The luminous worlds of Patricia McKillip

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's In The Forests of Sere

I'm still reeling from the news of Patricia McKillip's death last week. She was only 74, and I thought we'd have more time with her, more wonderful tales flowing from her pen, and I simply cannot reconcile myself to a world without Patricia in it.

Photograph of Patricia A. McKillip by Patti PerretI admired Pat professionally, loved her personally, and have been profoundly influenced by her artistically. From the moment I first stumbled upon her work (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, 1974) her books have been lodestars for me -- demonstrating, over and over again, the timeless power of myth and fairy tale tropes when wielded by a master writer. And a master of fantasy she certainly became: one of the very best of our age, as well as one of the most influential in the mythopoeic end of the fantasy field.

"Writing was something I fell into," she once said, "much like Alice down the rabbit-hole, when I was fourteen. I sat down one day to write myself a story instead of reading one, and thirty-two pages later -- pencil and lined paper table -- I finished my tale and realized that my predictable world had expanded wildly, enormously, with endlessly diverging and intriguing paths running every which way into an unknown I suddenly knew existed. Having ended one story (which is locked away, guarded by dragons and evil-eyed basilisks, and will never see the light of day if I have anything to say about it), I wanted to start all over again on another."

Kinuo Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Winter Rose

In another autobiographical piece from 2004 (and heavens, I wish there were more of them) she noted:

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Od Magic"A friend asked me recently, 'What inspires you to write?'

"She is a writer herself, so I knew she wasn't asking me, 'Where do you get your ideas?' She would know that ideas are as random as shooting stars; they come while you're cleaning the bathtub, or watching Four Weddings and a Funeral for the ninth time, or in the morning when the last bit of your dream is fraying away, just before you open your eyes. You see it then, what you've been searching for all these weeks or months, clear as day; you look at it and think, 'Oh. Yeah,' and open your eyes. That wasn't what she was asking. And that was why I couldn't answer, I could only sit and stare at her with my mouth hanging gracelessly open, because all the answers that sprang immediately to mind answered the question she hadn't asked....

"The question was about drive, motivation. What possessed you to write eight or ten entirely different fantasies in ten or twelve years? What compels you? How could you? Why would you want to? Ever since I was young, the imagination, like the raw stuff of magic, has seemed to me a kind of formless, fluid pool of enormous possibility, both good and bad, dangerous and powerful, very much like the magma in a volcano. And I envisioned myself sitting on top of this mountain of magma, spinning it into endless words, visions, imagery, controlled and useful, to keep it from bursting out in its primitive state to devastate the landscape. At first, I felt very precariously balanced on top of my private volcano, spinning word and image into tales as quickly as I could to keep up with the unstable forces I was trying to harness. Lately I've been feeling rather at home there. The magma level has gone down a bit; I've done some satisfying work. I can slow down, maybe, take a longer time to think about what I want to make now. What I set out to do about fifteen years ago was to write a series of novels that were like paintings in a gallery by the same artist. Each work is different, but they are all related to each other by two things: they are all fantasy, and they are all by the same person. That's all I wanted to do. And now I'm reaching the end of that series.

"I have no idea what comes next."

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's The Bards of Bone Plain

What came next, of course, were more brilliant books (Od Magic, The Bell at Sealey Head, The Bards of Bone Plain, Kingfisher), three dazzling short story collections (Harrowing the Dragon, Wonders of the Invisible World, Dreams of the Distant Shores), and a handful of other fine stories. She kept shaping that magma into wise and wondrous tales, and it's hard to believe there will be no more. But she has left us shelves full of books to read, and re-read, talk about, and share, and as long as we do, then the magic is still flowing and she is still with us.

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Alphabet of Thorn

A few years ago, I spent two months re-reading her entire backlist (in order of publication); this week, I'm starting over again, from The House on Parchment Street and The Throme of the Erril of Sherill to her most recent stories. I know I'll find new depths in them, as I always do. I know I'll continue to learn from her. Perhaps some of you might join me by re-visiting a favourite novel or story, or seeking out a tale you missed along the way. For anyone who wants to join in: just let me know what you're reading in the Comments below this post, and then share any thoughts you have about the reading when you are done.

