This week EM Havens, author of Dark Night of the Soul, and allonymbooks’ own Evie Woolmore discuss the challenges of labelling their books as magical realist or visionary or fantasy or….
Evie Woolmore: When I read your blogpost the other day about the success of Dark Night of the Soul (DNOTS) after its release, I was amused to read the statistics you gave us from the Kindle rankings – #1 in Metaphysical/Visionary; #1 in Fantasy Super Hero; #1 in Dark Fantasy; #1 in Visionary Fantasy; #23 in Fantasy. Brilliant to have done so well so quickly, but what a range of genres to sit across! How do you see the advantages and pitfalls in labelling your work by genre?
EM Havens: Thanks, Evie! Yes, I am brilliant…and humble. (That’s a joke. My husband said people don’t always get my sense of humor so I thought I should say.) But, let’s just get all the cards on the table. Those numbers are from my free promo days with Amazon KDP Select. They correspond to how many free books I gave away not actual sales. I did put a lot of time and energy into promoting the giveaway, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s just a fun little contest I have with myself to see how high I can get in the overall free books when I run a promo. I actually made it to the front page (#19 overall) with one of my other books. THAT was exciting.
I also don’t have complete control over my genres. Amazon chose a couple of those for me. I think the benefit is that more people might accidentally stumble on to the book. I worry, though, that not only will readers be disappointed the story doesn’t fit their expectations of the genre, but also that the broad spectrum will confuse people enough to forgo purchasing. It’s really a conundrum. I generally have a hard time pegging the genre down myself, so it’s kind of fitting.
EW: It is a conundrum, I agree! I understand exactly what your concerns are about reader expectations, but I also wonder whether readers of quite broadly defined genres like magical realism, fantasy and so on, will be generally more open to variations in those genres? Are they generally imaginative readers less bothered (and more inspired!) by innovation than someone reading a very specific (and perhaps formulaic) type of paranormal romance? What’s your sense from the contact you have with your readers?
EMH: I think fantasy/scifi readers are more open. Not because they are fantasy/scifi readers, but because the genre appeals to their reading habits. I have to laugh every time the hard core Historical/Contemporary Romance readers in my writing group try their hands at critiquing a scifi novel. “I don’t get it.”, “I don’t understand.”, “You need to tell me more about where this takes place.”, and the list goes on of complaints in reading the first paragraph. Where as, I’m perfectly fine with being in the dark for several chapters, and I actually LIKE that! Not to say I don’t occasionally enjoy a straight forward Romance, but to each their own.
The comment I’ve been getting most about DNOTS is: “This is not what I expected. I’m so glad I gave it a chance!” Most readers have taken that chance on it because they enjoyed another of my works. They say it’s unlike anything they’ve ever read and find it hard to categorize, but the overall response is positive.
EW: That’s a really interesting point about ‘being in the dark for several chapters’. I know what you mean and I enjoy it too. That’s where readers who do prefer historical novels struggle with MR I think, because they like to get their bearings early on. Authenticity is important in that sort of novel, but magical or alternative realism really challenges that idea. How can the reader know what authenticity they are seeking, when we are creating a new/alternative/magical world for them? It just doesn’t exist in the same way.
So the question all that leaves me asking myself is, what sort of problems am I creating for the reader by writing historical magical realist fiction?!! Am I giving with one hand and taking away with the other?! I suspect that’s one of the reasons that publishing house marketing teams struggled to know how to pitch my books, because they demand contradictory things of the reader: a desire for authenticity and a suspension of belief.
So when you’re thinking about new books to write, are you able to harness that idea that readers think ‘This is not what I expected’? Does it help you be creative?
EMH: OH! Most definitely! Sometimes, if I get stuck on a plot line, I’ll brainstorm and try to think of the thing that will be least expected. I think you know what part of Dark Night of the Soul I did that on. LOL! But hey, it packs a punch I think. Readers have loved that part. I’ve also written a steampunk romance called Fate War: Alliance. The comment of, “This is not what I expected” showed up there too (in a good way!). I like romance, but I get tired of the same plot told a million different ways. I could almost tell you the page number in which the first kiss would be, or the first misunderstanding. When I wrote Fate War, I wanted it to be different, more real in how the characters interacted. People don’t just change overnight. I think that threw a lot of romance readers because they were expecting the same old, same old. But in the end, they really liked it. That may be crux of everything I write. I don’t want readers to guess what comes next, because that’s the kind of book I want to read too! I’m definitely putting the same touches in upcoming novels.
EW: A recent review
of my novel Rising Up
posed the question “is it right to use magical realism in this way when the subject matter [the Holocaust] is so dramatic?” In a blog
a couple of weeks ago I explored the idea that by calling it magical realism we are acknowledging the relationship and the juxtaposition between the ‘magical’ and the ‘real’. Dark Night of the Soul
considers the spiritual consequences of suicide and features a character whose death is a direct result of an ongoing war, so what are your views on that balance between the ‘magical’ and the ‘real’?
EMH: I think magical realism does what any good science fiction or fantasy does. Juxtaposing magic, fantasy, the future or other worlds with what we know, is like shining light through a prism. It allows us to to look at things from another angle, through a different lens and bypass our preconceptions and imagine a rainbow of different possibilities from what our finite experiences permit. That being said, I actually believe in the supernatural and that it plays a part in shaping the “real”. I don’t think the two can be separated. But I’m sure that’s another question for another day!
EW: I really like that idea of shining a light through a prism, showing things at another angle. In my blog for the Magical Realism Blog Hop
in July I described it as “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.” I think these sorts of metaphors help readers understand what to expect, and how magical realism (or alternative realism as I considered in the Blog Hop) might differ from fantasy or other paranormal fiction.
We could go on all day, couldn’t we? It’s such a fascinating topic, and I am really delighted to have had the chance to chat about it with you, EM. I can’t recommend DNOTS highly enough to anyone who hasn’t read it, so do visit EM Havens’ website
and find out more about her and her books. Thanks EM, stop by again soon!