Fantasy? Don’t like it. Not my kind of thing. Then I started reading some. And it turns out I do like fantasy after all. So I invited two authors whose work changed my mind to discuss the genre’s advantages, prejudices and attractions.
Jo Reed and Darren Guest – In Conversation
Jill: What attracts you to writing fantasy?
D: When I first graduated from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Spider-man comics, I started reading non-fiction, but it was the mind-expanding stuff like Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, books on alien abduction and life after death – anything like that. But then a friend suggested I try fiction and gave me a battered copy Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers to try. I resisted at first, thinking fiction isn’t real, let alone fantasy fiction, but that book changed my reading life; the scope of it just blew me away. Not long after that I can remember penning the first chapter of Dark Heart in a lined pad, but lost my nerve and didn’t pick it up again until many years later.
Jo: Lost your nerve?
D: I feared there was some hidden ‘thing’ to writing that I couldn’t see but everyone else could, and to continue would mean me walking out of a toilet with loo paper tucked into the back of my jeans and the roll unravelling behind me for the rest of the writing world to see. It was only when I discovered what that hidden ‘thing’ was that I found the nerve to continue.
Jo: I think every writer relates to that one! So what was the ‘thing’?
D: Grammar. After that I was just fulfilling the need to write what I wanted to read, and with King’s novels I always preferred the supernatural ones and so naturally I wanted to write those kinds myself.
Jo: It’s interesting that your early reading was mainly non-fiction. I spent my entire childhood and teen years avoiding reality and immersing myself in the fantasy classics – anything from CS Lewis and Tolkien to the epics of Stephen Donaldson and Roger Zelazny. It wasn’t until much later though, and firmly rooted back in the real world that I realised what a good vehicle fantasy could be for exploring human character.
D: How’d you mean?
Jo: Well, it was the day job that finally kick-started me into serious writing. I studied evolutionary psychology as part of my degree and spent several years researching the relationships between genetics and behaviour. That meant reading hundreds of articles on the effects of inbreeding, from modern day eugenics programmes right back to the physical ‘deformities’ that were seen as distinguishing characteristics among the ancient tribes of Easter Island. The topic was so full of ‘what ifs’ that for me, the only way to explore all the speculations in my head was through fiction, and fantasy seemed the obvious genre.
Jill: So can you pinpoint a particular book, series or writer who influenced your writing choices?
Jo: I don’t think I can trace my choices back to a single influence, but certainly one or two authors have made my jaw drop in admiration, and at the same time set my brain racing with the possibilities a theme can have in the hands of a good writer. I remember being given Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort and being completely carried away by the ease with which he was able to provoke sympathy not only for the hapless, and very human, heroes of the novel, but also for the entirely self-serving monsters fighting for their own survival. Two more massive influences on my writing have been Mary Renault and James Clavell – both masters of flawless characterisation.
D: I think you hit the nail on the head there, Jo. Whether it’s fantasy, literary or whatever – it all boils down to characters. Aside from King, Cormac McCarthy has been my biggest influence, and he’s all about characters. He rarely lets you inside his characters’ heads, but you’re left in no doubt as to the way they’re feeling, and that’s down to the quality of the dialogue and its delivery, and the way in which description is filtered through the eyes of his characters. McCarthy’s writing epitomises SHOW not TELL, and it’s something I try to instil in my own work. It means both me and the reader have to work a little harder, but it’s gone a long way towards giving me a definitive style – more so in my writing nowadays.
Jo: Interesting you use the phrase ‘the reader has to work a little harder’. As a reader, I like having to work in order to extract all a book/story has to offer. But spoon-feeding readers exactly what they expect seems to be far more popular (not only in fantasy). From the feedback I get from my readers, most prefer to do some thinking for themselves. What’s your take on this?
