Ever 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?