This post was inspired by a challenge that another friend participated in. That challenge was to write, in a short post, the influence of a single literary mother.
While I found the concept compelling, I also found it restrictive. I have many literary mothers. The gears have been working on this one for a few weeks now and this is the result.
I was in grade three and I had just started to write. My first piece was a little essay about my new puppy.
Siobhan was in grade five. She was an artist and she illustrated a dragon slayer fairy tale.
The grade five class’s projects were presented to the grade three class. Siobhan’s drawings found their place in my imagination.
I submitted my first short story to CBC’s “Pencil Box” that year.
The next year, I wrote the Christmas play for my grade four class.
What was I reading at the time?
I was reading comics: Star Wars (for Princess Leia), Dazzler (Marvel), Huntress (DC). I was trying to find compelling female heroes. The writers and artists were men, however.
I also started reading C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, and I, again, was seeking women authors with whose stories I could connect. I tried Zilpha Keatley Snyder (The Headless Cupid, The Witches of Worm), Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (The Witch Saga), Joan Lowry Nixon (The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore), and Lois Duncan (Summer of Fear, Stranger with My Face, and, of course, I Know What You Did Last Summer). While Naylor came close to becoming a literary mother, her work didn’t stay with me.
At the time, across the street from my house, were a convenience store (comics) and a branch of the public library. They were an almost daily stop in my routine.
Critical criteria of a literary mother: Her influence has to stay with me. I have to have continued to read or re-read her books, or remember the impact she had on my life in a concrete way.
Madeleine L’Engle and Susan Cooper
It was Madeleine L’Engle’s (then) Time Trilogy that I first connected with. Something inside me said, “This is what I want to write.” She’s technically science fantasy, but it was the first science anything that I’d read to that point.
Susan Cooper came into my life a little later, but again, through the public library. I read her The Dark is Rising series and loved her take on Arthurian legend. This spoke to the fantasy side of my writing persona.
I bought both series when I had enough money to do so. I still have both.
What else was I reading? Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini. A friend was, and still is, very much a fan. The same friend introduced me to Robin McKinley (The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword). Both of these were strong influences, though not quite in the literary matriarchy.
There were a lot of other novels I was reading, most thanks to the above-mentioned friend, whose dad had a fabulous classic SFF collection and often encouraged her to offer her patronage to The World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto when she visited him 😀
Her dad even set us up with our first D&D books, after which, we spent entirely too much money on the game, but spent years in geeky bliss roleplaying.
R.A. MacAvoy, Susanna Kearsley, Ursula K. Le Guin, and O.R. Melling
When I went to university (Guelph, the first time), I met, through my roommate, her sister, Sue Reynolds, who wrote Strandia. This book was influential on me because it was one of the first ones that didn’t involve a romance in the happily ever after of its protagonist. There were romantic aspects to the plot, but the protagonist chose wholeness for herself rather than her beloved’s proposal in the end.
Also through my roommate, I was introduced to Welwyn Wilton Katz. I read just about everything Katz wrote for a few years and she was well on the way to becoming a literary mother, but I didn’t stick with her, or rather, her books didn’t stick with me as much.
I was drafting the story that would evolve into Initiate of Stone during those years. I started keeping a journal, and aside from my course reading, I was heavily influenced by Guy Gavriel Kay. Mary Brown was also a discovery during this period. I loved her ugly duckling retellings.
I left Guelph after two unremarkable years and got a job at the Coles store in Yorkdale mall. Part of me was in heaven and buying up books like mad with my staff discount. The other part of me was unhappy because, in all other respects, the job was an epic fail on my part.
One of my discoveries during this time was R.A. MacAvoy. I started with her Damiano series, progressed with her Black Dragon series, and fell in love with her quirky Lens of the World series. I read several of her standalone novels as well. She was the first author who reflected my ancestry in her characters (Sara the Fenwoman), and the first who wasn’t afraid to introduce cultural diversity in her characters.
I keep going back to Lens of the World periodically, because that series was also written in first person, present, point of view (POV). It was a challenging POV to use, and it’s still a learning tool for me. I haven’t felt brave enough to tackle anything so ambitious myself.
I also discovered O.R. Melling about this time, but I’ll come back to her in a little bit.
After a couple of years of living in and around Toronto, two other potential careers, a couple of failed relationships, and the realization that I needed to finish my degree if I was going to be able to progress as a writer, I returned to Sudbury to finish my BA at Laurentian University.
It was during this time that my SFF/D&D buddy, after helping me to connect with Mr. Science and both of us marrying our partners, moved away with her husband. She emailed me and said that Susanna Kearsley, author of Marianna, and recent winner of the Catherine Cookson Award, was giving a workshop for the local writer’s group.
Of course, I hopped down for a visit with my friend and took in the workshop. I read Marianna, Splendour Falls, and The Shadowy Horses.
A couple of years ago, I reconnected with her at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC). Her influence on me has been to introduce me to a different genre. When I first met her, it was grouped under gothic, but Susanna’s stories are more paranormal in nature and while romance does feature, it’s not the main focus of her novels.
I took a creative writing course with Dr. John Riddell (Shiobhan’s father) and started to get my stories published.
I also took a course in science fiction and was introduced to Ursula K. Le Guin. The Dispossessed blew me away not only because it was SF written by a woman, but also because of its story structure. I’ve since read the Earthsea series, The Left Hand of Darkness, collections of her short fiction, other shorter novels (Rocannon’s World), some of her YA novels (The Beginning Place), and one of her books on writing craft (The Wave in the Mind).
I keep on picking up her work and reading it. The diversity of her work and the longevity of her career have been what inspire me most about Le Guin.
Finally, toward the end on my degree, I was working on my undergraduate thesis on the YA and MG novels of Welwyn Wilton Katz, Michael Bedard, and O.R. Melling.
I had discovered Melling when I was working at Coles, and kept picking up her books. Mostly, they dealt with magical time travel and Celtic legend. In the series that she had just started (at that time), Celtic legend blended with Native Canadian.
It was the first time I’d seen someone so effortlessly intertwining mythologies in this way. It made me think thoughts. It still does.
Sheri S. Tepper and Diana Gabaldon
I started reading Sheri S. Tepper during my Laurentian years as well. I now have most of her books, even some of the mysteries written under her pen names.
What fascinates me about Tepper’s work is the complexity of her plots and the strength of her protagonists. I never cease to be surprised or amazed at some point in her novels.
Her SF would be characterized as “soft” because of the sociological focus, but I still look to her body of work as an exemplar of what can be done within the genre.
She also writes from feminist and social justice perspectives. Tepper just rocks.
Diana Gabaldon came a little later yet. I started reading her Outlander series after Voyager was published. I’m a little over the moon that her books have finally made it to the small screen.
I’ve now read all of her Outlander books and several of the off-series, but related, Lord John Grey books.
One thing I picked up from her was playing with POV. In a novel with several POV characters, I’ve used the same technique that she does, and I use first person, past, for my protagonist and close third person for everyone else.
It was Gabaldon’s genre mashing goodness that hooked me and the quality of her storytelling that has kept me. I was able to attend some of her sessions at SiWC and she is a lovely person as well as a great writer.
I’ve read and met many other women authors, several of them Canadian, and while I’ve enjoyed reading and learned from each of them, no one else has quite made it into the literary matriarchy yet.
I read a lot of male authors as well, but that’s not what I’m writing about here, now, is it 😉
The women I’ve listed in the section headings are the ones I consider to be my literary mothers. These are the women through whom I trace my development as a reader and as an author.
Who are your literary mothers?