Author Love Letters

Author Love Letter: Neil Gaiman

Dear Neil,

You’re the first of these authors I feel comfortable addressing by first name. Is that weird? I think it’s because you’re a geek superhero. Anyway. They say opposites attract, but the first time we met, it was like looking into a mirror. Neverwhere was full of sentences written precisely as I’d have written them myself. I thought it was a little creepy, and I was worried that people might think I was aping your style if I ever got any of my own work out into the world. I didn’t really need to worry about that, because I didn’t stay 19 and the more I wrote the more things felt like me. Neverwhere was cool, though. Really cool.

I kept hanging out with you, a bit at a time. I heard you on the radio. I was blown away by American Gods. You manage to touch so many stories with that one, manage to make a story about stories without slipping into self-indulgent metafiction. One of the things I love about spending time with you is that it’s not just spending time with you. You fill your stories with so many interesting characters—and not the euphemistic “interesting” of your adopted Upper Midwest. American Gods is chock full of characters I wouldn’t have minded following after Shadow walked out of their lives. You put your cipher in the central position in the story, and give us just enough of his personality to hold everything together. That’s well into “easier said than done” territory.

Anansi Boys…that one is good, too. It’s light without being fluffy. You also—again—fill the story with interesting characters, but this time you set them around a thoroughly individual protagonist. It’s like in the Odyssey: Fat Charlie proclaims himself and is proclaimed by his world a “nobody.” He might not be a Homeric hero, but Charlie’s cathartic assertion of somebody-ness is awesome (in the undiluted sense of the word). Anansi Boys a great example of how easy you make storytelling look. It’s only when I start to dig in that I see the elegant lines are strings of exquisitely balanced asymmetric nuggets of plot and character.

If Shadow is a cipher, and Fat Charlie is a nobody growing into a somebody, The Sandman’s Dream is a teflon mirror. Reflections slide off him. Utterly himself, Morpheus embodies his estate in ways that seem as incredibly obvious as they are original. Good teachers and good storytellers tell us what we knew all along. That’s what reading your work is like for me.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a brilliant little gem of a book. It devoured me for an afternoon with its mix of wonder and confusion. You capture the bravery of a child (which is half not knowing to be afraid) right along with the muddle of middle age in your bracketing scenes. It’s a gorgeous work that moved me well beyond its slim proportions.

All that, and you’re a Geek Superhero. A Geek Superhero who manages his public life with surprising aplomb and humility. (Batman would not give a talk explaining that you need to get at least two-thirds of the “excellent-timely-nice” triad to get ahead in making Good Art.)

So, um. Thanks. For all of it.

Yours,

J.D.J.

You can start just about anywhere with Mr. Gaiman’s work. His children’s books are pretty wonderful. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his latest work for grown-ups, might also be his best. American Gods is as close as Gaiman comes to epic in the usual sense; it features a particularly cool Odin. If you have disposable income and for some reason haven’t read Sandman, Vertigo has recently published leather-bound omnibuses that will get you all of the books much more easily than haunting used bookstores hoping somebody has given up their treasured trades.

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Author Love Letter: Gene Wolfe

Dear Mr. Wolfe,

We met in a used book store. I’ve met a lot of authors in used bookstores, you know. I hope you don’t mind. Sometimes a reader just needs something quick with no strings attached. 

You turned out to be so, so much more. I don’t remember who mentioned you to me, but I picked up the first two volumes of The Book of the New Sun because I was running out of Moorcock to read. Talk about a change of pace! I mean, yes, there was a crazy sword and a black cloak, but Stormbringer and Terminus Est have about as much in common as stromboli and tiramisu. Severian’s fuligin cloak is as iconic a garment as my reading has ever revealed. I couldn’t just read your work and put you down, you know?

From Severian, I went to Latro and river gods and scribbled scrolls. I liked the movie Memento well enough, but in Soldier of the Mist you did most of the things it does better, without leaning on jump cuts or spliced narratives. I confess that sometimes your conceit of “discovered and translated writings” bothers me, but I only ever have to deal with it for the few pages of afterword. I think it says a lot about our relationship that I always read those afterwords despite knowing what they’ll contain. 

The Book of the Long Sun didn’t capture me the same way your other books had, but still…you have this fantastic knack for building coherent worlds without explaining them to us all the time. I cannot think of another author who conveys more depth of field with less exposition. Part of that’s on your use of first person, but even there you give us narrators who want to talk about what happened rather than where it happened. Characters drive the stories; you use the characters’ choices as narrator to tell us about them and their world. Nothing is wasted. That extraordinary knack for worlds without exposition is the thing I try to steal from you. I don’t ever really manage it, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot about leaving things out just by hanging around your works.

Even if you’d written nothing but The Knight, Mr. Wolfe, I’d probably still write one of these letters for you. It’s like sculpture: perfectly balanced, changing as you walk around it, ready to spring into motion at a hat’s drop. It is as indebted to Old Stuff as Tolkien’s work is, but the use of it is astounding. Arthur/Able’s point of view keeps the reader grounded even when a valkyrie plucks him from the air after fighting a dragon in flight. It’s incredible. The Wizard couldn’t knock me off my feet the same way because I hadn’t really gotten up. In it, though, you managed one the hardest things in writing: a satisfying conclusion. 

Pirates, horrors from beyond the world, magical houses, space ships, mutants…you’ve used them all, and deftly. You’ve been at this for four decades, and your work is as fresh as ever. 

Thank you, so much.

