This interview first appeared on the Lector’s Books website, and is reproduced here by kind permission.
Lector’s Books: What first interested you in magical realism?
Evie Woolmore: For those readers who are unfamiliar with magical realism, it’s probably worth giving a quick definition – although opinions differ as to what magical realism actually is! Most commonly it is considered to be the infusion of imaginary, magical or paranormal elements into the real world. At one end you might have ghost stories like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and, at the other, novels about individuals with extremely long life, such as The Thief of Time by John Boyne. For many, magical realism is a subcategory of fantasy, but the important difference is that the stories are set in the real world as we know it, but shifted in perspective so that something we might normally take to be improbable or impossible becomes true.
My interest in this genre comes from two areas in conflict with each other. My education was scientific in background, and I retain an interest in all sorts of science from the struggle to unite all the theories of physics to what makes a baseball curve between the pitcher and the plate. But alongside that I have always had a fascination with the supernatural and the paranormal, and with the debates around them, from belief to disbelief. What interests me is that while science has been certain that ghosts, telepathy, and other psychic phenomena don’t exist, because they aren’t explainable by the laws of physics, physics itself is still incomplete. While there is so much we still don’t know about how our world is built and how it functions, how can we already be so certain that some things don’t exist?
Fiction is a natural place to work these things out. The gift a book gives you is to take you to another utterly believable place, and my take on magical realism is not merely, ‘what if this were true?’ but ‘why wouldn’t it be true?’ There’s more to most things than meets the eye.
LB: When you are writing, do you adjust your story to the genre of magical realism, OR, is magical realism the genre that most closely matches the style in which you like to write?
EW: Definitely the latter. I always start with a premise of a situation that would be considered magical realist, and the novel flows from that. If it has a crime or romance element or it’s historical or contemporary then that always comes later as I find effective, engaging ways to make the premise come alive.
LB: What is your writing process like? Do you first create an outline, or do you just let the story unfold? As a follow up, there is a pretty major plot twist in Equilibrium involving one of the main characters that is revealed near the end – did you know from the beginning that you were going to do that?
EW: I’m a really organized, disciplined writer, but I hate plotting. For me, it’s like having teeth pulled, unimaginably painful and much too drawn out to be fun! I hate it because my brain is not naturally wired up that way: I’m not a particularly orderly thinker so it takes weeks of writing and rewriting synopses, drawing diagrams, writing snatches of dialogue at 3am and yelling at myself for me to get it right. Nonetheless it’s really important for me to work that way because I get these wonderful ideas for situations and characters I want to write about, and in order for their journey to be engaging for the reader I need to make sure that they exist in some sort of meaningful context that shows something of ‘why’ they are as well as ‘who’ they are. So I always create an outline and I always know how it’s going to end. When I actually start writing, I write very quickly and very intensively: usually around 5000 words a day on a writing day. So if I’m not fully prepared I get frustrated very quickly because I want to be writing when I still need to be thinking!
But one of the wonderful by-products of plotting is those completely unplanned bits of tidiness and cleverness, where something manifests on the page that I hadn’t anticipated, and it just slots perfectly into place. That is the purely spontaneous, creative part of writing, and it is utterly addictive. It is what gets me through the hell of plotting. No matter how much I organise the novel in advance, the voices, the dialogue and the details all come at the very moment I am typing. The whole process of creativity, of how the novel forms under your fingertips is, in a way, exactly what fascinates me about the conflict between science and the paranormal. You can explain to me how the neurons fire, how the different parts of the brain work, but the process of actually creating the book is, in many ways, completely inexplicable.
LB: Who are your favorite authors and what is it about their writing that draws you?
EW: I have a somewhat eclectic list of favourite authors, whom I admire and enjoy for quite different reasons. It’s also a long list so I’ll just select a few!
In magical realism, I hugely admire Ann Patchett, Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Erin Morgenstern. All write beautifully, and also demonstrate what I think is a key quality in magical realist fiction: to present their alternative vision of the real world as believable from the outset. Any writer has the responsibility of introducing their fictional world in such a way that the reader doesn’t feel the shock of transition, but all three of these writers draw you in in such a way that you accept what they are saying about how these other dimensions or other abilities exist among our own. You immediately believe that anything is possible.
