On writing fantasy
Thursday, May 19, 2022
Today I've gathered a selection of quotes on writing by Patricia A. McKillip, capturing the magic of her creative process but also the frustrations and the plain hard graft, and the manner in which she alchemized daily life into mythopoeic fiction. Her work has a rich vein of Romanticism (in the classic sense of that word), so let's start with this delightfully unromantic description of the Writing Life:
"I usually don’t think of 'writing' and 'joy; in the same sentence. Nalo Hopkinson once said something along the lines of 'writing a novel is like wrestling with a mattress.' I thought that was a bull’s eye description of the process.
"A novel is bigger than you are, it’s bulky, it’s hard to grasp, it threatens to fall over on you, it doesn’t go where you want it without shoves, prods, kicks and swearing. The joy might come when you’ve finally got the unwieldy thing where you want it. Or it might come much later, when you finally realize how close actually you came to doing what you set out to do. Most of the time, for me, it comes with the idea -- the wonderful vision in my head, the moment of falling in love with the possibility of what I can create. After that it’s pretty much uphill all the way to the end, when I’m never quite certain I’ve actually gotten there, except that I don’t have anything left to say."
"Bards of Bone Plain was an exhausting book to write. It took a long time and very hard work, over the course of about four years. The original idea for it didn’t involve the kind of mirror imaging I ended up using. The central theme was simply to explore the idea that yes, things fantastical matter: fairy tales matter, symbols matter; they speak to us in very intimate ways, and if we need them they are there. That was the whole point of writing the poem about the 'Three Trials' and all that.‘
"I had envisioned a totally different kind of character, a bleaker character who really deserved the fate that he had. But he wouldn’t come out; I couldn’t make him do it. It’s like Connie Willis says: I can’t do that much darkness. Then I had an idea of moving through three different sections of background: the early one where they built the school, and then the building of the city (which would be kind of medieval), and then the modern city. At one point it stretched into three different books, and I thought, 'Nobody’s going to sit through all this to get to the modern city.' Still, it’s an idea I couldn’t give up easily. It was stubborn.
"The rewrite was deadly. At that point I had no faith in the novel whatsoever, but I was trying to do the rewriting just to make it an inch better than it was. There were so many problems! When I had 80 pages of it done, I handed it to my husband to read and he said, 'This is boring.' He was right; I thought it was boring too, but I wanted a second opinion. So I just started all over again, and finally I had this breakthrough.
"I was reading Martin Amis’s memoir about his relationship with his father, Kingsley Amis, and I thought, 'This is so modern! I want to do something like that.’ I think that’s where the modern plotline came from. Somehow, this poor guy who got skewered by this symbol, this poem -- for not taking it seriously, for not understanding fully, for not understanding how much it could mean to him -- he was punished. And he was the character who sort of wrapped all the details up for me, from the very beginning of the school to the sort of modern period, which lacked the distinct postwar signature of our 1920s and wasn’t quite modern (because then I’d have to deal with computers).
"My alternative timelines came out of desperation! I’d written the early chapter of the 'modern' story first, and then I thought, 'Well, what if I just fill in the gap to the past with this one main character who’s kind of the leitmotif of all the chapters?' (He ties all the other points of view together.) It finally started working at that point. It wasn’t the book that I had envisioned. But it’s the one that came out, and I love various details about it."
“Maybe a lot of the faerie in Atrix Wolf and Winter Rose comes from my move east [from San Franciso to the Catskills in upstate New York]. Instead of being surrounded by the landscapes in California -- vast distances and mountains and everything else – I’m surrounded by these little woods, and they’re definitely ‘fairytale’ woods, especially when you look at them in certain casts of light and can’t quite see what’s in them. That’s where the story begins, when you start wondering about what lies in these woods. Exploring that aspect of faerie is a consequence of living where I live."
