The Big Idea: Ellen Kushner

For longtime fans of the urban fantasy genre, the Bordertown series of anthologies hardly needs an introduction — it was literally one of the foundations of the genre when it emerged on the publishing scene in 1986. Now Welcome to Bordertown, introduces a new generation of readers to that gritty, magical place — and in doing so will open the door for them to a larger gathering of writers and readers who have been there before them. As Welcome to Bordertown’s co-editor Ellen Kushner explains in her Big Idea, this is not at all coincidental.


They didn’t make me write an introduction to Welcome to Bordertown.  My co-editor, Holly Black wrote one, and Terri Windling, who invented Bordertown and edited 7 books about it, wrote the other (after we’d told her, “Terri, we’ll take care of everything, don’t worry! Well, maybe you can just write a short introduction . . . And by the way, could you check all the stories to make sure the street names are right? And what are the rules about getting to Bordertown, again? And we know you’re busy but . . . . ”).  The idea was that Original Series Creator would talk about how it all started, and Next Generation Hot Young Writer would explain how Original Series had changed her life.  Which left me happily sitting back and writing jacket copy.

But maybe I do owe some sort of introduction to the new volume.  I was, after all, in every one of Terri’s Bordertown anthologies from 1986 – 1998.  And I was the one who cornered Holly in a bar at the ALA in 2007 and said, “Wanna start the series up again, if I can get Terri to agree?”

So here it is:

My introduction to Welcome to Bordertown.

In the 1980s, prominent young fantasy editor Terri Windling and I were sharing an apartment with a rotating cast of characters on New York City’s then-still-seedy Upper West Side. My first novel, Swordspoint, was still looking for a publisher, without much success. We were both nursing broken hearts, and the doleful strains of Brian Ferry’s “More than This” were heard more often than either of us really likes to admit (with Prince and the Eurythmics to cheer things up).

As she explains in her Introduction, a publisher had asked Terri to come up with a new Shared World anthology.  So she was inviting some of the authors she had been nurturing to write something that combined traditional, folkloric elf stuff with the kinds of cities most of us were actually living in:  a fantasia of black leather jackets, clubs where you sweatily danced all night, and maybe some motorcycles for the kick.

I had only just bought my first leather jacket.

And there I was in the kitchen, hearing all this Bordertown stuff going down, and feeling all uncool and left out.  And I got up my nerve and said, “Um, Terri, would you want me to write something for this?”

She looked at me wide-eyed, and said, “Would you want to?”

As if I was too busy or too important or too literary or something.  Which was quite a joke, considering I’d only ever sold two short stories.  So I said, “Well, yeah!” And she gave me a deadline.  I was in.

But it turned out that the stories were supposed to be about teen runaways meeting on the mean streets, kids who trusted only each other because adults were dangerous.  And I wailed, “But my family was nice!  Other kids were mean to me!”

“Write about a kid coming from that background, then,” Terri said.

So I did.

After the tightly controlled language and emotions of Swordspoint, writing in the voice of the angsty romantic teen Charis was a fabulous slalom down the slope of story.  For the next volume, Terri and I wrote a novella together – and into Linny of “Mockery,” I poured all the shit I’d taken for being a girl who wanted attention for being clever and different, and was told (by other kids) to be cute and nice, instead.  At Terri’s side – in communion with the other writers helping to create this outsiders’ paradise of possibility and art – like my character, I found a way to work things out.

And it kept on happening.  At a time in my life when I lacked both confidence and discipline, I managed to write a story for every single one of the four volumes of the original anthology series.

I could do this because Terri was with me every step of the way.  When I was out of ideas, she brainstormed with me.  When I was out of confidence, she praised me (as in:  I’d leave newly-typed pages on the kitchen table at 2 a.m., with Does this suck? scrawled at the top, and crawl out for my orange juice at 11 to find No! Keep going! written beneath it).  And when I was out of energy, she gave me a deadline.

Three drafts ago, I thought this piece was going to be about how I talked Holly into reviving the series; she has, after all, gone on record in several interviews claiming she said she’d chew off her right arm to join the Bordertown writers – whereas I distinctly remember that when I shyly asked her, “Um, would you want to write one?” her exact words were:  “I would walk over broken glass to write a Bordertown story!”  I thought this was going to be about how Holly and I then went about rounding up what was left of the old gang for one more ride to the Border, and how we cunningly uncovered (and recruited) the next generation of “Bordertown kids” without letting them know what was up  (yeah, very Seven Samurai) . . . .