D: On the microscopic level, like in dialogue, if the writer has done his/her job it should be clear what’s going on, and clear how things have been said and how things have been received. We’ve all seen it: a line of dialogue followed by a paragraph of exposition explaining the dialogue. If the dialogue is good, then the only reason you need to interrupt the flow of conversation is to add essential ‘beats’ of description and such. On a larger scale, spoon-feeding can mean explaining character motivation, which in other words means ‘plot’. In fantasy where stories are generally plot heavy compared to literary works, it’s easy to fall into that bad habit of explaining everything to the reader for fear of them not understanding. Explaining stuff ‘outside’ of the story, either through character introspection, or just plain old authorial intrusion, means I haven’t done my job properly and I’ll rework where I can. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and I’m not really talking about crime writing – although McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men may contradict me here – and style plays a factor, I know, but still… Most readers will get it if you give them the chance and the respect, and there’s no exception for fantasy.
Jill: Having your characters inhabit an ‘Otherverse’ must involve a huge amount of background knowledge. How much do you establish before you begin writing? Or does the world evolve as you write?
Jo: I always start with a set of basic ground rules. No matter how fantastical a world is, it must obey its own laws, and once they’ve been set the author is totally restricted by them, just as a writer would be in any other genre. For the Dancer series I do have the slight advantage that I’ve chosen to place the characters in a real world setting, so maintaining consistency is just that little bit easier – I mean, water doesn’t flow uphill, and I don’t have the gravitational pull of three moons to worry about! I’ve just made a start on a new fantasy novel that does have a ‘created’ world as its setting though, and I’m spending a great deal of time mapping out the detailed geography of that world, in my head and on paper, before letting my characters loose in it! But to get back to the Dancers, yes, they have a very complex social and biological universe which has evolved over the course of three novels but which still remains firmly within the original boundaries. If it didn’t, I think the readers would be the first to let me know! I’m sure you would agree with me?
D: I do, but I’m more of grab-my-coat-and-go kind of writer. I have a rough idea of the over all, and a few scenes that I want to hit along the way, but what I’m really waiting for is inspiration to strike and throw up something better than my original idea – something I could never have sat down and thunk up. That way if the rules of my urban fantasy need to change halfway through to accommodate the new direction it’s not a huge problem. I’m waiting for it, actually. But once the book is done, then the laws and logic are set, and that also means the laws of nature. Nothing irritates me more than when a character is confronted by something otherworldly and all they can muster is: ‘Run there’s a monster!’ If you saw a ghost for real, your whole world would be changed, not just your underpants.
Jill: Who are your heroes, both in the genre and elsewhere in literature?
Jo: Surprisingly, one of my most long-standing literary heroes is not best known for his fantasy writing. When I was seven, my grandmother gave me a copy of ‘The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories’, saying I’d ‘grow into it’. I immediately fell in love, both with Holmes and his creator, Conan Doyle. Within a couple of months I’d read every story at least twice, blown away by the sheer cleverness of the writing. It wasn’t until I raided the library for more that I discovered, to my complete delight, that Doyle was also responsible for some cracking fantasy – Professor Challenger quickly became an all-time hero! I then discovered that Doyle was not the only writer to dabble both with fantasy and crime. Edgar Allan Poe managed to mix his genres with equal facility, and between them I think they have done much to influence my own approach to writing, which is as much rooted in crime as in fantasy. My current fantasy heroes have to be Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. Both have managed to avoid what I see as a common error in the genre – focusing on world creation at the expense of plot movement. However complex their worlds become, their plots are always driven by well developed, meaningful characters about whom the reader really cares, and that is something I seek to emulate in my own writing. Outside of fantasy, I’ve always had a soft spot for historical fiction, and I am the proud owner of a very old and complete set of Baroness Orczy’s Pimpernel novels. Most recently, though, I have been left speechless with admiration for the sheer brilliance of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’d have to agree with those who place her in the top rank of the world’s best living writers.
D: I like my history modern, so I’ll pass on Mantel, but I’m just getting into Dennis Lehane’s writing after realising he was already a hero of mine. The films Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River I thought were fantastic – simple but clever and packed with emotion. Psychological stories with morally grey characters and bittersweet endings – Donnie Dark, Memento, A Simple Plan – anything that moves me intellectually and emotionally I will draw from and try to inject into my work. Fantasy can be all of that.
Jill: Fantasy, to me, seems limitless. Are there limitations?
