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.

Writing about place and setting in genre fiction

Newcastle settingAs always, this article isn’t meant to be a “How to” piece. It’s simply a personal reflection on an element of writing that I think it’s important to focus on. Take it or leave it; read it or ignore it. There’s no right way and no wrong way in writing; there’s only the way that suits you as an individual.

Sometimes a story can be made or broken by how the writer chooses to describe the place or location where the action is taking place. This sense of place often seems particularly important in genre fiction, because of the need to generate a certain atmosphere. To take an obvious example, Stephen King’s novel It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if he hadn’t conjured the fictional geography of Derry, Maine so skilfully and vividly.

As a writer, I’m always trying to convey a sense of place in my work, especially in my novels. Even if the location is a fictional place, it needs to feel genuine. In terms of the horror genre, one of the most effective methods of disturbing a reader is by creating atmosphere. Place and atmosphere are linked; you can use the setting of a story to convey emotions like dread, terror, or isolation. It’s also possible to show the reader how the characters are feeling by their responses to their surroundings.

Ramsey Campbell uses his native Liverpool to superb effect in his work. Stephen King does it with Main. Ian Rankin utilises the distinct geography of Edinburgh to give many of his Rebus novels an almost supernatural edge. In her collection “Close Range”, Annie Proulx evokes the desolate landscape of rural Wyoming with such an unerring eye that the place becomes a character in the stories, haunting the human characters like a ghost.

Recently I read a short ghost novel called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. In this book the Arctic setting is so beautifully and vividly described that I became immersed in the world of the story. I was right there, with the members of the Polar expedition, and once the supernatural elements kicked in I was genuinely unsettled. I’d invested completely in what was going on, because I believed it. And I believed it because it all seemed so real – the sea, the ice, the cold, the vast Arctic wastes. It was real to me.

But sense of place isn’t necessarily all about the panorama of geography. Sometimes it’s essential to narrow the focus and concentrate on a smaller setting: a warehouse, a bar, an office, a small room. It’s the same thing, only compressed, microscopic rather than macroscopic.

A writing exercise I used to employ many years ago always helped me in my efforts to use surroundings in a story. I’d sit in a room and try to describe a character’s emotional state by using only what was around me: the furniture, the radiators, the windows, the view outside; the sounds, the smells, the feel of the wood grain on the desk…by limiting myself to describing the location I was forced to hone my skills in terms of characterisation.

Describing a location isn’t as easy as it seems. A writer needs to pick out which details are necessary to flesh out the place and which ones to ignore; we need to utilise those unique traits that bring a specific place alive in terms of the prose. As with most aspects of writing, it’s all about making the right choices. This can only hope to be achieved with constant practice – there are no short cuts, there’s no easy way to create the magic.

Read the best, study how they do it. Carry a notebook with you everywhere and write down what it’s like to stand in a certain place: what’s the light doing, what’s around you, how does the earth feel beneath your feet, what can you smell, what does the air taste like? Then find your own way to imbue your story with that essential sense of place.

GARY MCMAHON