I have only written two novels so it’s difficult to say precisely what sort of writer I am. Furthermore, who knows what I’ll end up writing next. But it is true to say that in my first two books I have grafted the magical and the supernatural onto the real world in which both stories take place. I’m not entirely sure why this is because it’s just been a natural process of storytelling for me, but I’ll have a go at trying to give you some reasons as to why I think it might be.
Certainly I have always been a bit of a daydreamer, a person who likes to imagine ‘what if’ and escape the confines of the real world in which we live. It has therefore seemed a logical step to do this in my writing too, where a blank page gives me the opportunity to imagine anything I want to and make it come alive with words. I have also been a big observer of people too, making me slightly detached from the real world. Perhaps a combination of these two traits adds a twist to the stories I try and write?
Or perhaps it’s just because I’m lazy, that I can’t be bothered to world build a huge alternative universe so I just take a few magical elements and graft them onto the ordinary world that I know and can describe. Or maybe it’s down to the things that I have read that influence my writing. For example I like poetry and this can be quite hyper real or even surreal sometimes, using heightened, powerful language as a lens through which to view the world. (I often think of reading poetry like looking through a child’s kaleidoscope and seeing lots of different things at once, such can be the power of the words sometimes). It could be that I haven’t really grown up and that my inner child is still quite strong and influencing the way I write, infusing it with a slightly magical view of the world.
I don’t seem to be very good at pinning this down!
So perhaps I should try a different approach and look elsewhere for an answer. After all whatever there is in my personal make up that makes me put the real and the magical together does not really make me unique because there are lots of writers who write novels in a similar vein, who write stories in ways that put a unique spin on the world we know. Some people define it as magical realism whilst others don’t. Regardless of what label to use, this type of writing seems to be a genre defined by the fact that it is quite difficult to define, flirting as it does with various other genres and where anything is possible in the story, limited only by a writer’s imagination.
Another notable trait of this form of storytelling is that to enable the magical element to resonate the normal world has to feel very real too. So magical realist writers, whilst being imaginative and off kilter, have to be very gritty realists as well, showing us the real world in a finely tuned manner. I think this realism is one of the key strengths of this type of work.
However, I think the best way to portray magical realism is by describing the feeling it engenders when read, namely a vague dislocation of normality, a slightly skewed vision of the world that can make a reader giddy, putting them off balance. In other words, books of this type can be constantly surprising.
So why is it such a popular genre for writers (me included) to work in? Well, I think it might be because writers are explorers, weighing up what they have been told about the world (what their brains have stored up through childhood, adolescence and beyond) and how it functions. Through the process of storytelling they are working things out for themselves about life without necessarily drawing conclusions.
For example, David Almond, whose work is often described as magical realism, talks a lot about the impact of his Catholic upbringing in many of the interviews I have read, and he is aware of how wrestling with it has impacted on his writing, namely that of negotiating the tension between rational and magical thinking, of what to believe:
When you are at a limit, you pray. At the end of rationalism that’s what’s left. My work explores the frontier between rationalism and superstition and the wavering boundary between the two.
This idea that writers are working things out for themselves may be one reason why magical realism is popular in YA and also MG. Children and adolescents usually accept they don’t know everything about the world and are in the process of trying to work it all out too. There is, perhaps, a sense of collaboration between these readers and magical realist writers within the arena of storytelling. I like to think those adults who read magical realism – whether YA, MG or the literary stuff for grown ups – are ones who still have enough sense to realize they don’t know everything about the world either, that they aren’t overpowered by hubris.
So I think magical realism is a powerful tool for exploring and feeling one’s way in the world, allowing the reader and the writer the freedom to react to the odd, the strange, and the downright mysterious. I like to think this is one reason for why I have written the books I have so far. But I can think of another reason too.
One further spin off from this genre is that readers’ imaginations are given a work out. I know from my own experiences of writing that creativity is a muscle – it needs to be inspired to grow stronger – and if books that fuse the magical, the fantastical and the mysterious with the real help to inspire and fuel creativity in other people then that has to be a good thing. Maybe that’s the real reason I write the way that I do, to inspire readers and make them think and question and imagine for themselves…?