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Over twenty-five years ago, a group of fantasy writers began merging the traditional realms of elves and magic with tales of young modern life and real-world problems. Under the guidance of visionary editor Terri Windling, these stories were written by several different authors, but they were set in the same shared world: the city known as Bordertown. Windling dreamed up "a modern city at the edge of a mysterious, magical realm—a border city where runaway children gather to create new lives for themselves . . . sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously." The Bordertown series expanded into several tremendously influential anthologies and novels throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and helped create the subgenre that came to be known as urban fantasy.

And then thirteen years passed. The literary field shifted. Urban fantasy permeated popular culture, largely in the form of paranormal romance and supernatural television shows. In the thirteen years since the last Bordertown story was published, the Way to that city has been closed. The human world has swept on, and the teens who read the original stories have grown up.

But time works differently in Bordertown, and over there, it's only been thirteen days. So when the Way opens again, and newcomers from the 21st century start pouring in, there will be some changes. And that's a good thing—because you don't go to Bordertown unless you're looking for change.

Editors Ellen Kushner and Holly Black have gathered an exciting assortment of emerging writers in the field to create a brand-new anthology, Welcome to Bordertown. This isn't just a next-generation reboot of the series; the anthology also includes new work from several of the original Bordertown authors (Kushner, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, and Terri Windling). The beloved, familiar characters are still there, but now they're joined by newcomers who are discovering the joys and perils of Bordertown for themselves. Authors and characters alike bring their own styles, concerns, and dreams to the Border in ways which blend into the existing mythos but also enhance it, challenge it, expand it into something greater.

From Holly Black's introduction to the book: "When Terri created the original Borderland series of shared world stories, there was nothing else like it. The first two volumes, Borderland and Bordertown, came out in 1986, and created a city where the capricious and dangerous elves of folklore (even if they called themselves something else) walked around in leather jackets, drank alongside human artists and poets in bars, and, most of all, existed in a world that wasn't long ago and far away. Bordertown was always close by, just around the corner, the place you could run away to if you dared.

"Whether or not today's urban fantasy writers have ever personally read a single Bordertown book (and many have read far more than one), their work is descended from them. This is the book series that changed the landscape of fantasy. . . ."


Karen Meisner: What does Bordertown mean to you, and how has that meaning evolved over time?

Holly Black: When I first read the Bordertown books, I was struggling as a writer, trying to find an authentic voice and tell the kinds of stories that I felt were mine to tell. Bordertown was one of the books that showed me that I could write about the grungy, gritty world I knew and I could write about magic too. And the idea of people writing in a shared world totally blew me away—it was such a fantasy to have a group of friends who loved the same books I loved and wanted to write about characters who were also friends.

Now, I feel like Bordertown was one of the guiding forces in me becoming the person I am today. It inspired me to meet creative friends, find a community, and to put fear aside and aspire to the kind of life that people led in books.

Ellen Kushner: Bordertown is steeped in fantasy while also dealing with the real, hard stuff in a young adult's life, the precarious times. Terri has a genius for knowing this—I'm just along for the ride.

When Terri invited me to write for the first book of the series, I felt very much the outsider: I'd never slept rough or lived in a squat; I liked adults, and didn't particularly trust other kids! —Fine, she said; so write about a kid from that part of the city. So I drew on my love of folklore and myth to write "Charis." And from then on, I drew on my love of Terri and the other authors and the magical thing we had so clearly created, to take me into that world. Terri was really supportive of me as a writer, and always insisted that I turn up something to put in each volume.

I found writing Bordertown stories very different from my usual rather fussy and intricately-managed work—it meant plugging into the wild teenager who turned out to still live deep inside me, and letting her just have her say. I loved it, every time.

And of course, the wonderful thing about being a writer is that you can be any age you damn well please, at any time.

The first two Bordertown anthologies, edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold (1986)

The first two Bordertown anthologies

KM: The earlier Bordertown series helped created an urban fantasy landscape. How do you see the latest generations of writers building on that landscape, and taking Bordertown in new directions?

