I didn’t grow up on any sort of border; more in the middle of nowhere, in rural eastern North Carolina. If you wanted a life of kudzu, collapsing tobacco barns, swamps, or soybean fields, you were spoiled for choice, but otherwise, the options seemed a bit limited. I grew to love many things about the place as I got older, from the deep woods to the good food, but when I was twelve or fourteen, I didn’t see much beyond the limitations.
But I read about one border: the Border between the mortal world and the land of elves. I clearly remember finding a Borderland anthology in the stacks at the local library, but memory is as slippery a trickster as any streetwise conniver you’d find in B-town, and I suppose I might have actually found a copy in the Waldenbooks at the mall, or in a big box of paperbacks at the flea market, or even among the seemingly thousands of SF/fantasy paperbacks in my great-grandmother’s spare bedroom. Wherever it was, that book provided my first glimpse of the Border: a place where you could leave old lives behind and make new ones. A place where the promise of magic slammed into the limitations of reality, but still managed sometimes to succeed. A place where everything was a possibility—and if that included the possibility of catastrophic failure, so what? Isn’t burning out better than wasting away?
I think I was bright enough to realize that, despite living a long way from anywhere in particular, I was still negotiating borders: notably crossing from the land of childhood to the land of adulthood, through that vast NeverNever that is adolescence. The Borderlands books certainly addressed that. I know I felt like I was ready to be an adult long before the rest of the world agreed. I’d already realized that a lot of grown-ups didn’t know any more than I did, and some of them were even dumber than I was, and even the ones who were smarter weren’t using their smarts for things I necessarily considered worthwhile. As I read them then, those Borderland stories validated my feelings of teen frustration completely, though from the vantage of adulthood, I can see the stories were often doing something… a little more complex. It’s a great story that gives you something new each time you read it, and the Border is full of stories like those.
As I got older, I had more experience with borders. Some literal: living in the dramatically blue misty mountains on the line between North Carolina and Tennessee, and living in California—home to expats, transplants, and refugees from both sides of innumerable borders. And some metaphorical borders, too: realizing I didn’t always share the faith or philosophy or politics or assumptions of most of my extended family, though I loved them very much.
Having to negotiate the Border between what you’ve been taught to believe and what you know yourself to be true? That can be as treacherous as skinnydipping in the Mad River.
But here’s the thing: reading science fiction and fantasy and poetry had prepared me to negotiate those philosophical borders. And the Borderlands anthologies, especially, were instrumental in that preparation. They taught me that it’s not just acceptable to reinvent yourself—sometimes it’s imperative. Sometimes it’s an act of survival. Life is full of borders. Some of them, once crossed, can never be crossed again in the other direction. But there are new countries to discover across every one.
When I was invited to write a story for the new Bordertown volume, I was ecstatic. Because I’d crossed another border: I’d been invited into a world more magical than Elfhame. How many people get to become part of something they loved as a kid? I try to explain, to people who don’t know about Bordertown, and I tell them: it’s like a kid who watches baseball all day every day growing up to play for his favorite team. It’s like a kid with a guitar who does nothing but listen to music all day growing up to play in his favorite band. It’s like… But they just look puzzled. After all, I only wrote a story. I’ve written lots of stories. What makes this story—part of a shared-world anthology, no less!—so different?
But those of you who’ve been to the Border understand. And those of you who haven’t been, yet: oh, what a journey you’ve got ahead of you.
Tim Pratt’s stories have appeared in The Year’s Best Fantasy, The Best American Short Stories, and other nice places, and his short fiction has won a Hugo Award (and lost World Fantasy, Stoker, Sturgeon, and Nebula Awards). His next novel, dark fantasy Briarpatch, is coming out in October. He lives with his wife and son in Berkeley, California (just across the border from Oakland, though he’s not sure which of the two cities is Elfland). For more, see his website at www.timpratt.org.