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Living in fantasyland and the craft of capturing something magical on the page

April 25, 2010 | 12:05 pm


Monsters, mermaids and “dudes casting spells” were some of the elements that excited the authors at the “Writing the Fantastic” panel at the Festival of Books on Saturday. Moderator Scott Timberg called the session that featured writers Aimee Bender, Victor LaValle and Lev Grossman one of the weekend’s “more focused” panels. All three are contemporaries -- born in the late 1960s and early ’70s -- who write stories that have “mainstream literary ambitions” but contain components of genre writing that challenge what he termed “the cult of realism.”

The shared experiences began with how each author developed his or her craft. LaValle got his feet wet in the fantastic when setting out to write his third novel, “Big Machine” (awarded a 2009 Los Angeles Times book prize for science). He felt something was missing from his writing, but soon figured out what it was. Specifically? Monsters.

“If I could put monsters in my next book,” he remembered thinking, “I would love writing again.” The monsters began as “psychological, monsters of the soul,” but he wasn’t satisfied until they were actual characters. “It was like, ‘now I’m writing a book!’” he exclaimed.

Similarly, Grossman began as a fantasy lover who “graduated to literary fiction” and then found it unfulfilling. Like LaValle, he asked himself after his second novel, “Can you write a novel that has magic in it, but for grownups and contains the things that grownups know?” He accomplished this with 2009’s “The Magicians,” a sexed-up take on students from a magic academy who travel to a childhood fantasy world.
For Bender, whose fourth book, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake,” is due in June, childhood is exactly where this type of literature begins. She explained that for fourth-graders, imaginative fiction is the clear choice, but once we grow up, we learn to write about our daily life and “it only becomes about finding the meaning in a cup of coffee.”

Reverting back to a place where writing was free from, as Timberg put it, “the straight jacket of realism,” wasn’t an easy shift. When Grossman first put pen to paper and wrote about casting spells, he deliberated recasting the sentence. For Bender, infusing her writing with the unusual became an act of rebellion. She expressed feeling a “thrill” by just writing the word “mermaid” in a story. Including mermaids in the story “felt like getting away with something,” but was really just what she called “making the fiction itself the metaphor.”

LaValle was quick to point out that this approach to literary fiction is just a way for writers to bring their own influences to the page. For the three Gen-Xers, those influences include fantasy, science fiction, comics, and Stephen King. LaValle found inspiration in T.E.D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom,” a horror novella set in New York City. He remembered that when the main character observed a man urinating on a street lamp from a bus, the Queens native found the reassurance he needed to write about his own world. “At a certain point I realized that what kind of writer I thought I was supposed to be, well, I put those restrictions on myself.”

Bender learned about the craft of writing -- “structure, narrative drive, and momentum” -- from reading Agatha Christie when she was 13. She was delighted to find those same rudiments recognizable as an adult in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but in a way that was more subtle and with beautiful language -- the way that she herself wanted to write.

For Grossman, one of his struggles came from trying to decipher the meaning of all his influences. He explained that most writers tend to “translate the cultural raw material passed down to you and I spent a long time figuring out what that was.” In the end though, he decided that the tradition he belonged to was simply, a “huge nerd.”

-- Heather Robertson

Photo: From left, Lev Grossman, Scott Timberg, Aimee Bender and Victor LaValle discuss the fantastic Saturday at the Festival of Books. Credit: Heather Robertson