Visionary Fiction: Does the same wine taste different out of a new bottle?

allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore has recently joined the Visionary Fiction Alliance. She ponders how this might affect her ongoing questions about genres and labelling.

Years ago, when I was a student, I took a class on artistic criticism – literature, art, music and so on. We spent some time criticising stuff, and we spent some time reading other people’s criticism of stuff, all the while a-pondering who we were as critics and the impact of that on how we criticised. In many respects, it was quite a revolutionary class at the time, for reception theory was not all that widely taught, and because I was also interested in movies, I began to think a lot about how who we are impacts on the way we retell stories that we read or see on screen.

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

Decades on, as a writer, this idea has come to pre-occupy me a lot, and as anyone who has followed the excellent blogs on the Magical Realism Blog Hops (2013 and 2014) will know, those of us who call ourselves magical realist writers spend a lot of time thinking about what this genre means, and how it is defined. We think a lot about what readers bring and expect when they pick a book that belongs to our genre, and how expectations can be both enhancing and problematic to us as writers. We think also about how different themes in our stories are picked out and remembered by reviewers, quite often unrelated to what we intended as writers. I think I’ve disappointed a fair few magical realist and historical fiction readers along the way, so I was curious when someone suggested to during the last Blog Hop that perhaps what I wrote could also be defined as Visionary Fiction.

One of the interesting aspects of writing anything with a paranormal, supernatural or otherworldly element to it, is just how many labels you can apply to the finished book, and how many of these categories overlap. Amazon makes my life very difficult by over-simplifying its categorisations, though they are just one sieve through which my books will fall. I’m better at defining what my books aren’t – at least by looking at what other books fall into that category – than I am at defining what my books are. A quick swipe through the Goodreads ‘Historical Paranormal’ list made me realise that I definitely don’t belong there, and yet my books are definitely historical fiction with a paranormal twist.

equilibrium

So what I like about the idea of Visionary Fiction is the idea that VF is a tone of writing, as much as it is about content. In writing historical fiction, I could hardly be described as an architect of the future, which is often considered an aspect of VF, but what makes my writing very definitely VF is “the emphasis is on our limitless human potential, where transformation and evolution are entirely possible“.

A more long-winded way of saying that is something I’ve quoted of myself before: “The [magical realist] aspects in my novels do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century, and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first; they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.”

For me that is the tone of writing. What I write is entirely possible. smaller_ru

So, while I do not have the vampires or exoticism that so often feature in the outlying areas of paranormal and magical realist fiction, I do have “dreams, visions, paranormal events, psychic abilities, and other metaphysical plot devices”.  And perhaps, in having them, I have at last also found the right home for my novels.

*****

You can download samples of all Evie’s books by clicking on the cover images, or you can go to her webpage and find out more about her novels. Evie Woolmore‘s novels are available on all Amazon websites.

Magical Realism Blog Hop 2014: Evie Woolmore on the Six Senses

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For this year’s Magical Realism Blog Hop, organised again by author and reviewer Zoe Brooksallonymbooks author and magical realist novelist Evie Woolmore discusses the significance of the Six Senses in her writing.

One of the joys of blog-hopping, rather than just surfing, is the structured way in which new insights come to light. Not that I have a problem just rambling through the byways and back lanes of other people’s consciousness, you understand, but it is easy to get lost in the blogosphere if you have no general sense of direction (as I don’t), and a few signposts are always useful. Last year, through one thing and another and all because of Zoe Brooks’ first Magic Realism Blog Hop, I discovered the American magical realist writer Sarah Addison Allen.

“Crumbs!” I hear you cry, “how could you possibly have failed to discover her until then? Call yourself a magical realist writer?”

Well, yes, as it happens I do. But I stray towards the literary end in my own writing and reading and, as readers of Ms Allen’s lovely books will know, her writing falls equally into the category of romance as it does into magical realist. But once discovered, never forgotten, and I gobbled up her books as eagerly as the residents of Bascom gobble up Claire’s extraordinary cooking in Garden SpellsFor one of Ms Allen’s great talents as a writer – and indeed the common theme in all her books – is the power of the sensation of taste. Not the enjoyment of eating, but the sheer evocative glory, pleasure and mystery of taste and all the sensory delights that go with it.

