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Days like today, when scrubbing the inside of the refrigerator sounds more appealing than drudging up even a paragraph more of my novel, I go looking for that favorite, well worn paperback that first gave a dreamy teenage me a glimpse of magic.  It is Patricia A. McKillip’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe.  I think I was 14 when I found the book in a Hallmark gift shop, having to sort through quarters and dimes to scrape up enough plus tax when the store threatened to close and I found I’d been sitting on the floor in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section for more than an hour as people stepped around me, the whole world gone invisible as I followed a wolf that wasn’t a wolf down a mountain and into his embittered and confused human soul.

I eventually made my way back to every day life, but not without injury.  Like any 14 year old I was already living in a clash of two opposing worlds; my secret fairytale of parental love thrown into the bull ring that is high school, taunts from an arena of careless spectators calling for blood for the sheer pleasure of it.  The conflicts of a fantasy novel, even of the most epic multi-world war, feel deliciously harmless in comparison.  But the Book of Atrix Wolfe left me hurting somehow, longing for something I couldn’t name, couldn’t touch.  There is a character in the book, a girl named Saro (because she was found one day in a king’s kitchen like a stray cat with no memory or voice and was surely “someone’s sorrow”) whose world was mine.  Somehow this author had glimpsed things I didn’t know I knew about myself, and wove them into a tale of wizards, wars and faery queens.  I found a home in the corners of the king’s kitchen, in the wind-blasted mountain passes and in the broom closets in a school for would-be mages (long, long before Harry Potter).  At least here were places where hurts served some purpose, even for a girl with no name.

I still can’t make it a year without plucking that same book off my shelf and slipping back into that world, but usually a page or two at some random place is enough to buoy me, her writing is that good.  McKillip’s careful words taught me that being human is being wounded, incomplete, and forever feeling inconsequential in some way you can’t hope to grasp; it is a perpetual state of longing for other.  It made me love fantasy, love being in the realm of otherness, sent me off on my own meanderings with characters conjured by my own mind.  Still sometimes I see names or a handful of words in my stories that are a touch too close to something in one of her novels.  Every writer reveals themselves as nothing more than a mimic of a few great authors that came before them, and we sometimes give little, unintentional hints of our first book-loves in our own writing–a character’s name a bit too similar to one you forgot you remembered; a description of leaves on a path that almost mirrors a passage in a long forgotten page-turner.  It’s that first boyfriend or girlfriend that broke your heart, the shreds of their old love letters still scattered beneath your pillow, littering your subconscious with things you don’t actually want to forget.

Today I realized I can’t quite remember how it ends.  I’ll probably do a lot more reading than writing (and the fridge will be as sticky and forgotten as ever).  Thank you Ms. McKillip, for your lovely and timeless distractions, for worlds I’ve never completely left, and for characters who helped form my own.  I’m not attempting to even come close to your art–I don’t have the soul for it, but I can definitely recognize a few of my better spells as something that began in the pages of your book.

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