In Between Worlds

fairy tale trioEver since I can remember, I’ve loved fairy tales, myths, legends, and fantasy. It’s something I responded to instinctively as a young reader, and something I took to easily as a young writer, too. In my imagination and my dreams, journeying to those magical worlds seemed to me as natural as breathing. Of course I was an imaginative child; but it’s only lately that it’s struck me that perhaps there was also another reason why I so took to those genres. For the classic fantasy themes of the journey between worlds, the sojourn in strange places, and the sudden irruption of a different reality into the everyday is at the very heart of my own lived experience.

I come from a family whose ethnic history is to say the least, complex. Taking in French, Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, and French-Canadian, our history was always more than a bit player in all of our lives. People to whom I’ve told even a fraction of the vivid family stories are thrilled by them; they say, No wonder you became a writer!

But it’s more than that, for three things happened to me as a child that were like fairytale gifts: First, though my parents were both born and brought up in France, I was born in Indonesia, as they were expatriates working there at the time; second, because of ill health, I was then taken as a ten-month old baby to live with my paternal grandmother in France for four years, was told many traditional stories by her–and did not see my parents in all that time; and third, I was then taken, at the age of five, to yet another new place, Australia, where I first discovered English. And what’s more the first book I read for myself in English was a Little Golden Book comprising three fairytales–Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Toads and Diamonds–in it (there it is, in the centre of the picture).

My parents never intended to stay more than two or three years in Australia; Dad always had it in his mind to get a job back home. But that didn’t happen; the contracts kept being signed, and so we settled into a shuttle of Australia for the two or three year period of each contract, with a stay of several months back in France at the end of each. English-speaking at school, we were not supposed to use it at home, and didn’t, with our parents; but soon evolved, between siblings, a kind of private language, a franglais, or rather frangarou, as I’ve coined it now to evoke Australian English mixed with French:an in-between weird patois that twisted and melded and that no-one else would understand. The languages coined by fantasy writers are no more strange than the weird mixtures spoken between children who are growing up with more than one language deeply embedded in them.

So it felt natural, to me as a budding writer, to invent new languages, to draw maps of imaginary countries, to believe in magic. As a child, one of the ways in which I coped with difficult situations, (or even boredom in math lessons!) was to stare at a stone, or a piece of wood, or a stain on a wall, or anything innocuous really, focus on it till I felt as if I could crack its essence, and emerge into that parallel reality I loved so deeply in books of fairytales, legends, myths and fantasy. This was possible anywhere; but even more possible when we were back at our house in France, a place that with its nooks and crannies and secret places, hid many different passages to the otherworld. It was an actual physical reaction, this sensation of being in another world: a kind of dreamy dissolving of the limbs, a swimming of the head, and yet a great clarity of mind, and a delight that was piercingly sweet.

And this is the experience that underlies my writing as an adult; the understanding born of my childhood experience that I could go gleefully in and out of magical lands without caring a hoot for the ignorant thought police who label fantasy writing as second-rate, whilst also taking part fully in the world. I could be both French and Australian, could write for young people and for adults; could be part of the crazy, wild family saga of my people, whilst also being myself. And not only can I escape into that magical territory of fantasy, I could also take tour parties—otherwise known as readers–with me as their guide.

Over to you: What childhood reading still influences you as a writer, and why?

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    I think that you have been fortunate to have lived in so many places. That certainly has given you a wealth of cultural experiences to draw on. While I have traveled extensively in my youth, I was not lucky enough to have lived in other countries and have the opportunity to be immersed in their culture.

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  2. says

    Fairy tales are a great uniter. Everyone knows the stories of Snow White and Cinderella. Thanks to Walt Disney we can sing a long with them too.

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  3. Sevgne says

    I love this post Sophie and I envy you. One of my biggest regrets, and later my mother’s was that she did not teach me her native language, which was Portuguese. As an emigrant to England, where I was born, she felt I would be deprived of learning English properly if she spoke Portuguese to me at home. Plus my father only spoke English.

    Your life though unconventional (as mine was but in a different way) sounds like the perfect fertilisation for a mind and imagination to create fantasy. Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful (to us) aspects of your childhood. I particularly love that you and your siblings made up your own language/patois.

