Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why I Write Fantasy - Laraine Herring

Welcome Laraine Herring, magical realism author and professor of creative writing.

Amber: Why did you choose the magical realism for your new novel Ghost Swamp Blues?
Laraine: It’s easy for me to write magical realism because it’s the way I perceive the world around me. I didn’t choose to write Ghost Swamp Blues in magical realism. I just can’t seem not to write that way. I have very few pieces of fiction that do not contain elements of magical realism, and even my creative non-fiction essays are magical in some way. To me, everything is alive. I even name and create personalities for my appliances, and people who follow my blog know that I have a small green stuffed monkey named Keezel who travels with me, and even performed the wedding ceremony for my husband and me at Ocean Beach in San Francisco! I’d have to be a writer or else I’d be labeled crazy!

I appreciate the sense of wonder that magical realism provides, and I think of time as a loop rather than a line, so it’s very easy for me to create a story that emphasizes the continuity of time and place (whether through “ghosts” or other elements). Accepting the marvelous as commonplace helps me continue to see the world through eyes of wonder rather than through fixed and rigid concepts, and this helps me as a writer to continually be amazed, to continually see the world with soft eyes, compassion, and an eye toward possibility rather than predestination.

Many people are familiar with Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, but they may not consider Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, or Laura Esquivel when they think about magical realism authors. There’s a wide range of authors writing contemporary magical realism novels. I’d encourage you to check out some of them. I love teaching magical realism, too, in part because it tends to throw students out of their comfort zones. I often start with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” I love the responses, which usually range from “I don’t get it” to being quite angry with the author. Rarely do students have this kind of visceral response to fantasy (Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, for example). They grew up reading Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Ursula le Guin, Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling, and they’re perfectly content letting their spirits escape into the pages of another world.

Amber: Why do you think readers love fantasy?
Laraine: I think fantasy literature is more accessible and therefore more popular because the reader clearly knows how the "rules" of his or her own world differ from the "rules" of the fantasy world. There’s the world of the book, and the world of the reader, and they don’t intersect. Monsters, demons, shifts in time and place, time travel, fairies, ogres, vampires, and all sorts of extraordinary elements can be fascinating on the page because they don’t play by the rules of the reader’s “real” world. Magical realism literature, on the other hand, forces the reader to consider (the reader doesn’t have to accept the premise, of course) the possibility of the extraordinary elements present within his or her own world. That shakes people up sometimes.

Amber: How does magical realism differ from fantasy?
Laraine: The primary differences between magical realism and fantasy writing, to me, lie in the world of the story. In magical realism literature, the world is this earth. In fantasy literature, the world is altered in some way, or we have a completely different world altogether. The fantastical elements are perceived as out of the ordinary, whereas in magical realism, the magic (the extraordinary) is treated as ordinary and accepted, not something to be afraid of, amazed by, or figured out. It’s just what is. The supernatural is as valid as the natural in magical realism, and to me, that’s extremely exciting to explore through story.

Amber: As a creative writing professor, what mistakes do you think fantasy writers make?
Laraine: I have read many students’ attempts at writing fantasy. Many more students try to write fantasy than magical realism, and I think that’s due in a great part to what they’ve read. People tend to write what they like to read. The biggest mistake I see unique to the fantasy genre is students focusing far too much on the extraordinary elements and on world-building at the expense of the characters. They are enthralled by the fantasy world, the naming, the gadgetry and even the languages they can create within it, but they forget that they need compelling characters with clear, multi-layered desires to inhabit those worlds.

The same thing occurs with writers of historical fiction. They’ve often done so much research on a place and time that they want to put it all in because they find it fascinating, forgetting that the reader, ultimately, is reading to follow a character’s journey, and that journey needs a solid driving question and a layering of desires and obstacles to compel the reader forward. Tension in fiction is created not through complex worlds, but through the potential for multiple outcomes to a given character’s desire. Where one chooses to place that character, whether on a planet in outer space, under the earth, or in Santa Fe, serves to enhance that characterization and to provide its limitations and possibilities. The world, although an integral part of a story, is not the whole story.

Amber: Thanks Laraine for telling us about magical realism. And I loved your book and highly recommend it to readers who love fantasy, history, the South, or just a good story.
And my copy of The Writing Warrior Discovering the Courage to Free your True voice has just arrived. I know I will like it as much as I loved Writing begins with the Breath.

Laraine Herring holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in counseling psychology. She directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, AZ. Her most recent books are: Ghost Swamp Blues; The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice and Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice. Find out more at her website.

Laraine Harring’s Contest!
For a chance to win a signed copy of Ghost Swamp Blues
Email Laraine e-mail with your request,
and in the body of the e-mail, 
tell her what you love about fantasy or magical realism.


  1. Reading your interview was like taking a mini writing course. Thanks, Laraine. Now I have a label for some of my own writing. Your book, Ghost Swamp Blues, pulled me in as though your words were quicksand. A great read!

  2. What an intriguing interview, Laraine and Amber. I've never heard the term Magical Realism and found it fascinating to learn about this top.

    Thanks for sharing with us, Laraine.


  3. Hi Amber and Laraine! Wonderfully INTERESTING Interview! Im not familiar with Magical Realism. Is it something Romance authors are starting to write, also, or does it still lie within the Fantasy Realm Genre?

    LOVE that cover, too!

    Hugs, Kari Thomas,