Blood Matters: Growing Up in an SF/F House

From Anakin, Padmé, Leia, and Luke to James, Lily, and Harry, the relationship between parents and their children has always been a popular theme of exploration in speculative fiction. Familial relationships are complex, and often bear conflicts and strengths that are generations old, making them a compelling canvas for an epic story. Family also has another tie to speculative fiction, wherein a love for the genre is passed from one generation to the next. Parents show their children the doors to Fionavar and Narnia, those children becomes parents, inspire their children, and so on.

I grew up in a household that was rich with speculative fiction fandom and writing. I wouldn’t be the genre fan I am today without my mom. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without my dad. It’s important to me now as a parent that I encourage my daughter to explore the limits of her creativity, and give her every opportunity to develop a love of reading. I want her to understand the wisdom that has been passed down to me by the literature I’ve read.

An appreciation for speculative fiction isn’t always handed down from within a family. Sometimes it grows on its own, or is introduced by a friend or a teacher. Or a child is uninterested, despite their parents’ best efforts to sway them to the side of elves and proton cannons. I recently reached out to several writers to ask them about their experience growing up, their parents’ relationship to speculative fiction, and the impact that parenthood has had on them as writers. It’s no surprise that each and every one of us grew up under different circumstances, despite eventually being drawn together by a love for speculative fiction and writing.

Beyond the basics of survival and love, the ultimate gift a parent can give a child is the freedom to explore the world in their own way, and to know they are supported in those explorations. One commonality among all the writers I spoke with was that their parents backed their creativity, even when they didn’t understand it.

“My mother was into all sorts of hobbies, mostly of the crafts variety—quilting, knitting, sewing, crochet, flower–arranging,” said Yoon Ha Lee (Ninefox Gambit, Solaris Books, 2016). Though they were both creative in their own ways, Lee and his mother did not agree on his choice of genre. “Both of my parents thought writing SF/F was a complete waste of time, but they didn’t stand in my way. I was always supplied with writing implements and paper and postage stamps and so on. This worked out pretty well. I didn’t need a pat on the head from them; I needed noninterference and supplies.”

A love for reading can often spawn an interest in writing, as Brian Staveley (The Emperor’s Blades, Tor Books, 2014) points out. He grew up with a father who was a mechanic and airline pilot, and a mother who was a stewardess until he was born. “Neither had much interest in writing,” he said, “but both were avid readers. I grew up in a house filled with books, and they read to me constantly. Writing felt like a natural extension of my childhood.”

“When I was a child my father learned to play the guitar and we would all sing folk songs together,” Kate Elliott (Black Wolves, Orbit Books, 2015) remembered fondly. Her father was not a writer, but like Lee’s mother, he expressed himself through other creative endeavors. “Everyone [in my family] had a musical ear and could sing in tune. It’s one of my strongest memories from my early life. In that sense, shared music became the creative foundation for my own artistic journey. I was writing stories by the age of ten.”

Through the music of an old guitar, Aliette de Bodard (The House of Shattered Wings, Roc, 2015) can seize an opportunity to light a creative flame in her children. All these writers are bonded by a love of the possibilities provided by speculative fiction and each, like their parents, can put their children on a path that will guide them for the rest of their lives.

De Bodard did not start writing until late adolescence, after dabbling in music and visual arts. “We still have my paintings from that time period, some of which are actually decent. And I still have the guitar, which I’m considering dusting off so I can play for my kids!” Elliott’s musician father would be proud.

“My parents were very supportive and didn’t mind that I spent ages in my room obsessively trying to perfect a song or a painting.”

Staveley, on the other hand, believes the ability to inspire is not just limited to speculative fiction, but admits genre stories have a certain gravity for imagination. “All good writing is focused on characters struggling with themselves, society, and the world at large. That said, my four–year–old son does tend to gravitate to the fantastic. I suspect fantasy reflects the amazement, delight, and horror that small children feel with the world. The forest behind our house is much closer to Mirkwood than it is to something out of Robert Frost.”

Becoming a parent is one of the most transformative moments in a person’s life. That change doesn’t stop after childbirth, however—its impact is felt every day thereafter. In the months leading up to the birth of my daughter, I had a sinking feeling that my life as a writer was over. Even with all the time in the world, I struggled to put words down on the page. How could I possibly be a successful writer while also raising a little human being?

Fast forward eighteen months, and I’m a more prolific writer than I’ve ever been. I recently sold my first short story to a professional market and, no surprise, it’s about growing up and the complex relationships that exist between children and their parents. Parenthood changed me, but in ways which allowed me to be a better writer. I am more empathetic. I am more organized. I seize opportunities to write, where before I would have relaxed to play video games or watch sports.

