Why I Turned Away From Realism and Began to Write Surreal Fiction

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From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

My writing has taken an unexpected turn in the last few years. I’ve begun to incorporate elements of the surreal—what some might term fantastical or magical realist—into what would otherwise be realistic novels. My 2018 novel, Weather Woman, for example, tells the story of a woman who discovers she has the power to change the weather; she must then navigate her way in a world where no one believes this is possible. Where did this rogue desire to employ surrealism or fantasy come from?

My earliest reading enjoyment as a child came from a variety of different kinds of books. Some were “realistic” such as The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, or The River by Rumer Godden, but others were delightfully fantastical. Half Magic (Edward Eager), A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L’Engle), and The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear (Oliver Butterworth) come to mind. I didn’t discriminate on the basis of genre back then—I was a happily omnivorous reader.

But school changed that. What was considered serious fiction, the fiction we studied and wrote about in middle school and high school, was mostly realistic fiction: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, Cheever. I developed a certain view of the aesthetic components that went into what was considered “good” literature. That aesthetic included a devotion to portraying the world as we experience it on a daily basis, alongside a respect for causality and linearity.

In college I was an avid student of the theater. I performed in plays, read plays, wrote plays. I respected the realistic work of playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, but it was the absurdist works of Beckett, Sartre, Albee, Buchner, and others, that really excited me, along with the surrealist plays of playwrights like Strindberg and Cocteau. The possibilities for my own writing widened with this exposure, and I found myself writing plays that grew out of that excitement. My first play, Mergatroid, was about two women who raised ten “neuter” children.

My enchantment with theater led me to pursue a career in film where the prospects for earning a living were more viable. As a screenwriter in Hollywood, I had to squelch my zaniest impulses. Unless you are writing superhero movies or movies for children, Hollywood takes a dim view of the non-realistic.

When I departed from film to devote myself to the writing of fiction (where I felt I had always belonged), my circuitous writing path had bequeathed different kinds of guidance. Which wisdom would I heed? I began by writing realistic fiction, the kind I’d been schooled to believe was the only serious work. My first two published novels fit squarely into that genre, a genre I have not entirely abandoned.

But recently, for several years now, this rogue and irresistible impulse has cropped up, the urge to play with fantastical (surreal? supernatural? magical?) elements. The powerful work of writers like Toni Morrison and Aimee Bender, among many others, has given me permission to explore beyond the boundaries of strict realism. What I have discovered is that, in distorting aspects of what we know as “reality,” I can get closer to certain truths about human nature, and human thought, and the human condition.

I have come to think of surrealism/fantasy/the supernatural/magical realism as a kind of steroid, bulking things up and bringing certain perceptions into clearer relief. The distortions I create in a narrative can be thought of as tools that amplify the material, much as an astronomer employs a telescope, or a biologist uses a microscope.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

4 thoughts on “Why I Turned Away From Realism and Began to Write Surreal Fiction”

  1. So she writes about Ororo Monroe?

    Just another litfic writer who pretend they aren’t doing fantasy.
    Like the guy with the medieval story about dragons…

  2. Full disclosure: I hate magical realism.

    I began by writing realistic fiction, the kind I’d been schooled to believe was the only serious work.

    You poor dear. You’re not supposed to write the stuff that other people tell you is good: you’re supposed to write the stories that touch your heart and grab you by the throat. The key to knowing what kind of stories do that for you is simple: what do you love to read?

    I didn’t discriminate on the basis of genre back then—I was a happily omnivorous reader.

    But school changed that.

    Why did she let that happen? I’m confused because it sounds as if she abandoned her own tastes and interests to just go along with the school’s program. And it’s not that I think the school is wrong for teaching Steinbeck instead of L’Engle; it’s all about what the curriculum is up to. It’s just that this post reads as if she thought L’Engle was off the table for her as a reader because the teachers weren’t teaching “A Wrinkle in Time” et al. As if this necessarily meant she shouldn’t read L’Engle, as opposed to thinking critically about why an English class might assign a given book.

    By the tone of this post, the OP appears to be trying to rebel against rules that aren’t even rules. You don’t have magic in John Steinbeck, true. If you want magic, write a fantasy. You’re not breaking a “rule” by writing in the appropriate genre for the story you’re trying to tell. Learn the genre that draws you in, study it, and write accordingly.

    If she were a fictitious character then she’s in Act I of a “journey of self-discovery” story, where she has to learn what she is all about, and what kind of stories she wants to tell, and then find the courage to tell them. Hopefully this story has a happy ending.

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