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  4. says

    Even as a child, I was drawn to dark stories. Every single summer, I’d cajole someone to take me to the library to check out Thirteen Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham. Then I fell in love with Sylvia Cassedy’s Behind the Attic Wall and William Sleator’s Among the Dolls. All three are dark and creepy stories that involve connections between the world we can control and the world we cannot. These books definitely influenced my perception of the universe being far more complex than we can ever explain and my writing reflects that.

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  5. says

    Sophie, I love when you talk about having been given “fairytale gifts” based on your childhood. It seems to me you have taken those gifts and given out gifts with your writing.

    So thank you for this post Sophie. You have given me insight into why, just maybe, I am drawn to write fantasy and magical realism and to take my characters into outer space. I am drawn to J.R.R. TOLKIEN, of course, love.
 I grew up in the midst of buckets of paint; we lived with my grandparents; both my dad and grandfather were artists; and my uncle, a writer; whenever Uncle Tom was around I’d listen to his colorful stories. There were time I’d escape into my own world.

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    • says

      Sounds like a wonderfully rich childhood to draw from too, Nanette! Thank you for your lovely words about my post–when I was a child I used to hope so hard that a fairy would appear and grant me three wishes–I’d think, I’ll be cunning and ask for a magic wand, then I could have any amount of wishes..Now I think I really did get that magic wand–enabling me to transform my own experiences and in so doing, I hope also creating magic for my readers..

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  6. says

    Sophie,
    I really enjoy reading your blog. I am now after reading this one totally jealous of your childhood, how exquisite it was for you and such great fodder for fiction.
    Thanks for always managing to entertain me.

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  7. CG Blake says

    I think on some level our childhood experiences, hopes, dreams, and fears seep into our writing. The book that kindled my interest in literature and writing was The Catcher on the Rye. I read it as an adolescent and it resonated with me in a way no other book did. Sophie, thank you for sharing your personal story of how your surroundings and upbringing impacted your writing.

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  8. says

    A lot of short stories I read still influence me. “The Rocking Horse Winner”, “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, “All Summer in a Day” (wow, I read depressing stories. I also have a deep love for fairy tales, though I can’t place my finger on which ones I heard first, or where. I certainly don’t have swag copies of the books. I do have “Just So Stories”, by Rudyard Kipling, which I love dearly and revisit frequently, and I think his conversational, intelligent but not-talking-down style is one that I appreciated a lot as a child and continue to admire.

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  9. says

    What a delightful post, Sophie! I especially love how you traveled in your imagination based on what you happened to be focusing on.

    As I child, I used to imagine adventures for a half hour or so before falling asleep. No big surprise that I fell hard for the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis!

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  10. says

    I can really relate to this. While I don’t have the diverse cultural childhood like you, I grew up on fairy tales, fantasy movies like the original Conan, fantasy cartoons like Flight of the Dragons, and books like the Hobbit. All these stories merged in my mind until I developed my own stories, and now I’m on the verge of finishing my first original novel.

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  11. says

    As a child I frequently daydreamed of living in other worlds. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was one of my favorite stories, embedding in me a sharp, almost painful, desire to escape to a fantastic world. I also used to stare at objects, letting my mind wander as shapes and images took form. I particularly enjoyed staring into mud puddles, seeing the reflection of the trees and other surroundings, imagining a whole other world below the surface…

    These childhood imaginings have certainly influenced my writing. They have helped me remember what it was like to be a child, and the hopes and dreams I had carried with me. I carry them still, in a way. A deep, secret desire to see the magical in a mundane world. While I might not be able to step into that mud-puddle world of mine in the waking world, I can with my writing. And that gives me great joy.

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  12. says

    I have one idea from my childhood to use as the basis for a novel, however, it will be a mystery romance, nothing with fantasy. I am working on a fantasy book for children from an idea that popped into my head one day.
    As a child growing up I always loved to read, and was often told I have a vivid imagination. I guess I’m finally putting it to use in my writing.
    Your books seem like they will be easy to get lost in with vivid scenery and realistic characters in spite of being a fantasy.

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