Ever since I was a young child I have adored folklore, faerie stories, myths and legends. To be perfectly honest they are my most favorite types of stories to read as well as to collect. I have them from all over the world; from places I have traveled to (Scotland, Ireland, Wales, U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, etc.), as well as places I long to visit (Greece, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, etc.). Over the years, these stories have served as a great way to learn about different cultures and landscapes. I believe that this is mostly because, for whatever reason, these types of stories seem to be tied to their landscapes in an inextricable and almost organic way. For example when reading about a Kelpie one is at a considerable disadvantage if they cannot picture (at least in their mind’s eye) the Deep Lochs and Dark Pools of the Scottish countryside. Likewise, being able to envision the clear azure waters of the Aegean Sea and the lush but harsh landscape of the Greek islands while reading of Jason and his Argonauts, makes the story come to life in a whole new way!
However, while the contents of these tales vary as greatly as the cultures and landscapes from which they hail, it is rather humbling to realize that the basic problems of everyday life and existence have not really changed at all throughout the span of human existence. This is perhaps my most favorite part of these stories, that no matter when or where you are from, you can read them and connect to people who may not have lived for hundreds or even thousands of years and know that you are not so very different after all.
So a few years ago, when I first discovered the writings of Holly Black I couldn’t have been more excited. Here was a person who seemed to appreciate and enjoy these old tales as much as I did. Her unique and thoroughly modern stories managed to do something I had never imagined possible; she had seamlessly stitched together the creatures and themes of many of these ancient faerie tales with characters who were dealing with modern problems and real-world challenges in current-day urban setting!
From the first few pages of Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, her debut novel I was hooked, and have read almost everything she has written since. Time is scarce and there is much to read, but I have no doubts that I will remedy this situation and eventually be able to claim to have read all of her published works.
It goes without saying then, that when I discovered that Holly Black was going to be one of the lead panelists at this year’s Mythic Worlds’ Convention and Masquerades, I was more than a little bit excited. Add to this that she had also agreed to do a book signing, and I was positively giddy!
On the day of the signing, Saturday February 21, 2015 to be exact, we headed out at the unseemly hour (for a Saturday) of 8:00 AM, dropped the children off at their grandparents (Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!) and high tailed it over to Seattle. After checking in, and perusing the Con’s Mythic Marketplace we headed up to listen to our first panel of the day: Why are strong Women in Fantasy Still a Surprise? A panel featuring authors Holly Black, Laurell K. Hamilton, Charles deLint, and Deborah Schneider. I was surprised to find Holly, despite her vivacious and often reckless characters and adorably bright aqua hair to be quite reserved during this discussion, yet still very interesting. During the discussion she pointed out that she was not disturbed so much by the lack of female characters in fantasy but rather by reader’s reactions to them, and then went on to raise the point that for whatever reason female writers tend to be more conflated with their characters than their male counterparts and became quite animated and passionate when a writer in the audience asked about the dangers of the “Mary Sue” phenomenon. At this point on the panel, the Holly I had expected erupted from the background into full Technicolor, giving a well thought out, and at least in my opinion, valid explanation of not only the phenomenon but the misuse of the term, and its disproportionate application to female writers.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, “Mary Sue” has its roots in fan fiction, specifically Star Trek fan fiction in which the author introduces a young usually female character with amazing abilities (usually far in excess of the existing characters into the story line and almost inevitably resulting in a romance. As Holly explained, in fan fiction, this technique is useful and even (in many cases) a valid story telling tool because it allows the writer to pull the reader’s attention away from the original plots and characters and draw them along the newly created cast and storyline. And so fan fiction characters, especially young adolescent female characters, with amazing abilities and romantic interludes with existing characters came to be known as Mary Sue’s, after the character Paula Smith created in 1973.
However, more recently this term has come to be generalized to any female character with amazing or special abilities in a fictional story. Which, at least according to Holly, was a gross misuse of the term as it really only ought to be applied to fan fiction. She went on then to negate the validity of the term in general, especially when used to criticize and author for giving her characters special abilities or extraordinary circumstances, explaining that the story is about that character, so of course they are going to be special. And on that final note, the panel was closed, thanks were given to the panel for participating and the audience for attending and all were released back into the wild to do as they pleased.
