Elizabeth Knox

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Why I Write Fantasy (1)

I write fantasy and science fiction, realist fiction, and essays. In the essays, you might find yourself reading an account of a time in my life and stuff that happened to me, my family and friends. Or you might get my musings on some subject like what do we mean when we say that something is vulgar, or the uses of angels in art, or hitchhiking, or librarians I have known. And whether you’re reading about me, or reading me on some subject, what unifies the works is the point of view. I am speaking for myself. And when I’m speaking for myself I can speak with as much authority, or uncertainty, as I feel. I don’t have to be right. I only have to be interesting and honest.

Everything that happens to us has some small charge of significance. And I think that, just as there are people who are gluten or lactose intolerant, or, to use a more mysterious example, just as there are people with odd personal magnetic fields, who stop watches and can divine water (my mother is one of them) there are people who are sensitive to that charge. They feel more of it than is normal. And when they’re young and susceptible it might feel as if they’ve been given the gift of prophesy—probably accompanied by the curse of not being believed—the curse Apollo put on the Trojan princess Cassandra. There are things the poor young person urgently has to tell people. Not ideas, just things, intimations, stuff, shining, clamorous stuff that won’t let them sleep if they don’t get it off their hands. It’s like having a cornucopia that doesn’t produce fruit and nuts but only pours out an endless supply of bread dough. You have to keep making bread. You have to get the sticky heaving heavy stuff off your hands. So you write. But writing only refines your sensitivity to significance. And everything means more than you’ll ever live long enough to explain.

However, strangely, despite that maddening pressure, most of my writing isn’t essay. It’s fiction. And, more often than not, it’s fantastic fiction.
It happens that, now and then, that I’ll meet someone who’ll screw up their face in exaggerated (and possibly put-on) concern, to ask me why do my books have to have angels, vampires, aliens, and golems in them—why don’t I write about the real world? One reason I’ve characterized the person asking the question so negatively is that, by the way they ask, they’ve given away the fact they think there is a ‘real world’ that there is a consensus about. A real world whose realities people agree on.
Of course when I’m answering the question I tend not to say, ‘Which real world?’ because that’s a kind of smartarse answer. So, what I say if I’m feeling tired and got-at is that I don’t always write about angels and vampires etc.  There are my three autobiographical novellas, about growing up in Wellington suburbs; and there’s Glamour and the Sea, which is a book that combine’s my Dad’s real life in 1947, when he was 21, with a made-up adventure in which he plays the part of an amateur detective. And there’s Billie’s Kiss, a historical novel and a formal mystery story.
But if I’m asked the question ‘Why do your books have to have angels and vampires etc…’ when I’m in a happy and expansive mood, I might just point out that, for human beings, the real world is made of facts, and stories. The world is how it is, and it’s how it feels; and how it feels is as interesting as how it is. Then, for myself, I’ll say I write fantasy because 1) I love writing fantasy, and because 2) Fantasy gives me freedom.

First and obviously fantasy gives the freedom to make up things that don’t actually exist. It might be a whole world invention where just about everything is different. A good example of this is China Mieville, and his New Crobuzon, a city peopled by ‘remades’—workers whose bodies have been adapted to the needs of the labour market; by godlike dimension jumping spiders; by people who live in symbiotic relationships with giant insects who take over their higher brain functions, and, and and… Mieville’s powers of invention are inexhaustible.
I don’t write those books—or haven’t yet—I write the ‘what if’ books that change only one or two things about the life we know, like Dreamhunter and Dreamquake, which are set in a South Pacific nation in Edwardian times, a country that has an industry based on the catching and sharing dreams.

However, rather than use my own work as an example of a ‘what if’ book, I’ll talk a little about Holly Black’s Curse Workers—which I like and admire.

