Novel Thoughts (2): On Genre

Some time ago, I thought I would write something “literary,” some great family saga of an Appalachian family torn apart by dark family secrets and juicy gossip. It all seemed quite clever to me at the time, a neat little way of transferring the dynastic politics of the ancient world into the incongruous setting of small town America.

The problem was, I couldn’t quite get the story right. Something about the whole effort rang false, and no matter how hard I tried I simply could not get the narrative to cooperate.

Finally, I determined the problem: I wasn’t writing in the genre that I truly loved. In attempting to forge a “literary identity” for myself, I’d abandoned my efforts to write fantasy, the genre that has always had the strongest hold over my heart. That genre is, of course, epic fantasy.

(A close second has always been historical fiction, but I’m afraid that my efforts at that were also not terribly successful).

Indeed, it was only after I started reading the works of Guy Kavriel Kay that I began to see the ways in which one could combine these two seemingly disparate genres, taking history and turning it slightly to reveal the fantastic elements of it, could be done if you really tried. The more I mused on it, the more it seemed to me that here, at last, were the roots of something I could make my own.

Now, I won’t say that my writing talents are anything close to Kay’s (they aren’t), but I will say that I take him as one of my models. His work, along with that of Tad Williams and Terry Brooks, are probably my greatest influences in terms of fantasy and the creation of worlds that seem to live and breathe on the page. While Kay’s work is large in scope, it doesn’t have quite enough of the conventions of the epic for my own saga, and so I’m really trying to attain something of a mixture between these three authors. (And yes, I know how pretentious that sounds, so I hope you’ll forgive me).

Writing in the genre of epic fantasy allows me, I think, to explore some of the great issues and themes of history, while not necessarily being bound to the historical record that we know. Sometimes, I think, you can actually explore the issues of history–such as agency (or the lack thereof), epochal change, the underlying forces that move nations and peoples forward (or backward)–when you add in some element of the strange, the cosmological, or the magical. Rendering visible that which, in our world, remains largely a matter of faith can lead to some truly fascinating constellations.

So, as I move forward with this novel project, I hope to do some more thinking about what it is that I want to do with the genre that I have chosen to write in. There are certain things that are required, of course, but my hope is that my work, limited as it might be, might add a little something to the genre that I have always called home.

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