Susan Maxwell on writing fantasy and why books can teach us how to think

In the first of a series of blogposts from Little Island authors, Susan Maxwell talks about becoming a writer, why people write stories, and the truth of fantasy.

Back in the day of the dodo and the Dagda, when I was young, I loved a book whose narrative rang with conviction. I closed in like a homing pigeon on books where the writer did not allow the smallest crack of doubt that what s/he said happened, happened. It did not need to be a familiar setting in any way, so tales of frontier children making their way over dangerous parts of North America were as acceptable as tales from London vicarages or the secret gardens of the Yorkshire gentry. It was the same effect as paintings that are so realistic that it is only the frame that stops you reaching out to sneak a grape or a mussel off the plate.

At the same time, though, I had an opposite-me, who came out at night-time and in empty rooms, and didn’t read books the way they are supposed to be read. A nefarious person altogether, who defied narratives by starting books in the middle, and reading outwards. Backwards and forwards, instead of in a straight line, until finally the story was pieced together. This looking-glass-me’s toes curled with excitement every time that the illusion of a familiar scene was shattered by the incursion of unreality: Fionn MacCumhaill’s dog found wandering down a bog road; an ordinary 11-year old English boy (no, not that one) discovers one enchanted mid-winter that he is an Old One; a Psammead in a sand-pit. Equally popular were books of lists, those compendia of marvellous maybe-facts, and tales of “real” hauntings and unsolved mysteries. Amazing how big a rattle-bag of randomness you can fit into one cranium…Less popular were stories where the magic was being pointed out all the time, as sometimes happened in Narnia; far more attractive was the double-take, the sense of “could that be real?” The great thing about being eight or ten is that the answer usually was “yes”.

When it came to setting pen to paper myself, it seems always to be the looking-glass-me that takes charge. I was asked once why I had created so “ludicrous” a place as Muinbeo. “Ludicrous” isn’t the kindest word but it has aspects that are quite accurate – the absurd, certainly, the foolish and the eccentric. This seems to me to be quite normal, because the world is full of the absurd, the foolish and the eccentric, mainly humans, the things they believe and the rules they follow. We, I mean, of course. We humans…

But it takes a lot of time and effort to write a book and it’s hardly worth it just to tell a story. It’s a lot of work just to say that X happened to Y and that A and B were happy or sad about it. Usually, writers are telling the reader several things at once. What they want to say depends on the writer. How they say it depends on what kind of book they want to write – some will make their points clearly and straightforwardly, some will hang gauze and glitter and strings of beads and very long sentences and peculiar names all over their story so that the reader will keep warm from the effort of slashing their way through the thickets of prose in order to get to the point, whatever it may be. However it’s done, it isn’t just for larks (though larks are surprisingly fond of a good murder mystery, they listen very attentively, I find). No, it isn’t just so that readers can have fun reading, or can learn to be more confident readers and so have a hobby for life, or can escape the “real” world for a while, though these are all good things. It is also about thinking – not what to think but how to do it.

There is a huge amount of information available everywhere a person turns, from advertising images to newspapers to “reality” television to millions of web-pages to the faces and body-language of your nearest and dearest. How do you know any of it is true? Or why it’s true? Or why someone else might think it’s true? Did you know that Psammeads hate water? That it once rained frogs in France? Which of these things is true and – and this is the absolutely vital bit – how do you know? What is it about the way that someone says “let me tell you what a brinicle is” that will make their reader think that’s interesting or she can lie without a blush? If literature has functions or responsibilities beyond just being good literature, then perhaps these include tripping up the reader. In that way, the reader is constantly asking questions about who is telling them a story, and why they are telling it. Hence the footnotes in Good Red Herring; the story is constantly being interrupted with commentary from the side-lines, interruptions by unidentified – eh – beings who are telling the story (to the Chronicler who is writing a book which has my name on the cover) – how could you believe a word of that? Or could you?

There is a difference between being cynical and thinking everything is a lie, and being naïve enough to believe everything. It is at least as big a difference as that between being narrow-minded and refusing to consider that any new thing might be true, and having no judgement about whether something is true or not. The great thing about fiction-writers is that the reader knows from the start that we’re spinning them a yarn. Maybe.


Susan Maxwell is the author of Good Red Herring from Little Island Books. Find out more about the book and order your copy here.

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