Stories matter: commissioning fiction and personal influences

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis CarrollFor me, good fiction makes sense, revealing our waking lives to ourselves (and sometimes our dreams) in ways we may not have before considered; which is a rather round-about way of saying that stories matter.

Stories have been a vital part of my life for as long as I can remember. Alice in Wonderland cracked open my imagination when my mother read it to me as a child. The reason I connected so strongly with the book is because it’s about a child interacting with a chaotic and seemingly nonsensical world, and when you’re five that’s exactly how the world feels. When I went through my first bad bout of depression as a teenager, I stopped reading horror, having somehow convinced myself that dark fiction had contributed to my mindset. Low and behold, reading mainly light comedies had absolutely no positive effect on my illness. Instead, a drop of the dark stuff helped pull me through. I can remember the book I was reading when I first started to date my wife – it was Light by M. John Harrison. When Maia, our daughter was born, I’d just set out on the epic journey of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, not quite aware of the true nature of the huge adventure we were now embarking on as a family.

Even when fiction deals with the fantastical, it reflects our lives and our world. Erikson’s aforementioned Malazan books brilliantly explore the nature of power, both political and religious, and its corrupting and potentially liberating effects. To use a personal example my first novel, Twilight of Kerberos: The Call of Kerberos, had as its central threat a massive flood and a baby as a core part of its cast of characters. In retrospect it’s easy to see how I used fiction to work out a lot of the stress caused by being flooded in 2007 and the anxiety of trying for a child as we underwent IVF treatment. Again, we can see how stories make sense of ourselves.

As a commissioning editor it’s only natural that my personal preferences are going to influence the fiction that I buy. That’s not to say that I don’t buy with a view to keeping as broad a list as possible, but stories are going to have to resonate with me on an intimate level if I’m going to want to pursue them.  I’ve mentioned Steve Rasnic Tem before in this column but it’s precisely because his stories are so honest, truthful and unafraid to explore potentially uncomfortable issues that his fiction resonates with me. When Steve and Melanie Tem wanted to explore the nature of their own family they did so in fiction, with the brilliant novella The Man on The Ceiling; a truly incredible work of fantastical biography. Steve’s heartfelt phantasmagoria, Deadfall Hotel, possibly connected to me so strongly because it deals with the issue of how you protect your child from a chaotic and indifferent world. At the time of commissioning this work, we’d just welcomed our daughter into the world, so the themes of fatherhood in this extraordinary book really struck a chord with me.

It’s when we stop telling stories, stop using narrative to enrich and talk about our lives, that the darkness can set in. For a time, my father used counselling to help artists who had stopped painting rediscover their art. There is a piece in my parent’s house that’s one of the most incredible portraits I’ve seen. It’s a portrait of my father and my father’s work, but instead of being a naturalistic picture of the man himself, it is instead a picture of light battling through and overcoming a nebulous darkness. This, to me, shows the importance of talking about our lives, using whatever expressive medium best suits us in order to rediscover and express what is within. My friend and poet, A.F. Harrold, wrote an incredibly moving piece shortly after his father died, using verse to express his grief and to say goodbye in the best way he knew how. Listening to Ashley the night he read that piece was an incredibly moving experience, one that reminded me what stories – in whatever form – are for.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing – be it dragons and wizards or social realism – what matters is that you write truthfully, telling the best story you can. Because stories matter; they deserve to be well told.

JONATHAN OLIVER

Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.