September 18, 2014
Among Others was recommended to me by one of my Stonecoast mentors, since I was (and still am!) working on a story featuring faeries.
It has since become an extremely important novel to me, and I constantly revisit it in my mind to try and decide just what my take on the story is. It seems that the various cover artists have done the same, only via a visual medium. In this post, a friend of mine analyzes each international cover of Among Others, and how it depicts Walton’s book.
Just what type of story is Among Others? Is it a true fantasy, is or it merely an exercise in magical thinking? Pick up the book for yourself and decide…
Originally posted on Leslie Ann, librarian-at-arms:
My fiend and I have this thing about Among Others. Neither of us can decide if we like it. I liked parts of it and didn’t like other parts of it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever reconcile those bits into a book I have a definite opinion about. We’ve talked about this a lot, so when I saw the Japanese edition for sale at Village Vanguard, I snapped a photo and sent it to her.
I thought it was a strange design choice, because it doesn’t hint at all about the fantastic/magical realism elements that make this book this book. Instead, it looks like a school story; I get an almost Anne of Green Gables-ish vibe out of these. My friend said they looked much “younger” than the book; I think this is just “kawaii” in action.
I read this in ebook format originally, and thus I…
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September 14, 2014
I realized today that a story I’ve been writing wasn’t working the way I wanted it to because I had the wrong setting. Having previously lived in Miami and backpacked across Europe, I’ve come to love international cities and feel a real kinship with them. But this story was not intended to take place in Berlin, or Paris, or even my beloved Miami.
It was meant to take place in Virginia.
A stained glass window in downtown Charlottesville
I never thought I would ever live in the American South. Growing up in a liberal college town at the base of the Rocky Mountains, that particular area of the United Sates always seemed like a foreign country to me, as if I was living in an alternate history in which the Confederacy had secured its independence and a physical border existed. But one thing led to another and three years ago, I found myself in Maryland, next door to Appalachia.
I remember losing my way on a walk shortly after I moved, and being a 21st century lady, I sent a photo of the area I’d found myself in to a friend. “Where I am?!” I texted, only half joking. He responded with: “You’ve wandered into an alternate universe and are now in District 12. May the odds be ever in your favor.”
As it would turn out, he was fairly on the mark.
In the weeks that followed, I regularly went between Maryland to Virginia to visit a friend’s parents, passing through West Virginia on the way. On those long drives, the dystopia of Suzanne Collin’s imagination began to ring true for me in the form of the grey mountainside, the poverty that scarred it, the way I was always tripping over Civil War bones, the sight of old pest-houses nestled in the lush greenery. It was a haunted area and my writing, the stories I sought out, and even the music I listened to began to reflect my fascination with it.
No, I didn’t belong in my new home–I felt that very keenly. But I wanted to try to understand it.
Things became even more surreal when I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia six months later. I would walk home from work through the University of Virginia’s campus, marveling at Thomas Jefferson’s neo-classical architecture and wondering what inspiration Edgar Allen Poe had drawn from his time there. The grocery store down the road from my apartment was located at the site of a Civil War battle, and for reasons that are now hilariously absurd, my former housemates and I spent two hours trying to find out whether or not present day Route 29 mirrored the path of supply lines in 1864. When a man walked into that same grocery store with a rifle, my first thought was that he must be a Confederate soldier displaced in time and space. (Disappointingly, he was only practicing his GOP-given right to carry a weapon in public, and his rifle inspired terrified shoppers to flee the store en masse) It was easy to imagine seeing faerie lights in the trees if I ventured out after dusk.
I like to think I live in a kind of fairy tale now, but I would describe my life between 2012 and early 2014 as a Southern Gothic. It was characterized by my attempts to navigate a social order that bewildered me, the people I befriended who were often demonized because they stood in defiance of that social order, and the constant echoes of the past I was surrounded by. I struggled with a lot of questions related to power and justice and what it was like to be an outsider living amid all that. And perhaps I wouldn’t have thought to ask those things in the first place if I had stayed in Miami.
