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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Dread Spiny Nixie: Garth Nix Chats at SFX

So yesterday, I was alert enough to see my good friend S's heads up about the SFX online chat with Garth Nix.

The last time I tried to get in on one of these things was when I learned about one with Terry Pratchett at the last minute, couldn't get into the IRC channel, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Nix chat was basically run as a thread on the SFX Bulletin Boards. It was opened shortly before the chat was scheduled to begin to allow folks to prime the interrogative pump. Garth showed up at 8:00 PM GMT, which happens to be 12:00 PM in LA, which is where he happened to be (and where, some might say, he ought not to have been). All in all, this mode of running a more-or-less-real-time chat worked out quite well, I thought: It allowed him to answer straightforward questions right away, while taking more time with those that required an in-depth answer; it also gave him the freedom to combine related questions into a single answer, and so on. Of course, no one could beat MY experience, because I also had S live.

For those of you who don't yet know and love Garth Nix (< yoda > You. WILL < / yoda>), however, here's the basic rundown. He's an Australian author who writes primarily SciFi/Fantasy, in general leaning more toward fantasy. As is the case with a lot of my favorite authors, though, wedging him into a single genre does him a disservice. The worlds in which he writes are magical, yes, but they're also filled with lovers, friends, and families. The conflicts in them are about politics, morality, class, power, ethnicity, individual identity, coming of age, and so on. Most of his work is overtly pitched toward children (The Keys to the Kingdom series) and young adults (The Abhorsen Trilogy, Shade's Children), but the richness of his style and the sophistication of the issues he deals with give them much broader appeal.

Once I'd gotten myself registerd over at SFX, I popped upstairs to grab the books so I could sort out what question I wanted to ask. I made a ruthless decision not even to consider the Keys to the Kingdom books. I love them, I enjoy them, I'm constantly amazed that they come out of the same brain as do the Abhorsen books, but they're less complex. So I pulled Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen off the shelf. About half an hour later, I realized that I'd been sitting there avidly reading the opening chapters of Sabriel. They're just that good. In fact, when a certain Hoyden About Town recently challenged me to a Book Meme, I chose the trilogy as my desert island book on the grounds that I think I could easily spend a decade exploring the world he creates in Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom.

Unfortunately, that also makes the Abhorsen trilogy a terrible choice when time is running short and one is growing desperate. What in the world did I want to ask? What didn't I want to ask? My rolling, bloodshot, crazed-looking eye then fell on Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories. Perfect. This is a collection of his short works from many different points in his career. The stories are written in many different genres and were intended for a variety of different publication outlets. To each he has provided a short introduction about the circumstances in which the story was written, his influences, experience, and so on. Each of them is really a gem. And as I told S, together with the stories included, it makes for a very cool project and a very brave one. He's really putting himself out there as a writer by including so many different facets of himself, both in terms of time in in his career that the stories were written and the diverse genres he explores.

Once I'd decided on letting this book be my guide, one particular story called "The Hill" leapt to mind. I enjoyed the story, but it was really its introduction that stuck in my mind. The story had been written for a multinational project that involved the simultaneous publication of a collection of short stories with the theme of the new millennium in four different languages. In his words, Nix wanted to write "an overtly Australian story," and so he drew on Australian Aboriginal myth and belief. The Australian publisher felt that this was a highly problematic move for a white Australian. Although he initially bridled at this, some conversations with both the publisher and an Aboriginal writer made him see how it could be read as co-opting yet another aspect of Aboriginal culture. He admits that he remains somewhat ambivalent on the issue of why some mythologies are fair game and others aren't, or if there are ways in which borrowing by an outsider isn't apropriation, and so on, but the experience certainly left him aware that it's not a simple, straightforward matter. And, in this case, he retained the core inspiration, but changed the story substantially.

Naturally, this is exactly the kind of juicy cultural issue that marries my fact to my fiction. And since my inner cultural consumer always likes to have a go whenever possible, I started thinking about other stories in the volume that borrow explicitly from European mythologies (there are a couple of Arthurian stories [his intros reveal an entertaining love-hate relationship with this particular body of lore] and a really great take-off on the Brothers Grimm). From there, my fevered brain leapt to The Proposition. I felt at the time (and still feel) that there's a large chunk of the film that is difficult for me to penetrate, because it's so Australian. So the first thing I wanted to know was whether he felt that his mining of mythology that seems familiar to me (and to anyone of European descent) bore a particularly Australian stamp. This then led me back to a pretty general question about the Abhorsen trilogy and whether it has roots in those familiar sources, despite the fact that it is set in such an original imagined world. Yeah, it sounds all pompous and faux deep to me, too, in retrospect, but I am nothing if not faux and pompous.