Jo: For me, yes. As I said earlier, all fantasy is naturally limited by the world the author has created, and whether it’s magical ability or the appearance and behaviour of a fantastical creature, everything within that world has to be explicable – and normal – within the rules of the created universe. That’s not all there is to it though. I don’t think it’s enough to simply say ‘This is how things operate around here,’ and expect a reader to take it at face value. The writers I admire most are also able to explain precisely how a thing happens in a way a rational mind would accept. The works of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss illustrate this very well. Magic doesn’t just ‘happen’; it is a skill that is developed, often with great difficulty, along the scientific principles of the universe in which it operates. Without that underlying logic, and the ability of the writer to explain exactly how something is achieved, the whole story falls down and the enjoyment of it is lost.
D: Imagination, ambition and skill are the only limits. That and commercial publishing. Just look at the success of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Give quality writers as broad a canvas as fantasy has to offer, and beautiful things can happen.
Jill: When reading both your books, I find them incredibly visual. How far do you write with an eye on the cinematic possibilities?
D: All the way, but only so far as to narrate what I’m seeing. There’s no conscious thought going into a possible movie deal (not that I’d complain). My stories are built around ideas that I translate scene by scene, which I’m told has a cinematic quality. In my head I’m directing, I suppose. Doesn’t’ everybody do that? I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Jo: Neither can I. Like Darren, I write what I see in my head. I am frequently told that I write in a cinematic way, but it’s certainly not deliberate. I think it is partly that I tend to plot in dialogue. I use conversation between characters to build up scenes initially, and often need to paint in the backdrop later. That gives the writing a cinematic feel.
Jill: A writer I met recently lamented the lack of respect afforded to fantasy writers. Have you encountered such pre-judgemental opinions? If so, how do you counter them?
Jo: I think it’s very easy to whinge about the lack of respect for your own genre, but I don’t think it applies to fantasy more than to any other. I hear crime, and other commercial writers, say the same thing. The fact is, there is a fair amount of poor writing out there, and readers who are unfortunate enough to stumble on bad examples of a genre will quickly lose respect for it. The answer, I think, is simply to write better books, ones that do command respect from readers. I did come across a creative writing tutor a couple of years ago who opined, very loudly and often, that any prose that was not literary fiction was not worth reading, and rhyming poetry had no place in modern literature. Needless to say, I didn’t go out of my way to recommend her classes to my students.
D: Sorry, Jo, I’m gonna have to partly disagree. I think genre does suffer from a lack of literary respect, and it’s not entirely unwarranted. The quality control bar for publishing genre is set much lower. Publishers will often take a book because it’s of the moment and saleable; they’re not concerned with literary merit or the quality of the prose – passable is fine. Sometimes less than passable is fine. So-called literary works have their duds too, but I’d say the over all entry-level standard is higher. But the literary snobs know how good genre can be, because every time a fantasy writer produces the goods, those same snobs claim that writer as one of their own.
Jo: Put that way, I don’t think we are in disagreement – what you say about the quality control bar is spot on. Genre fiction goes in waves – the most recent high rider is the multi-volume medieval epic, popularised by GRRM. Therefore, publishers will jump at anything similar in the hope they will make a quick killing – even if what they grab is poorly written and off-putting for the reader. I wouldn’t exclude literary fiction from that tendency though. Every genre has its bandwagon!
How does the day job inform your writing?
Jo: A great deal. I’m lucky enough to have had a fascinating career as a psychologist, and that inevitably spills over into my writing. The Blood Dancer series arose from a lifelong interest in genetics, and particularly the effects of genetic manipulation. Fantasy fiction was the ideal way to explore those themes. My current work in progress, although not fantasy, also has a strong psychological theme, and it just seems natural to use what I know as a springboard for my imagination.
D: You’re lucky, Jo – not much inspiration to be had painting houses. Although in Dark Heart my main character is a property developer, something I did for a while. I suppose it’s good to know the building trade from a research point of view, but the only thing I draw from the day job is the unwavering desire to want to write for a living.
Jill: You both blend modern-day accuracy with fantastical elements. Do you find yourself adopting a different mindset when writing each ‘world’?