Being a writer, I tried to process those questions through my work. I wrote about wicked gentlemen who abused their power. I wrote about a couple forced to exist on the fringes of their society as they spoke out against an unjust system (that just happened to be governed by faeries). I wrote about monstrous children and lost spirits who did not see themselves as grotesque and only wanted to have a place in the world. I wrote about demons whose kisses spread yellow fever, people who had fallen through time and could not get home again to their original century, and girls on the run.
I said goodbye to Virginia in January, having decided that Mo Willems was right and I had been in the wrong story all along. But I believe my ghost stories will always be set in the American South, because it was there that I came across so many ghosts myself.
I am haunted by them, still.
September 4, 2014
In “Who Watches the Historians?”, one of her essays from the collection Indistinguishable From Magic, Catherynne Valente contemplates why World War II holds such a fascination for speculative fiction authors. She theorizes that WWII is far more simple in mortal terms than the other wars the West has been involved in, a conflict in which the Allies were unambiguously the “Good Guys”, whereas the Nazis have become synonymous with evil in the Western imagination. “Is there a comic book villain that isn’t either Hitler or Mengele in modern drag?” Valente asks us.
I know I’d be hard pressed to find one.
I too am guilty of setting a sizable portion of my fiction during the war. Not because of blind veneration of the greatest generation, but because my father was stationed in Germany during the late 1970s. His job as an infantryman in the US Army was to buy enough time for the base to be evacuated should the Soviet Union decide to invade West Germany–which is to say that he was to die gloriously in battle facing off with hundreds of the Russian tanks while the diplomats and officers fled the country.
My father used to carry around this cartoon for a reason.
Despite this, he has always looked back on his time in Germany fondly. I grew up on his tales of American GIs stealing laundry from the wash lines of German housewives as part of training exercises, ghostly knights who charged guard towers only to disburse into the Bavarian mist, and the palpable sense of pain radiating from the hastily white washed walls of barracks that had once been part of a concentration camp. To me, WWII was multifaceted and tangible in a way that it may not to other budding fantasy writers, and so were the German people themselves. They were hardly different than the citizens of any other Western country, and that adds to the magnitude of what took place between 1933 and 1945.
Perhaps that’s why I continue to set stories during that period–and why I’m drawn to films and novels that do not portray the war in simple, black and white terms. The Book Thief, Everything Is Illuminated, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Briar Rose stand out as some of my favorite pieces of fiction.
Hänsel and Gretel by Sybille Schenker
(The following review contains minor spoilers)
Goodreads recommended me Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville after I praised The Book Thief, and I devoured it in a matter of days. The novel tells two stories that eventually–and surprisingly–converge: one of a woman who claims to be both a time traveler and a machine, and another of a troubled German child named Krysta.
Strangely for me, I was drawn to the more mundane Krysta, who is both a monstrous little girl and a victim all at once. The daughter of a concentration camp physician, she is not only oblivious to her father’s work, but rude, spoiled, and constantly hungers for the bloody fairy tales her former nanny Greet told her.
She is the sort of female protagonist others might label as being unlikable, yet Krysta has become one of my favorite characters. Throughout the novel, she uses fantasy as the empowering lens through which she views her increasingly grim reality, with the all too human monsters in Krysta’s life becoming dressed in the trappings of her imagination. She sees the camp guards as mirrors of the witch in the candy house intent on devouring her, and its fiendish administrator in even housed in the highest room of the tallest tower, turning her into an unfortunate Rapunzel. And, recognizing the power of stories to save us more clearly than any heroine save Mori from Jo Walton’s Among Others, she gives them to the suffering children and adults around. Like the fairy tale Gretel, who she models herself on in many of her fantasies, she is resilient, violent, and even kind in equal measure.
Fundamentally, fairy tales and the monsters that inhabit them reflect our fears and instruct us on how to survive them, and I greatly appreciated Granville’s approach to the archetype of the fairy tale witch. Witches are wicked creatures who abuse their personal power and glut themselves at the expense of others–traits which can apply to a person of any gender–and I’ve long thought that the archetypes needs to be updated for a modern audience as so many others have. As I mentioned earlier, Krysta’s witches are both men and women, and her visualization of them as such is based on the cruelty of their actions rather than on their appearances.
