I still can’t find disagreement with Tolkien on the subject.

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!