In a completely different genre, Lawrence Block, the New York crimewriter, has been a favourite of mine for years, both as a reader and a writer, and I return to his books for relaxation over and over again even though I know how they all end! All his many books are very instructive in how to develop strong narrative voices and thoroughly absorbing settings. His characterisations are extremely strong and his dialogue is so fluent: I learned a great deal from him about how to craft dialogue that shows you the person through the way they speak. He has also written some excellent books on writing, including Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, which I have read both for fun and for study, and highly recommend.
Another favourite of mine is the British fantasy/comedy writer Jasper Fforde. His Thursday Next books are set in a brilliantly inventive, clever, funny world in which characters in books are real. Any booklover will immediately enjoy them for their creativity and his writing is also excellent. One of his books, The Well of Lost Plots, has brought me great comfort over the years when I was struggling to get published in print: read it and find out why!
LB: What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
EW: I go to work in the real world, unfortunately! Most indie authors – indeed many print-published authors – have jobs that they do to support themselves and make it possible for them to write. I am blessed by other skills that earn me a regular salary and I have been lucky enough to arrange my life so that I can do a good job in both my creative and other professional lives. One of the benefits of indie publishing direct to Kindle or via Smashwords has been to release writers from the singular path to publication, of needing an agent and a print publisher. I’ve blogged about the challenges I personally faced with that, and for me the opportunity simply to write and then publish what I want, regardless of what a publisher thinks they can sell, has been thoroughly liberating.
LB: In your blog post (https://allonymbooks.com/2012/12/05/equilibrium-by-evie-woolmore-an-epitomising-epigraph/) you say “But Equilibrium is not a novel about what is true and what is not. In an era of great change it is a novel about transitions and about the boundaries we cross when we make those journeys: from life to death, from the past to the future, from ignorance to understanding.” What really jumped out at me was the theme of consequences – some are from actions of our own, some are from actions of others, some can be undone (or at least mitigated) and some can’t. Why do you think it is that ten people can read the same book and come away with ten different messages? And what is the message you want your readers to take away from Equilibrium?
EW: You have hit upon the joy of both writing and reading: that different people will take away different things. I do, of course, write my books with certain objectives in mind, particular themes I want to explore, specific ideas I want to present. And the challenge with magical realism is that a reader can walk away saying ‘I don’t believe that,’ or ‘it isn’t true’. The novels and films I like best are those with a degree of ambiguity in them, a certain subtlety that I think then does enable readers or viewers to come to different conclusions. Even a novel that seems to have a happy-ever-after ending will still leave readers feeling pleased or cross, disappointed with characters or delighted for them depending on their own point of view, their own expectations of their lives and thus of the lives of the characters they read about. But like all creative arts – films, music, paintings – once an author puts their novel out there into the world, they give up control of what the reader will take away from it. Some authors are more comfortable with that than others. For me it’s just part of the adventure!
Equilibrium is in some senses about exactly what it says it is: our desire to restore the equilibrium when it has been disturbed, to put things back the way they were. It is also, as you identify, a novel about consequences, about our need to manage them, control them, and learn to accept them. People do generally have a limited view of the effect of their actions on other people these days: from a noisy phone conversation in a crowded train carriage, to tweeting something mean about someone else. Boundaries are thinning in all sorts of ways and we are slow to catch up to the consequences of that.
But it is also a novel about keeping an open mind. All my novels are, in some form. My latest novel, The Salt Factory, which will be published later in June 2013, explores the tension between what we think we know and how things actually are or might be. Even though it’s a historical novel, set in late Victorian England and Colorado, it’s not merely a metaphor for the science/paranormal debate I was talking about earlier, but also for the challenges of contemporary life. In this information age, we believe we know everything there is to know, that we have access to everything we need. But when you stop dealing in facts and start thinking about people, information becomes a matter of perspective. We are so eager to control our environment with facts, knowledge, truth, that we are sometimes too afraid to admit our ignorance. And to allow it to amaze us.
I’m really glad you enjoyed reading Equilibrium and thank you very much for inviting me to talk to you and your readers. Visitors are always welcome at the allonymbooks website!