A simple question, yes. And most times, the answer can be summed up in an author’s name or the title of a New York Times Bestseller or a trendy self-help book. Other times, the answer can be very impressive – a list for a book club; a profound, life changing book of faith or personal journeys; a run-through of the classics. All very good answers, deserving of praise and esteem.
Quite frequently for me, the answer to the question is,
“Oh,” says the person asking. I quickly feel I must explain.
“I’m writing and I can’t read when I’m writing.”
"Oh," they say again but something feels diminished or less. It was NOT the answer they were expecting. Not from an author.
I’ve often wondered about that. It wasn’t always the case, but then again, I wasn’t always writing. I’ve been an avid reader since I rooted for Sam-I-Am on that accursed train, but truth be told, I wrote my first book in Grade 3, so yeah, writing has been an occupational hazard for some serious decades. And for the longest time, I could handle it, juggling both the input and the output channels with amazing ease. Until one Canadian fantasy author by the name of Guy Gavriel Kay stopped me dead in my tracks and for a rather long time.
For many years, I penciled for DC Comics (yes, Batman and Superman. No, I did not draw Batman or Superman. Tragic story best left untold) and I had an idea for a graphic novel. Now graphic novels were a very new media back in the day and this was a perfect concept for the story I wanted to write, but with the visuals I saw in my head. I had full support of my then inking partner and as I began to flesh out this post-apocalyptic series of genetically-engineered lions and tigers and bears, I began to realize that the story was big. Really big. I needed to write it down before I could even begin to tackle the pencils. It was then, as it is now, called TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER.
After a few years of stalling, procrastinating and self-doubt (dammit Jim, I'm an artist, not an author), I began to write. Type, actually, on WordPerfect, I think. And I began to get into it, enjoying the creation of worlds with words instead of pencil or brush. Before I knew it, the JOURNEY was 125,000 words and I had taken the characters from Nepal to Afghanistan, killing off most of the red shirts – I mean, leopards – along the way.
So, during this time, a large new bookstore had come to our small Northern town. Chapters is similar to the US Barnes & Noble, and one day, as I strolled through the new ‘old-looking’ aisles with the delightfully-large number of titles on their cherry-wood shelves, I saw a cover. Three characters in profile – an intelligent-looking woman in Mediterranean robes, a Spanish-looking fellow with helmet and sword and a blond, rather Roman-looking fellow with an earring and a grin. The title – THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN by a Canadian author named Guy Gavriel Kay. There were no lions at all mentioned on the back blurb. I was intrigued, bought it and brought it home to dabble with in between writing my novel.
I cracked the first page when I got home and read for 14 hours straight. I stayed up on the couch all night, finally finishing at 3:00 in the morning, and crying until 4:00. And that was that. This man, this Guy Gavriel Kay, had written the book I wanted to write. The book I never could write and so, I stopped. I burned TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER onto a floppy disk, put it in a drawer and gave up on my dream of being a writer.
I went on to read all of Kay’s works, growing more impressed and enthralled at his world-building, his lyrical prose and his respectful handling of the human pysche. There are no villains in his work, only people with flaws and motivations and hopes and reasons and you find yourself rooting for everyone of them in their own broken, beautiful ways. He has his archetypes, yes and they are remarkably similar to mine. Probably why he resonated so strongly with me. I didn’t need to write, not when Kay was writing for me.
Well, you all know that didn’t last forever but you might be surprised when I tell you that it lasted for over ten years. Ten years, JOURNEY sat in a drawer to the point that, when I finally picked it up again, I had to scrounge to find a computer that actually still had a slot for a floppy disk. We don’t need to talk about the fact that WordPerfect was an obsolete program by then, and I had to literally retype all 125,000 words because the manuscript looked like it had been plucked from Alan Turing’s brain. But I did retype it and I did finish it (JOURNEY and WALK were originally one very big book, remember?) but I learned that if I’m investing myself in creating a world, I can’t let myself get invested in another. For me, the stakes are too high and I’m enjoying writing as much as I enjoy reading. Just not at the same time.
All this is to say that I’m going to a writer’s conference this May where the guest speaker is none other than Guy Gavriel Kay. Frankly, I’m terrified. What if I freeze up again? I’m beginning preparations for BONES IN THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON and am working with a publisher on COLD STONE & IVY. What happens if I cave and buy his newest book and get all stuck in my head again?
Then again, maybe I’ll bring a copy of JOURNEY and give it to him. Who knows? Maybe he’ll get a little stuck this time.
That would be okay with me. :)