From the Desk of Robin Hobb
In the Harry Potter saga, we encounter the character who is He Who Must Not Be Named. It was an effective technique, wasn’t it? A character so dark and deadly that even to utter his name was to invite his attention and all the disaster it might bring.
I don’t have a fictional character who must not be named.
Instead, in my real life, I have a real thought that must not be thunk. Or thoughted. Okay, a real thought that must not be thought, even though that makes a very ugly sentence.
It’s a thought that perhaps haunts other fiction writers as well as myself. Not just fantasy fiction writers, but all fiction writers: romance, historical, western, even literary fiction writers. For all I know, perhaps it keeps editors awake at night and sends publishers in search of a drink. I know that when it comes creeping into my consciousness, it causes me to quail and hide myself behind a veil of words.
No, it’s not e-books. It’s not even what might come after e-books.
It’s the thought that comes in the dead of night, when I’m at my keyboard alone except for an obnoxiously purring orange cat. It comes when my fingers slow and then halt in their pressing of the keys. Often it happens when I’ve let my characters run wild, and they’ve painted themselves into a corner and are now staring at me with that ‘well, what happens now?’ look in their child-wide eyes. It comes when I know it’s my job to rescue them with a devilishly clever plot twist or a (God Forbid) Deus Ex Machina Get-Out-of-Jail- Free Card.
I look at my screen, I re-read the last twenty lines or so, and suddenly the Forbidden Thought comes to my mind.
“Isn’t this silly? Isn’t what you have spent the last 40 years of your life doing the silliest thing you can imagine? Saying to other adults, ‘Pretend this with me.’ And then spending a year writing the pretend.”
I remember when I was a kid on the playground, back in the late 50’s or early 60’s, and I would say, “Pretend I’m a beautiful black Arabian horse!” And with that, I was no longer that third grader in the dress with calf length skirt that tied around my waist with a bow, but a magnificent black Arabian horse galloping around on the asphalt, jumping over the Four Square markings painted onto the pavement. And none of the other girls challenged that fancy. No, they became Flicka or Misty or Fury or Black Beauty or some other imaginary or literary horse, galloping alongside me as I invented games where we had to evade the evil horse catchers or save our beloved owners from landslides or floods!
Third grade playground games. Didn’t we all play them? Sometimes we had dolls in hands, or G I Joe figurines or Breyer horses, our little avatars to focus the magic of our imaginations. Sometimes we just galloped, neighing and tossing our heads. And we pretended.
But you outgrew that, didn’t you? No galloping out of the office building on your coffee break, right?
You all outgrew it.
And I didn’t.
I may not be galloping down the sidewalks of my neighborhood, pausing to paw at the sidewalk with a sneakered hoof, but I’m still doing it.
I still sit down at the keyboard and say to my friends, “Pretend I’m an assassin, growing up in a castle, and I’m going to tell you every single thought I have and what I do, and who I fear and who I love.” And you are going to believe me, just as my friends on the playground did. You are going to invest the hours of your coffee break or the time before you sleep in playing pretend with me. I will make you care about the fate of a world that doesn’t exist. I will make you chew your nails over a character who has never drawn a breath. I will steal your sleep from you, and make you grumble in anger or perhaps shed a tear and all for the sake of a “Let’s pretend” game.
“How silly! How silly of me to think anyone will want to play ‘let’s pretend’ with me still.”
There. That was it. The most dangerous thought a fiction writer can entertain.
I’m holding all the threads in the tapestry. Each must be put in place with meticulous care. But if, for one careless moment, I permit that thought into my mind, if for one second I think, “How silly of me!” will I ever be able to weave myself into that world again? Will I ever be able to make myself love the characters and believe that what happens to them is significant and important.
If I ever stood up at a signing and said, “Oh you silly people! Why do you care about the Fool? It’s all a lie, I made it all up,” would any of us ever be able to open the door into that world again? Or any world that only exists within the covers of a book?
It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it? It’s as dangerous as saying, “there’s no such thing as a unicorn.” Because once you say that, with any sort of conviction, you will never see a unicorn again.
And so I will again refuse to think that thought.
I will scold Fitz for his stubbornness or plead with the Fool to once, just once, say something straight out. But I promise I will never say to you that my world or my characters are not real.
I will not think that thought.
Because I know it isn’t true.