On Fantasy: Susan Fletcher

Susan FletcherFor a few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Today, you can read Susan Fletcher’s answers. She’s the author of many fine books, including Alphabet of Dreams.

Q: What was (is) the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Some fantasy writers revel in the details of the geography, costume, politics, technology and architecture of their made-up worlds. Me? Not so much. I love fantasy, but what come naturally to me are character, dialog, language—things like that. Designing an entire fantasy world from whole cloth is really daunting to me.

Flight of the Dragon KynSo I pick up great whole chunks of the “real” world for use in my fantasy novels. Elythia in my dragon books is based on the country Wales. (Loosely.) Kragrom is medieval Scandinavia. (Sort of.) Eric Kimmel loaned me a beautiful coffee table book on the Vikings, and I borrowed liberally from that.  There are three caves in my dragon books, and each is based on a real cave that I have visited. Dragon’s Milk‘s cave is a lava tube in central Oregon. Flight of the Dragon Kyn‘s cave is a huge cavern in southern Oregon. Sign of the Dove‘s cave is a sea cave on the Oregon coast. The draclings (not coincidentally) resemble my old cat Nimbus, the way they thrum in their throats and knead Kaeldra’s legs with their talons.

I pilfer—steal—so liberally from the real world partly because my imagination is not up to the task of creating a whole world all by itself, and partly because I believe that connecting my fantasy worlds to this one helps to make them feel real.

For me, world creation in fantasy is not so very different from world creation in historical fiction. In both cases, you fashion your fictional worlds from a combination of research, imagination, and alchemy!

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: In fantasy, you have the advantage of freedom; you can design your fictional worlds to fit the needs of your characters and their stories. In my dragon novels, for instance, I didn’t have to research medieval politics or ship building techniques in a particular time and place. By contrast, the historical novel I am writing now takes place specifically in 1252 A.D., and I have to know exactly who was the king of where, and what languages were spoken in the various locales where my characters find themselves, and whether, on a ship voyage, passengers would sleep above or below decks.

But the freedom of writing fantasy comes with a price. And the price is that your fantasy world has to make sense on its own terms. And part of what this entails is a coherent magic system. You have to create the rules—and stick to them. Rules in which the magic is internally logical, has clear limits, and has a significant price.

Q: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

The MoorchildI read a bit of fantasy as a child but began to delve into it seriously later on, when I began writing for kids and young adults. Some of my early favorites were Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a masterpiece I have loved ever since the first time I read it, when I was in college. The books of David Almond and Philip Pullman were later favorites. But I think that the fantasy novel I love most is Eloise McGraw’s The Moorchild. Eloise was a friend, and in Moorchild she was writing at the peak of her considerable powers. Saaski, the protagonist, is half-human and half-folk, and doesn’t really belong in either world. The Moorchild is about being different from those around us—something we’ve all felt. It is about the difficulty and necessity of finding one’s place in the world, and living with integrity—all of which speak to me.

Q: Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A: Oh, definitely: Shahrazad! I didn’t invent her; she is the heroine of the legend on which I based my novel Shadow Spinner. But what a wonderful character she is! Shahrazad is probably the most famous storyteller of all time, so I would talk with her about the art of telling stories. Because she told stories in order to save her own life, I would ask her about capturing the interest of listeners (or readers), keeping them engaged, and designing compelling cliffhangers. Because she had to come up with something new to tell for 1001 consecutive nights, I would talk to her about generating new ideas, being prolific, and meeting deadlines. Because she was telling stories in order to reform the character of a wicked king, I would talk to her about the conundrum of writing a “moral story,” a story that articulates meaning in a significant way without hitting listeners (or readers) over the head with a preachy moral. And then we would toss down some sharbat and just generally dish the dirt.

Thank you, Susan, for sharing your thoughts about fantasy as well as your book recommendations. I encourage you to read all of Susan books, including her most recent, Falcon in the Glass. She’s a wonderful story spinner. Learn more about Susan on her website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song was published June 7th and is available from Clarion Books, your favorite bookseller, and your local library. The BNKids blog said, “Readers who love taking their time to explore sometimes creepy, sometimes wonderfully magical fantasy worlds will be charmed. Grayling is one of the most relatable young heroines I’ve read about for ages. Give this one to a daydreamy nine or ten year old, who could use a bit of inspiration to set off with courage on their own perilous journey through adolescence!”

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On Fantasy: Anne Ursu

Anne UrsuFor the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Today, I’m pleased to host Anne Ursu, author of The Real Boy and Breadcrumbs, which was featured on the NPR Backseat Book Club.

Q: What was (is) the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: I’m not practical in the least. I’ve spent my life daydreaming as opposed to paying attention to how things work, so the very practical aspects of making a coherent world is really hard for me. I have to work hard to remember that people need, for instance, food and material to build their houses and make their clothes and stuff. And I generally can’t be bothered with things like terrain and climate and any other thing people who have any observational ability at all notice about the world. For my high fantasy, I needed to come up with a specific place in the world (eastern Mediterranean) and year (1675) to build the world around so I always had real world references.

The Real BoyQ: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: I always think all stories are magic in their own way—Karen Cushman’s whole career is proof of that. But I think magic allows us more power to talk about reality, to use all the marvelous tools of the fantastic to deal with real world issues, whether epic or intimate. So I need to keep my sense of metaphor on high alert, to take emotional and societal issues and make them abstract and then concrete again. The real whispers underneath the fantastic, and you have to pay close attention to what you’re whispering.

Q: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: When I was a kid, I was in plays of The Phantom Tollbooth (I was Humbug) and A Wrinkle In Time (I was Charles Wallace!). The structure and language of those books are deeply embedded in my psyche. Still, I was more of a realistic fiction reader then. In my adult life I fell in love with Harry Potter and then found Phillip Pullman and was hooked on this kind of story. Recent favorites include Hoodoo by Ronald Smith, The Toymaker’s Apprentice by Sherri L. Smith, and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. For all time favorite, I think I have to go with Phantom Tollbooth—that, Star Wars, and the Muppets pretty much formed the storytelling part of my brain.

Q: Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A: I do really miss Philonecron, the villain of my trilogy. He was a half Greek god, half demon who longed to rule the universe and wear really nice tuxedos. Though I could not possibly serve a meal fine enough for him (and I’m guessing he wouldn’t be amused by my vegetarianism) I would enjoy hearing about his plans for world domination.

Thank you, Anne, for answering these questions with such candor. Do read all of Anne’s books, including The Chronus Chronicles, a wildly popular series in which Charlotte and Zee save the world from certain destruction and Greek myths gone wild.  Learn more about Anne Ursu on her website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. School Library Journal said “Young fans of magic will revel in delving into this new world with its cast of unique characters.”