The Reality Behind Fantasy Fiction

fromKUSP

Fantasy fiction is often seen as escapist literature. But that's not always the case. Fantastic elements in stories are often the only way a writer can approach a subject that is all too real. Fantasy pros Ann and Jeff VanderMeer say fantasy literature is a haven that allows them to tackle difficult real-life subjects in a way they feel is both effective and expressive.

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Fantasy fiction is often seen as escapist literature, but this is not always the case. Fantastic elements and stories are often the only way a writer can approach a subject that's all too real. At the recent World Fantasy Convention, Rick Kleffel of member station KUSP spoke with writers who use fantasy to face reality.

RICK KLEFFEL: Ann VanderMeer is the current editor of Weird Tales, the pulp fiction magazine started in 1923, which published H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and even Tennessee Williams. Her husband, Jeff VanderMeer, has twice won the World Fantasy Award. Fantasy fiction has been a part of both their lives since childhood. Ann got an early lesson in the power of fantasy to help overcome a harsh reality.

Ms. ANN VANDERMEER (Editor, Weird Tales): You know, I came from a broken home and back in those days that was the not usual thing like it is today. And my dad had an amazing collection of the original "Wizard of Oz" books. And so because those were his books and it was what he loved, that's what brought me into it, so it became what I loved as well.

KLEFFEL: Like Ann, Jeff VanderMeer was introduced to the fantasy genre by his father.

Mr. JEFF VANDERMEER: The first thing I remember is my dad, when we were traveling overseas, giving me these copies of "Lord of the Rings." I couldn't really understand them. It was like reading something in a foreign language.

KLEFFEL: The timeless nature of Tolkien's world enabled Jeff VanderMeer to step outside of an unusual upbringing.

Mr. VANDERMEER: What I realized over time is that since my family traveled a lot - 'cause we were in the Peace Corps - that writing fantasy was one of the only ways to reconcile the different settings. I didn't have one place to write about and so instead I had to kind of make all these different places make sense if I was going to write.

KLEFFEL: Not surprisingly, the VanderMeers met because of their mutual love of the fantasy genre. Ann was editing a magazine, the Silver Web. Jeff had recently founded the Ministry of Whimsy Press. And Ann came to Jeff for publishing advice. Eventually they were married. They now live in a house that externalizes their interest in fantasy fiction and enjoy the consequences of their choice.

Mr. VANDERMEER: We didn't realize until recently, until we had our new (unintelligible) come over just how crazy it had gotten. 'Cause she came in and she kind of, like, you know, she saw this, like, five-foot dragon head and this five-foot giant blow-up penguin, which was given to us by a friend, and kind of did a double take. So, in that sense we're kind of surrounded by the artifacts of fantasy every day and it kind of is part of your daily life.

KLEFFEL: The VanderMeers say fantasy fiction allows them to explore the present in ways that would not be possible in more realistic stories. In his novel, "Shriek and Afterward," Jeff uses the fantastic setting to examine his personal life.

Mr. VANDERMEER: "Shriek and Afterward" is basically about this dysfunctional family. It includes a lot of personal stuff from my life. It's definitely, you know, changed and refocused and repurposed in the context of this fantastical city. But there is no way that I would've been able to do that without the distance of fantasy. I mean, it would've taken me another 10 years to kind of process it in my head if I was doing a mainstream literary novel of that.

KLEFFEL: Jeff VanderMeer's newest novel is "Finch," a noire detective story set in an imaginary city where humans are forced to live under the rule of a race of indigenous monsters. For VanderMeer, it's the only way to talk about recent political events.

Mr. VANDERMEER: Even those of us who weren't directly involved in some of the things that the U.S. has been involved with foreign policy wise over the last eight years, feel it deeply, you know, feel some of these things deeply. And so "Finch" allowed me to, again, re-contextualize all of this with the distance necessary.

Ms. VANDERMEER: It's easier for a reader to approach a lot of these themes in the fantastical setting.

KLEFFEL: But for the VanderMeers, fantasy fiction is more than just a way to approach the difficult personal and political issues. Ann VanderMeer points out that humanity's first stories - our myths, our fairytales, our religions even -included elements of fantasy.

Ms. VANDERMEER: All the earliest storytelling that we did way back was always fantastical and that's how we communicate with each other, not just by saying this, that or the other and being very direct but by telling each other stories.

Mr. VANDERMEER: The thing about life is that it's bittersweet. It is both funny and dreadful and horrific and beautiful and everything else. And so to capture that sometimes, especially in this complex world we live in, I turn to fantasy for that reason.

KLEFFEL: The VanderMeer's publisher at Tachyon, Jacob Weisman, suggests that fantasy covers a range of storytelling beyond what is normally associated with genre fiction.

Mr. JACOB WEISMAN (Publisher, Tachyon): It is a lot of fun and it's different than regular fiction, but I think all fiction really is fantasy and it's just sort of how you defined it and how you cut it up.

KLEFFEL: Jeff VanderMeer's newest book from Tachyon Publications is "Book Life," a nonfiction book of advice for writers. His newest novel from Underland Press is "Finch." Together, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer edited the new fantasy anthology "Steam Punk." In the VanderMeer household, fantasy fiction is not just a genre, it's a way of life.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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