Without giving too much away, Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy makes this proposal: what if there are families of people who can curse others, with different catagories of curse, just by touching them. In the books the readers finds themselves in a world with schools and study halls and cars and TV and animal shelters and all the usual social rules—plus some new social rules relating to the main invention, and everyday stuff modified by that invention. So, Black’s curse workers are outlawed—they’re not allowed ever to do it  (unless they’re doing it for the FBI, which is pretty much the fate of real world hackers). In Black’s world it turns out that the Prohibition era in the States in the 1920s wasn’t about liquor, it was about cursing. But, just like in the real 1920s with bootleggers, the big crime syndicates in Black’s world got their start working around the illegal activity, in their case not the sale of liquor, but casting curses. The book’s hero’s family is a crime family, curse workers for generations. The Curse Workers Trilogy is a great example of how fantasy can use and adapt history. The author gets to talk about how prohibiting things leads to organised crime, without having to mention any of the stuff about which we know how we’re supposed to think—like social evils caused by drugs, and what it’s like for a kid to have people in his family making their living from selling illicit stuff. She gets to talk about how the hero feels about his family living outside the law and how, since his family pay for his schooling, it’s uncomfortable for him to think about where the money comes from. Black’s readers get to look at real world ideas and problems sidelong.  Black can do quite serious moral and emotional stuff and, in the meantime, have fun with the smaller and more detailed results of her big invention. For instance—the books are set now, but everyone wears gloves—like my husband tells me his mother always did in the 60s whenever she went out. Hardly anyone can curse in Black’s world—but the fear is so great that it is only polite for everyone to cover their hands.  The sight of bare hands is scandalous. There may be similar real world ideas about what parts of people’s bodies it’s necessary to cover up, but the fact that Black’s world, its rules and its manners, are all made-up means that the book has the freedom to talk about fear and shame and strict social codes without running into any resistance to exploring ideas which might happen if the author was talking to her readers about things they already know about, have feelings about—or things they’ve been told to have feelings about, and what the acceptable feelings are.

Black’s Curse Workers is full of drama and intrigue, has a twisty plot, and great characters.  And the author has serious purposes too. For instance, one thing she’s interested in is this: how can we believe that the people we care about see our relationships with them the same way we see them. There is a lot in these books about being deceived, and mistaken, and manipulated in loyalties and affection. But Black isn’t writing allegory. She’s given the work itself the freedom to have a serious purpose while at the same time transporting the reader out of their life. The problems in her world aren’t parallel to real-world ones. Good and inventive fantasy writers with serious intentions don’t just work out a narrative that ‘stands for’ a real issue. They make a whole new thing, then let the stuff that intrigues or troubles them come into it in some form that’s natural to the story.

So—with The Dreamhunter Duet I was free to use whatever I knew and loved so long as it fitted in the story. I could be write about a South Pacific island in the Edwardian age and I could put in as much real life stuff as I wanted—gannets diving for fish, what salt feels like drying on your skin, the sad, dank smell of a flower vase someone has forgotten to empty, and how a boy talks to a girl he’s attracted to when he can tell that being attracted hasn’t ever crossed her mind. But I didn’t have to get the geography right. I didn’t have to risk someone saying to me: ‘There isn’t a railway in Golden Bay’ or ‘Refrigerated shipping was 1890 not 1895’. (That said, because I thought I was writing only two Southland books, and I had no idea whether they’d ever see the light of day—I hadn’t written YA and didn’t know if I could pull it off—I stripped my Southland back to what was strictly necessary to the plot, and tried to avoid any red herrings and serendipitous unused invention. Now I wish I’d left more in. Like—just for a start—the indigenous people of
Southland, removed from early versions of the book because I was writing a haunted land story and wanted to avoid the fictional convention of a ‘native burial ground’ having caused the haunting. And I removed the names of the five families from the island of Ephrus from Dreamhunter in proof, which was silly since the title of my next Southland book, The Zarene Alphabet, uses one of those names, and concerns that family.*

When I’m taking my daily walk and I pass one of my neighbours who says ‘hello’, I look all hazy, and they say to me later: ‘I passed you and said hello, but I could tell that you were thinking about your latest book.’ But I’m not doing that anymore than I’m reciting a shopping list. What I’m doing is running my blood through another life—a made-up life—as if that life is a dialysis machine, either a high-tech modern one, or one of those tin can and sausage skin ones I saw in the London Science Museum. One that works, however it works, that removes the impurities of understanding, the prejudices of the present moment, my own particular quibbles and enthusiasms, and sends it all back to me scrubbed and new so I can go on living the writer’s life—and thinking about my latest book.


*There’s definitely a whole blog entry on the painting-yourself-into-a-corner that happens when you think you have to only put in what is necessary to a particular story, and then discover that you’ve invented a world that you want to explore in many books! There is way too much creative writing class reverence for economy in invention. Economy-schmonomy I say!



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