I recently read a rather excellent collection of essays from a variety of Australia writers, and as was perhaps inevitable I began thinking about the books that made me. I’ve been an avid reader since I learned how, and while I went through periods of aspiring towards Rory Gilmore levels of literacy (a pretentiousness I have semi-relinquished) my love of books never wavered.
Like many others I was a lonely child, I struggled to get close to people – and I still do – but I never felt let down by books. Maybe I feel a little let down by them now, but books have never left me, stories have never left me. Instead they’ve become a part of me, seeping into my blood and my bones like oxygen.
There is one book that I believe had an especially defining influence on me but before I get to it I want to talk about some of the books that have remained significant to my own development – as both a person and a writer. Upon reflection, I can definitely say that my earlier influences were almost exclusively fantasy. Though often far-fetched it was the realm of fantasy that helped me find the words and images to ignite my own imagination. It’s fantasy that I’m going to love until I die. Even though I try to read widely between genres, between topics, and even between mediums, fantasy fiction is home.
It was Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest series that instilled in me a love of two things:
The first was monsters, from the Knight in the Forbidden Forest (human vices! self-destruction! immortal danger!) to the noble dragons, I have always loved monsters. Now I love them in a slightly more adult way (no questions thanks) but Deltora was the first world where my love of the unknown and the fearful became real. Now that I’m older I can dream of Eldricht horrors, but Deltora is and will always be home.
The second was my love of quest narratives. I wrote a lot of stories when I was young, all of them terrible, most of them plagiarised, and a lot of them featuring women on quests and people on journeys. The quest is easily one of the most basic tools to keep a narrative moving, thanks to it’s clearly defined goal, and though I often try to focus on character-driven narratives my stories almost always involve a journey.
Because every book is a journey? That old chestnut.
My love of quests and magic was continued in a little novel by 14 year old French writer Flavia Bujor. In The Prophecy of the Gems my favourite narrative elements were united – albeit without the kind of monsters that I loved in Deltora. The three girls at the heart of the story were from vastly different backgrounds, had distinctly different personalities, and much of the story was about their potential.
I also appreciated that the characters were my age. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up with the current understanding and increase of young adult fiction. I was ten years old when I started reading Harry Potter, I was an enamoured fifteen year old when I read Twilight for the first time, and now that I’m older and more widely read I can see that The Prophecy of the Gems was nothing particularly original.
Now that I’ve reread it I can also see that it’s not particularly good. But it still resonated with me as a child, and it still showed me the kind of world that I wanted to see. It was one of the first books that I bought, and even though rereading it has made me cringe – I will never give it away. If a thirteen year old girl in France could write a book that I loved enough to borrow it from the library once a month then maybe I could write one too.
I wrote the books. But they still weren’t very good.
If I have to choose one book that made me, one book out of all of the books, then the obvious and undeniable choice is Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody. It’s maybe a little obvious in that it is the source of my name (and I mean this literally, I started calling myself Elspeth after I fell in love with this series and I’ve been Elspeth ever since), but it’s also the book that I read because it made me feel less alone. I believe that I was around fourteen when I read it for the first time, and I definitely felt like a misfit.
Now that I’m older I’m able to recognise that a lot of my feelings of alienation were down to the fact that I was fourteen years old, and like any fourteen year old I was stuck in my own head. I still get stuck in my own head, but like the Elspeth of the story I have found my band of ‘misfits’. I have found the people who make up my family, and I have found the people who are as in love with books as I am. Books were my first family, and books have helped me find my family.
My very first copy of Obernewtyn is long gone. I bought it for $1 from my local library, and I read it so much that it was literally falling to pieces. My copy now is significantly more intact, and it’s signed, and marked, but every time I revisit it I’m reminded of who I am and who I want to be. It was while reading Obernewtyn that I decided that what I really wanted to be was a writer. I don’t remember the point of that revelation, I don’t remember what it felt like to have it all fall into place, and in all honesty that might be because I already sort of knew, but I know that every time I read Obernewtyn or any of the books in the series I remember how it feels to know what I want to do and what I want to be.
A misfit, a writer, maybe an empath or maybe just a very emotional person, but even when I’m all of these things: I’m home.