On writing fantasy

Meldon Hill

From an interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magician trilogy:

"I’m not a political writer, particularly, or even at all, but I cannot overstate how much what is happening in this country politically right now has affected what I do as a storyteller. What we all do. The grotesque, violently mendacious way that Trump uses language -- when I write now, I am writing against that. I am watching him trash the tools I use for my art -- words --and I have to take that into account, and work with the damage.

"And this affects fantasy in specific ways. By its nature fantasy focuses on power relationships a lot, whether that power is political or military or magical in nature. You get a lot of monarchies, with the usual abuses. It also deals with outsiders a lot, and the question of who is human and who isn’t, who matters and who doesn’t. These issues have always been important, but right now in this country they are urgent and central."

Meldon Hill and the Kestor Valley

When asked the usual question about writing in a genre often disregarded by literary critics, Lev responds:

"Literature is truly jurassic in the way that it handles issues of genre and high and low. It’s not just visual media. When your medium is getting lapped by ballet and opera and poetry, you know you are not in the vanguard anymore.

"Why should that be? Fantasy cuts against a lot of the literary values we inherited from the modernists (whom I love). Fantasy is traditionally less about psychological interiority and more about externalizing inner conflicts in symbolic forms. Fantasy is plotty, it runs on heavy narrative rails, whereas the modernists were vigorous critics and disassemblers of narrative architecture.

"Fantasy is also, in its way, quite anti-establishment. It announces its priorities up front: the reality with which we are going to be concerning ourselves is not the reality of your job, or your school, or your government. We are going to be talking about something else. It’s in a lot of people’s interests to marginalize or trivialize that reality."

The Kestor Valley

"I think our project, collectively, as fantasy writers, is to question fantasy’s basic assumptions," he reminds us. "We need to find its blind spots and attack everything that’s sacred to it. The coming of age story. The fatherly mentor. The faithful comic sidekick. The easy moral choices. The more we chip away at the foundations the genre rests on, the stronger it will become. There’s no end to where we can take it. Fantasy may have limitations as a genre, but whenever I’ve thought I’ve found them in the past, somebody has always come along and blown right past them."

Meldon Hill and the Kestor Valley 4

Oak leaves

Words: The passages above are from interviews on LitHub (January, 2017) and Tor.com (November, 2011). The quotes in the picture captions are from "Why Fantasy Isn't Just for Kids" (The Wall Street Journal, July, 2011). Pictures: A contemplative moment in a field near the studio. Tilly is wearing her shaggy winter coat as the days grow colder.


Finding the colors again

Autumn leaves 1

"We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices, and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamed that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever, somewhere south of Oz, and north of Shangri-La."  - George R.R. Martin

Autumn leaves 2

"Current cant equates fantasy with escapism, and current fashion would have it that fantasy is both easy to read and to write. It isn't. When it is done honestly, by a skillful writer, fantasy takes us far enough beyond our daily perceptions to open us to the essential realities beneath it. This is the true goal of all art." - Ellen Kushner

Autumn leaves 3

"All art, by definition of the word,  is fantasy in the broadest sense. The most uncompromisingly (should I say sordidly?) naturalistic novel is still a manipulation of reality.  Fantasy, too is a manipulation, a reshaping of reality. There is no essential conflict or contradiction between literary realism and literary fantasy, any more than between science and humanism. Technical details aside, most of the things you  can say about fantasy also apply to realism. I suppose you might define realism as fantasy pretending to be true; and fantasy as reality pretending to be a dream."  - Lloyd Alexander

Autumn leaves 4

"The world of reality has no room for wistful backward-looking; and even if it had, there are no more than a few people who actively retain the desire for [the sense of wonder] known in childhood or have the capacity to evoke it at will. These few, moreover, soon become strangers to their fellows, for they are the incomprehensible ones--the dreamers who take the sky for their skull, the ribs of mountains for their bones, who sense always the faculties of the primitive, and see always with the wondering eye of the child.

"They are the ones who never pass a secret  place in the woods without a stare of curiosity  for the mystery implied in all its mounds and hollow, who still turn corners with a lift of expectation at the heart. And to be a writer of fantasy, one must be among those few -- those fortunate few; for, to produce a work that answers all the demands of fantasy, is to suddenly turn the corner which  does at last show something strange and wonderful waiting to be seen, and -- most gloriously -- to know that long-ago sense of yearning at last fulfilled."  - Mollie Hunter

Autumn leaves 5

Autumn leaves 6

Words: The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine (May 2005). All rights to quotes and poem above reserved by the authors. Pictures: a dream of autumn in the little woodland behind the studio.


Tunes for a Monday Morning: trouble & woe

Saco By by Winslow Homer

Above: "Trouble and Woe" by singer/songwriter Ruth Moody, from Winnipeg, Canada. The song appeared on her third solo album, These Wilder Things (2013).

Below: "Wayfarin' Stranger," an old American gospel song performed by the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra, from Oslo, Norway. The song was released as a single last year. The vocalist is Rebekka Nilsson.

Above: "Last Kind Words," written by the great southern blues musician Geeshie Wiley (1908-1950) and sung by the equally great Rhiannon Giddens, from North Carolina. This performance was filmed for A Prairie Home Companion in 2015.

Below: "A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey" by Leyla McCalla, a Haitian-American singer/songwriter based in New Orleans. It appears on her album of the same name, released last year.

Above: "No Hard Feelings" by The Avett Brothers (Scott and Seth Avett, with Bob Crawford on bass and Joe Kwon on cello), from North Carolina. The song appeared on the band's ninth studio album, True Sadness (2016). This performance was filmed for A Prairie Home Companion in 2017. The fiddler is Tania Elizabeth.

Below: "San Luis" by singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov. The song is from his new album, Evening Machines, recorded on his farm near Boulder, Colorado. The video was shot in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado by conservation photographer Andy Mann, with filmmakers Keith Ladzinski and Chris Alstrin.

Moonlight by Winslow Homer

The art today is by American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910).


Leaning into the light

Paige Bradley

On the day after the U.S. midterm elections, which brought us both good news and bad, we storytellers just have to keep on going, and keep leaning into the light....

From Linda Hogan's beautiful memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World:

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen. They throw down a certain slant of light across the floor each morning, and they throw down also its shadow."

Rune Guneriussen

Rune Guneriussen

"As time has passed," Hogan reflects, "things in me have been burned away and I see my life more clearly, more cleanly, than I had ever seen it before. And in that vision of my past, my history, my body, I also saw that there was something inside me that had survived and not merely survived but had done so whole and nearly intact. The hurt child raises itself and doesn't just walk but swims and flies. This child sees that life may never be easy but may be beautiful...

"Fire, like pain, like love, is a power we do not know. Yet from the ashes of each, something will grow. No one knows if it will be something beautiful and strong. But in our lives it is sometimes the broken vessel, as writer Andre Dubus calls it, that spills the light."

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

''How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence," asks Barry Lopez, "when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse.

''There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.''

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

Words: The passages above are from The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Linda Hogan (WW Norton, 2001) and Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (Scribner's, 1986); all rights reserved by the authors. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2014. A related post: "The beauty of brokeness." 

Pictures: "Expansion, New York City" by Paige Bradley (U.S.), and light installations by Rune Guneriussen (Norway) and Bruce Munro (U.K.).