Remembering Good Things

Front_cover3Now that the second file cabinet is a file cabinet and not just a pile of particle board, it was time to transfer the last of my paper files from the box they were living and traveling in to their new home. Which naturally involved going through them all during the transfer process. I’d already done one huge purge before we moved, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make more space. After all, most files are electronic these days, even if paper is still best suited for some things, aside from the recycle bin. Sure enough, several times I ran across folders full of errata that had me scratching my head. “Why, in the name of all that’s holy, did I save that?”

Yet there were many more instances where the question didn’t even come up. Like back in the day when Parke Godwin sent me an example of a novel pitch he used when selling one of the wonderful Arthurian novels he did. As I’ve said before, what little I know about writing novel synopsis and pitching, I learned from him. Or copies of (rare) fan letters, including one for my first collection, The Ogre’s Wife from one of my favorite artists. It was a boost, at a time I really needed one. As with my good fortune in marrying First Reader, and the help and encouragement—and Dutch Uncle severity, when needed—I got from Pete Godwin, you can’t always depend on those things along the way. So when it happens, count yourself lucky, and don’t forget. Pass it on when you can, but above all, be aware.

We like to talk about writing as a solitary profession, and mostly it is. So often it’s just you, putting your butt in the chair and facing down the blank page/screen. Yet now and then along the way, alongside the confused/bad reviews and rejections, odds are you’re going to get a hand up. Sure, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, since you did almost all of it yourself. Just remember the “almost” part and don’t forget to be grateful.

We Could Be Heroes…But Probably Not

WRITING 02

Not everyone is entirely comfortable with the idea of heroes. They too often have feet of clay, or in these days of the media creature, turn out to be fabricated out of whole cloth, or at least a cheap polyester. Yet we all have them, and writers are no different. The difference is in what inspires us—the words on the page, not necessarily the people behind them. Writing heroes. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when you discover that one of your heroes, known for his gentle and optimistic fiction, is a right wing fascist at heart or another with a unique and powerful voice is a virulent racist. Such things usually kill off normal heroes. As a hero, that is. Writer heroes usually survive, not always, but usually, since it is the words on the page that matter, not the imperfect, venal, or just plain unworthy person behind them, but more so because there’s a secret that the process of writing fiction eventually teaches.

You write better than you are.

I’ve touched on this before, but it’s especially relevant, I think, in the genre today. We all do it, if we’re any good at all. What comes out on the page is smarter, wiser, usually more together than, well, we are. I don’t know how it all works, I just know that it does. So I’m not usually so surprised when it turns out that the writer behind books and stories I love is a deeply flawed human being. Someone you might even cross the street to avoid if you saw them coming.  It happens. It doesn’t matter. Any decent work we produce is, at its core, a reflection of our better selves, maybe even who we’re trying to be, not necessarily who we are. Which is probably why I’ve never been driven to meet writers I admire. Most of the writers I call friends are ones I met even before I discovered their work, and got to know and like them as people first. That way generally works. Someone you only know from their work? Not so much.

Oh, sure, there are exceptions. There are even times when I regret, say, that I never got to meet Fritz Leiber, even though I did have the chance, once, at a World Fantasy Con way back in 1987, and I will always treasure my one and only meeting with Parke Godwin, who turned out to be as grand a human being in person as he was on the page. It’s great when that happens, but I don’t expect it. No one should.

I started this blog post with the idea of talking a little about one of my writing heroes, but I got pulled in another direction. It happens, so I’ll save that one for next time. I never met her, but then again, see above, I didn’t need to. The books and stories were all I did need, or had any right to expect.

So, if you ever want to meet me and manage to do so, I apologize in advance. That is all.

Review: The Last Rainbow by Parke Godwin

Continuing the purge of my old writing files after a hiatus to paint the master bath. Not only am I finding stories I never published (no surprise there, not every story is a winner), I’m finding stories and articles I’d forgotten I’d written. One of which was a fairly detailed review of Parke Godwin’s The Last Rainbow. I was reviewing for the long gone Fantasy Review at the time, and as I was going through my old file I found a letter from the editor telling me they already had a review of the book, so my review was never published and I’m including it here. There are a couple of spoilers, for those among you who believe that what happens in a book is what the book is really about, so fair warning.

The Last Rainbow. Originally published by Bantam Spectra Books,
1985.

