But what is it?

I am primarily a fantasy writer. That is how I view myself and my novels. But literary critics often have trouble labeling me, putting my books into neat little boxes.

Midnight at Spanish GardensPerhaps that shows most vividly in one of my recent novels, ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens,’ a book that explores how our lives are changed by the paths we take, the choices we make.

Reviews were good, e.g. “the language is poetic and beautiful…characters are utterly compelling … on one occasion, I stood in a doorway,  flipping page after page, unable to take the steps that would lead to the end of my reading.” (Alana Abbott)

But Spanish Gardens uses a bit of fantasy to explore those choices, and booksellers and some reviewers don’t know how to classify it, what box to put it in.

I explored this problem a few years ago in an article that I wrote for The Interstitial Arts Foundation.

Interstitial art is made in the interstices between genres and categories, the foundation’s website explains. It crosses borders, is not constrained by category labels. “Just as how in nature the greatest areas of biodiversity occur in the margins of land between ecosystems, it is our belief that some of the most vital, innovative, and challenging art being created today can be found in the margins between categories, genres, and disciplines.”

Here is my 2009 article, a blast from the past as it were:

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It was a long time ago. A century ago. A millennium ago.

Well, all right, it was in 1999.

A man I met on a Usenet newsgroup concerned with writing – who became a friend, and subsequently my husband – and I collaborated on what must have one of the first few novels which could be described as “email epistolary”.

We each took on a character’s mantle, and we exchanged emails as these characters, within a given historical and political context – in this instance, the 78-day bombardment of Serbia by the United States and its often reluctant allies, in what became known as the Kosovo crisis.

Letters from the FireThe novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, was written very fast, in pain and with passion, and got picked up for publication by Harper Collins in New Zealand, where I was living at the time. From conception to being on bookstore shelves, the book took just under six months – which has to be some sort of record in the publishing industry at the time.

The topic was hot, to be sure, and the themes were those of contemporary history – but it was a fictional account of those real events, a novel, and it was with a considerable amount of astonishment that I came upon a callow young assistant in one of the premier flagship bookstore on the main drag in Auckland, shelving the books… in the non-fiction section.

That’s a novel,” I told him. “It belongs in fiction.”

He looked at me with a gormless expression, and said, “Are you sure?”

Reasonably,” I said. “I wrote it.”

That’s bookend one. For bookend two, fast forward to 2004, with the release of my novel, ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei.’ [Now published in 13 languages)

The Secrets of Jin-sheiThis was something which, as I wrote it, I conceived as alternate-history, or historical fantasy. The publishers had other ideas, and marketed it as mainstream, with most bookstores shelving it in the general fiction section.

Which had two complementary repercussions.

The first was that fantasy readers who might have loved this book simply never got to hear about it, because it wasn’t shelved in the section where they went to seek reading material.

The second was that mainstream readers, on the other hand, were uniformly thrown by what is essentially a very minor serving of magic in the book.

There appeared to be little I could do, despite repeated attempts, to convince people that the book was NOT in fact about China, about any China that actually existed, that there were certain aspects of the Imperial China which I used in the novel but that the land in which my own story took place was called Syai and did not, in fact, exist outside my own imagination. (And I STILL get questions like, “But what particular period of Imperial China were you writing about?”)

Part of the problem with the latter bookend is simply the fantasy cooties thing, something that apparently requires a warding off of the first order should its evil eye fall on your work – but as I keep telling everyone, ALL FICTION IS FANTASY. By definition.

And if the currently accepted definition of fantasy spills over into the mainstream shelves, or the mainstream books suddenly start having a dash of the fantastic – this should not be something that alienates readers from a book, bur rather it should be seen as an expanding of one’s horizons, an interstitial quest, a hunting for treasure in places you never thought to look in before.

Remember those optimistic, hardy, pretty urban weeds that spring with hope eternal from cracks in the pavement and put forth extravagant blooms as they dodge passing feet for a chance at a summer in the sun? That’s what we all are. Something beautiful in unexpected places, where you might least expect to see it. In the interstitial corners.

And perhaps it isn’t surprising that someone like Leonard Cohen put it best when he sang about there being a crack in everything. That, he said, was how the light gets in.

Read more about The Interstitial Arts Foundation HERE

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Quote of the day

ALL fiction is fantasy.” ~ Alma Alexander

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me

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