Stories change to accommodate our needs so that they do not become stale and obsolete, but when told well, their hearts always remain the same. Granville’s Gretel and the Dark does just that.
(As a caution, I would add trigger warnings regarding physical and sexual child abuse to Gretel and the Dark)
August 7, 2014
During my last Stonecoast residency in July, I attended a panel called: “Mental Health For Writers.” After the professor who was going to lead it came down with the flu, the presentation became a community discussion about how to maintain the right environment–physically and mentally–for writing.
I had been looking forward to the original presentation, but I feel I got a lot out of the conversation nonetheless. Guided by the program director, we covered topics ranging from how to motivate yourself to write when daily life has worn you down, how to stick to a project when inspiration seems to have run dry, and (of course) the mental health issues we as writer’s face.
I see writing as an escape. It offers me the opportunity to not only remove myself from my own problems, albeit temporarily, but to craft an ideal world. Though not right away–the heroes have to strive for it before they can reach it, and overcome demons both personal and very real. I wouldn’t write speculative fiction if their existential crises didn’t manifest physically, now would i?
One of the most important lessons I learned during my second semester at Stonecoast was that writing saves me every time, an idea echoed by many in the community discussion.
In the beginning of my career as a graduate student, I tried to write grittier fantasy fiction, but it never quite worked out the way I hoped it would. At the end of 2013, I turned instead to fairy tales, which I’ve always been fascinated with; they have been a means to discuss difficult, even controversial topics for centuries, and in the guise of entertainment no less. And perhaps more than any other type of story, they have an agenda–for the best celebrate not conformity, but how clever people can beat back the dark.
Initially, I was afraid I was wasting my time and I wondered if words could ever be enough. Really, what sort of weapons were homemade fairy tales against the dark? What impact could such stories have on my own heart and those of other people? But for me, fairy tales became a means of engaging in real life acts of katabasis and renewal. Through them, I could write the happy ending denied to me, and to many of the people I am closest to.
On the page, I have the freedom I normally do not have in my ordinary life to speak my mind.
I just choose do so through talking dolls and kind dragons.
June 8, 2014
Slate.com published what many are calling a “clickbait” article about YA fiction in which the author demanded that adults who read the genre to be embarrassed by their lack of intellectual maturity. Author Ruth Graham went so far as to imply that YA fiction stunts the emotional growth of adults and in order to be truly be mature, one must embrace the messiness of untidy endings in fiction, since we so rarely have neat endings in life. Naturally, many people were offended by the article.
I feel C.S. Lewis says it best: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
I will be the first to admit that much of YA fiction is derivative and poorly written, and that it often frustrates me. I think that teens deserve better than a thousand and one knock offs of popular series such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. But a sea of bad novels exists in any genre, and I’m not able to disparage anyone’s love for a book. (Unless you liked Atlas Shrugged, in which case I reserve the right to judge you) If it resonates with you, embrace it, share it with your friends, write blog posts about how important it is to you.
Protesters against the military coup in Thailand have adopted the three-fingered salute of the Districts as a means of peacefully defying their government. Many of my fourteen-year-old sister’s friends use Factions they think they would choose as a means of self-identification. I’ve seen people my age who have found quotes by Albus Dumbledore so meaningful to them that they had them permanently inked on their bodies. YA fiction does inspire people in positive ways.
By Made With Magic on Etsy
For authors however, what we read is a different matter. To be a writer, you can never read only in one genre, be that literary fiction, YA, SFF, or romance. You must read widely and you must read often, as Stephen King advises in his craft book On Writing. I prefer SFF and slipstream over realistic fiction, but that doesn’t stop me from picking up books like Goldfinch or listing Everything Is Illuminated as one of my favorite–and most formative–novels.