"At it's best," she wrote, "fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies at the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven't heard the end of it yet."

No, indeed we have not.

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's The Tower at Stony Wood

Some suggested reading to be found online:

"Women in SF & Fantasy" by Patricia A. McKillip (The Fantasy Cafe, 2013)

"Revisiting Patricia A. McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld" by Molly Templeton (Tor.com, 2017)

"Gingerbread Bricks, Cherry-Eating Cats, and Other Culinary Disasters" by Patricia A. McKillip (Tor.com, 2018)

"I Write Fantasy Because of Patricia McKillip's The Riddlemaster of Hed" by Julie E. Czerneda (Tor.com, 2021)

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's Obria in Shadow

I also highly recommended listening to the Coode Street Podcast, Episode 579: Remembering Patricia A. McKillip, in which writers Ellen Kushner and E. Lily Yu discuss Patricia's life and work with the podcast's hosts, Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan (May 16, 2022). To hear Pat herself describe her writing process, listen to her interviewed on The Agony Column Podcast Newsreport (April 20, 2008).

The remarkable art in this post is by Kinuko Y. Craft, the cover artist for many McKillip books, whose jewel-like paintings perfectly capture the luminous worlds contained within each volume.

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Song of the Basilisk by Patricia A. McKillip

Kinuko Y. Craft's cover art for Patricia A. McKillip's The Book of Atrix Wolfe

The quotes above come from "Gingerbread Bricks, Cherry-Eating Cats, and Other Culinary Disasters" by Patricia A. McKillip (Tor.com, 2018); "What Inspires Me," Patricia McKillip's Guest of Honor speech, Wiscon 28, 2004; and The Writers Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books, 2002). All rights reserved. The photograph of Pat is by Patti Perret, from The Faces of Fantasy (Tor Books, 1996); all rights reserved by the photographer.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

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Long Covid is easing its grip at last and it's good to be here in the studio, with my work-in-progress spread out the desk, and an intriguing pile of new books to dip into. Rain taps on the cabin's tin roof and roars in the stream that runs behind. Outside the windows, all is in motion: the wind, the clouds, the leaves of the plum tree, the ponies crossing the valley below. Inside, music in Gaelic and English is easing me gently into the work week. Here are a few songs to share with you....

Above: "Dh'èirich Mi Moch Madainn Cheòthar" performed by the Scottish band Rura (Steven Blake, Adam Brown, David Foley, Jack Smedley) with Julie Fowlis (from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides). The song appears on Rura's new album, Our Voices Echo (2022).

Below: "Open the Door Softly" (by Archie Fisher) performed by Julie Fowlis and Irish singer/guitarist Dónal Clancy.  The video comes from the BBC Alba programme Ceòl Aig Baile (2020).

water in the stream

Above: "Tàladh Dhòmhnaill Ghuirm" performed by Julie Fowlis, with Irish concertina player Pádraig Rynne, Irish fiddler Aoife Ní Bhríain, and Orkney-born musician & songwriter Kris Drever.

Below: "When the Shouting is Over" by Kris Drever, with Julie Fowlis, Pádraig Rynne, and Aoife Ní Bhríain. 

Both videos were filmed at the Sugar Club in Dublin (2016).

Tilly in the stream

Above: "Thrift (Dig In, Dig In)" performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart with Kris Drever, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux for Spell Songs II: Let the Light In. The two Spell Songs albums were inspired by the creatures, art, and language from the books The Lost Words and The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. Both albums are utterly enchanting, so please don't miss them.

Below: "The Lost Words Blessing," from Spell Songs I. (Lyrics here.) This one goes out to my dear friend and colleague Patricia McKillip, who left us last week, too young, too soon. She created spells on the page with her stories and novels, and her powerful magic will always be with us. Please read Pat's exquisite books, if you haven't already, and then pass the magic on. 

water and hound


In Chagford on Thursday...

