That One Book

Sarah Zettel - Delia JamesDelia James has been a writer almost as long as she’s been anything. She started putting stories on paper by drawing stick figures comics based on Maurice Sendak cartoons and never stopped. These days, she writes her magical mysteries from her home near Ann Arbor, Michigan, assisted by her loving husband, Tim, her magnificent son, Alex, and her vocal cat, Buffy the Vermin Slayer.

First of all, thanks to the great folks here for inviting me to come share this space for a bit. I’m Delia James and I write the Witch’s Cat mysteries.

For everyone who writes, and everyone who reads, there is one book in their lives that stands out. Its the Book of All Books, the one that changed the way you see the world, not to mention every other book. You keep returning to it your entire life. That book is home. It’s your true companion. It’s what you hand down to your kids.

But the book itself is not always an obvious one, and it’s influence on your life, creative or everyday, isn’t always direct. For someone like me who writes mysteries, you might think my book is by Agatha Christie, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Dorothy Sayers. Nope. My book is the book I learned to read from, and the only mystery in it is how can the heroine get herself home?

Which book? Well…Let me set the scene.

When I was a kid, there were 3 TV channels and no DVRs, or internet, and we walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways. Hey, I’m from Buffalo, New York. It could have happened.

Anyway, back then, once a year, one of those TV channels would show the movie “The Wizard of Oz”. I remember the first time I saw it very clearly. Because I got furious, in the way only a little kid can. They got it all wrong! Glinda wasn’t the Good Witch of the North, she was the queen of the Quadlings! The Munchkin country was supposed to be blue! The shoes were silver, not ruby! It ended in the middle! And it wasn’t a dream! Oz was real, Dorothy really went there!

It was, of course, the movie musical of my book, the book. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I read that book and the 13 sequels Baum wrote over, and over, and over and I read them to my son. I am, and I remain, a stone-cold Oz geek.

And let me tell you, these are some truly weird books. Oz is a very strange place where anything can come to life. For instance, in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, we meet a magician who makes a glass cat, but doesn’t want it to have the Tin Woodsman’s problem with not having a heart. So, he gives the cat a heart made of ruby. The problem is, because the heart is stone, the cat itself is hard-hearted.

Yes, this is where I learned my love of stories of magic and the paranormal. Come to that, that glass cat in Oz was my first encounter with a talking cat. I wonder if that’s where I got some of the attitude for Alistair in the Witch’s Cat mysteries.

But although there are dozens of books about Oz, it’s the story in the first book that everybody knows; the story of Dorothy and her three companions that we all love. That’s the story re-told and re-worked and is so firmly a part of the cultural landscape.


I’ve tried to work this out every so often, but I’ve got to say I’ve never quite managed it to my own satisfaction. I mean, I love the stories because I love them. Because they’re neat. Because they’re weird. Because Dorothy is unflappable without being cloying (all props to Judy Garland, but she didn’t get across the sheer nerve of the Dorothy in the books).

The movie, of course, has got a lot to do with the endurance of the story. Although, it didn’t at first. It never made back its $3 million budget and was considered a flop (!!) until it was rescued by TV (ain’t that just the tail wagging the dog?), and we all came to know it with Judy Garland’s breathless, dreamy Dorothy; Margaret Hamilton’s amazing Wicked Witch of the West, not to mention Burt Lahr’s Brooklyn-accented Cowardly Lion and those wonderful songs by E.Y. Harburg.

A_Familiar_Tail.inddHuh. You know, those were my first witches too. Oz is full of witches; good witches and bad witches, wise witches and foolish ones. Magic is what you make of it.

I think though, it’s the underlying story that continues to delight. In a lot of ways, Oz is the first iteration of the road trip. Seriously. The Yellow Brick road is the most famous thoroughfare in American letters. And on it we have a group of buddies each of whom is searching for something (all together now: “A heart, a home, a brain, da noive!”) to make them complete. They are not princes and princesses, they are working folk who have all had hard luck somehow; a poor farm girl, an unsuccessful scarecrow, a cursed lumberjack (if you’ve read the book, or seen that spectacular version of “The Wiz” that aired recently, then you know he’s made of tin because the Wicked Witch of the East put a spell on his axe and he cut himself to pieces), and a cowardly lion. They are all looking to a Wonderful Wizard to save them from their troubles, but in the end, they all pull together and save themselves.

Huh. You know…


So, what’s your book?