Another highlight of Perth Writers’ Festival was the Flights of Fantasy panel with Garth Nix, Ken Liu and Jay Kristoff.
I have heard Garth Nix speak at writing events before – he is ever eloquent and wise – but Kristoff and Liu were new authors to me and it was interesting to hear their perspectives on fantasy, its current place and the way it has (or has not?) changed over time.
Here is a little of what they had to say…
A common theme for fantasy is the need for a hero to save the world, at great cost to himself or herself. (Nix admitted he uses this theme a lot).
You can’t help but infuse books with your own philosophy, but Nix and Kristoff both said
that you need to stay off the soapbox. The story must come first!
Ursula Le Guin, Robin McKinley, Alan Garner (who writes ‘spare’ prose with enormous
punch), Tolkien, the Dragon Lance books, and foundational myths like the Iliad and Beowulf were among the works listed as the authors’ greatest influences.
The panel agreed that the popularity of revenge narratives in fantasy is due to our need for a sense of balance and order. We like to see the villain get their comeuppance and the hero succeed. There is also the notion of the ‘assassin’ or ‘outlaw’ type character, who casts aside the laws of society and carves their own path. These types of characters have always been around – think Billy the Kid, Ned Kelly, and Sons of Anarchy. (This conversation put me in mind of one of my favourite fantasy novels, Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie.)
On the way fantasy is perceived by non-fantasy readers:
The panel agreed that there is more to fantasy than what many people realise. ‘Fantasy is incredibly broad and pushes behind the Tolkien, sword and sorcery narrative tradition,’ Garth Nix explained. Yes, that kind of cardboard cut out, formulaic fantasy exists in fantasy (and in every other gene) but Garth says you should never judge a whole genre on the clumsiest examples of it. There are many flavours of fantasy fiction, with something to suit everyone.
Jay Kristoff mentioned that universities are now teaching genre and fantasy courses – this was unheard of in the 80s and 90s. This resonated with me; when I was rejected from a master of creative writing course at an Australian university in 2004, the faculty assured me it not because of the quality of my writing, but for the genre. There were simply no staff there willing to take on fantasy.
Ken Liu mentioned that working with a historical world that is not western medieval is tricky. More world building is needed, and more explanation, which leads to the risk of lecturing the reader.
On Game of Thrones:
The panel discussed Ned Stark’s death, and the way it changed the game for fantasy. Before that, it was unheard of to kill the hero. Garth reminded us that other writers had killed off heroes before A Game of Thrones, including Katherine Kerr.
On advice to new writers:
Ken Liu advises new writers to focus on writing something that ‘makes your heart beat faster and gets you out of bed in the morning.’ Focus on on what’s exciting. Learn what NOT to change. What really matters is learning, over time, to stay focussed, and to ignore unhelpful criticism.
Jay says to choose your critique partners carefully. Also, trust in yourself, and believe in yourself. He admits that this sounds cliche and trite, but stands by it. ‘All along the road will be people who will tell you that you can’t, you won’t, you shouldn’t. You need to have the ability to keep on walking. Believe in yourself.’
Garth urges new writers to ‘Write what you love. Write what you really want to tell. You need insane self belief. You’ll also have insane self doubt – the happy point is finding a balance between the two. Finish things and keep writing. Always be writing something. If you’re writing something, there’s always another chance.’