Elliott had a similar experience. “I learned to manage my obstacles better,” she said, describing her writing life after having her first child. “And to forgive myself for the times I simply couldn’t write because I had responsibilities to deal with outside of myself.”

But as her children have grown up, adults themselves now, she’s noticing a reversion to the norm. “I was more efficient as a writer when my children were small because the only way I could get writing done was to train myself to ‘switch on’ the moment a window of writing time opened. Literally I had no time to ‘get in the mood.’ In retrospect my ability to write even when I don’t feel like it probably stems from that time. No waiting on the muse. Just plow forward and let the muse catch up.

“Now that I have far more time, I’m much less efficient. Strange how that works.”

Staveley’s jump to a full–time writing career corresponded almost directly with the birth of his first son; he has immense respect for writers who balance a day job on top of their family and writing career. “I have a tricky enough time with two out of three,” he said. “I try to keep my family life as separate as possible from my writing. I leave in the morning, and when I come back, I put the computer away and don’t look at it for the rest of the night. It’s too easy, otherwise, to let the writing creep into every hour of the day.”

De Bodard, on the other hand, found that the structure provided by a day job and a corresponding commute, triggered an uptick in her productivity. “When my first child was born, I actually wrote very little; it took going back to work for me to produce a novel. I think being a parent makes me more aware of time that passes—of how precious it is and how little of it I have for my own projects.”

It’s a tremendous juggling act whether you’re working a day job or not. Shortly after his daughter was born, Lee was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which led to almost a decade in which his productivity “went to hell” while he and his doctors worked on finding the right balance of medications. “I don’t work a day job partly because of that. I am in a very fortunate position in that my husband makes enough to support the family and I can write at my leisure.

“In addition to bipolar disorder, I have anxiety disorder, so weirdly, in spite of this, I am trying to write less. I have a history of suicide attempts, including a couple within the past few years, and stress from deadlines was implicated. My psychiatrist has told me to stop doing this to myself because all the meds in the world will do jack–all if I put myself in bad situations. So I’m scaling back on writing and trying to spend more time relaxing with my family.”

Life is not a straight highway. It’s a meandering, branching deer trail with no definitive end goal, where you’re helped along the way by those you love. This is true of everyone, whether they’re parents, siblings, friends, or children. The time you spend with those loved ones, and the experiences you have at their side, shape you. Children change us as much as anyone, and influence the way we tell stories and build worlds.

“I’ve become much more aware of how children seem completely invisible in a lot of fiction,” said de Bodard. “Few people seem to have babies or young kids in books and movies, and we tend to skip straight to stormy adolescence. So I’ve made a concerted effort in my fiction to have more children, toddlers, and babies around.”

“These days I think a little more about what kinds of families my characters come from,” Lee agreed. “In my earlier stories, my characters sort of existed in weird isolationist bubbles. I wrote a story about parenthood when I was barely out of my teens, and the only reason the story isn’t even more embarrassing was that my beta readers included several mothers.” Despite his embarrassment, that story, “Counting the Shapes,” was published in a 2001 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine. “I look back at that story and wince, because I really had no clue about the mother–son relationship. In Korean there is a term, naerisarang, which translates to something like ‘downwards love.’ It’s like the love that your parent has for you, which you can’t really understand until/unless you have a kid of your own, and that kid won’t understand it until/unless they have a kid, and so on down the chain. Even now, as the parent of a twelve–year–old, I really can’t understand how my mother feels as the parent of a middle–aged Yoon.

“I did later write another couple stories about being a parent, including ‘The Bonedrake’s Penance,’ and I don’t know if they’re good stories, but they came out of the experience of parenting, so they feel more honest to me.”

There are also emotional sacrifices that come along with parenthood. After the birth of her first child, de Bodard’s tolerance for stories featuring child abuse or endangerment “went from weak to zero” immediately. “I had to put off reading a book I was much looking forward to because I couldn’t get past the violence against a child.” As the father of a daughter, I’ve had a similar experience to de Bodard, and have also become even more aware of and angered by the pervasive sexism that continues to plague speculative fiction and fandom.

Personal writing of any sort reveals layers to a person that even their close friends and loved ones might not recognize. My wife often finds it odd to read my writing—not because of the subject matter, but because it’s told in a voice that doesn’t sound familiar to her ear.

“My children have all read at least some of my writing,” said Elliott. “I often consult them about plot, character, and world–building because I like to hear their feedback, because they know me so well, and because they have fascinating and deep imaginations. They are probably my most valuable writing resource, with my cherished writer and reader friends a close second.”

“Being raised as the children of a writing parent has definitely given them a window into the creative process. Writing is so much a part of my life they couldn’t have escaped it. They read and watch more critically than they might have otherwise because I was always reading and watching critically.”