EK: I remember when I was a young writer and editor, the fashion in fantasy (except for Fritz Leiber) was for everything to be very rustic and rural and pastoral. And nostalgic for ye olde; everyone in those stories wore hanging sleeves! Tolkien had sold a lot of books, so that became the stamp and pattern. I remember feeling vague discomfort with the material because my life wasn't his life—taking long long walks through the countryside, and all that.

I feel like my generation of fantasy writers made it possible for the literary generation after us to love elves and still feel at home in a city. It wasn't one individual, never any one particular book. There was a zeitgeist that we were all part of. We just wrote what was in us. But we laid paving stones, and now new writers can walk on them.

Borderland, edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold (1986)

Borderland (1986)

HB: I think one of the big things that new writers are bringing to Bordertown is a sense of the modern world as it has evolved in the last thirteen years. Of course there's (somewhat unstable) wifi in Bordertown! Of course there's a wiki! Of course music has changed and evolved and our sense of magic has altered! Of course there are explosive class tensions and racial tensions! Those things made sense to me as soon as I read them in new contributors' stories.

EK: I love the multicultural stuff that's happening in the field. This is a generational thing: most genre fantasy used to be medieval, Celtic-inspired—it really was! And you had these young writers, these kids who did not come from European backgrounds, saying, "Would anyone be interested in my background, my story?" You know: would you have to leave parts of yourself at the door in order to fit into a fantasy world, or could the fantasy world include what you brought to it? That has changed. There's definitely a growing sense in the field that we're open to that.

HB: I also think it's been really interesting to see how new characters react to the familiar—and now famous—people and places of the previous anthologies. Like all new arrivals on a scene, there's the tension of wanting to be as cool or cooler than your predecessors as well as wanting to get the nod from them. I think all us noobs felt that; certainly I did.

EK: One of the things that makes Bordertown different from most modern urban fantasy is that a lot of the people writing for it really know their folklore. It's amazing to work with Holly, because she just knows everything! These are authors who are familiar with all kinds of source material, so they're in a position to use it and also comment on it. People are consciously engaging with what's come before them. I love the opening to Cat Valente's story in this book: "The trouble is, I ran away when I was fifteen. Everyone knows you run away when you're sixteen." It's riffing on how these things are properly done: sixteen is when it happens. Basically saying, "I missed the perfect folklore moment, and now I have to deal with reality instead." Which is so Bordertown.

Bordertown, edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold (1986)

Bordertown (1986)

KM: What were some of your particular challenges in editing this anthology?

EK: First of all, we were on our honor to find new, younger authors who genuinely had read the original books as teens or young adults. The strategems to which we stooped included everything from my posting a sprightly, "Hey, does anyone remember that old Bordertown series of Terri Windling's?" on my LJ, to see what might turn up . . . to Holly & me sitting at my dining room table with our Wish List late at night, while I typed out, "Weird question: did you ever read the Bordertown books?" to authors.

HB: For me, the challenge was being a new editor as well as a new contributor to Bordertown. I wanted to be as respectful as possible of what had come before, I wanted to make Ellen and Terri as happy as possible, and I also wanted to add to the books.

EK: We were really worried about whether or not Terri would like our choices! We were quite relieved when she did.

And as we worked, we realized just how much editing Welcome to Bordertown was not like editing a regular anthology, where all you need is a volume of stories that don't suck; because all the Bordertown stories needed to be interconnected somehow. When we went to Devon to spend a week with Terri doing the final polish on the volume, we saw just how much work she'd put into each volume, as she led us through the process of identifying "spear carriers" (like a waitress in a cafe, or two generic people having a conversation) who could be the people from another story. Not to mention getting all the street names & geography right!

The Essential Bordertown: A Traveller's Guide to the Edge of Faerie, edited by Terri Windling and Delia Sherman (1998)

The Essential Bordertown (1998)


Clearly, Terri Windling's influence continues to infuse and inspire the new anthology. (The dedication in Welcome to Bordertown reads, "For Terri Windling, who showed us all the way to the Border." She also contributed an introduction, and co-wrote, with Ellen Kushner, the title story.) I asked Bordertown's original editor about returning to the territory she mapped out a quarter-century ago.