A few hours later Holly was on a second panel, this time for a spotlight interview. Unfortunately, this interview really started out on some shaky ground. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the first two minutes were absolutely cringe worthy. Our moderator, and I honestly cannot believe I am about to say this, actually cut Holly off when she offered to read us the opening lines of her new book The Darkest Part of the Forest and instead explained that she had planned on reading that to us as way of an introduction and the proceeded to not only slaughter Holly’s prose but interrupted herself no less than 3 times to give her own thoughts and anecdotes. This did not bode well with me, or anyone else I could see. Holly, on the other hand, how ever surprised she might have been, did not give any indication of being perturbed by this move and just rolled with the situation with ease and grace. I conversely had a much harder time managing to compose my face. However, since I was sitting in the front row and didn’t want to be ostensibly rude, I scooped my slacked jaw up off the proverbial floor and tried to just attend to the rest of the interview. Regrettably, much of the rest of the interview was the same, the moderator interjecting her own experiences and thoughts into, and often over, what Ms. Black was trying to say. Yet despite this, the interview did prove to be interesting because during the course of this awkward interview, Holly was thoroughly entertaining, informative, and interesting.
Amongst my favorite tid-bits were hearing about Holly’s research and writing practices. I found it fascinating to learn that often-times Holly’s research is not specifically for her books, it is just about something random or odd that has caught her attention or interest and that she therefore has looked up and learned about, having no use for the information at all until it becomes useful. An example of this was how years ago Holly became fascinated by people who were living underground in the subway system. It was just something that had caught her attention and she wanted to know more about. Later, this random piece of knowledge found its way into one of her novels. Likewise, I also found it both interesting and encouraging to learn that Tithe (one of my favorite of Holly Black’s books) took 6 years to write mostly because I seem to be on a similar time schedule for completing and revising my first novel.
Holly then finished off by answering a question about co-writing (explaining it is always easier with your friends than with strangers), and discussing the inspiration for her Curse Workers series; an interweaving of her favorite faerie tale growing up: The White Cat, and a fascination with a memoir she had read (Son of a Grifter). But by far, my favorite moment came when she then offered to tell us the story of the White Cat, at which point neither the audience nor Holly gave the moderator the chance to say or do other wise, as we all cheered and she began telling the story with all of the excitement and candor she could interject into the tale. It was awesome!
With the interview over, I sprang up and asked if there were any limitations or rules we needed to be aware of for the signing later.
“Nope, I’ll sign anything you hand me.” She chuckled.
“You may live to regret that,” I replied thinking of the 9 books I had schleped along from home and the countless others waiting down stairs in the market place to be discovered (and of course purchased).
The convention book seller, Book Universe, of Eugene, Oregon had just about every book Holly Black had ever written, not to mention every collection of short stories to which she had ever contributed. It was an amazing collection of materials, many of which I was surprised to find I did not have. The temptation to break the bank was indeed great, as it always is when books are involved. In the end, I limited myself to buying only two new books; The Darkest Part of the Forest and The Coldest Girl in Cold Town. Books in hand, all that was left to do was to go and secure a place in.
Surprisingly, the line moved quite quickly. Within only a few moments we had made our way to front, where true to her word, Holly signed all 11 volumes we foisted upon her, even the little awkward one I had obtained at the bottom of a box of cereal. During the few minutes it took to make her way through my stack of books, I took the opportunity to forget I was painfully shy for just a few moments and tell this woman how much I enjoyed her books, and how much they had inspired me. I didn’t even slug my husband when much to my chagrin he decided to mention that I was also writer, and that I was on year five of my first novel. I was expecting the polite but guarded tight smile that most published authors give when they are cornered by a yet-to-be-published aspiring author. Instead, she turned and right out asked how it was coming? You could literally have knocked me over with a feather! Seriously, this never happens, at least at any signing I have ever been to. She even agreed to have her picture take with me! Score!!!
So in the end, I left with 2 new novels to read (one that I am already half done with, despite only starting it yesterday), 11 signed and personalized books, a wealth of useful information, and enough encouragement to make it almost a whole week without threatening to light the novel I am writing on fire. A fantastic day to say the least!