"Winter Rose was an enormously difficult novel, because I was trying to write about obsessive love, but it turned into a love story -- though I was fighting it all the way! I made the mistake of framing it around the 'Tam Lin' story, which of course is a love story. I didn’t realize it quick enough, so I spent the next year making it a love story. Faerieland in there was a very dangerous place to be. The characters there were out of the Wild Hunt, really not very nice people. It’s the wicked queen, who doesn’t really have any motivation, except that she wants to be wicked. One of the reasons I wanted to do the 'Tam Lin' story was that I did want to change the myth a bit. It’s a transformation tale, but it’s always the male who gets transformed. Janet has her child, and that’s her transformation. She’s very brave and courageous, but I wanted to write a story about a woman who had to transform herself, rather than rescue somebody else by his transformation. Instead of having a child, she bears herself in a certain way."
"The idea of faerieland fascinates me because it's one of those things, like mermaids and dragons, that doesn't really exist, but everyone knows about it anyway. Faerieland lies only in the eye of the beholder who is usually a fabricator of fantasy. So what good is it, this enchanted, fickle land which in some tales bodes little good to humans and, in others, is the land of peace and perpetual summer where everyone longs to be? Perhaps it's just a glimpse of our deepest wishes and greatest fears, the farthest boundaries of our imaginations. We go there because we can; we come back because we must. What we see there becomes our tales."
"In a crying need to get out of [the Catskill] mountains for a bit, I registered for a music class offered at Julliard [in New York City] to the community at large. To this day I wonder if Julliard realized that the Catskills were part of its local community. The subject was World Music, which I didn't know much about. It was held every Thursday evening from seven to nine, late September to early December. To get to it, I would drive for an hour and a quarter out of the Catskills, across the Hudson River, to another tiny town called Rhinecliff, which boasted a little train station with two tracks. I would board an Amtrak train there. After an hour and forty minutes, the train would pull into Grand Central Station, and I would step into an entirely different planet. The huge buildings, the noise, the smells, the languages, the music, as varied as the languages, offered at every street corner were mind-boggling, intoxicating. By day, I explored the city; in the evening I sat in a classroom listening to weird instruments, exotic music. Afterwards, I would reverse the journey, moving farther and farther out of the enormous, intense hothouse of civilization until the roads became narrow and solitary, mountains hid the river and the city lights, and I reached the strange point in my drive home where I felt I had somehow traveled so far that I had left the real world, real time behind. I had passed into the realm of Sleepy Hollow, the Otherworld, which was just a little farther than anyone should go.
"The final class was held in the Indonesian Consulate so that we could learn about the Gamelan. I had also learned, on those Thursday explorations, enough about the subway system to find my way there and back again, which gave me no end of satisfaction. Later, I would put that journey from one tiny world into a huge, complex and noisy world, those details of bar and classroom and my amateur efforts at music, into a fantasy novel: Song for the Basilisk."
"Winter Rose and Songs for the Basilisk have definite springs in real life, and yet for some reason they insist on being fantasy novels, instead of contemporary novels. That’s something even I don’t quite understand. The hardest thing of all is writing a contemporary novel with the power of a fantasy. That’s what I’d really like to do, but I don’t quite know how. Maybe I have to make them fantasies because I have a big imagination, and it won’t shut up."
"I write fantasy because it's there. I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination. Daydreaming. Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places. Imagination is a golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored. Making it tell the same tale over and over again makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall of; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke. It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistent; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can't be transformed into food for the imagination. It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grow larger and noisier. Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales. There is nothing really to be done with such imagery except to use it: in writing, in art. Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those of us who do have no choice."
The quotes above come from "An Interview Witb Patricia A. McKillip" by Deborah J. Brannon (A Green Man Review, October 2008); "Patricia A. McKillip: Fairy Tales Matter" (Locus Magazine, January, 2011); "Patricia A. McKillip: Springing Surprises" (Locus Magazine, July, 1996); Firebirds Rising, edited by Sharyn November (Firebird, 2006); "What Inspires Me," Patricia McKillip's Guest of Honor speech, Wiscon 28, 2004; and The Faces of Fantasy by Patti Perret (Tor Books, 1996). All rights reserved.
The art above is by Warwick Goble (1862-1943), a prolific book artist during Britain's Golden Age of Illustration.