KM: The Bordertown you first created in 1985 has gone through a lot of changes over three decades. Revisiting it now, do you still recognize the place? What are some of the changes that intrigue you most, or please you best?

Terri Windling: I don't see a lot of change in Bordertown itself . . . it's still very much the same city that I first knew back in the '80s and '90s. The premise of the new book is that while thirteen years have passed for us here in the human world, only thirteen days have passed on the Border—and so the Dancing Ferret is still packed on a Saturday night, the Hard Luck Cafe still makes the best burgers in town, Wolfboy and Sparks are still running Elsewhere Books, Stick is still cruising the town on his vintage Harley, Corwyn of Aldon House is still scheming in the shadows . . . none of these things has changed.

So the city itself is the same (more or less) . . . but a new generation is heading there now. The new writers (and new readers) come to the Border with different expectations than ours, and different life experiences. Bordertown, remember, was first created in 1985—before personal computers, emails, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest. Heck, even before mobile phones. It was also long before Buffy and Twilight and teen vampires; before the whole modern urban fantasy genre. The new generation has grown up with these things. They come to the Border not only with new fashions, new music, and new tales to tell, but also with a whole new set of cultural references—and that's where I find an interesting frisson between their tales and ours. We're all sharing the same streets, the same landmarks, and in some cases even the same characters . . . but we see them in different ways. And, to me, that makes for fascinating fiction.

KM: In your introduction to the new anthology, you wrote of how you'd envisioned Bordertown as "a legendary mecca for runaway kids, both elfin and human. Outcasts, homeless kids, and other teens making their own way in the world." And, you said, ". . . The subject was a deeply personal one for me, for I'd once been a runaway teen myself." As you return to Bordertown from different places in your life, what sorts of fresh personal connection and meaning do you find in these stories?

TW: Your question makes me think about fairy tales, and the way these familiar stories keep changing on me as I grow older—for when I was younger I identified with the stalwart young heroes and plucky young heroines, whereas now I find whole new layers of meaning in the tales by looking through the eyes of the older characters: the stepmothers and witches and fairy advisors and crooked old crones by the side of the road. As I age and my role in life changes, my relationship to the archetypal figures in folk and fairy tales changes too.

But for Bordertown, on the other hand, it's a different experience. The stories are set in a derelict part of the city entirely taken over by kids, a place where adults rarely step foot. So when I travel to Bordertown, I always go there as my teenage self . . . not as the older woman I am now in real life. That's both the pleasure and anguish of writing fiction for teens: going back in time and re-experiencing all the highs and lows of those difficult years.

Like many of the kids I write about, I once was a runaway myself—and a few (but not all) of the other writers in the series also come from troubled backgrounds. That early experience influences my fiction, no doubt, but I don't think it's necessary to come from such a background in order to write a good Bordertown tale. To me, "running away to Bordertown" is as much a metaphorical act as an actual one. These tales aren't just for kids who have literally run away from home, but also for every kid, every person, who "runs away" from a difficult or constrictive past to build a different kind of life in some new place. Some of us "run away" to college . . . or we "run away" to a distant city or state . . . or we "run away" from a safe, secure career path to follow our passions or artistic muse. We "run away" from places we don't belong, or from families we have never fit into. We "run away" to find ourselves, or to find others like ourselves, or to find a place where we finally truly belong. And that kind of "running away from home"—the everyday, metaphorical kind—can be just as hard, lonely, and disorienting as crossing the Nevernever to Bordertown . . . particularly when you're in your teens, or early twenties, and your resources (both inner and outer) are still limited. I want to tell stories for young people who are making that journey, or contemplating making that journey. Stories in which friendship, community, and art is the "magic" that lights the way.

For more about the anthology, see the companion piece to this interview, A Medley of Authors (Re)Visiting One Magical City: Welcome to Bordertown.




Karen Meisner is an editor of fiction at Strange Horizons.
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29 Nov 2021

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