Afterword to “Points of Departure”


Why I Write

When I was a little girl, my mother read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis, aloud to me and my brothers. The story fascinated me: these kids walked through a perfectly ordinary wardrobe into a new world. After hearing that story I was convinced, beyond any doubt, that there were other worlds out there, just waiting for me to find them.

When I was old enough to read for myself, I read other stories about secret places and powerful magic: the Oz books; Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit; The Borrowers, by Mary Norton; and The Time Garden, Half Magic, and numerous other magical books by Edward Eager. When I was a little older, I branched out into science fiction and adventure fiction, reading all the Tarzan and Doc Savage books from my older brother’s collection. These seemed to me to be extensions of the original impulse: They all dealt with worlds that were more dangerous, more beautiful, and more intriguing than the one in which I lived.

When I wasn’t reading about secret places, I would look for secret places to call my own. I couldn’t find a magic wardrobe, so I had to make do. I cleared a patch of ground in a secluded corner of the backyard (back behind the big pussy willow bush where no one ever went) and I planted crocuses and Johnny-jump-ups to make a secret garden. I couldn’t go past a hole in a hedge or a cave or a culvert or a dark passageway without peering into the darkness and wondering if this were the one that led to a new world. In best junior scientist fashion, I learned to identify edible wild foods: young plantain leaves and such. I was, I think, planning to live off the land when something happened. I didn’t know what the event would be or when it would come along, but I knew that something momentous was going to happen. I might need to be able to recognize edible plants when I found the way through and ended up in Oz or Perelandra or Narnia or wherever it was I would finally end up.

In the course of growing up, I never really quit looking for the secret door, the hidden passage, the opening to another dimension or another time. But at some point I suppose I realized that the secret way out would not just appear to me. I had to create my own secret ways. And so I started to spin daydreams. Not daydreams like getting a pony or climbing to the top of the mulberry tree in the backyard. Daydreams that were even more improbable — like saving a princess from a dragon or sailing off with pirates to do piratical things that involved a great deal of swashbuckling swordplay.

Of course, I continued to read like a maniac, devouring the imaginary worlds of science fiction and fantasy writers and using them to fuel my own adventures. In my version of the great twister, Dorothy had a companion named Pat Murphy on her trip to Oz. And Pat Murphy — a scrawny fourth grader with harlequin glasses and a mighty left — was certainly along when Tarzan visited the City of Gold.

Unlike those amazing writers who started putting words on paper when they were barely old enough to clutch the pen, I kept these daydreams to myself. After all, part of the value of secret places is their privacy. If anyone could get on my pirate ship and sail off to adventure, then everyone would. And the secret would be out. So I kept my heroic fantasies to myself.

Along the way, the characters in my internal stories began to change. Sometimes I didn’t save the day — I just watched as someone else got to be the hero. As the stories evolved, the plots changed too, continuing to entirely new conclusions, new adventures, new worlds. When an adventure took a wrong turn, I would go back and fix it, rethink my actions or the actions of my characters in a way that was just not possible in life.

It wasn’t until I was in college that it occurred to me that I might actually write some stories down. Lois Natanson, a wonderful literature teacher, read one of my papers and told me I was an excellent writer. That was the first time that anyone had ever told me I could write and write well. And so I began to try to write stories.

Strangely enough, I didn’t initially write about the secret people and places I knew. They were secret, remember? Instead, I tried to write what I now think of as other people’s stories, stories that didn’t give too much of my own stuff away. I tried to write like authors I admired — like Ursula Le Guin, like Kate Wilhelm, like Margaret Atwood. And then one day I wrote a story about a place that was my own, and it was like coming home, stepping into Narnia, touching down in Oz. Then there was no turning back.

Looking back on the stories in this book, written over the last decade or so, I see traces of my childhood reading and daydreaming. Many of my stories deal with outsiders, people who are trapped in a world where they do not belong. Sam, the Neanderthal who has been yanked from his own time; the nameless alien woman who lingers in Mexico, unable to find her way home; Rachel, the chimp with the mind of a teenage girl — these are characters who have, in a sense, found that secret door I was always looking for. They’ve entered a new world filled with exotic things and strange people; it just happens to be the world in which we live every day.

Many of my stories take place in foreign countries. I travel as often as I can manage, and I come home with stories about the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, about Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, about Nepal, places that are strange and alien, as exotic as Oz, as mysterious as Perelandra.

When I was a kid, I knew that fantastic things were waiting just around the corner, lingering in the shadows, lurking behind the rhododendron bush. Some were nice and some were horrible — like the witches under the bed or the monsters that hid in storm drains. I imagined their lives and they became real. Now that I’m a grown-up (more or less),  I am doing what I wanted to do then: I am opening the secret doorway and letting them into our world; I am walking through the secret passage and visiting theirs.

I still can’t walk past a cave without peering inside, and on some level I still believe in the witches under the bed and the value of the magic penny that I hope someday to find in a crack in the sidewalk.

That’s one of the reasons I write.