The whole thread is an interesting read (well, most of it, some of the whinging and pointless kthxbyeee stuff is less so), but I thought I'd pull out some of the things that struck me the most and got me thinking. Someone asked why he thought his books had such appeal outside if the target demographic. He was kind enough not to attribute this to a refusal to grow up in many of us. Instead, he said he felt like the craving for emphasis on story and relatively straightforward prose was not restricted to a single age group. I nodded vigorously to this. I read a lot of different types of fiction, but I probably skew more toward young adult and kiddie lit because, as I told S, sometimes you are just not in the mood for a 17-page description of a leaf as a dead-end metaphor for female sexuality.

In answering my question, he replied that he does feel that the Australian point of view is not simply interchangeable with white/European (or, presumably, white/Euro-American). He kind of deferred the question to other people who have "written more fluently about the effect of living in a big empty desert country that's far away from many of its cultural influences and so on." On balance, though, he seemed to say that for a fantasy writer, the connection to the body of European literature, particularly English, may be preeminent.

His answer to my question about the mythological inspirations for the Abhorsen Trilogy turned out to be the more surprising and enlightening to me. He cited Greek belief about the underworld (and, duh, the rivers in Death were a connection I should have made) as one. He also referred to "The Christian Baptisim of Bells", which was wholly unfamiliar to me. I feel like such a faux-Catholic! (I mean, I'm not a Catholic at all, so in that sense, I'm mega-faux, but I've been through all the paperwork and such.) I mean, I knew that we used to do the bell thing at the moment of transubstantiation (which, you know, I learned as consubstantiation in one of those rogue urban Catholic parishes) of the bread and wine. And then we didn't ring them. And my limited experience in recent memory suggests that ringing is, once again, all the rage, but this issue of baptizing them is just alien to me (which is inexcusable given that it was an issue that featured prominently in the Reformation).

Finally, I'm just going to quote him here: " As with all ideas, you take things as a starting point and then work to adapt them and make them different, so that while they seem original to readers they also resonate with existing myth, legend etc." Note how casually he says this, as if it were a mere bagatelle. Cheeky, gifted bastard. He might at least have the decency to be UGLY or something. In all seriousness, this just crystalized for me an extremely important aspect of much of the art I'm drawn to (whether it's performance, literature, film, music or whatever): It challenges me and expands my mind and my heart, but it contains something familiar and essential.

Cliche is easy to fall into and even easier to criticize. During the chat, I was somewhat amused by the persistence of one poster who wanted to know why Nix had given the character Mogget the form of a cat. He sidestepped a bit and pointed out that Mogget has numerous forms, one of which is a cat. Without delving to far into spoiler territory, there is an argument to be made that Garth Nix is merely a patsy for the Canine Agenda, and I joked to S that I'd thought about asking OMGWTF WHY YOU BE HATIN' CATS!?! This, of course, led to a discussion that he doesn't hate cats at all, he just GETS cats (Diana Wynne Jones does, as well, of course: WONG!) and so Mogget is not entirely easy to place on the good/evil continuum. It's a character that could easily have lapsed into a cliched "never trust faerie/coyote/Loki," but it never does. It trades on that currency, but Mogget is decidedly an original.

I'm reminded of the intro that my friend A gave to his reading of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake at our mutual friend M's memorial. Initially, there was some hairy eyeballing going on about it being too out there, and maybe the teensiest bit too too, and so on. But A carried the day by pointing out that deranged prose from a patholigically Gaelic mind aside, the passage is about love and passion and food.

It's entirely original and it's anchored like nobody's business. Without those anchors, without that resonance, it's too easy to dismiss the narrative, the character, the piece, the song, whatever, as irrelevant or wrong or befuddling one's dumb cracker mind or whatever. And it's those anchors, however banal or mundane they are, that give the conversation the potential for universality. In other words, This is what we use it for.

Anyway, the whole experience was a terrific one. Funny, thought-provoking, stimulating, and tantalizing. I'm really glad I didn't miss out on it through moofishness or a date as karma's bitch.

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Blogger tigtog said...

I wish I'd been able to hear A's reading, despite M's memorial being the reason. You all described it so movingly.

Your posts keep on moving Garth Nix up the ladder on my "to read" list.

8:46 PM  

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