I was very sad to learn yesterday that a writer I greatly admire, Eva Ibbotson, had passed away in October.
If I could write like anybody in the world, the obvious choices would be Gaiman or Pratchett, or possibly Stephen King, since I quite like money. But honestly, I’d probably pick Ibbotson.
Of course you only get to write like yourself.* But Ibbotson’s world was so…kind. Which seems like a strange thing to say about books where the Nazi occupation of Vienna is a frequent backdrop, but there you are. Kindness is a surprisingly scarce commodity in writing and worldbuilding–there’s a lot of twee crap out there, but it’s really not the same thing.
I think the best way to explain this is to bring up Phillip K. Dick.
As I’ve said before, I can’t stand reading Philip K. Dick. Won’t do it. His plots were brilliant, I freely acknowledge his genius for coming up with Cool Plots and working out the ramifications of precognition and murderous androids, but I can’t stand his characters. They are all terrible people. I don’t just mean flawed, I mean they’re really quite awful people.
I said this to a friend of mine once who said, rather surprised, “But they’re so human!” And I will not question his accuracy on this—they may well be very human, but they aren’t any humans I know or would willingly associate with. If you recognize your friends in a Phillip K. Dick novel, it might be time to change your name and move to another country.
Also, you might want to watch out for pink lights. Just sayin’.
Ibbotson, on the other hand, writes about people that I know. Her minor characters are particularly brilliant. The elderly anthropologist forced to flee Vienna who spends her days haunting the British museum and muttering about mis-classifications but is unwilling to say anything because she’s a guest in the country and she doesn’t want to be rude. The mother who makes daily pacts with God that she will be Good if only her daughter is returned safely. The young revolutionary who is terribly worried about her clothing and the proletariat, in that order. These are real people. I know these people. I don’t always like them, but I know them, and they behave far more like people I know and people I am related to than anything that ever dreamed of electric sheep.
And most of them are kind, or mean well, or try hard. And most of the people I know are also kind, or mean well, or try hard, and yet most of the fiction I read is littered with people who do none of these things, and while I recognize that the world is often very unpleasant and there are very bad people out there, I am very drawn to Ibbotson’s characters, because I recognize them from the chunk of world that I personally inhabit.
I’m not saying it’s perfect. Her antagonists are very very bad (delightfully loathe-able, actually) her heroines are very very good and somewhat undifferentiated and tend to fall into the virtuous-poor-girl-with-unquenchable-zest-for-life model. Frequently they are kind, loving, good, self-sacrificing, charming and generally beloved. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they would be exceedingly cloying. (Probably for some readers they are still gag-inducing, I grant you.) But the minor characters more than make up for it.
And it’s not all a bed of roses, either–her books make me cry on a regular basis, often over those minor characters. The elderly gardener who still says goodnight to his wife every night, despite the fact that she’s been dead for ten years, always chokes me up. There’s a lot of that.
More than that, there’s a…thing.
If you meet a writer at a cocktail party and he tells you he’s a student of the human condition, ninety-nine times out of a hundred he is self-published, and not because it’s the sexy new business model of the future.** Furthermore, you are dealing with a person who describes themselves in phrases like “a student of the human condition” and thus you should probably immediately excuse yourself to go find more tiny food on a stick or raid the veggie with ranch dip before all the baby carrots are gone. Alternately, feign death.
I am skeptical of claims that writers are somehow in touch with truth or more observant than the rest of us, because I have spent too many days wearing my shirts backwards and with socks stuck to my back, and most of the writers I know give me the impression that they, too, have known the shame of stowaway socks. Great truth and all that strikes me as so much blither-blather designed to add to the mystique. (I cannot believe that any of my long-time readers still believe there is any mystique–if by some bizarre chance you do, please tell me, and I will tell you about the weird way the skin grows on my little toes in an effort to banish it forever.)
Some authors do this thing. Actually, it’s a lot like Boneclaw Mother’s thing–an occasionally painful insight, but a very clear one, rephrased in a way that you wouldn’t have thought to phrase it, but which you recognize the truth of immediately. It’s kind of like comedy, really–telling you something you already knew but didn’t quite realize you knew, in a way that’s funny, except that authors aren’t required to be funny all the time. Pratchett does that frequently, to the point where we practically expect it now, which has its own problems. Gaiman has his moments. Even King has his moments, bizarrely enough, although sometimes I think he’s just firing in the dark and sometimes he nails it and sometimes it goes bafflingly wide.
This is not essential to good writing. Let me stand up and say that now, in case you’re about to start obsessing over whether your story contains Vital Human Insight. There are authors I love that never hand me those weird little truths. They just tell a damn fine story, and I read them over and over again and love them dearly. (Literary fiction is a lot more obsessed over this than genre, I suspect.) Don’t worry about that.
But Ibbotson occasionally nails a phrase or something, and it just…works. She describes an unwanted and inconvenient mongrel as having an unshakable conviction that he is deeply loved, and I know that dog, because he lays under my desk and farts while I write. She describes a character has having the vulnerable hollows at the back of the neck that prevent the parents of small children from killing them, a phrase I read aloud to Kevin, who knew exactly what she was talking about. She describes rubbing the place behind the ears where large dogs keep their souls, and of course anyone who knows a large dog knows that spot perfectly well. (These are the easy ones that I can pull out of context, but she does it a lot. And well.)
I wish I could do that.
I don’t even want to be able to do it for the sake of truth or beauty some noble crap like that. I want to do it because if you do it right, it hits the reader over the head and they spend the next week wandering around composing rambling incoherent blog entries about it.
But at the end of the day, I don’t think this is something you can try to do. I think you either do it automatically, or it doesn’t get done. And Ibbotson started writing when she was fifty and had herself fled from the Nazis as a child and perhaps some insights are only available when you have put in fifty years of dues and had terrible things happen to you. I don’t know. Honestly, it’s not something to worry about, because I suspect you could choke up on it really easily and produce some really constipated prose.
Still I’m very sad there won’t be more from Mrs. Ibbotson, though. She never got all that much traction in the US, and it’s a damn shame, because she deserved a lot more recognition. If you can find her books, either the children’s or YA stuff, it’s worth the read.
*Actually, this isn’t quite true–I just learned through idle flipping at the bookstore that Charles de Lint wrote two pulpy books for Phillip Jose Farmer’s Dungeon series, which I actually READ back in the early nineties, and which were pulptastic and fairly awful and had no magical homeless people anywhere. (I think there was sex and brontosauruses, and given that I was in middle school, this was all that I asked out of a book. Also, cyborgs.) This felt sort of like discovering that Clive Barker had written Sweet Valley High books back in the day. But I digress.
**No offense intended to those who self-publish for all the right reasons. There are, however, wrong reasons. Lots of them.