Today’s guest is Stina Leicht, one of this year’s finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer! Her first novel, Of Blood and Honey, was released last year. And Blue Skies from Pain, the second book of the Fey and the Fallen, just became available last month.
Although I plan to, I have to confess I haven’t yet read either of these books. I really wanted to invite some authors I hadn’t already talked about here this month, and I thought of Stina Leicht both because I’ve been hearing wonderful things about her books and I follow her on Twitter. Her books, which combine Ireland in the 1970s with the fey, sound very interesting, and I have seen nothing but rave reviews for them. Now that I’ve read what she has to say on blending major real-world events with fantasy, I’m even more excited to read them!
Vanishing the Elephant
Fantasy has an element of surrealism. The magic of the genre isn’t in its complete disconnection from reality but rather, its connection to it. Readers read in order to experience other lives — to travel to a different world, but they never leave the rules of reality behind. Audiences are more sophisticated than they once were. So it is that the more realistic that fantasy world, the more intense an experience is created. Powerful novels take my breath away. They make me care about the characters. They make me laugh *and* cry. It takes a great deal of skill as a writer to affect a reader’s emotions, but when it comes down to it… that’s the job. In addition, I adore the concept of the ordinary made extraordinary — that all the things we don’t believe in might just exist at the edges of our perception, if we squint hard enough. Details are vital. This is especially true when incorporating actual history into the story. The thing to remember is that readers will look up events referenced in fiction — even more so now than ever before, and that will make or break their experience of the story. This is even more the case when the novel is set in a time and place in which the reader lives or has lived. The balance becomes trickier when the events in question are associated with high emotions and conflict. Add in yet another layer of complication when telling a less mainstream aspect of events, and it’s an enormous challenge. However, I believe it’s well worth attempting. Addressing touchy subjects with story is one of Science Fiction and Fantasy’s best traditions. Sure, not all Sci-fi and Fantasy does this. (Some novels are intended to be fluffy and they do have their place.) However, I feel the main thing that sets Sci-fi and Fantasy apart from other genres is its capacity to make the reader think, in addition to SFF readers’ willingness (perhaps even eagerness) to contemplate complex subjects.
The more recent and emotionally charged the history, the more complicated the work is for the writer. History is edited and smoothed out over time. That has yet to happen with current events. For example, ask any police officer how many witnesses to a crime they prefer to have and they’ll tell you… one. Why? Studies have shown that human beings perceive events differently in subtle ways. So, if five witnesses step forward, there are five separate versions of what happened. Each and every version is valid. Remember we’re talking about personal events, not a distant, far-flung history. If lives have been lost, and generally they have been in this type of event, then the stakes are quite high. In many ways, the approach is connected to writing about Other. The same caution, attention to detail, patience, respect, and concern are required. If you ask me, the first step is in listening to those who have lived the events you’re writing about — really listening with an understanding that the witness to the event is the expert, not yourself. You’ll never know what it was like to live through what another human being has. You can only guess. So it is that without the ability to listen with an ego-less ear, a writer is doomed to fail.
Can you see how these sorts of stories have all the problems of non-fiction in addition to the problems of fiction? I tend to do a certain amount of research first and then look for the gaps that are left in the records. There are always small openings in history. Interestingly enough, some are quite broad. The more narrow the space, the more skill is required to weave in the fantastic. It’s a delicate process. It’s too easy to make the mistake of painting in broad strokes, but doing so will not only bust the illusion, it might inadvertently create a caricature and be harmful. It’s like a stage magician’s trick — only you’re using real history to distract the reader from the unreal elements. The trick is to make the elephant disappear without harming or killing it.
About Stina Leicht:
Stina Leicht is a 2012 Campbell Award nominee. Her debut novel Of Blood and Honey, a historical Fantasy with an Irish Crime edge set in 1970s Northern Ireland, was released by Night Shade books in February 2011 and was short-listed for the Crawford Award in 2012. The sequel, And Blue Skies from Pain is in bookstores on March 2012. She also has a flash fiction piece in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s surreal anthology Last Drink Bird Head.