Fond Regards, Marcus Sedgwick

I was astounded and saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Marcus Sedgwick.

For those of you who didn’t know of him, he was a celebrated author with a list of accolades as long as a swan’s stretched neck. I did not know him well — and in fact spent only one afternoon with him several years ago — but he made a distinct impression on me, enough that learning of his unexpected passing gobsmacked my day.

Many of you are aware I teach Creative Writing at a prestigious high school. One benefit of my program is that we bring in a lot of excellent authors to work with our students, and I met Marcus when he was touring in the US to promote his novel Saint Death and visited my school. We had a lunch and book signing, and then he came in to work specifically with just my high school students. The lunch and signing were pleasant and lovely, and he was pleasant and lovely, but the real impression he made on me happened afterward, in the brief open time between the lunch and my class arriving.

Our librarian and the local bookseller who was sponsoring his visit and one of the parent volunteers escorted him to my classroom, where I was alone and preparing for the next session. He was a youngish man, I thought — in fact only a few years older than I am — but he was walking slowly, with a cane. Our librarian had alluded to some “health concerns,” but I didn’t know what they were. But Marcus was cheerful with a charming British cadence in his voice, gentle and kind in the way that everyone who has mentioned him over the last two days has said. As he sat in a desk at the front of the room, the ladies escorting him said, “It was nice to meet you today. Angélique, he’s all yours!” Then they disappeared from my doorway, and I realized we had almost twenty minutes to fill before my students came in. The small talk lasted about two minutes.

Then I asked if he would like a cup of tea. His face brightened. “You have tea? I would love one, thank you.” I brought over the box of teas I keep in my classroom (several varieties, all high quality brands, because I love tea and don’t see how anyone makes it through a work day without it) so he could select the kind he wanted. (He chose a mint/tarragon blend with no cream or sugar.) Then I left briefly to make the tea while he pulled his presentation up on his computer.

Even after making sure all the technology worked and everything was in order, we still had some time left before my students arrived. That’s when he turned to me and said, “I understand you’re an author, too. What do you write?”

Reader, I was stunned.

It would be a logical assumption to believe that at a school like mine, the person teaching Creative Writing would be an author. In fact, quite a few of our English teachers are also authors. In fact, quite a few of our faculty in other departments are also authors. And by most metrics outside of the school where I teach, I am considered a successful author.

But among all of the dozens upon dozens of authors I’ve had visit my students over the years, he is almost the only one ever to ask me if and what I write. I felt seen in a way I didn’t realize I hadn’t been before. There are countless ways in which I am sometimes invisible to the people around me, but on that day, I was not, and the comfort of that feeling, like a sliver of light, has never left me.

So seeing the news yesterday was kind of tough. I wish the warmest feelings of comfort to his family and friends, whose loss is no doubt immense. May their memories of Marcus bring them peace.

 

 

Whom I’ve Been Reading: Marcus Sedgwick

Although my favorite thing to read is a novel, I also love linked collections of short stories. The forgiving nature of a series of discrete narratives doesn’t make me feel guilty when my schoolwork prevents me from reading a novel straight through.

Sometimes these collections are linked by place; there are many of these. Others are linked by characters, such as Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neill. By an object: Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Some by concept: Her Infinite Variety by Pamela Rafael Berkman. Sometimes by theme: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer.

And sometimes a collection is linked by all of these.

Printz Award-winning Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick contains seven linked stories which travel backward in time on a remote and unusual island near the top of the world. They explore the themes of love and sacrifice in the myriad ways that love and sacrifice impress themselves on our lives, sometimes obvious and sometimes not. But the writing is never obvious, never predictable. Sedgwick’s work is often, I think, categorized as YA, but even if you don’t usually read in that category, give this one a try.

Eric and Merle are two characters who orbit each other in time, meeting each other in different ways. Sometimes in love, sometimes bound by a family relationship, sometimes tossed together by external forces, their interactions show the breadth of love and sacrifice. The writing is lush without overpowering the reader. The stories are based on an actual historical painting, Midvinterblot, but everything else in the novel comes from Sedgwick’s own imagination.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book that won’t give too much of the story away. Aside from the writing being enjoyable even down to the level of the sentence, I love the structure, how each story is illuminated by a subsequent one, how the orbit comes around in such a satisfying way, how the island itself is a character, how the names of the characters evolve, how the dragon flowers on the island and the image of the hare anchor the narrative. There is a hint of the fantastical in this book, but I wouldn’t call it fantasy; magic realism is more its purview.

This novel-in-stories accomplishes what the 1994 film Being Human tried to do but couldn’t. Midwinterblood captures two important facets of the immensity of human experience with crystalline clarity. And like a faceted prism, this story reveals a depth of possibility in every interaction, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. That love and sacrifice cannot be contained. It asks the question, is life truly this rich?

And so, it is.