Much as a stalwart of the Women’s Institute annual baking competition might envy the crisp crust and succulent juicy filling of cherry pie made by the newcomer to the village, so I wished that I could have written a book like Garden Spells, purely because I don’t imagine anyone else would ever be able to capture that sense with quite the same immersive quality. It is not the joy of eating that Ms Allen celebrates, but the utter power of taste to captivate, motivate, engulf and endure.

And then, quite without warning, like a cherry stone stuck in my tooth, I realised that Ms Allen and I were not quite so far apart as I had first thought.

equilibriumWhen I first started writing magical realist fiction some years ago, I did so because it felt like the best ‘home’ for the sort of writing I wanted to do about matters of spirituality and the sixth sense. In fact, in the blog I wrote for last year’s Blog Hop, I observed that I chose magical realism because of that very deliberate juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the believable and the challenging. I wrote that “[t]he magical realist aspects in my novels do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first, they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.

The five senses are a perfect example of that very juxtaposition. Medical science has helped us understand the way those senses function biologically, and yet it is powerless to rationalise why we can feel the presence of others with our eyes shut or why I hear the name of a person just before they phone me. I wanted to explore each of the five senses individually in my novels, but with ever-present reference to the sixth sense, the one that I feel connects the implicit power of those five senses together, the one that ‘makes sense’ of the information they offer that is beyond the merely cognitive, the one that plunges us into the less charted spaces of memory, emotion, insight.

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore

 

I didn’t want to make an explicit claim for ESP or a certain school of parapscyhology – though I never stop hoping that scientists and sceptics will be more patient and admit that in all science there is still so much we don’t know and understand – but I did want to say that nothing is never as simple as it looks, and to propose a loosening of our intellectual corsets in favour not merely of imagination but possibility. I don’t expect readers to go away from reading my books with a revised view of the world, merely a more heightened awareness of their own world, a greater attention to detail. And what Sarah Addison Allen does so precisely and so perfectly in books like Garden Spells is to focus on every tiny detail of the sensation of taste. That she does so in different ways in her books shows how much there is to express and explore in that one sense alone, how taste does not exist without smell or sight or that sensory awareness that does not yet have a universally accepted label.

In my first three novels, I have chosen to write about three different senses. Equilibrium is about sight, about what we see, Continue reading

Magical Realist Book Review: The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore, herself a writer of magical realist historical fiction, reviews The Firebird. 

I’m a relative latecomer to Susanna Kearsley’s work, as the first of what I would describe as her magical realist novels, Mariana, was published in 1994. Kearsley’s books could be defined broadly as historical fiction, where the past offers a portal for the present day heroine to witness history first hand and understand the truth of her own situation in some respect. It could be more simply described as time travel fiction, but what drew me to reading The Firebird (2013) was the focus on a more specifically psychic skill, psychometry or psychoscopy. This is the ability to ‘read’ something of an object’s past by touching it, explained by the psychometrist picking up traces of the energy of past owners or inhabitants. The word psychometry was coined in the nineteenth century, and literally means ‘reading the soul’, which in itself is an apt metaphor for this particular novel.

The Firebird‘s heroine, Nicola Marter is an expert in Russian art, and when she comes into contact with a small carved wooden bird, she instantly senses something powerful and significant in the object’s past, that it once belonged to the Russian Empress Catherine. Compelled by the tragic circumstances of the bird’s owner, she seeks the help of an old friend whom she hasn’t faced for many years. Rob McMorran possesses a psychic gift of a strength matched only by his purity of spirit, and in revisiting her past decision to deny her own ability – and her feelings for Rob – Nicola becomes able to revisit the past. The novel then becomes two stories in one, the events which lead to Nicola’s acceptance of her own ability and the events which lead us to the bird’s original owner.

