Fantasy writer Charles de Lint: 9 books I love
Charles de Lint, author of over 80 books and one of Canada's most revered fantasy novelists, is the latest writer to be inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association's Hall of Fame. His latest book, The Wind in His Heart, is his first adult novel in nearly a decade.
De Lint will be in Toronto to promote The Wind in His Heart on Oct. 18 at the Chiaroscuro Reading Series at the ROUND venue and Oct. 21 at Bakka Phoenix Books.
Below, the prolific writer lists nine books of fantasy and poetry that had a significant influence on his life.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Ernest Shepard
"I often cite this as my all-time favourite book. It's considered a children's story, and the various plot lines certainly have a childlike innocence, but the prose is robust and mature. Grahame writes with a descriptive eloquence we don't often see today — particularly in those two chapters that tend to go missing in some editions ('Dulce Domum' and 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn'). I love his descriptions of landscape and the quiet pleasures of the countryside. 'Messing about in boats,' anyone?
"If that isn't enough, Shepard's art awoke in me a lifelong appreciation for illustrated books. In retrospect, I also realize that Grahame set in my mind the themes that to this day permeate my stories and my life: the importance of loyalty, of kindness, the validity of a family of choice.
"As I tell you this, it will probably come as no surprise that the Toad sections of the book are my least favourite. But I adore the rest and still reread chapters to this day."
A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
"For a kid who did most of his growing up in rural West Quebec, Ferlinghetti's poems were a gateway into an alternate universe — or rather, into a way of seeing my life in a way I had never before imagined. They showed me there was a world beyond the confines of small towns and high school where I could find a tribe that thought and felt the same way I did.
"Ferlinghetti pointed the way to City Lights Books and the Beats. His poetry pointed forward in time and back, from Irving Layton and e.e. cummings to Dylan Thomas, Gary Snyder and Walt Whitman.
"That would be enough to cherish this book. But the verses therein are as powerful today as they were when I first discovered them, and isn't that the true measure of great poetry?"
Five Denials on Merlin's Grave by Robin Williamson
"Of all the books I've returned to over the years, I've probably reread this 'poem with annotations' the most. It's based on the five stages of Britain's history, viewing them through a prism of myth, folklore and Williamson's own youth. The latter is important because it grounds the work, and the subject matter is never dull, but it's the soaring sweep of the words — the humanizing of the mythic matter and the wealth of pertinent detail, all of it expressed to perfection — that brings me back to it time and time again.
"While the poem itself is rather short at seven pages, it feels like a saga. Filling out the book are 30 pages of notes expanding on various historic, mythic and folkloric elements in the text.
"Even better than reading it on the page is to hear Williamson declaim it as he does on his album A Glint at the Kindling."
Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
"There's a lot of humour in this book, which might seem odd since it takes its title from Andrew Jackson's directive to relocate Indigenous peoples from their tribal lands to lands he gave to them for 'as long as grass grows or water runs.' We all know how well that turned out, not just in Mississippi but throughout North America.
"But the humour wasn't why this book cast its influence upon me. Instead, it was how it validated the sense that we should always approach our fiction with a total sense of freedom. It told me I could go ahead and incorporate scenes and characters, no matter how outlandish, so long as they were created with care and affection and were integral to the overall story rather than simply colourful add-ons.
"King's multi-level story of the settling of North America in some ways twins Williamson's approach to the history of the British Isles, except King writes from an Indigenous viewpoint. But both are highly personal and mythic.
"There's a sublime way in which King lets his story play out, a convincing blend of literary beauty and the simpler craft of oral storytelling. Neither gets in the way of the other, neither stands out from the other, but it's this blend that makes his prose sing."
The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris
"With this novel William Morris invented the fantasy novel, by which I mean a story set entirely in an imagined land. When I first read The Wood Beyond the World I didn't know that. I was simply enchanted by the lyrical and quaint cadence of its mock-medieval prose, which was archaic even in the 1800s when the book was written.