Gene Wolfe won the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement award in 1996. Many of the books I mention above have been written since then. He’s racked up a variety of lifetime achievement and grand master awards, never mind the Locus and Nebula awards and nominations he’s won for individual works. I have yet to read a bad book penned by Mr. Wolfe. If you like post-apocalyptic settings and exotic language, start with The Book of the New Sun. Originally published as a tetralogy, you can find it in print as two, two-volume trades. (The ISBN of the first volume is 978-0312890179.) If you prefer fantasy, start with The Knight (ISBN 978-0765347015). Just go do it. You might as well pick up The Wizard (ISBN 978-0765350503) while you’re at the bookstore or library, because you probably won’t want to leave Sir Able behind when you finish The Knight. For Cthulhu-esque horror, try An Evil Guest (ISBN 978-0765321343). Do you like Pirates but wish Gore Verbinski had left them alone after one movie? Try Pirate Freedom (ISBN 0765318792).

Author Love Letter: Steven Brust

(The first in a series.)

Dear Mr. Brust, 

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I first got interested in you when I saw you in a magazine. Well, not you. Vlad. You know, Vlad. Of course you do. (That moustache!) Vlad and his buddy Loiosh in the pages of Dragon Magazine, all statted out for an edition of Dungeons and Dragons that went out of print a couple presidents ago. I picked out Taltos a little later at the only bookstore in my small town. In hindsight, I’m impressed they had it. 

Vlad blew my mind a little bit. I was a teenager, I know, but I’d been voraciously reading anything with a sword or a dragon on the cover. Lots of very mediocre books that were busy trying to figure out where Tolkien and D&D could meet. And here came Vlad. He was the hero, but he was an assassin. A criminal. He killed people for money! I couldn’t decide if it was dangerous or evil or just cool. It was funny without being a comedy, dramatic without being heavy, full of action that didn’t seem like it was playing out in combat rounds or being scripted for a movie. Vlad was like Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes and maybe a little bit of Batman. I couldn’t even make those comparisons back then, and now I’ve read more and have better ones. But damn was Vlad cool back then. And Morrolan and Aliera and Sethra and the rest. They still are.

A year or so later I tried running my first play-by-e-mail game. It was a very loose homebrew set of rules, and I set it in Adrilankha. It was called Scaled Shadows. There was an Athyra with a gambling problem. An Easterner who I think was a barber. And there was a low-level Jhereg thief. I didn’t get very far with my players, but it was such a cool sandbox to go play in. I wonder what I’d do with it now, having learned so much more about both GMing and slick bits of Dragaera’s development like the Serioli’s “not yet.”

I read chapter six of The Phoenix Guards three times before I went on with the rest of the book. The captain’s incredulity and the friends’ shrugs…it was just too perfect. (Many years later, in a cave where the walls between worlds were weak, I cried with them.) Paarfi  is as finely crafted an alter ego as I’ve ever seen an author ‘fess up to. 

The first non-Dragaera book of yours I read was The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. It hit me, as we’d say now, “in the feels.” I’ve re-read it often, and though it doesn’t pack the punch for me it once did, I still appreciate it. Right down to the narrator’s Zeppelin cassettes. It wasn’t too long after that, I think, that I read To Reign in Hell. I liked that one, too. And the fairy-tale patina on Brokedown Palace. And I still think The Gypsy is one of the most perfect exercises of storytelling I’ve ever read—it’s certainly my favorite instance of the “old magic in the modern world” trope. Fiddling in the last firefight in Cowboy Feng’s. The typewriter and the attic in Agyar

I know we haven’t always been tight—there was the time where I took an excerpt from one of the Vlad books in to my college creative writing class as an example of stuff I liked, and then discovered that the particular passage was a little clunky. There’s no way I could stay away, though. You’re too clever with your plots and your dialogue, too good at shifting voices and keeping things lively. Also, I’ve spent a lot of time with music and grew up in the restaurant business. Plus, I just moved from Minneapolis to Austin and I like knowing you’ve lived in both places and that you’re a real human with real experiences of some extremely real weather.

Yours,

J.D.J.

I’d planned to start with somebody else, but Steven Brust has a new book coming out soon, The Incrementalists (co-authored with Skyler White). I’ve been hanging out at his blog in the last few weeks—far ranging and mostly civil discussion on everything from postmodernism to socialism to which character Felicia Day would play in a Taltos movie. I’ve also been doing extensive revisions to some stories I wrote a few years back. The protagonist in those stories, and their tone, are heavily indebted to Brust’s Taltos books. That was plenty of reason to send him my inaugural author love letter.

Brust is one of the few authors that my partner and I both read enthusiastically. We’ve given each other his books as birthday and anniversary presents, and sometimes quote bits at each other. The gentleman knows his way around a story. He fills his books with vivid characters. More impressively, he can put a fistful of those arrogant, sardonic, clever people in the same room and not have their personalities or dialogue blur: when Aliera’s snapping at Vlad, it sounds different than Vlad snapping at Aliera. That’s harder than it looks.

If you don’t know Brust, I’d start with the Taltos books. There are some trade omnibuses available–the first is The Book of Jhereg, not to be confused with Jhereg, which is a single novel. If you like Dumas, start with The Phoenix Guards and follow the Khaavren romances through to their conclusion at the end of Sethra Lavode. If you’re not into swords-and-sorcery fantasy, but like magic, try The Gypsy or Agyar. To Reign in Hell is great but defies easily classification. I want to say it’s Biblical materialism, and that’s almost right. But not quite.

Anyway, go read his stuff. If you’ve already read it, keep an eye out for his new book and think happy thoughts.