Den of Dreams
Picture a den in suburban Don Mills—a dimly lit and cozy wood-paneled room dominated by books. Oh, there’s a sofabed under the window, an upright piano with old wooden mantel radios and hundreds of record albums above it, in its own alcove, and a desk and television—and in those days, televisions were elegant pieces of furniture, large polished wooden cabinets—but the top of the desk and television, and every inch of available wall, is covered with books (the desk even has built-in sliding bookends) or shelving crammed with books. Homebuilt shelving, constructed so as to waste not an inch of space, for my father—like everyone else in the family I ever met—is a voracious reader and acquirer of books. Books that are shelved in this room not by topic or necessarily series, but by size, so first-edition hardcover volumes of The Lord Of The Rings are side-by-side with The High White Forest, a novel of the Battle of the Bulge by Ralph Allen, because those tomes are precisely the same height. There are wartime British paperbacks, just a smidgen taller than the American ones (“Give One To A Friend In Uniform!”) and in contents the collection varies from bound proceedings of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; my father, a radar physicist during the Cold War, was a member) to what passed for pornography in 1930s mass market paperbacks (The Nude Said No—a title that spurred me to hunt for months for “The Nude Said Yes,” a book I never found).
All in all, a setup guaranteed to spur voracious young readers (me among them) to discover all sorts of treasures, from Saint and Norman Conquest paperbacks to classics by Kipling and Wodehouse and Dunsany, and from the Lensman space operas (did you know that they were issued in leather-bound volumes with gilt-edge pages and bookmark ribbons at the height of the Depression?) and Burroughs John Carter books to many volumes of Isaac Asimov science essays. There was a Glencannon collection, and the Decameron with naughty illustrations; every last paperback Lin Carter was editing for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy collection was arriving as it was published, and there were delightful boys’ adventure books like Way Down Cellar by Phil Stong, the Mad Scientists’ Club adventures by Brinley, and the Islanders books by Pertwee. Harold Lamb’s dashing historical fiction rubbed dustjackets with locked room mysteries by John Dickson Carr and The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
The book next to a newly-discovered delight was apt to be something completely different, a cause of passing frustration when there were obviously sequels or prequels that I couldn’t immediately find (just about every other room in the house was crammed with books, and later on the lower stairwells sprouted custom-built “I think I can squeeze the width of a paperback in here” shelves built by my father).
Many was the time I went pounding up the stairs, from about the age of four to my teens, to wave a book under my father’s nose and ask him eagerly, “Dad, dad! Where’s the next one? There is a next one, isn’t there?”
I have since spent most of my professional life—from the age of fourteen on—working in public libraries, and encountered many colleagues whose book knowledge is impressive, but my father had them all beat. He could quote scenes verbatim from obscure pulp sf and swords-and-sorcery paperbacks, or M.R. James ghost stories, or a Lovecraft or even August Derleth Mythos tale, remembered where illustrations were in old pulp sf magazines, and could tell you amusing stories of memorable bon mots uttered by writers in private life.
So I always believed him—and deservedly so; he was always right—when he’d either tell me where he had the book I was seeking squirreled away, or what to ask for on our next visit to the library if someone had long ago borrowed his copy and never returned it, or uttered some variant of the dreaded words, “Well, son, that writer’s been dead for thirty years, and there are no more books or short stories in that series, so if you want one, you’ll have to write it yourself.”
News that saddened me only momentarily, drowned in the surging excitement of the chance to write “what happened next” to this or that beloved character—and off I’d go, racing back down to the den to grab one of the piled pads of writing paper, and a good sharp pencil, and set to work.
Penning absolutely terrible and usually mercifully short or even unfinished sequels that thankfully have not survived—not just for legal reasons, but because they were utterly dreadful. However, I found the actual writing of them engaging entertainment, and I was learning from both the best masters of the English language and the worst (you can learn from sloppy schlock and from lyrical prose alike). Learning style and how to tell a story, and just having lots of gosh-darned fun.
Later, in public school, I got sent to the principal’s office by an English teacher to get punished for plagiarism after writing a Blandings short story for a class writing assignment (“Pick a favourite published short story and write a different tale that uses the same setting and characters in a manner that is faithful to the original.”) that the teacher was convinced I’d just copied from a Wodehouse she’d never found—but I was lucky enough to encounter a principal who was a true Wodehouse fan, who knew he was either reading a superb pastiche he wanted more of, or that I’d somehow stumbled upon an unpublished Blandings short story by the master. So obviously, I got pretty good at imitating some writers.
And one day I opened an issue of Fantastic magazine (brought home brand-new by my father) and discovered a new Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, rushed across the den to a much older magazine (called Unknown) and found what I remembered was in it, a much older tale in the same series—and realized something that Conan stories should already have made obvious to me but somehow hadn’t: that self-contained fantasy stories could share the same setting and impart little details of it in each tale that gradually build a rich tapestry, so the setting itself becomes a lure or even a character.
I set about writing my own series—not Fafhrd and Mouser pastiches, but stories starring a very different protagonist, a traveling ne’er-do-well called Mirt the Moneylender.
And the world he roamed would become the Forgotten Realms.®