I was so sad to hear that Anne McCaffrey had died.
I first read the news on GalleyCat, a blog about the publishing industry. Here is the obituary. The obituary reprints this advice from her blog:
“First – keep reading. Writers are readers. Writers are also people who can’t not write. Second, follow Heinlein’s rules for getting published: 1. Write it. 2. Finish it. 3. Send it out. 4. Keep sending it out until someone sends you a check. There are variations on that, but that’s basically what works.”
Which I think is good basic advice for all of us. It’s certainly what she did. To tell you why I was so sad, I have to tell you a bit about my childhood. It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to learn that I was an inveterate nerd. In school I always felt like an outsider, partly because I liked to read when other children didn’t, and partly because I couldn’t for the life of me kick a ball. It would go off in the wrong direction. My family moved around a lot, and so I went to a lot of different schools. In sixth grade, I went to a school where the crucial social skill was playing kickball. I was hopeless.
That year, my best friend was named Amy. She was as much of a nerd as I was. I’m not sure which Anne McCaffrey book I read first. I think it may have been The White Dragon. But I was immediately hooked on Pern. I particularly liked the Harper Hall books, with Menolly. Her heros and heroines, like Jaxom and Menolly and Piemur, were outsiders as well. I could relate to them and to all their troubles. And of course I loved the dragons and fire lizards. What would I have given to have a fire lizard of my own? My soul, probably. Amy and I would swing on the swings near my house and talk about what it would be like if somehow, by accident, a dragon from Pern went between and ended up in a nearby field, and took us to Pern. Where we could be dragonriders, of course, and there was a particular dragonrider we were in love with, but I don’t remember his name.
I read a number of her books around that time, when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember The Ship Who Sang in particular, because it was a love story and a story about a woman who discovers her individuality and vocation. McCaffrey had female characters I could relate to. They were strong, flawed, but ultimately heroic. It was quite a change from Middle Earth and Narnia, where adult women are mostly absent or evil. I couldn’t imagine growing up to be the White Witch or Galadriel, but I could imagine growing up to be Lessa.
The other fantasy writer who influenced me deeply around this time was Ursula Le Guin, so I was influenced by two important female fantasy writers. Now that I think about it, Le Guin didn’t have those sorts of compelling female characters. I ask myself if that can be right, because I generally think of Le Guin as a strong feminist. But the character I remember most from her books is Ged. He’s the one who comes most alive for me.
From McCaffrey, I think I got my love of story. From Le Guin, I think I got my love for words and their power. Le Guin was the superior stylist. But McCaffrey had something that I think is important. Many years later, when I was in the middle of my PhD program and inclined to dismiss writers like McCaffrey as inferior to the literary writers I was reading, I decided to reread one of the Harper Hall books. At the time, I lived in an apartment with a claw-foot bathtub, and every night I took a long bubble bath. With a LOT of bubbles and a good book. I made the mistake of starting the book in the bathtub. An hour later, I was sitting in a cold bath, with no bubbles, unable to stop reading. I could see all the problems with her world – the aristocratic system was based on the work of “drudges” (yes, they were called that) who were barely characters at all. Lessa was a drudge, but like Cinderella, she was really the dispossessed heiress, so of course she would eventually regain her proper social role. So there was quite a bit to criticize – and yet, the woman could write a gripping story.
She had courage, too. After her divorce, she moved with her children to Ireland, living off child support payments and what she could earn by writing. I wish she hadn’t collaborated so much, and those collaborations aren’t novels I would read. But I will never judge another writer for how he or she makes money from writing. It’s just too hard of a profession to say, you shouldn’t have written that. She supported herself and her children, and that’s heroic.
I want to write another time about her novels, about what I think of them now, how they’ve influenced me. But this post is already long enough, and all I really want to say here is, Ms. McCaffrey, you were such an important part of my childhood, and part of the reason that I’m now a writer. I’m so sorry that you’re gone, but so glad that you were here for a while, and that you wrote your books. Thank you.