Jo: No. For me, when I’m writing, that is the world. I see no dichotomy between the ‘real’ and the ‘fantastical’ elements of it. Of course I have to be satisfied that within the parameters I’ve defined, what happens is theoretically (and physically) possible. In all other respects, writing fantasy in a ‘real world’ setting is like writing any other novel. The world is seen through the eyes of its characters, and the range of understanding and acceptance they display.
D: I’m with Jo there. Whichever world I’m painting at the time, it has to be real. I’m a stickler for details and authenticity, and find myself researching more and more. If you’re trying to sell the fantastical as real, you need to suspend the reader’s disbelief. The more reality you can inject it the unreal, the better.
Jill: Your books, despite the drama, action and adventure, are thought-provoking psychological and philosophical. You use an alternate reality to address some pretty serious questions. Did you specifically choose this genre as the vehicle for such themes?
Jo: Yes, absolutely. I chose a fantasy setting as I felt it would allow me greater freedom to speculate on the issues I wanted to explore. Using an alternate reality meant I was able to step back and allow my train of thought to evolve in a way that would not have been possible using the timescales and rules of a ‘normal’ world. Another big advantage of fantasy, for me, is the scope it gives to allow in-depth internal investigation of the human condition. For example, if it is normal for characters to live several hundred years, how will that affect their mode of thought, behaviour etc? How will they react to change, and where will their moral compass point? Working through such questions is a fascinating, revealing and sometimes magical journey. Of course, most importantly, it’s also great fun!
D: I was always going to write speculative fiction, and the finer aspects like theme and metaphor will always come secondary to story. Dark Heart was as good a book as I could write at the time with the talent I had at the time, and although there’s a strong redemption theme present, I didn’t consciously set out to explore it; I wasn’t trying to write a literary novel. My second novel Through the Eyes of Douglas has much stronger themes and ideas, and again, I didn’t set out to write a literary novel, but there was a definite turning point in the first draft where I had to make a decision about what I was creating. First and foremost it’s a supernatural chiller; I never lost sight of that and I never wanted the story to get bogged down with anything other than story, but I had something to say too, and once the first draft was done I spent a long time shaping the ‘other story’ to coexist within the main narrative. I could never have crafted a story around a theme, I think themes should occur more organically than that, but if I could, fantasy would be my vehicle of choice.
More about Jo and Darren …
Jo Reed won the Daily Telegraph Travel Writing Competition in 2008, and her short story credits include Mslexia, Lancashire Magazine, The People’s Friend, The New Writer and Words with Jam. In 2008/9, she won an Arts Council supported Apprenticeship with Adventures in Fiction for her first novel, The Tyranny of the Blood, which was subsequently taken up by Wild Wolf Publishing in May 2009. A Child of the Blood followed in 2010, and the third novel in the series, Malim’s Legacy was published at the end of October 2012. Jo currently lives in Bristol, where she continues to write and lecture in psychology, physiology and creative writing.
The Blood Dancers Series
As the tribes of ancient Britain defend their lands against the might of the Roman Empire, another battle rages, unseen by the warring armies. It is a fight over blood. The product of a mutation as old as the human species, Corvan, like all his kind, possesses gifts beyond the dreams of normal men. The Dancers live long, kill or heal with thought alone, communicate over great distances, mind to mind. But Corvan is not satisfied. He seeks power, immortality; most of all he seeks to control time. In the wilds of the Scottish Highlands he creates a twisted dynasty, the ‘Family’, whose only goal is to produce a child who can conquer the barrier of time – a child of the Blood.
Darren J Guest led a vampiric existence in his youth, spending much of the 80s hidden from sunlight within the crypt-like snooker halls of Essex. But at some point in the mid 90s he buried his professional snooker career and rejoined day-lit society. Darren writes psychological urban fantasy, supernatural suspense and cerebral horror. Dark Heart: The Purgatory of Leo Stamp, was published in 2011 by Snowbooks. His second novel, Through the Eyes of Douglas, is represented by John Jarrold Agency. He now lives and writes in Suffolk.
Dark Heart: The Purgatory of Leo Stamp
On Leo’s sixteenth birthday, something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that once offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when life can’t get any worse… Leo dies.
A demon returns after twenty years.
An angel follows close behind.
Leo is caught in an age-old conflict, his past lying at the dark heart of it all.