This week’s blog is the first of a series by allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore. You can find out more about her novels on the Evie Woolmore page.
I’m quite a fan of the Guardian Book Club, a virtual and real book club for readers of the (British) Guardian newspaper. Run by John Mullan, a professor of English at a leading London university, the club engages both authors and readers in dialogue about recent and older novels, culminating in an interview with an author in front of a live audience. So it was really interesting to me to hear the best-selling author Robert Harris say, “I enjoy recreating the concrete details of a society or a city or a country or a structure and then playing around with it. I’ve no taste at all for fantasy, or for magic realism. That’s garlic to a vampire as far as I’m concerned.”
As an author and reader of magical realism, two things really struck me about this comment (not including what was surely the deliberate irony of the vampire metaphor!). The first was how Mr Harris grouped fantasy and magical realism together. He’s not alone in doing so: when I tell people I write magical realism, their first thoughts often turn to more specific genres from the gothic and vampire to Tolkeinesque elvishness or even science fiction. I sometimes throw in “ghost story” or “spiritualist twist” to narrow the field a bit, but that often has the effect of making people think of horror and fear, when my books are generally gentle, positive, and uplifting. I wonder therefore whether it is a feature of magical realism to fall somehow between these other fantasy genres, to fill the spaces between them as a sort of ‘catch-all’ definition of what’s left over after these more market-familiar genres have emerged. The closest works in imaginative scope to what I write might be rather clumsily described (by me!) as ‘shifted reality’ or ‘enhanced, further-dimensional realities’. Novels I feel close to in spirit would include Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, all beautifully written and powerfully imagined. They are quite different books yet for me they share a very particular sensation. The best way to describe it is that it reminds me of those messy bearings problems I did in school mathematics. Maybe you did them too: such as when you have to work out 335 degrees N from 247 degrees East. I found the easiest way was to imagine myself moving to 247 degrees East to take a fresh look at the world from over there instead of over here. But ‘looking at the world from over there instead of over here’ is not a very snappy name for a genre, is it?
That brings me to Mr Harris’s other point: in the quote above he deliberately positions his works as opposite to magical realism, as if facts are somehow literally fatal to the genre or vice versa. And yet, most books defined as magical realism (indeed many science fiction and fantasy books) are situated very strongly in the evidential, factual, historically accurate world that we know – the three I list above are, albeit in different ways. And if one is to consider Mr Harris’s Fatherland or Pompeii, has he not merely done as I and other magical realist authors do: to take a position in our familiar world, and simply consider a new perspective on what we know? He calls it “playing around”. I call it a “what if?” My novel Rising Up examines the consequences of knowing the future of the Warsaw Ghetto of 1942 for a contemporary man who finds himself able to talk to one of the Ghetto’s occupants. And to resolve the characters’ mutual dilemma was to respect the factual detail as much as to enjoy the fruits of the narrative choice I made in allowing them to speak to each other.
Indeed, I think that to write effective magical realism that extends the reader’s view of what is possible in the world often requires precisely the sort of respect for setting that Mr Harris himself treasures. For if I have not created a world you can believe in, then how can I take you with me to other possible realities?