“I am working on a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on the latter parts down here.” (Roger the guard in Roger Zelazny’s Sign of the Unicorn)
A few months after I read that passage, a friend (the one who got me into Zelazny’s Amber novels) pointed out to me that “Roger” was Zelazny himself, and the author was taking a moment to talk to one of his characters. My young mind was well and truly blown. It just hadn’t occurred to me that an author could do that.
Reading Zelazny’s science fiction and fantasy as a pre-teen revealed a lot to me. It revealed a distinctive voice, but more than that it led me to discover new kinds of characters, people who were a bit sarcastic and a bit less than fully heroic. They were people I could imagine knowing, in a way I couldn’t quite know any of the other characters in what I’d read before. It was pleasure reading these things for plot, but more than that, it made me want to know more about these people and imagine what they were doing when the author wasn’t looking. Later I would come to see that as the defining mark of great fiction: that the characters have a life outside what the author says.
I wonder how many of us have had this experience: it’s not the canonical authors, films, art, or music that begins our lifelong love of these things, it’s the popular or genre authors, the blockbuster movies and paperback novels that do it. So, fellow readers, as we go into the holidays (and may they be blessed and free of moderation!), here’s a question for all of us: what are the works that began your love of culture? How did you begin your lifetime of reading, listening, and watching?