We writers must be open to new experiences, be they out in the world or in our imaginations. We have the unique gift of transforming pain into beauty, after all. I no way agree with Graham; no one should be ashamed for loving YA or even reading mostly in that genre. But there is something to be said about broadening our horizons and leaving our comfort zones as writers.
June 4, 2014
A friend asked for my thoughts on tropes vs. cliches in fantasy fiction, a subject I have numerous opinions about…
- Pseudo-medieval Europe as a setting grows staler and staler with each passing day, especially since the country of long ago and far away and its people represents no distinct European culture or landscape. Typically, it is a generic cross between Middle-earth, the vaguely English fields and forests featured in a dozen films about King Arthur produced in the 80s, and what Americans think Germany looks like. I admit to having a fascination with Bavaria myself, thanks to being the daughter of a former serviceman who was stationed there during the Cold War and backpacking through the area in 2008; it’s one of the most haunted places in the world, and it has a liminal quality to it that seems ready made for ghost knights and faeries. But that’s just it–every place has a character all its own and if you know nothing about it beyond the popular conception of it, the result would fit nicely into one of the many, many Shrek films. A vital part of worldbuilding involves researching real places and historical periods.
- In popular fantasy media, there is a depressing lack of POC heroes, heroines, and even secondary characters to the point where this too has become a cliche of sorts. Katniss Everdeen was white washed in her film incarnation. Peter Parker is a skinny white kid, and so are most superheroes who appear onscreen. Disney’s upcoming adaption of the beloved musical Into the Woods has a cast made up entirely of white actors. The majority of the most prominent characters featured in A Song of Ice and Fire? You guessed it: they’re white. The excuse typically used in such situations is that in a story based off of German fairy tales or real conflicts in England of France, there would be no men and women of color–as if someone had drawn an imaginary line across the Mediterranean that forbid anyone from African kingdoms, the Middle East, and countries further to the East to enter Western Europe. Or, worse, authors simply forget that the empires of Ghana, the Abbasid Caliphate, and the Songhai even existed, their political and economic importance forgotten. If you are fascinated by Elizabethan England and want to write historical fantasy in which faeries attend Shakespeare’s plays alongside human beings, go for it! Just don’t forget that not everyone there is going to be white.
- Cis, white, (usually) heterosexual heroes behaving badly is one of the ugliest cliches in Western media. By “badly”, I mean that these characters act in ways that would have a person who belonged to a more marginalized group labeled as an obsessive psychopath. They flagrantly break the law, treat civilians like canon fodder, and engage in practices that violate the rules of ethical combat such as torture. But we are told that their actions are excused because of the losses they have suffered before the curtain rises or because they are seeking revenge against a shadowy figure whose crimes are greater than theirs. When such a character is on the receiving end of the ever popular speech in which the villain declares he and the hero are very much alike, I can’t help but agree. The only difference between these protagonists and the so-called monsters they fight is the narrative rewards them for their misdeeds. If you want to write a villain protagonist, own it.
From Der müde Tod “Destiny” (1921) dir. Fritz Lang
…And Far Less Dreaded, Tropes
- The central conflict in most fantasy stories is that of good vs. evil. You have your hero(ine) and you have your villain, your knight and your dragon, your lovable rouge and your corrupt monarch. Conflict is necessary to propel the story along and develop one’s characters, and the easiest way to generate such a conflict is to have another character antagonize your hero. If the villain does something morally questionable to the protagonist or his loved ones, the reader will usually side with the hero, thus setting up the moral compass for the remainder of the story. Though in recent years, it has become popular to delve into the mind of the antagonist as well as the hero–at least briefly. Two-dimensional villains have indeed become cliche as our definition of what a monster is changes, and our understanding of human psychology develops. No one, not even the wicked queen or the Dark Lord, is born evil–whatever your fantasy world’s concept of wickedness is.
