Nov. 24th, 2011

clo_again: (Pigs Might Fly)
When I was about eleven, I decided that I wanted to be a writer. I handwrote a seven-page story about me and my friends finding a kitten called Smudge in the local church; it took about three nights after school and I was as proud of it as if I'd written a seven-hundred-page novel. After that I went through the usual learning-how-to-write-while-being-a-crazy-teenager process; I wrote stories based on books I'd read, I wrote stories about my friends, I created ridiculous female characters who Obi-Wan Kenobi and Legolas immediately fell in love with (and I'll never stop being glad that I learned what a Mary-Sue was before those had a chance to make it onto the shiny new thing called the Internet).

But in and around those things, I read. I read everything. I worked through the children's/teen section of my local library and picked up books at school, stole books that my brother had for birthdays and scavenged anything literary around the house that looked like I might possibly be able to read. And one night - I don't know if I'd run out of books at the library but I know I was searching for anything to read - I went to the pile of sci-fi/fantasy novels that my mother collected haphazardly and went over them with sticky book-wanting fingers. Based on nothing more than a liking for the cover art, I picked out The White Dragon and took it downstairs to the sofa where I promptly got the side-eye from my mother who was sitting across the room.

"Why are you reading that?" she asked.

I shrugged and said, "It looked interesting."

She hmmmed a bit. "It's probably not the best place to get into the series. You should start with the first book."

I shrugged again and said "I like the look of this one," already several pages in, and she left it.

It's never really occurred to me before but there are very few authors or book series that I can clearly remember picking up for the first time. Tamora Pierce (Alanna: the First Adventure at a high school book fair, the kind that had metal boxes that opened outwards into shelves of books), Neil Gaiman (American Gods from Waterstone's in Cardiff, just before a long train journey home that I entirely spent reading). Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair, when he came to do a talk at my university). And, earlier than any of those, Anne McCaffrey's The White Dragon.

I quickly realised my mother was right and it was a terrible place to begin the series, but I finished the book, liked it, was intrigued. When careful perusal of the book list in the front revealed that Dragonflight was the recommended place to start - and an irritated rummage through the McCaffrey books we owned proved that it wasn't among them - I bought it. Immediately when I finished, I was delighted to discover Dragonquest on our bookshelf and my school library had Dragonsinger, while the local library had The Crystal Singer and I found Freedom's Landing forgotten in a cupboard and slowly, over a few years, I worked my way through the Talent and Ship series' and argued with a schoolfriend over whether McCaffrey stole the title for Power Play from a Sweet Valley High book or vice versa (no, seriously).

When it came time to pick somewhere we wanted to go for work experience, I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I wanted to spend time with a writer. I sat down and, in wobbly teenage writing on my best paper with a horse's head on the corner, I wrote to Anne McCaffrey to ask if I could gatecrash her house for a week so she could teach me everything I needed to know to write fabulous dragon books.

Of course it was a ridiculous request. Looking back, I can't believe I actually sincerely and utterly believed I'd get a "Yes! Come to Ireland immediately!" response back by return post but I did. I posted it and waited a couple of days alternating between panic - what if it got lost? how was I even supposed to get to Ireland, from Wales? Swim? - and excitement, and back to panic etc. For a few days and then a few more, nothing.

And then maybe a week later, two at most, I got a letter back. Typed on paper headed 'DRAGONHOLD-UNDERHILL', it said - very politely - that she didn't think my family would like me to go running away to Ireland to live with a complete stranger, regardless if she was old enough to be my grandmother. But, it said, where you live isn't such a small town and a newspaper or a bookshop would be invaluable work experience for an aspiring writer. And read she said, read everything - "so you know what has been said as well as how it has been said."

It concluded "Good luck" and was hand-signed, in blue biro.

I know this after all this time, because that letter is in my hand right now.

I'm so glad that I'm a massive hoarder who never throws anything away; my only regret is that it's not dated, although I could pretty easily work out which year I went for work experience (in the end, at a newspaper. It was invaluable; it taught me that I never want to be a newsaper journalist). I was disappointed by the 'no' but at the same time, I had a letter from an author. The name on the front of the book was a person, sitting in front of a computer screen somewhere under a hill in Ireland and taking the time to reply to a teenage fangirl (the letter in no way reads like it was typed by an assistant and then merely signed; I believed then and I believe now she typed every word herself). Authors existed, as people.

In the years after that I discovered the internet. Some time in those years, I found out that the internet had a generally low opinion of Anne McCaffrey. She'd said some silly things, her books had issues. She hated fanfiction. Being a McCaffrey fan was something you 'grew out of'. More and more, I left her books on the shelf while I re-read Pierce and Jacques and Wynne Jones. I picked up The Crystal Singer again last year and was surprised that I found Killashandra irritating and stuck-up. 'Grown out of it' I thought, and packed all my McCaffrey in stacked layers on the bookshelf out in the hallway while books I re-read and loved more stayed in my room.

And then on Tuesday, after a lovely day of tennis at the O2, I turned on my netbook for a quick check of Twitter and was surprised to see 'Anne McCaffrey' trending. Because she'd died, aged 85.

I was sad; it's been a rough year already with losing Diana Wynne Jones, but I wasn't really sure how I felt. I'd grown out of McCaffrey a long time ago. Hadn't I? She said those dumb things, she wasn't really something you named among your loves as a serious adult fantasy fan.

But in the last day or so, I've read a lot of tributes. Everyone says the same: she was wonderful. 'She made me believe in female heroes', 'in girl characters not backing down from a fight', 'in dragons'. And I started to think about the number of comments I've read over the years along the lines of "I started with the Dragons of Pern books when I was a teenager" and you know, I realised there's been a lot.

A lot of people in fandom today have an Anne McCaffrey story. I bet even more people outside of fandom do. No matter what she said or believed throughout a career that spanned decades and won pretty much every fantasy award going, there are countless people out there in the world who can say "I started loving dragons/fantasy/female heroes/etc when I first read Anne McCaffrey at age x."

I think that counts for a lot more than anything else.

RIP Anne. I bet your queen dragon in the afterlife is amazing.

(I'm re-reading The Crystal Singer again and you know what? Killashandra is irritable and arrogant... and she doesn't take shit from anyone.

I remember why I love her, now.)

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