Kearsley’s approach to historical fiction – and to the historical story in the novel – is as thorough as any fan of traditional historical fiction would expect. Indeed, The Firebird is the second in the Slains series, novels which draw on the rich and dramatic history of Scotland’s Slains Castle. Kearsley is detailed, accurate, and readily gifted at reimagining the past for her reader, although at times I think the historical authenticity slightly weighs down the pacing. There are also an enormous number of characters in the historical story, and in the last third of the novel, as the plot became more complex, it became occasionally difficult to keep track of everyone, especially after a break in reading. This is though a mark of Kearsley’s determination to tell a historical story properly, and not to oversimplify what were key historical and cultural events in Scotland’s past.

My key reason for reading this book, of course, was the paranormal aspect, and the reason why I would broadly call her novels magical realist. Not having read any of her other books, I was struck immediately by two things: the direct way in which Kearlsey introduces the psychic ability into the story, and Nicola’s implied sense of shame at her ability. It becomes apparent as the book goes on that Nicola’s attitude to her ability is complex: having volunteered years before for scientific tests of her ability, she did not complete the process and her emotional entanglement with and abandonment of Rob has left her with unresolved feelings about everything. Indeed, the direct acceptance of the psychometry as valid, right from the outset of the novel (we are left in no doubt that Nicola believes what she has ‘seen’, even if it has left her unsettled), is somewhat at odds with Nicola’s doubts and uncertainties about her own psychometric ability: she is afraid of what Rob can do, and of what she might be capable of doing, but is never in any doubt about the validity of the ability.

This comes to a head when Nicola must decide whether to admit to the owner of a painting she has been sent to buy that she knows it is a fake because she has seen its true and far more contemporary artist painting it when she touches the picture. Rob confronts her reluctance to admit publicly who she truly is and thus who he is too, and although Nicola ultimately accepts her ability, I was left with the sensation that this was ‘a cross to bear’, so to speak, for all involved. The potential for being a social outcast in any community which did not readily accept their psychic gift, and the unending requirement for proof of ability, is a common theme in any novel which tries to resolve or explain the paranormal, and in many respects The Firebird is framed as Nicola’s search for her own authenticity. I was left wondering though what I was meant to believe about psychometry, which was a curiosity because the novel is constructed around that original assumption that it is valid. We can’t access the careful historical truth Kearsley has written for us, if we don’t believe that what Rob and Nicola can do is actually possible. And yet they are arguing about how publicly acknowledging that ability is part of what makes it genuine.  I felt slightly as if I was being given something at the same time as it was being taken away from me. And I think this is the core conundrum of what makes novels which try to reconcile the ability so problematic. And in this case, paradoxically, we need an explanation for the journey from fiction (where anything is possible) to fact (the historical aspects of the story).

Would I recommend it? For fans of historical fiction, yes, without question. For fans of magical realism, probably not, because Kearsley doesn’t really say anything new about psychic ability, or craft any originality with it as a story element. But I will read other books of hers, if only to satisfy my curiosity about how she uses this time travel device in other contexts.

To find out more about Evie Woolmore’s historical magical realist novels The Salt Factory, Equilibrium, and Rising Up, visit the pages on this website or go to Amazon to download samples.

Indie Book Reviews (12): British Indie Authors (3)

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reviews Alan Williams’ novel The Blackheath Seance Parlour (available from Amazon)

My own interest as a writer in the spiritualist world of the Victorian and Edwardian eras drew me to this novel, but if you are looking for a good historical novel with plenty of authentic detail then there is much to appeal here. Middle-aged sisters Judy and Maggie Cloak have inherited a shop in the windswept, weather-beaten village of Blackheath on the outskirts of east London, but it is doing badly in its current incarnation as a sweetshop and the Cloak sisters are getting desperate. Judy has ambitions to escape both literally and metaphorically through a gothic novel she is writing, while Maggie seeks solace in drink from her sense of abandonment as a daughter and a prospective wife. Their lives change with the arrival of the rather mysterious Mrs Walters, a woman of some spiritual ability, who soon helps the sisters transform the shop into a focal point for many contrasting things: gossip, hope, faith, belief, mystery, and all the trappings of the occult. But the initial success of tea leaf reading is not enough for Maggie, Judy or Mrs Walters, and the story explores how the paths of each woman diverge as they seek their own resolutions with the past and the future. The novel is also intercut with long extracts from Judy’s novel, through which she explores certain aspects of her own reality and the society to which she imagines belonging.