- Magic is a key component of any fantasy, though what form that magic takes varies drastically from tale to tale. In some stories, magic is an inherent and accepted part of the world, practiced openly by trained witches, sorcerers, and mythical beasts. In others, magic exists but it kept secret from the general human populace, a conception particularly favored in urban fantasy. Magic can take the form of spells mastered and cast by the characters, extraordinary abilities inherent to them (empathy, telekinesis, and so on), or it can be a force outside their control. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to portray magic in a fantasy story, so long as its rules are consistent.
- Mythical beasts themselves are usually at the heart of the genre. Dragons, faeries, the jinn, unicorns, phoenixes and firebirds, kirin, goblins, rusalki… The list of magical creatures we fantasy writers can populate our stories with is almost endless, as are the possibilities for how we use them within the tale. They can exist in the background, merely adding to the reader’s general sense of the world, or they can be secondary or even primary protagonists or antagonists. Fantasy literature as a whole would be at a deficit if Tolkien’s Smaug or Beagle’s Unicorn had never been brought to life on the page.
- The lost princess who comes to claim her crown skirts the boundary between the cliche and the trope, though I respect it more than most despite the ways in which it is pure wish fulfillment. (I am less fond of its brother trope, that of the lost prince) These stories are about women and intended for a primary female audience, and there is something inherently empowering about the lost princess herself. She is a heroine who discovers that she is extraordinary, is called to adventure, realizes her competency beyond her birthright, and saves her kingdom from great evil. Unfortunately, it’s a story that’s already been told so many times that it’s difficult to add a fresh perspective or twist to it. But I think it can be done.
May 29, 2014
Recently, I started writing a novel.
I can promise you that I didn’t mean to do it. Writing a novel was in fact the opposite of what I set out to do this semester, which was to focus on short stories in order to perfect writing plot on a smaller scale than a book would require.
I wrote four short stories before embarking on what I thought would be a fifth. But for better or for worse, the story got away from me.
I don’t feel prepared to write a novel, even a short one. My mentors tell me I create interesting characters who operate as fully fleshed out human beings in the worlds I have made for them and that my prose is lovely, but that I still fumble with the art of telling a story.
And I have so many stories I would like to tell.
This particular one overstepped its bounds. What was meant to be a short parable about a girl and a dragon and the shape true monsters take became something greater than its original self. Perhaps the attraction of the tale lies in how it’s more clearly a piece of my heart than the shorter pieces I’ve sent off to my mentor since the end of January.
I demanded it to stand down. I, as the writer, have control–except for the moments when I truly do not, when the story takes me by the hand and leads me down paths unknown. Stories don’t care what you as the author want, but they make things such an adventure that one cannot help but follow them into the dark woods.
They’re like faeries in that sense.
I Capture The Castle, 2003
Upon the suggestion of a friend, I began to handwrite the novel in a paper journal, something I hadn’t done since the pre-smartphone days of high school. I take my sunflower notebook to cafes around town, where I listen to wealthy Boulderites decide the fate of the world. It’s like being surrounded by supervillains with poor taste in footwear. But I like the experience, and I like seeing the girl and the dragon–her dragon–come to life on paper rather than a computer screen.
No, I don’t feel prepared to write a novel. But I have to wonder if anyone truly does.
I’ll follow the faerie lights and see where they take me. What else can a writer do?
March 16, 2014
On the 15th of each month, I turn in two book annotations and a short story between 20 and 35 pages to my Stonecoast mentor.
I began work on the short story I sent out last night in the middle of February. I came up with three different drafts, which I then began to paste together, but I was daunted by the task. This meant I engaged in productive procrastination. I completed the annotations well before the due date. I went through more than 30 stories for the online speculative fiction magazine I am a publisher’s reader for. I worked on the retelling of The Iliad I began for NaNoWriMo last year.
But as D-Day approached, I knew I had to crack down. “I will finish this story and it will not suck so badly I will weep over my keyboard when I send it off to my mentor!” I thought. And so, like any bookworm, I did the logical thing: I went to the library. Not just any library either. I trekked up to the University of Colorado’s Norlin Library, a place I spent considerable a considerable amount of time at as an undergrad. But my fondest memories are not of being huddled in a study cubicle reviewing for the Praxis II Social Studies exam1, but of getting lost there as a child with my mother when we went to see an exhibit on illuminated medieval manuscripts. Because that was my idea of a great time at age eleven.
