I need to tell this author-story first, because it makes me grin.
Exactly twenty years ago this year, when I was first breaking in, I was nominated for the John W. Campbell, Jr. Best New Writer Award to be given at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention, the body that also awards the Hugos. Writers are only eligible for this honor in the two years after their first publication. My first short story had been published in Twilight Zone Magazine in 1985, a year before release of my first three novels put me on the map in a far more visible way. I couldn't get my books reviewed in the Columbus Dispatch back then, it was gently explained to me, because they were genre paperback originals. But this new writer award nomination was news of a sort, so the Dispatch kindly gave me a two-paragraph squib on the topic. It being my second and final year of eligibility, the header read: "Last Chance For Marion Housewife".
Say what? They couldn't even make that "Last Chance For Marion Writer"?
As it happened, I did not win the Campbell Award that year. But in fact there were to be other chances, so many and so varied I've now lost count. Every book is a gamble, for writer and publisher. I've placed twenty-two such bets by now. Some years back some friends who share my sense of humor stitched up a lovely sampler with that "Last Chance" caption, and gave it to me framed as a gift. I still have it in my home office.
I was born literally just up the road from here, in the old University Hospital that has since been converted to a classroom building. My parents had moved to Columbus a few years previously because my father, a new-minted PhD, took a job in research at Battelle Memorial Institute. He shifted to teaching in the Welding Engineering department at OSU in the mid-1950's. He received an Ohioana Citation for his engineering work in 1971, but older central Ohio residents may better remember him as "Bob McMaster, TV Weatherman" at Channel 10. His was the second TV weather show in the country, starting in the early 50's and running till 1965. It was actually from him that I picked up my reading interest in science fiction, which later branched out into the allied genre of fantasy. He passed away in 1986, though he did live to see my first novel published, that gaudy paperback original; my mother passed away in 2003. They both would have been delighted by this honor today -- if rather surprised. Making this something of a "Gift of the Magi" moment for me.
So anyway, I was a geek girl before the concept was invented, which was just as uncomfortable in my 1960's teens as you'd imagine, but I eventually found my own way. Writing is a very redemptive profession -- even one's failures may be re-classified as raw material. And memoir is not the only genre where the writer finds what to say by opening a slice from neck to navel and rummaging around inside. I'm not sure if as writers get older we become more meditative, or if we just run out of material, but in my most recent fantasy books, I've reversed my usual mode of "far future, far past, far away", and brought my writing home.
In science fiction and fantasy, metaphor runs wall-to-wall; setting is just as much a projection from inside the writer's head as every other aspect of the novel. And more than in any other book I've ever written, its landscapes are important to the world-building in The Sharing Knife. Because for it, I found myself mining down to some of the deepest layers of my own experience: the farms, woods, lakes, rivers, animals, plants, insects, people, and weather of my Ohio childhood. And not just home ground: it's the lost place, the refuge of distant memory.
Like so many other Americans, for me that vanished landscape is engulfed by various sorts of change or urban sprawl, and is now recoverable only in the mind, as inaccessible to daylight reach as any faerie realm. My childhood was being paved before I'd even finished with it. Most of its people are dead. The land has gone to the use of other more present lives, and no ghosts dwell there for them, nor even guesses of what went before. It's not an American experience only, to be sure, but it's an immensely common one for us.
One of my lost landscapes was Indian Lake, which still sits about sixty miles northwest of Columbus. My Grandfather McMaster, who had been a warehouse foreman in Pittsburgh, had a retirement cottage there. One of the joys of my childhood was weekend family trips to that muddy lake, with swimming, boating, and especially canoeing. I've not been back there since soon after he died. My mother ventured up once in later years, and reported in some shock that our cottage, which had been expanded into a house by its next owners, was entirely gone, all traces vanished from the soil. But in the second volume of The Sharing Knife -- Legacy, I revisited those cattail-lined shores, transmuted in the imagination as my genre requires and rewards to Hickory Lake Camp. In this scene -- short, I promise -- my character Dag, who not-coincidentally is my age, and his young wife Fawn are visiting this place of his youth -- and mine:
Two days later, instead of a swimming lesson, Dag took her out in one of the narrow boats. He had a specially shaped hook for his wrist cuff that allowed him to manage his paddle. Fawn, after a brief lesson on the dock, was placed in the front with a paddle of her own. She felt nervous and clumsy at first, looking over all that expanse of water with Dag out of sight behind her, but she soon fell into the rhythm of the task. Around behind Walnut Island, winking water gave way to a surface that was downright glassy, and Fawn relaxed still more. They paused to admire a dead tree reflected in the water, its bare white branches startling against the green of the woods. It was a roosting place for broad-winged hawks, a few circling gracefully overhead or perching on the branches, and Fawn smiled to remember the day they'd been startled by that big red-tail near Glassforge. Any larger predators, Fawn had gathered, were kept off the islands by Lakewalker magic.
Up the back channel, the air grew still and hot, and the water clear. Huge elderberry bushes leaned over the banks, their branches heavy with thick clusters of green fruit slowly acquiring a promising rosy blush; in another month the berries would be black and ripe, and Fawn could easily see how a boy might gather them from a boat like this one. A shiny sunfish jumped right into their boat at Dag's feet; Dag, laughing at Fawn's startled squeal, scooped the flopping creature gently back into the water and denied that he had enticed it by Lakewaker persuasion. "Much too small, Spark!"
Rounding a tangle of wrack and cattails where red-winged blackbirds traded barking chirps and hoarse whistles, they came at last upon a broad open space crowded with flat lily pads, their white flowers wide to the sun. Thin, iridescent blue dragonflies, and thicker scarlet ones, stitched the air above the marsh, and rows of turtles sunned themselves on logs, yellow-striped necks stretched out, brown backs gleaming like polished stones. A blue heron stalked slowly along the farther shore; it froze briefly, then darted its long yellow beak into the water. A silvery minnow flashed as the heron twisted its neck around, gulped, and then stood folded for a moment looking smug. Fawn hardly knew whether it made her happier to watch the flowers, or the contented look on Dag's face. Dag sighed in satisfaction, but then frowned.
"I thought this was the same place, but it seems smaller. This water is a lot shallower, too. I remember it as being well over my head. Did I take a wrong turn somewhere?"
"It looks plenty deep to me. Um... how old were you, again, first time you found this place?"
"And how tall?"
Dag began to open his mouth, then grinned sheepishly. "Shorter than you, Spark."
"Well, indeed." He laid his paddle across his lap and just gazed around.
The water lilies, though beautiful, were the same common variety Fawn had sometimes seen in quiet backwaters around West Blue, she decided. She had seen cattails, dragonflies, turtles, blackbirds and herons before. There was nothing new here, and yet... this place is magical. The silence in the warm, moist air, broken only by the little noises of the marsh, seemed holy in her ears, as if she were hearing a sound beneath all sound. This is what having groundsense must be like, all the time. The thought awed her.
They sat quietly in the narrow boat, beyond all need of words, until the heat of the sun began to grow uncomfortable; with a sigh, Dag took up his paddle once more and turned them around. His stroke left a glossy whirlpool spiraling down into the clear water, and Fawn's eye followed it. This is where his heart is anchored. I can see why.
(For more information on the Ohioana Career Award see http://www.ohioanalibrary.org/awards/career.asp)
© 2007 by Lois McMaster Bujold
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Last updated: December 6th 2007