Today Calumet Editions published my young adult novel, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE. Some might ask why after seven books focused on science (both fiction and nonfiction) I decided to return to writing fantasy.
The easy answer is that I finished a first draft of this book six or seven years ago, before Tumblehome Learning, before the Galactic Academy of Science series or my books of biographies of women in science. When I started FLUTE I had just completed LOST IN LEXICON. Maybe my head was just in fantasy mode.
But it’s really more complicated than that. I never aspired to write a traditional fantasy with dragons and curses and magic spells. In LOST IN LEXICON, I set myself a specific challenge, to build a quest adventure around common topics in middle school mathematics and English language arts, to make them teasing and fun for brainy readers. Now, in the new book about a flute boy who wants to be a soldier, I wanted to explore certain questions of psychology and identity. To do so, I needed a society that highlighted issues of bravery and justice in a way that would be clear to young readers.
Ursula LeGuin is the paramount artisan of this kind of fiction. She sets up a world in which she can ask a set of questions to challenge us. What would life be like in an anarchist utopia? What if we were not always the same sex, but changed from one to the other periodically and unexpectedly throughout life? Kiran’s world is neither as unfamiliar nor as unexpected as those LeGuin has created, but an ability to create my own parameters allowed me to make his dilemmas and decisions more stark and clear.
After drafting THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE I put it away for several years. I had to know that it would still seem authentic to me after a wait. I moved back to the world of Lexicon, where I could ask myself a much more playful question: What would life be like in a place where the most important thing was how well a person sings? This was my nod to the theory of multiple intelligences and my rueful admission that in such a world (Lexicon’s Land of Winter) I would definitely occupy the lowest social class. That was my motivation in writing THE ICE CASTLE, which is a more developed though less-known tale than the first Lexicon book.