In spite of the pleasant memories, I couldn’t concentrate. I got distracted by spiral staircases, books on physics, art on campus, and a bizarre conversation between two young men who seemed to believe they had been caught in a time loop in which they were forced to take the same chemistry test over and over again.
They were not, so my stripped Amy Pond shirt did not grant me Protagonist Aura after all
By the third day, I was ready to give up. Hoping to clear my head, I packed up my things and left the library to go for a short walk. I wandered aimlessly until I found myself at Columbia Cemetery, one of the weirder haunts from my high school days. It was empty and sunny, and hovering outside the gate, I though to myself: “What the hell.” I settled down amid the headstones, pulled out my laptop, and started to work.
Two hours later, I had completed the story.
The library, as much as I love it, had been stifling to work in. A week before Spring Break, the atmosphere was tense as students frantically worked to complete papers and study for tests. But in a cemetery at two o’clock in the afternoon, I felt considerably less restricted.
Writer’s block can be a symptom of many issues. You may be bored with your story, frustrated with how your characters have rebelled against you, or stress outside of your writing life could be distracting you. But other times, all you need to break through that creative wall is to change your scenery.
1 In a nearby universe, I teach high school history. I am probably not very happy
March 3, 2014
I often tell people that I became a writer because I can’t draw to save my life, despite my best efforts to improve,
Growing up, I was always surrounded by stunning visuals in movies, television, beautifully illustrated books, and even graphic novels. Animation was the storytelling medium I loved best of all, as it wasn’t constrained by reality in the same way that movies featuring flesh and blood people were in the pre-CGI age; literally anything the producers could conceive of was possible to depict on-screen. As a teenager, I became enchanted with the process of how movies are actually made and mildly obsessed with the aesthetics of music videos, which frequently added layers to songs I might otherwise have dismissed as yet another shallow, bubblegum pop piece.
In other words, I am shaped just as strongly by the visual imagery of my formative years as I am by the books I love most.
“Wake Up Call” by Andréia Takeuchi
As a writer and storyteller, I remain a visually oriented person. I hoard images that remind me of my projects and pictures often set off a spark that eventually becomes a story. When I post to social media, I often frame my experiences around photographs. The scenes I envision in my head are appear in a very cinematic way to me, meaning I must “translate” what I am seeing into English. (With the occasional scattering of German. The Germans have a word for everything)
Sometimes, I succeed and the images that carry me through the story wind up on the page. Other times, I stack metaphors in ways that my exceedingly patient teachers have told me is aesthetically pleasing, but can border on nonsensical. I am still learning to pare down my writing without stripping it of its lyricism, to create beauty without sacrificing clarity. One of the things I have learned studying at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program is that this can be done. You never want to lose the reader or force them out of the story as they try to decode your similes; you want them to be carried along by both the story and the language.
Every word a writer puts down on the page is intended to pull the reader in–and they have to be used wisely.
March 2, 2014
My poem, “Ladyknight”, is now featured in Mirror Dance‘s Spring 2014 edition! You can read it online here.
When asked by editor Megan Arkenberg what inspired me to write fantasy, I had the following to say:
Love and frustration are motivating forces that should not be underestimated when it comes to inspiration. I write about the things I am passionate about and that fill me with joy, and I write about the things in this world that infuriate and sadden me. Fantasy in particular allows authors to speak out when we otherwise might not be able to. Just because something is not real, after all, does not mean it is not true.
The catalyst for “Ladyknight” was, in fact, stories several women I know had told me about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of men who claimed to love them. I could have tackled the subject from a more “realistic” angle…but I felt that envisioning an abuser as a literal dragon–terrifying, beastly, and utterly lacking in compassion–was more powerful in the end.
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
I will always advocate speculative fiction as a means of deconstructing and changing reality. Fiction has saved the lives of countless people I know–and that makes it one of the most important things in the world.