Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How L.J. Smith Has Changed My Life

I'm a few days late writing my blog post this week because I was at Illogicon in Cary, NC, this weekend, but I'm actually glad I did because I heard the most amazing news today that I want to share with everyone and that has inspired me to write a blog post I always knew I would write someday.

My favorite, favorite author in the entire world is L.J. Smith. She's most famous for writing the Vampire Diaries series, on which the television show is based, and her other series include Secret Circle (which also inspired a television series, but we don't talk about that), Dark Visions, Forbidden Games, and Night World (plus or minus some definite articles). I have read all of these books more times than I would be willing to admit in a public setting, if I hadn't lost count a long time ago.

L.J. Smith first published the Vampire Diaries in the early 1990's---yes, she wrote YA PNR before it was even a thing---and after a nearly 20 year break for other series and a long hiatus on writing entirely (more on that later), she came out with a new trilogy of Vampire Diaries books, which met with mixed reviews. She had a number more Vampire Diaries books planned---some I think even written---when her publishing company did the unthinkable: they told her she couldn't write the series anymore. Not only that, they decided to continue the series, written with a different plot by a different author, while still using her name to promote the books. Ms. Smith could not publicly say anything about the publisher's decision, but I can only imagine how soul-crushing the experience must have been for her. I know how appalling it was for me. I actually become quite riled when Amazon or Audible recommends one of the new books to me. "How dare you?" I say. "Even if the works of L.J. Smith were not more important to me than I could put into words, how dare you think I would betray any author by supporting a series that was stolen from her."

But today L.J. Smith made an announcement that I must, once again, describe as amazing. Amazon has a section called Kindle Worlds where anyone can write and sell fanfic set in universes for which Amazon has obtained the licenses. One of these worlds is the Vampire Diaries, which means Ms. Smith can finally publish her continuation---as fanfic. So now those of us who will have nothing to with the non-L.J. Smith-sanctioned Vampire Diaries can have resolution to the extremely dissatisfying ending to Midnight. And we know that Ms. Smith can continue her story, her way.

In light of this, I have decided to take the time to talk about what L.J. Smith's works have meant to me, because there has been no author who has been as influential in my life. I first heard about her works in 9th or 10th grade because my sister and neighbors were reading them, and I was skeptical. Vampires? Witches? That sounded too much like horror, and I hated anything scary. But they loved these books, and I found myself asking all kinds of questions about the stories. So finally I caved and decided to read the Secret Circle, since those sounded the least threatening.

So began my obsession. For the next 2-3 days, I did not put the books down. Any time I had a break even during classes, I had my nose in the pages, and under normal circumstances, I was a straight-laced, straight A student. My sister had told me the entire plot of the book, but that could not hold a candle to the experience of actually reading about Cassie and her club of teenage witches. My friends didn't understand what had happened to me, and I have to confess that even I was surprised by my furor. I don't think I have ever been as obsessed with a book while I was reading it, and I doubt I ever will be again.

I am now 32 years old, and the Secret Circle means as much to me now as it did when I was 16. Last summer, I needed an audiobook for a long car trip, and I wanted to pick something I knew could fascinate me for the entire trip, so I immediately picked the Secret Circle. And as I drove the distance from Richmond to North Carolina and back to Baltimore, I was struck again by how good these books were, how they spoke to something deep inside of me. This inspired me to gift the ebooks to my friend for his birthday. I told him that I would give him my favorite books, and, in exchange, I would read his favorite books. (Which reminds me that I need to finish The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. Ordinarily we read similar things, but he trends more toward classics when selecting his very favorites.) And I got to share the worlds of L.J. Smith with one more person, not for the first time in my life, and hopefully not for the last.

I started reading L.J. Smith right around the time the Night World books started coming out, and during that time, I had really bad depression and OCD. High school, overall, was a bad time for me, because I was in desperate need of mental health care, but I didn't know what to do about it. When a new Night World book came out, it was like a brief moment of light in my otherwise dark existence. Every time I went to the bookstore at the mall, I would run to the YA shelf at the back, hoping beyond hope that there would be a new volume. The new stories about Rashel and Hannah and Jez and Keller brought me joy at a time where very little else did. If any of my books can ever do for anyone what L.J. Smith's books did for me then, my writing---really my entire life---will have been worthwhile.

In December 1997, I read Witchlight in one evening and got to the fateful words at the end: "Don't miss the next Night World Strange Fate (Coming in Spring 1998)." At the time this was alarming, because the books had been coming out at two month intervals (which I now realize is a ridiculously progressive schedule, and I am so grateful to Ms. Smith for getting the books out that fast). I didn't think I could wait 3-6 months for the next one. I counted out the $4.23 I expected I would have to spend on the paperback and left it on the corner of my dresser, reserved for the day when it would arrive. 

L.J. Smith fans know where this story is going. Strange Fate didn't come out in Spring 1998, or Summer, or Fall. Now, Winter 2014, Strange Fate still has not come out. It's something I mark to myself at various points in the year---15 Decembers since Witchlight, coming up on 15 springs since the first promised publication date. For years, this made me angry. Where was Strange Fate? I needed this book, and it wasn't there. Amazon has announced a publication date on more than one occasion, even given me cover art and publication dates, only to take them away again.

Then one day a few years ago, I realized something. I have gone through so much since the evening I read Witchlight. I grew up, went to college and graduate school, had 4 jobs. I went through the darkest time in my life and then finally had the courage to seek mental health care and climbed out of that hole, a hole I've fallen into and climbed back out of more than once since then. I've made friends and lost friends, become obsessed with new book series only to grow tired of them, and written books of my own and become an author in my own right. I've gone from being a devout Catholic to an agnostic on my best days. I have changed my opinion on just about everything I ever believed in. But I realized that, in all that time, no matter what happened, never, not for one moment, did I doubt that some day Strange Fate would be released. I still believe it today, and I will believe it until the day I declare the release day a personal holiday and finally hold the book in my hands. 

That is why L.J. Smith is my favorite author in the world. Not just because she wrote amazing stories that are still being reprinted 20 years after their original publication. Not just because her books helped me through the worst time in my life. But because L.J. Smith reminds me every single day that there is a place for faith in this world. And I would wait another 15 years for Strange Fate for that.

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