But I now see that it’s really about community.  Terri has always known you don’t just stumble across it; you have to create it.  She wanted there to be a place for all of us to meet, a liminal space between the elfin lands and the life we actually lived.

In creating Bordertown she created a community not just of writers (as Holly’s introduction movingly explains) but of readers. Ever since the new anthology was announced, I’m stunned at how many people have posted about how reading Bordertown changed – or even saved – their lives.  Terri gave us all a place to dream of,  a vision of a town where, when you find something good, you pass it on to others.  Which is just what Holly and I are hoping to do with the new volume.


Welcome to Bordertown: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the Bordertown series Web site. Read Kushner’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

20 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ellen Kushner”

  1. Here’s the TOC, since it was tough to find:

    Introduction – Terri Windling
    Introduction – Holly Black
    Bordertown Basics (Letter from the Diggers)
    Welcome to Bordertown – Terri Windling & Ellen Kushner
    Shannon’s Law – Cory Doctorow
    Cruel Sister (poem) – Patricia A. McKillip
    Voice Like a Hole – Catherynne M. Valente
    Stairs in Her Hair (song*) – Amal El-Mohtar
    Incunabulum – Emma Bull
    Run Back to the Border (song) – Steven Brust
    Prince of Thirteen Days – Alaya Dawn Johnson
    The Sages of Elsewhere – Will Shetterly
    Soulja Grrrl: A Long Line Rap (song) – Jane Yolen
    Crossings – Janni Lee Simner
    Fair Trade (Comic) – Sara Ryan & Dylan Meconis
    Lullabye: Night Song for a Halfie (song) – Jane Yolen
    Our Stars, Our Selves – Tim Pratt
    Elf Blood – Annette Curtis Klause
    The Wall (poem) – Delia Sherman
    Ours is the Prettiest – Nalo Hopkinson
    We Do Not Come in Peace – Christopher Barzak
    A Borderland Jump-Rope Rhyme (poem) – Jane Yolen
    The Rowan Gentleman – Cassandra Clare & Holly Black
    The Song of the Song (song) – Neil Gaiman
    A Tangle of Green Men – Charles de Lint

  2. This is so exciting. New stuff by Emma Bull and Patricia McKillip! New authors to discover! I’m sorry to gush, but I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for bringing Bordertown back.

  3. This is the book that I am very much looking forward to finding at the library right now. I tried my hardest to get my hands on an ARC, to no avail. If I don’t see it soon, I may be forced to buy it for myself…


    Seriously, I am so excited about this. As soon as I get over this damn bronchitis I’m heading to the bookstore.

  5. Lila: Either send someone out to get it for you, or be patient (I know, it’s hard) and order online.

    Hope you feel better soon!


  6. My copy of the original Bordertown is pretty battered – looking fwd to this.

  7. My copy is winging its way to me even as I write. And my kids are as excited as I am!

  8. I did not know about this! I love, love, love the Bordertown stories. Off to Bakka ASAP.

  9. I suppose the neatest thing about this (aside from there being a new antho) is the presence of new authors with original authors.

    Oh, bordertown was a place my cousin and I ran away to from time to time years ago. The last one I picked up (The Essential Bordertown) was from a bookstore here in the Philippines… I wonder if there’s a way bordertown in every city?

  10. Holy Crap, A new Bordertown book! I didn’t think there’s ever be more. And that lineup of authors looks amazing. I just preordered this without even reading the article yet.

  11. Got it from iBooks tonight. It’s made me cry at least twice, and I’m only on Cat Valente’s story– which looks like it’s going to make me cry again, as it’s partially set in a city I don’t recall fondly.

    Fantastic, fantastic work. Can’t wait for the ebooks of the other Bordertown anthologies.

  12. Ordered when i saw this post and just finished the book.
    Was put off by the “young adult” thingy, but damn, what a good read.
    I am usually not into fantasy books, more a pew pew space opera guy, but let me summarize my verdict:

    “”” Simply beautiful!!! “””

    (Now I have to find hardcovers of all the initial books, damn you Scalzi.)

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