The other main character in this book is the village of Blackheath, and Williams notes at the end of the book that he wanted to do justice to the community and its history as part of his aim in writing the novel. He captures very effectively the bleakness of the heath as it must have been in the Victorian era, and with a subplot around the murder of two girls, he infuses a certain chill in the already atmospheric spiritualist action. He has also done great justice to what must have been substantial research of spiritualism in the Victorian era. In the scenes where the sisters and Mrs Walters are reading tea leaves and the glass ball, and later the seances themselves, he has drawn very authentically on reports of the time, both of the fake and the genuine, and that level of accuracy will please readers of historical fiction and those interested in spiritualism.

It’s interesting too that he has essentially focussed on three middle-aged women, and he explores the social confinement these women must have felt in being unmarried while also seeking to be independent. Each woman is seeking something different as a consequence, and while their stories are interesting I wasn’t always as convinced by the historical authenticity of their actions and particularly some of their dialogue. Without giving too much away about how the story develops, some more spiritually-inclined readers might think it a shame that the most talented character spiritually was also the least attractive personality. It also might be seen by some readers as not doing much for a feminist agenda: the social emancipation and independence each of these women is seeking is in a way undermined by the lengths they go to to achieve what they want, and in some ways none of the women comes out of it very well. I was also a bit disappointed by the way Mrs Walters’ storyline resolved itself and not entirely satisfied with what happens to Maggie. But to discuss that at any length would be to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book.

As in my own spiritualist novels (search for Evie Woolmore), there is some discussion about the science vs religious faith vs spirituality conundrum, and this appears in the last part of the book only. It would have been interesting to do more with this much earlier in Maggie’s arguments with Father Legge, although it makes a very fitting climax dramatically in other respects. The book – though quite long – is generally well-paced, although I personally didn’t engage as much with the extracts of Judy’s novel. I think there could have been fewer of them and shorter ones too, without detracting from the part they played in reflecting some of the real-life action and the issues that arise for Judy as a consequence of writing the book.

This is a historically detailed novel, which I’m sure residents and those familiar with Blackheath will much enjoy for its local portrait, and which will provide a good escape on a wintry evening or two.

*****

Evie Woolmore is the author of historical novels with a spiritual twist. If you enjoyed The Blackheath Seance Parlour, you will probably enjoy her novel Equilibrium too, available at Amazon.

Life after death: science vs. faith

This week’s news about Harvard neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander III‘s near-death experience during a meningitis-induced coma has re-energised the debate about what light science can shed on questions about the afterlife. This divisive issue has generated a considerable body of scholarly and non-fiction writing for over a century, exploring the differences between scientific and divine truth, and the possibility of using science to prove definitively whether or not a form of life or consciousness exists after death. From the philosophical rationalisations of Richard Dawkins to the direct challenge by physicist Simon Singh to the television psychic Sally Morgan to undergo a scientific test under laboratory conditions to prove her ability, the burden has remained with believers and practitioners of the paranormal possibilities to provide indisputable scientific evidence of their position. Several institutions are engaged in the disproof from the scientific angle, including James Randi’s Educational Foundation, whose mission is to “help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims”, while in the UK one of Britain’s leading psychologists, Professor Chris French, is a leading figure in a larger skeptical movement who have proposed that a very simple test would be able to prove one way or the other if psychics are genuinely speaking to the spirits of those who have died.

Cynics have been quick to note that Dr Alexander has a recently published book to promote which not only details his experiences, but also no doubt provides more scientific detail about how he drew the conclusion that what he had seen was genuine and not a product of brain chemistry, a topic on which he is an acknowledged professional expert. Dr Alexander explains: “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the Continue reading