Doorways into reading — and writing

door opening into cloudy skyI came across an article on Tor a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking.

I can’t remember not reading. I do remember curling up in the kneehole of my grandmother’s vanity dresser with a book, and since it was such a small place I couldn’t have been more than three or four.

I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. My parents were voracious readers too, and there were books everywhere in our house: piled on the endtables by the couch, stuffed into bookshelves, stacked by the sides of their bed and on the ledge built into their headboard.

We had a lot of books in a lot of genres. I remember my dad reading Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island and The Water Babies to us. We had a set of books, bound like encyclopedias, called Classics for Children that formed the basis of our bedtime stories. I remember learning about Pegasus and Bucephalus and Icarus and other characters from classic literature, first from his readings and then from our own. And then I branched out, once I could reach the shelves myself.

I’m sure some of it probably wasn’t age-appropriate, and I skimmed over the bits I didn’t understand. And the most unsuitable for children was probably kept on the highest shelves in the sunroom, a den that had towering built-in shelves with glass doors. Opening the doors to get to the treasures inside meant first carefully removing all the books piled in front of the doors because there was no room behind them.

girl sitting on stack of booksBut I know exactly what my doorway was, what turned me from a casual reader into a dedicated fan: Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. I had read Little Black, A Pony, but it wasn’t until I found the slightly more grown up Black Stallion series that I was happy. I read through them all as fast as I could take them out of the library.

The magic of the books wasn’t just the books themselves. It was meeting the author. My cousin, three years older than me and horse-crazy as many young girls are, begged her mother to go to the New Jersey State Fair that summer. She wanted to see the dressage competitions. And she convinced me I should join her campaign to convince her parents, because I could meet Walter Farley, who was signing his latest book at the fair.

This must have been 1964, and the book would have been The Black Stallion Challenged. I remember standing in line in the hot sun, waiting to get my book signed. I remember the scent of the fair: we were standing near the competition ring, and just off the midway. If you’ve ever been to an agricultural fair, you know the smells: animals and fried food, mostly. My cousin, the horse-mad one, was in her glory. All I could think about was the book.

I was 8 and my cousin 11. She talked about horses, but I wanted to know about the books. Was any of it real? Did he own the Black Stallion, or any horses? Would he sign my book, please? When would the next one be out?

He was very kind to two young girls. No, it wasn’t real; yes, he owned horses; and it would be a few years till the next book. He signed my book, shook our hands, and thanked us for coming.

I was hooked. That was the first time I had ever connected a book with the person who wrote it. I think I must have believed that books just appeared on our bookshelves and in the library like magic. I had never considered what it took to get them there, until I met Walter Farley.

After that, I started paying more attention to the author bios in the books I read. We had a LOT of books, and our local library branch was at that time in the same building as my elementary school. I spent a lot of time there. With the librarian’s help, I learned how to look up books by author in the card catalogue. (This is 1964, remember; card catalogues were truly card-based. No electronic searching.)

Because my parents read widely, so did I. Both my parents liked science fiction; we had subscriptions to Amazing Stories and Galaxy, and a lot of pulp fiction came into the house. My grandmother had a subscription to Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, but we had a subscription to the Science Fiction Book Club.

I read them all. Getting monthly deliveries from the SFBC kept me reading hard science science fiction, but also introduced me to fantasy. I think I was looking for the women, and I sure wasn’t finding them in the science fiction. Not in the 60s and 70s, anyway. I found myself drifting more towards Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffery and Diana L. Paxson and Elizabeth Waters: strong female writers creating strong female protagonists.

On the face of it, it’s a bit of a leap from fantasy and science fiction to romance. But even in the old school science fiction, the stories that drew me the strongest, that stuck with me over the years, were the ones with characters I could relate to from page one. I like science fiction and fantasy best when the science or fantasy part is not the central theme of the story. It’s the characters I want.

When Words Collide logoI recently attended a reader/writer festival here in Calgary, where I worked in the merchant room at the table where my local Romance Writers of America chapter sold our books. This event, When Words Collide, has a strong focus on science fiction and fantasy. They’ve opened up to other genres, but there are still a lot of hard core SciFi fans who don’t read — or write — out of their genre much. A typical attendee was the fellow who came to the table while I was there, heaping praise on the sessions presented by romance authors on dialogue and characters. No one, in his opinion, does dialogue better than romance writers. And covers? We have the the best ones in the business.

So I asked him, as he picked up books to examine their covers and read the back blurbs, if he was interested in buying any. We had some paranormal and SciFi romances on the table that might appeal. “Of course not,” he replied. “I don’t read that crap.”

So, let me get this straight. You want to learn about writing dialogue, about creating great characters, but you don’t want to read in the genre that you admire for achieving those?

The mind. It boggles.

hand opening windowTo bring this article back to the original article that triggered it: We all have different doorways into what we read, and what we write. But there are a LOT of doorways. And a lot of windows. Even if you don’t want to go completely through a doorway, open the window and see what else is out there. You might be pleasantly surprised.

2 Responses

  1. Yes, so many doorways. Some, we don’t even recognize as doorways until long past the moment we walked through them.

    Along with many of your doorways, I remember in our high school (7-12 then) library, taking out those Gothic romances by Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. Remember those? Those brooding, wounded heroes. Sigh!

    Thanks for the memories.

    1. Mary Stewart, yes; the others, not till much later. For all that she read very widely, my mother had quite a bias against romance novels. Stewart I borrowed from a friend.

      Just as travel broadens our horizons and our viewpoints, so to does reading, in my opinion. I love stepping into someone else’s shoes for a couple hundred pages, seeing what they see and feeling what they feel.