Of all the many books that have stuck with me since childhood, none have influenced my actual writer’s voice as much as The Thief. Megan Whalen Turner’s book-turned-series has been the biggest player in my writing life, neck-and-neck with Lord of the Rings.
Like The Hobbit, I used to reread The Thief almost every year, right up until I went to college. I read the sequels as they came out, and I developed a love for them too, often after several re-reads. But The Thief has always been number one in my heart.
But over the last few years, I’ve felt myself undergo a transition in my preferred reading material. Plot holes and tropes I used to gloss over or miss entirely now stand out glaringly to me, and books I once adored now seem paltry in some cases and downright offensive in others. For this reason, I think, I was afraid to reread The Thief. I loved the protagonist Eugenides and his witty narration so much I worried about going back and finding out my adulation was just a product of naiveté and too much fangirling. Until this week, I hadn’t touched the book in the last eight years or so.
But, despite my avoidance, as I plotted and wrote Woodwalker, it became undeniably clear what a tremendous impact Megan Whalen Turner has had on my writing and on my concept of a captivating story and a clever protagonist. Turner’s unreliable first-person narrator was my first experience with such a character, and I relished going back and rereading her first book over and over again, picking up on all of Gen’s hints and slips. My copy of the book is riddled with little handwritten “ha!”s and “that’s what YOU think!”s anytime this twist is particularly clear.
Partway through my first draft of Woodwalker, I realized with trepidation that there were so many unintentional similarities, I was afraid someone would immediately slam me for copyright infringement. This was coming at the tail-end of grad school, where it was imperative to only write work that was entirely my own, and to maniacally cite any work that had even a whisper of another author. It scared me so much I actually stopped writing Woodwalker for a while, but I was too nervous to pick The Thief back up. I was afraid that if I read it again, it would confirm all my suspicions, and I’d have no choice but to throw my now-beloved manuscript out on the street.
Fortunately, this break in writing forced me to read more. I started a “YA Reconnaissance” bookshelf on Goodreads and began to work my way through many of that year’s top Young Adult fantasies. And you know what? I came to the delightful, liberating realization that nothing I write is original. Everything in Woodwalker has been done before, from the plot to the setting to the characters’ names and personalities. I can’t even describe how refreshing this was. I wasn’t going to get charged with plagiarism and kicked out of grad school for having the same story arc as another book. I have the same story arc as a thousand other books (likely more). Freed from this burden, I picked my manuscript back up and forged ahead, buoyed by my new discernment between imitation and inspiration.
Now, with Woodwalker on the verge of publication and its sequel in its final rounds of editing, I felt it was time to revisit Eugenides and face my fears that I’ve grown into a cranky and cynical literary snob. And I came away relieved. Not only do I still love this series, it's actually grown with me. Things I missed as a child mean more to me now as an adult, which has increased my admiration of the later books. And Gen still has a hold on my heart. I still laugh at his snark; I still admire his skills. I love his expert concealment of his true motivation and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his companions and his queen. I love Helen, my earliest heroine who is blatantly described as ugly. I love Pol’s perceptiveness and Sophos’ awkwardness. I love the Grecian setting and political intrigue. And I’m happy that, after shaking my cane at dozens of YA novels and shouting at them to get off my lawn, I haven’t totally transformed into a ruined old crone.
Thanks, Megan Whalen Turner, for this enduring piece of my childhood, and for laying such a solid foundation for my own writing.
Of all the artists I follow, the one who most frequently inspires me to sit down and pour myself into a new piece while weeping softly onto my tablet is Lois van Baarle. Educated in Belgium and the Netherlands, she works as a freelance illustrator and animator. I discovered her work in high school and have been learning from her ever since.
What can I say about Lois? Honestly the two words that jump to mind are luscious whimsy (aaaand with that, my agent probably just slammed her head against her desk). She has the most incredible mastery of color and a distinct talent for underwater scenes. Sometimes edgy, sometimes sugary, always brilliant.
