Ellen Jensen Abbott is the author of Watersmeet and the soon to be released sequel The Centaur’s Daughter. She stopped in today to share her writing influences with us. Check out what she has to say, and then enter for a chance to win The Centaur’s Daughter!
True Confessions of a Fantasy Writer by Ellen Jensen Abbott
For this guest blog post, Julie asked me to think about the five YA books I read that influenced me to write my own. I have to begin with a confession: by the time I was a young adult, I had stopped reading for pleasure. In my defense, I was one an those over-achievers in high school who was involved in theater, student government, musical groups, and yes, even the math team. Also, when I was in high school, YA was not the big literary concern it is today. To talk about why I’m a writer—especially a fantasy writer—I have to go further back.
I think my real love for fantasy comes from bed-time stories my dad used to read to me. He brought two books for me back from a trip to Ireland: The Turf Cutter’s Donkey by Patricia Lynch and Fairy Tales of Ireland by Sinéad de Valera. It was the 1970s and I was growing up in rural New Hampshire. We got one television channel (CBS), had no internet (of course), and there were a total of 8 kids in my first grade class. These stories seemed to come from a different world!
First there were the names: Connla, Criona, Gormlei, Macha, Donal, Seamus. My classmates were Steven, Jack, Kim, and Joy. The places, too, had names that seemed made-up: Slievebawn, Lough Neagh, Connacht. The magical parts of these stories were totally different from the fairy-tales I knew from the few Disney movies that came to our local theater: teapots that talked (this was pre-Beauty), lakes that led to other worlds, an emerald ring that turned black when its wearer was about to eat something poisoned. I was hooked.
When I got older and could read for myself, I read the Narnia books over and over. I read my favorite, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, thirteen times. Then, of course, there was Tolkien. Another confession: I didn’t finish all of The Lord of the Rings until I was older. I got through The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and half of The Two Towers before I quit and got my cousin Binja—an avid Tolkien reader—to fill in the rest. At eleven, which was when I attempted these books, I just couldn’t handle the songs, the litany of heredity, the long geographical sections.
But both of these series influenced my books. My use of centaurs, trolls, dwarves, and fauns is like Lewis, who borrowed liberally from many folklore traditions: Greek, Roman, Germanic, Anglo. (Apparently Tolkien didn’t approve of Lewis’ approach; he tried to stay true to one tradition: Norse mythology). But the sense of history, geography, and legend in my books, I hope resembles Tolkien more. I want the world of Seldara to feel as fully drawn and layered as Middle Earth—without the long, difficult passages or the songs!
Neither of these two writers offered much in the way of strong female characters, however. Lewis does have some—Lucy Pevensie and Aravis come to mind—but characterization seemed like a secondary concern to him. Tolkien’s women—when you can find them—leave a lot to be desired. (I love that Peter Jackson gave Arwen more of a role in his movies, but even so, she’s dying most of the time!) So for my fifth book, I offer a category: The Strong-Female-Characters-with-a-Hint-of-Love Books.
I’m really not that old, but my list makes me sound ancient! Each of these books features tom-boys, adventuresome, independent girls who made me want to be them. When they get old enough, these tom-boys meet boys who are attracted to their independent qualities. Before I tell you what the books are, remember: The Hunger Games had not been written yet!
Okay, I’m thinking of Laura Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie books, Katy Carr in the What Katy Did series, and Anne Shirley in the Anne of Green Gables series. I know. These girls are not Katniss, but they were the best I had, and they certainly influenced how I wrote Abisina. She is stubborn and head strong and makes mistakes—gets into “scrapes,” as Anne of Green Gables would say—but she has energy and commitment and drive. I love that.
And I loved the romance—such as it was. I loved watching Laura sit with Almanzo on their sleigh rides, Katy meet Lieutenant Ned Worthington in Italy, and Anne suddenly realize she’s been in love with Gilbert all along. Seems pretty tame now, but at the time, it was enough. That’s why there is at least a flirtation in Watersmeet (Abisina had too much on her mind for a full romance!), and yes, actual romance in The Centaur’s Daughter.
Now that I’ve confessed the truth, I have to add that I’ve been making up for lost YA reading time ever since. I read YA as much as I can, given that I’m a teacher and a writer who need to write the third book in the Abisina series. There are so many great books out there now! If I had access to books like Chime and Harry Potter when I was in high school, I may have skipped the math team!
Now you can enter for a chance to win The Centaur’s Daughter! This contest is easy to enter, too. Just scroll down to the widget and enter away!
The contest is open to US mailing addresses only.
You must be 13 or older to enter.
I am not responsible for lost or damaged shipments.
One entry per person.
Contest ends September 12th.