Elliott’s daughter, Rhiannon Rasmussen–Silverstein, knows her mother better than anyone, but, unlike my wife, she hasn’t been surprised by the peeled–back layers of her mother’s writing. “I wouldn’t say [her books] reveal anything I don’t recognize otherwise. I feel like there’s this idea that writing reveals hidden depths or, I don’t know, perversions or something, and I haven’t found that to be true. Maybe it reveals what someone spends a lot of time thinking about, but so does growing up with them.”

Different writers put different parts of themselves into their books. Like method actors, some writers choose to stretch themselves beyond their normal limits, assuming a personality or perspective that they don’t generally adhere to day–to–day. Others wear their heart on their sleeve. So what’s it like growing up in a house with an internationally–renowned author?

“I don’t have anything to compare against,” Rasmussen–Silverstein said, “but we always had books around the house. I grew up fairly well–read and there weren’t any books that were considered off–limits to me and my brothers. I could read whatever, whenever, and I did.”

My daughter’s second birthday is still a few months away, but she’s already a book fanatic. She reads to herself before breakfast. She reads to her stuffed animals while we’re cooking dinner. She chooses the books we’re going to read before bed. Inevitably she’ll discover I write stories. Maybe she’ll Google me, or ask if she can read what I’m working on at the time, or maybe she’ll just know intuitively. However she first reads my fiction, she’ll discover a side of her father which might surprise her. What do I want my daughter to think when she reads the stories I write?

I hope she sees the way I strive for diversity and empathy in my stories. I hope she has fun, or learns something, or thinks about the world in a new way. These are the same things I hope anyone finds when they pick up one of my stories. But, at the same time, she will have her own experiences influencing her as a reader. I can’t control that, nor do I want to.

“I almost never think of my son reading my books,” Staveley told me, “and I certainly never change what I write because of him. If he decides to read the books, great. There’s nothing in there that’s more troubling than Odysseus blinding Polyphemus.”

Though Lee writes “grimdark military science fantasy about terrible people,” he isn’t bothered by the idea of his daughter reading his fiction. “I write the things that speak to me, or that I have something to say about, and having a kid doesn’t change that. She’s read my short story collection. There wasn’t anything in it I felt the need to protect her from. [She knows] if she has questions about anything or feels uncomfortable about anything, she can a) come to me or b) stop reading the uncomfortable thing.

“My memories of reading as a kid are that ‘inappropriate’ stuff just flew right over my head. I had no idea people in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books were having sex when I read them as a fourth grader. Honestly, as a parent I find depictions of honest sex, without which the species cannot survive, less bothersome than depictions of sadistic violence, even though American society seems to feel the opposite way that I do.”

“That being said, there are a couple works of mine that I would not deliberately hand to her at this age. I’m working on a novel, and it’s probably the most triggery thing I’ve ever written. At twelve years old, some of the subject material is probably a bit much. I’m happy to discuss it with her when she’s a couple years older, if she’s curious.”

Explaining a troubling or uncomfortable aspect of their writing is no different than explaining other troublesome things, Lee and de Bodard agreed. “I’m well aware what I think is troublesome has very little chance of being the stuff that will trouble my children,” de Bodard said. “It’s both funny and humbling to see how their priorities and understanding of the world are vastly different from mine.”

“You sit down calmly and talk about it in age–appropriate terms and let the kid ask questions,” said Lee.

As parents, we have every opportunity to introduce our children to the wonders of the world, but also a responsibility to give them the tools required to thrive in a world that can be hostile and frightening. As a father, I can provide my daughter with new experiences to learn and dream. As a writer, I can offer the same to readers. Growing up, I was greatly inspired by my father’s success as a playwright and journalist. I knew it was possible to be a writer, because he made it work.

“I take a lot of comfort from the fact that we have a lot of the same goals and neuroses,” Rasmussen–Silverstein laughed when I asked her how her mother inspires her. “Inspiration? My mom’s not only an internationally–recognized author, but a successful parent, an athlete, and has a hundred other accomplishments—irrefutable proof that with good time management you can have a career and a family and multiple other passions.”

Children, like books, are a new set of eyes onto the world. They reveal to us forgotten and lost secrets, and through them we can remember ourselves and learn how to live simply in a world that is becoming more complex by the day. Speculative fiction provides an opportunity for those young readers “to find themselves,” said Elliott. “To look outside themselves. To see possibilities and change. To leap at adventure. To embrace tolerance and difference, and to seek and find the ways in which people connect. To cherish history and how ‘the now’ links to ‘the past,’ and the many ways through which we build futures both bad and good. To pay attention. To question received wisdom and challenge assumptions. To dream.”

Aidan Moher

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award–winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Penelope Qingdom.” His essays and reviews have appeared on Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and Uncanny Magazine. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.

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