Her tutorials and progress videos have furthered my own artwork during a time when I don’t have the luxury of taking physical art classes. I’ve adopted some of her methods, particularly her technique of laying down a Multiply layer and then erasing bits of it to provide a guide for shading. Most recently, her work has inspired me to pursue more depth and dimension in my pieces. But more importantly, she inspires me to create. Her work has pulled me out of several art slumps, pushed me to break away from my comfort zone, and encouraged me to keep working even when (especially when) a piece falls apart.
Online, she mostly uses the username Loish, and you can find her work at her website, DeviantArt page, or Facebook page. She just recently put out an art book, as I’ve been subtly reminding my husband (“This. I want this for Christmas. Let me write it down for you. There, it’s on your bedside table.”).
So, thanks Lois, for your gorgeous work and fantastic imagination!
I can pinpoint a lot of books that inspired me to write and draw at an early age, but few have been more influential than the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, so it’s fitting to begin in Middle Earth. My first memory of these books came at the age of eight, when my dad read me The Hobbit out loud. We were traveling at the time, and we were taking a red-eye plane flight when we reached the iconic scene when the goblins are setting fire to the trees where Thorin and Company are hiding. My dad has never been one to do things halfway, so he belted out for all our fellow passengers to hear: Fifteen birds in five fir trees, their feathers were fanned in a fiery breeze! I was mortified at the time, of course, but now it’s the most vivid thing I picture about that scene.
The Hobbit was my first literary love. I read it every year throughout my childhood, but the first time I picked up Lord of the Rings, full of the afterglow of the Battle of Five Armies, I cracked my head on the sudden shift in tone and voice. I couldn’t get past the Council of Elrond. Through middle school, I shied away from LotR, until the momentous occasion occurred—there were going to be movies. Well, I couldn’t go see a movie in good faith without having read the book, could I? So I crept back to my copy of Fellowship of the Ring. I read it, set it down, saw the movie, came back, read it again, and then polished off The Two Towers and Return of the King in just a few days. I think it helped to have a face to put with each character.
Thus began the true era of The Lord of the Rings for me. I was blessed in high school with a group of unabashedly nerdy friends, and we fed off each other’s nerdtastic energy like bees on honey. I quickly consumed The Silmarillion and Book of Lost Tales, and later Unfinished Tales. I drew, I wrote, I dreamed, I created, I more or less drove my parents to insanity until I graduated high school and moved out of the house.
(To be clear, despite my love for Lee Pace and Martin Freeman, The Hobbit films were a huge disappointment for me. I thought they were made with far less integrity than LotR, and I mostly try to ignore them.)
The obsession continued through college and grad school, though it did change in nature, becoming a bit less fangirly and more scholarly (think Implications of the Abduction of Celebrían and the Nuances of Quenya vs Sindarin). But most importantly, it drove me to research and to write. I dove into the depths of the appendices and The Silmarillion to create stories of my own within Tolkien’s world (see: Abduction of Celebrían, above).
Now, fanfiction gets a bad rap, stigmatized as weird erotica and half-baked Mary Sues. Writers: don’t let this stop you. Fanfiction is an amazing incubator for a budding author. It eliminates some of the legwork of creating your own world and characters, and as a result, it allows you to find your voice, learn how to build a successful story arc, and, if you do it right, RESEARCH!! I researched the heck out of my works even though I knew I was never going to publish or share them.
So fanfiction gave me a foundation and a playground to let my writing skills run around and fall down and get dirty. But after a while, I began to feel the constraints of working within someone else’s world. Let’s be real, there’s not a whole lot of space for women in Middle Earth. Sure, you have a few notable characters (including my favorite, Eowyn), but they’re auxiliary at best. It’s a boy’s story at heart. Gender egalitarianism and its influence on my work is a post for a different day, so let’s leave it with me being tired of feeling sidelined in this world I loved so much.
This frustration fed directly into the creation of Woodwalker and its sequels. The stories then gained a life of their own which drove them away from the Tolkien-esque feel I started out with, but the underlying foundation is still there—adventure, long journeys, distinct cultures, and skilled characters (the majority of which are women, hey-ooo!).
So, thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien. You inspired me, like so many other artists and writers, to find my own Middle Earth, though I’ll venture to say none of us will ever achieve the same kind of depth and cultural shift. In fact, clever readers might notice a distinct nod to Tolkien as my mentor in the pages of Woodwalker. Can you find it?
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator