Garth Nix – are you mad? Or an alcoholic? – meditations on growing up

Garth Nix – are you mad? Or an alcoholic? – meditations on growing up

This morning I realized/remembered this morning, that I first met Garth Nix around 15 years ago. Probably.

I knew an author had come to my school and talked about his book and career and publishing, but I only just pieced together that it was probably Garth Nix. Author Man had come to my school to talk about his book and about being a writer. Some of my class mates seemed terribly excited about this Author Man, but I did not recognize his name.

They said he was a fantasy writer, but I had not read him in Aurealis, so I figured he was probably not very good. He was probably a nobody, who wouldn’t go anywhere. Ah the mild mannered opinions of youth. Aurealis was my bible, my window and hope and geography in the world of speculative fiction. Around this time I was also convinced that this Shaun Tan guy was some hyped up 19 year old and the editorial raving about him in Aurealis was crap. It was the only time I remember disagreeing strongly with Aurealis. Like _that_ guy would go anywhere, what nonsense! A little green eyed perhaps? Perhaps a lot.

I was deeply suspicious of Author Man, for the sin of not having read him in Aurealis and perhaps because some of my class mates loved and adored him and I had not read any of him. I had just come from a vigorously alternative high school to one of the more conservative high schools in the region. To mess with that conservatism I was the sort of student that for a week sat on top of the lockers in a frozen gargoyle pose, tracking people with my eyes.

Author Man seemed more normal than Jackie French! Normal and reasonable and at first I did not like him very much. He seemed to be betraying authorness with his quiet disposition. He won me over and depressed me a little with his honest depiction of a writer’s life. He talked about the many variables of a writer’s life, how nothing is guaranteed and all the ups and downs and stops and starts. He treated us like adults and I started to like him, despite the fact that he was a normal looking man who was read by my classmates. I was going to read his books.

He seemed to have a very interesting brain and I was disappointed by the dullness of my classmates questions. None of them seemed chase for the guts of existence or the writer’s being or probe deeply in any way. I had a theory… perhaps from reading some essay in the New York Review of Books that felt true to me.

So I asked him “I have heard that all full time authors are mad or alcoholics. Which one are you?”

I enjoyed asking the pointed question and I was a little bit hopeful. Author Man didn’t seem to be rolling around with a blotchy nose in the way I imagined Anthony Burgess would. He didn’t seem to be an alcoholic and so I imagined he was mad. Perhaps a mad I could relate to. We would have this connection and he would prove himself to be a real author.

He said something like “I don’t think I’m either. I don’t think an author has to be mad or an alcoholic…” And went on to describe more author lives and experiences, his own and anonymous others in an interesting sort of way. A lot of it amounting to madness isn’t necessarily helpful when there’s a whole lot of work to do.

I remember feeling disappointed. Was he lying because he thought we were just kids? Was he truly not mad or not an alcoholic? In which case how could I trust him as a writer? I wasn’t a fan of the concept of writer as alcoholic… I figured alcoholic writers were for self referential adult books and Roald Dahl who I didn’t like so much anymore. I loved the idea of writer as divinely mad – how else would their stories hold me through the madness of this life?

We had a bit of a friendly chat after the talk with a few others. I felt a bit sorry for Author Man for not being mad and soldiering on regardless. I figured that he wouldn’t go very far and I felt like I would die if I was as unsuccessful as him! I find it fascinating to see how perceptions change and how many things that feel certain in the moment are built on bollocks. Garth Nix, Shaun Tan, can’t be wronger than that.

I didn’t get round to reading Garth’s work for a very long time, put off by his not-madness… which is a shame as I denied myself the pleasure of reading Sabriel as a teen. While I was deeply opinionated and resistant in many ways I wonder if that was where certain important seeds were first planted. Seeds that have been built on by other words and experiences.

You don’t have to be mad or alcoholic to be a writer. And conviction is often far far from the truth.

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