Day Two at the Tucson Festival of Books

The weather was much improved. Not much warmer, but sunny and dry. As a result, the crowds were bigger and people were buying books.

Every seat in the lecture hall was filled when Diana Gabaldon came into the room with her wide-wrimmed hat and entourage that include an infant. Her grandchild no doubt. I was probably the only person in the room who hasn’t read any of her books, but I missed hearing her last year and was happy that the schedule allowed me to hear her this year.

While waiting in the line to get into the room, I spoke to one fan who said she wasn’t a fiction reader until a friend gave her one of DG’s books on a flight. That hooked her. Why I asked? The storyline as she related it didn’t seem so spectacular. I feel like I’m there, the fan said.

Gabaldon may write about the past, but she lives in the present. By that I mean she never had to stop and think about how to answer a question. She knows her stuff and has a wonderful presentation manner. She had the audience laughing and every word was said was with a smile.

She’s not an outliner. She starts with a specific historical place and time, the major events of which she doesn’t try to alter, but what drives her stories are the characters. She lets them play out their stories, writing bits and pieces and then fitting them together until the story takes a definite shape. The shape she used to describe her first novel was triangles because there are three climaxes to the story. The second is like a barbell.

Gabaldon compared writing a novel to doing science. In science you have a hypothesis which you test. In a novel you have a premise for the story the test of which is whether you can pull it off to the satisfaction of your readers.

Someone asked her does she get fearful before each novel is released. She admitted she does, but every writer has to face a kind of fear she suggested because they are exposing themselves to the world. Even those of her characters who are not nice people she admitted are aspects of her own personality that she’s allowed to come to the surface. Some characters pop up like mushrooms while others come out of her research into the historical period she’s writing about.

Mythic and Epic Fiction

Following Gabaldon, were two panels. One on mythic fiction with Kevin Hearne, Charles de Lint and Richard Kadrey; the other on epic fiction with Gabaldon, Patrick Rothfuss and Sam Sykes. While mythic fiction is a term Charles de Lint created to encompass a wide variety of fantasy fiction and therefore serves some purpose, epic fiction seems to be a marketing term that defies definition and was invented by publishers. Patrick Rothfuss, for example, thought his fiction deserved to be called heroic rather than epic fiction, but of course he accepted the invitation to be on the panel anyway.

The value of the mythic fiction concept is that it describes books that use myth as a starting point to tell a story which has contemporary relevance. The authors on the panel agreed that one problem with relying on myth is that there can be competing versions, but once you’ve settled on the core story, providing a twist or moving mythical characters to another place or time gives the author the opportunity to update the myth to have meaning for people in the present.

One insight that came out of the epic fiction panel that I thought was worth noting was the comparison of heroic fantasy with epics of the past, such as James Clavel’s Shogun. Non-fantasy epics are rarely character driven whereas heroic or mythic fantasy is. Heroic fantasy follows the lives of a few individuals who find themselves often due to no fault of their own in a high-stakes situation. Sam Sykes made a brilliant observation here, distinguishing between the good versus evil story and the kind of story written by George R.R. Martin. In good vesus evil the stakes are high, but we know evil can’t win. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice (known these days due to HBO as The Game of Thrones), raises the stakes because it’s not clear as to who’s good and who’s evil. Martin heightens the reader’s interest becasue he is as likely to take a character who has done evil things and show him or her doing something virtuous as he is to kill off someone we want to follow as a hero.

Summing up in my words: Fantasy writers create alternative worlds that help us illuminate the present. They show us how people handle different sets of problems in contrast to present day behavior. Sometimes they use non-human creatures to dislay traits they wish to highlight. In a fantasy novel I’m working on there are no non-human characters and the humans for the most part lack super-human powers. I have chosen to create that kind of a world to allow my protagonists to solve problems in ways people can imagine employing today. We’ll see how well I pull it off–whether I’m able to create characters that people identify with.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the sixth Tucson Festival of Books in March 2014.

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