"From this novel I went on to read his collected works, which ranged from other fantasies to translations of Norse Sagas, Homer's Odyssey, The Aeneid of Virgil and treatises on social reform. Morris also led me to the Pre-Raphaelites and to an appreciation for living one's life as art.
"In his time he was such a huge influence on other writers and artists that it's a little odd to realize that, these days, if anyone remembers him, it's for little more than wallpaper designs and the Morris chair. But when I want a break from the hectic pace of contemporary times I still like to lose myself for a while in the long rambling sentences of his imaginative prose.
"The Wood Beyond the World remains my favourite of his many fine novels."
The Blessing of Pan by Lord Dunsany
"If we ignore Bob Dylan, who first got me writing poetry, the biggest influences on my early writing were the weird and gorgeous short stories of Lord Dunsany, such as those found in Time and the Gods, The Book of Wonder and his other collections. They were set at the edge of the world, or even beyond the fields we know, and so were my stories, though mine were painfully lacking the beauty of Dunsany's prose.
"I appreciated his novels as well. But while The King of Elfland's Daughter was his most famous, the one I kept returning to was The Blessing of Pan, in which a vicar struggling against a pagan influence upon his congregation found a most ingenious solution to keep his people together.
"Years later, when I was growing more assured of my craft, I took the descendants of the vicar's village of Wolding to populate the hidden village of New Wolding in my novel Greenmantle."
The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe
"This is one of those books that settles under your skin after you've read it and just doesn't go away.
"When I first read The Book of Eve I was enamoured with the way Eve just up and walked away from her unhappy life to find something, if not better, at least different. And I loved the way Beresford-Howe dropped us into late-1960s Montreal, bringing the poorer section of that city to such vibrant, and honest, life.
"Each subsequent rereading puts more distance between the world we live in now and Eve's world in the novel — which was pre-internet, cell phones and pretty much everything else we take for granted today — all of which allows for a certain nostalgia. What doesn't change is the journey of Eve's character and the author's ability to illuminate it through dialogue and the salient details of the neighbourhood in which she comes to live.
"For the young writer I was, I learned a lot about capturing conversations and descriptions and especially story from this one slim volume."
The Sackett Brand by Louis L'Amour
"Genre fiction gets a certain short shrift in some literary circles, but I'll take a mid-period Louis L'Amour over a lot of what are considered literary classics. His dialogue and first person narrative perfectly capture the cadence of the voices of the 1800s, and the settings are historically and geographically accurate. The latter comes from his actually having walked and ridden through the landscapes he wrote about.
"He depicted the badlands and canyon lands, the great plains and slopes of the Appalachians with a lyric honesty and love of the land, which in turn woke a love for it in me. I can still remember when years ago I stepped out of a plane and first breathed the desert air, how much I felt at home. I knew the smell from L'Amour's books.
"There are any number of his novels I could have picked here. How the West Was Won was a strong contender, but that's probably because the film based on it was the last one I saw with my father before he passed. I went with The Sackett Brand because it was the first I read, the one that led me into the badlands and introduced me to the story of the Tennessee Sacketts, which is also the story of the immigrant experience, crossing the Atlantic from the British Isles and moving ever west."
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
"As a writer I often get asked to name my favourite author. It's an impossible question because the best writers don't wait for you to be in the mood to read their books, they put you in the mood. So depending on what we're reading, at various times we all have many favourite writers.
"But the question gets asked enough that I simply offer up Alice Hoffman in response. Whether it's Practical Magic, which I first came across in the mid-1990s, through all the books that she has written on the way to this most recent novel of hers, Hoffman is always a writer I can count on her to deliver stories and characters that mean something to me.
"Oh, and that glorious prose, at once timeless and of the moment, all of it seeped in a sense of wonder. Whenever I need to be reminded what good writing is, and why it's good, I reread a few chapters from one of her books. Hoffman's stories nourish my soul and this new novel is yet another gift to us from her sagacious pen."