Celebrating the Earth in the month of May

If you're in traveling distance of Dartmoor, please join us on Ore Hill in Chagford on Thursday evening for music, song, storytelling and frolics traditional to the month of May...with the village Jack-in-the-Green and Obby Oss to lead the way. Deck yourself in green...or greenery...or else just come as you are. All are welcome, young and old.

Chagford Obby Oss

The beautiful poster art is by Virginia Lee. The Obby Oss (above) is performed by Howard Gayton; costume created by Nomi McLeod .


Fantasy and Puppetry online today

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Today, in honour of April Fool’s Day, the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow is hosting a special online event. Fantasy and Puppetry: Animating the Fantastic is a celebration of puppets and of the art of puppeteers in bringing fantasy and the fantastic to life, on stage, on screen and on the page. This online programme of talks and demonstrations features five of the best puppet designers, directors and performers working today: Brian and Wendy Froud (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, etc.), William Todd-Jones (The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, etc.), Mary Robinette Kowal (Sesame Street, LazyTown, etc.; also a Hugo and Nebula Award winning author), and Howard Gayton ( The Little Angel, Norwich Puppet Theatre, The Eden Project, Hedgespoken, etc.).

In addition, there will be a panel discussion of puppetry in fantasy literature -- with Mary Robinette Kowal, Rob Maslen (co-director of the Centre for Fantasy), Marita Arvaniti (scholar of theatre in fantasy), and me. We'll be looking at depictions of puppetry in fiction by Carlo Collodi, John Masefield, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, Russell Hoban, Helen Oyeyemi, A.S. Byatt and others, as well as Mary Robinette's own work.

It all takes place online (via Zoom) from 11:00 am to 6 pm, British Summer Time. For the full programme, go here.

Tickets are free, but you'll need to register to access the link for Zoom: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/fantasy-and-puppetry-animating-the-fantastic-tickets-293661648897.

If you miss it, don't worry, the talks will be recorded and put online at a latter date. (But if you can join us today, in real time, you'll be able to participate in the Question-and-Answer sessions at the end of each talk.)

Edited later to add the following links to the recordings of the talks:

Brian and Wendy Froud, William Todd Jones (sadly, there were tech problems with the visuals on this one, but the audio is good and well worth listening to), Howard Gayton, and the panel on puppetry in fantasy literature.

Terri Windling and Brian Froud

Some of you will have noticed that many of the speakers today live here in Chagford. It's Puppeteer Central in this village. I'll be up at Brian & Wendy's old farmhouse this morning (pictured above), helping out with their talk; Todd's takes place on the other side of the village; then I'm back home for my husband Howard's talk (in his studio on our hill), and my panel discussion (from my own studio next door to his). Rob and Marita join us from Glasgow, and Mary Robinette from Nashville.

We hope you'll join us too. We've been working on this for awhile now, and at last we can share it with you.

Some of the puppets created and performed by the good folks speaking today

Thank you to everyone who has been sending good wishes during my absence from Myth & Moor. Yes, I'm still dealing with Long Covid. It's getting a little better all the time, and I appreciate your kind thoughts and support.


On St. Valentine's Day

Terri Windling photograph by Howard Gayton

I've been trying to choose a poem about love to post today, as I've done on Valentine's Day in the past...but instead of a poem on romance or partnership or marriage, this is the one that came to mind, reflecting on love of a different kind. I stand here in "my old boots and torn coat, no longer young," and send it to you....

Messenger
by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird -
A detail from a drawing by David Wyattequal seekers of sweetness
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to
the sleepydug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Photograph of Terri Windling and Tilly by Howard Gayton

The poem above is from Thirst by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2006); all rights reserved by the Oliver estate. The photographs are by Howard Gayton, and the little sketch of me and Tilly is a detail from a preparatory drawing by David Wyatt for his lovey painting In the Word Wood. The poem in the picture captions is one of mine, called "Listen."