Goodbye, Anne McCaffrey

I woke up this morning to the news that Anne McCaffrey had passed away. I’ve felt incredibly down in the dumps since then: it was a pretty terrible start to the day, all told.

I loved Anne McCaffrey’s books. Like many of my favourite writers, I discovered her in the library. I couldn’t tell you which of her books I first picked up: I suspect it was one of the Pern novels, but I wouldn’t swear to that. I just remember that I was hooked, right from that first book. Here was someone writing about fantastical worlds, populated with real, believable characters; someone writing in the typically male-dominated fantasy and sci fi genre, filling her books with strong, capable female characters. I remember telling my mum excitedly about this great new writer I’d found at the library, and seeing her face light up as she showed me the shelf full of Anne McCaffrey books that I hadn’t known we had.

I devoured all of the Pern novels my mum had – and she quickly re-read them after me, my enthusiasm having reminded her of an author she’d once loved but hadn’t picked up in years. When I’d run through all of those, I went back to the library and read everything else of Anne McCaffrey’s that I could lay my hands on. I must have spent six months reading nothing but her books.

When I saw the news this morning, it felt like getting news of the death of an old friend; someone who I hadn’t seen in years, maybe had lost touch with, but who I still thought of fondly. I’ve never really understood people who get really affected by the deaths of celebrities or public figures. I remember when Princess Diana died, when I was a teenager: I was sad that a woman had died so young, and left two children without a mother, but it was an abstract kind of sadness. Other than initially registering that a sad thing had happened, I didn’t think about it any further. I remember being bewildered by the outpourings of grief I saw on the news: why were all these people so upset about someone they didn’t know, had never met?

I still don’t really get it, but I started to have an inkling of how the death of a stranger can still affect you a few years later. I was working in a shoe shop in Bath at the time. I was in the staff room, getting my lunch, and my sister (who also worked there) came running in from the store room where they’d had the radio on, and blurted out “Douglas Adams has died!”

I had to sit down. It was a real, visceral shock: how could he be dead? I felt bereft, then: although I hadn’t known him, never met him, couldn’t claim to miss him now he was gone since he was never part of my life in the first place. Still, I felt like I’d lost someone. Although I’d never met him, and I’ve never met Anne McCaffrey, both their deaths meant something to me because I felt like I knew them, through their words.

Although now I can draw a parallel between how I felt at the death of a writer and how numerous other people seemed to feel at the death of a princess, I still wonder if there is something unique about writers here. The nature of fiction is that it is entirely in your head, which makes the connection between writer and reader an oddly personal one. They create a world in their heads, transcribe it, and you read and re-build their world in your own head.

Whatever the rationale, the world feels like a colder place without Anne McCaffrey in it, to me at least. I’m re-reading The Ship Who Sang tonight, in memory of her. Goodbye, Anne. Thank you for everything.

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