Parke Godwin’s The Last Rainbow is subtitled “A Novel of Saint Patrick” and that’s certainly true—in the same sense that Firelord was about King Arthur and Beloved Exile, Guenivere. As in it’s true so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Novels about legendary figures are nothing new—the bare bones of fact and myth always beg for the flesh of the storyteller’s art, but to say that the vein has been mined before is to completely miss the point. What sets our best writers apart is not chosen genre, social consciousness, or even prose style. It is their ability to look at a subject, any subject, from their own unique perspective and let the rest of us see what they see. Communication is the heart and soul of any good story. Anything less is just ‘connect the dots’ and word games. T.H. White used “The Matter of Britain” in his The Once and Future King to reflect his own society, and if the images in his mirror are cloaked in fancy they’re never hidden. John Gardner took the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and turned it on its head, telling the story from the monster’s point of view in the masterful Grendel, and suddenly we’ll never again be quite so righteously complacent in the hero’s triumph. Agree or not, we will look again, and wonder.

All of which is a roundabout way to point out that Godwin works a kindred magic in The Last Rainbow. He takes the stone statue life of Saint Patrick, and with a superb artist’s eye, patiently chips away the gilt of time and dogma to reveal the living flesh beneath. Continue reading

Things I Like – Part 1

I’ve talked about Parke Godwin as a person before, but now I’m going to concentrate on his legacy a bit. He tried out science fiction  (see The Masters of Solitude written with Marvin Kaye) but he really hit his stride with historical fantasy. I rank his take on the Matter of Britain at the very least in a league with Rosemary Sutcliff’s, and I do not say that lightly. My first exposure to this area of his work was The Last Rainbow, a take on the legend of St. Patrick, a subject I didn’t think I cared a whit about until I read his version. Parke Godwin came from a theatrical background (he was an actor long before he became a writer) and you see it in the care that goes into the creation of every one of his characters. They are never around just to serve the plot, a failing you’ll often run into even in the best of other authors’ work. Each and every one has, for want of a more appropriate term, stage presence. If a tinker shows up on page 234 for one scene only, you can bet he has a backstory, his own reasons for being where he is, and you’re likely to remember him when the book is done. There are no throwaway characters in a Parke Godwin Book.

Next up is Firelord. This is the beginning of the diptych of Godwin’s take on the legend of King Arthur. If I had to single out any one book as Parke Godwin’s masterpiece, this would proabably be it. Godwin’s take on the story of King Arthur takes him from Celtic tribal prince to a soldier in the last days of the Roman Empire’s influence in Britain to war commander to king. The fantasy element is always slight enough that one could ignore it, up to a point, but it’s there in a way that makes sense. Even Merlin plays his part, though he’s not who you might think he is. It’s a unique take on the legend, and I’m not giving any more away, so read it yourself, if you haven’t already. You’ll note above that I said “probably” his masterpiece. The only reason I’m a bit wishy-washy on that is because I waffle between Firelord and the second book, Beloved Exile. If Firelord is mainly Arthur’s story, then Beloved Exile is Guenivere’s. Specifically what happens after Camelot falls, a time period given fairly short shrift by most accounts of the story, maybe because the early tellers saw that as the end, but there are no endings, not really, and there was no way in hell that the Guenivere of Firelord was going to be retiring to a nunnery, then or ever. Which book is my favorite rather depends on what day you ask me.

There’s a lot more I could talk about, but then I don’t want to spoil it for anyone just getting into Godwin’s work. I will point out that you don’t want to overlook either Waiting For the Galactic Bus or The Snake Oil Wars, Godwin indulging his comedy chops with the linked stories of two extremely advanced aliens who get “temporarily” stranded on the Earth and the extreme mess they make of the place. There’s his one collection of short stories, The Fire When it Comes, including the World Fantasy Award-winning novella of the same name. There’s Tower of Beowulf. There’s his marvelously off-center take on Robin Hood—Sherwood, and Robin and the King. There’s…well, lots. Unfortunately a great many of these are out of print, but editions are available, and I’d jump on them while they are. You wouldn’t be disappointed by any of them, and if you are, well, we have nothing to discuss.

Harold Parke Godwin 1929-2013

Ever since I got the word last August that Parke Godwin’s health and faculties were in decline, I knew I was going to have to write this post sooner or later. It was perhaps selfish of me that I wanted it to be later. Much later. I had dreams of receiving one more of his witty letters, finished with that flourish of a self-caricature he always drew after the closing, even though we’d long since switched to email and those caricatures were gone. Then I thought of my father in law, who I loved dearly, telling me, not too long from the end, “I’m so tired.” I understood what he meant then, though I tried to pretend that I didn’t. His body was just worn out and it was time to go, and it was the same with Parke Godwin. “Pete” to his friends, who were legion. I was proud to count myself among them. Continue reading