By Grant Smuts
“The whole series of my life appeared to me as a dream; I sometimes doubted if indeed it were all true, for it never presented itself to my mind with the force of reality.”
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Taking a break from my regular world building to share a little of the person behind the upcoming book.
It’s tough, writing fantasy fiction in South Africa.
From the outset, I was told not to do it, to not even make the attempt.
The arguments proffered seemed to (ironically) include the same sort of things you’d hear in virtually every forum, every seminar or course you’ve ever taken on creative writing:
‘Write what you know’.
God, how I grew to hate that term, as ubiquitous as it is, no matter if you’re just starting out or passing it along.
‘Write what you know’ is this weird, catch-all term that many people just seem to take for granted as meaning to write exactly what you know with almost no exaggeration or irony whatsoever. As just about everyone can take up a pen and paper and start writing something, this low-hanging branch of advice always smacks people right in the face. ALL people, both the talented and the talent-less.
UNFORTUNATELY, as I grew grumpier about the whole concept, I encountered people rather less intelligent than my creative writing professor, who were less interested in ensuring that I knew what I was doing, and that I was passionate about it, and more interested in turning out this weird cookie-cutter mould of what a writer and literature ‘should be’.
The fantasy/sci-fi ghetto is still in full force here.
Supposedly, by writing fantasy in South Africa, I was ‘wasting time’ – one’s passions should always be ‘correctly steered’ into the avenues people expect. That’s how love works, apparently. Eventually, pissed off by the stance virtually everyone had in regards to what I was attempting to do, I did the only thing I could.
I ignored them.
See, the phrase ‘Write what you know’ is MEANT to be the writer’s way of saying ‘play to your strengths’. And I did, to admittedly mixed results.
Trying to get the first draft of my book published all those years ago turned a few heads, sure. But they asked me to change my vision, first. Basically, to make it a children’s book, remove the evil sorcerers, the cosmic horrors, the philosophy and introduce… I don’t know, a tap-dancing rabbit or something.
After a disastrous first outing with the very first version of my book (Chained Gods) to the bigger publishing houses in South Africa, I quickly discovered that simply having a dream was not enough.
To oversimplify things somewhat, South Africa doesn’t publish fantasy, unless it’s for kids. On the surface, I understand it. What’s a no name author to do? How do they attract attention, how do they make waves? Not to mention that fantasy books are always longer than your generic fiction novels, so there’s a greater cost involved, for no guarantee of success. Sadly, what this means is that if you’re a fantasy writer, your chances of being published are virtually nil. So what’s to be done? There’s no encouragement to publish fantasy, and thus, no encouragement to write. It’s a creative cul-de-sac.
Is fantasy a lost cause in South Africa? It certainly seems so.
That said, George RR Martin’s very mature series, A Song of Ice and Fire (made world famous by the TV adaptation, A Game of Thrones) has done more for fantasy in South Africa (and the world at large) than he will ever realize, with people now taking, at the very least, a passing interest in the genre, and at most, inspiring some new lifelong fans of it.
The only preceding spike of interest in fantasy had been in the days of The Lord of the Rings films. (The Hobbit films didn’t do nearly as much by comparison).
The genre does have its fans here. And perhaps more writers than people are aware of. (Who knows, maybe someone else is as close as I am to achieving their goals). But without marketing or exposure the likes of which British or American authors of Fantasy/Sci-Fi enjoy, it’s still something of a doomed venture.
I had hoped, in the intervening years and the growth of speculative fiction’s success in the market, that an opportunity would present itself in our publishing houses. So, feeling almost belligerently confident, I took my repackaged first novel (now titled Elegy of the Immortals) and did some research. What I discovered was somehow simultaneously both startling and not at all surprising. South Africa simply doesn’t do genre fiction.
In short, nothing had changed, and going by the trajectory of South Africa’s current political and educational policies, nothing will in the near future. In the days when it frustrated me, I spoke idealistically of the need of a 21st century Renaissance, for a revolution of art and literature. But as the years went by, and I saw the faces of fellow artists getting their faces and their dreams slammed into the pavement by an overly pragmatic stance on art, I said ‘fuck it’ and revised my book to include EVEN MORE FANTASY.
It was, however, precisely this mindset (and the stringent publishing rules of local publishers) that convinced me that there was absolutely no purpose whatsoever in seeking either validation or approval.
I was writing what I knew, but had no place to be. Until now.
In time, Elegy of the Immortals became Where the Gods Lie Dreaming, the final revision of a story many years in the making.
Two days ago, I received my ISBN and barcode, and am now closer than ever to actually realizing my dream.
Now, naturally, I have no recourse but to ram the upcoming book into the face of the public consciousness, and then to assure it afterwards that it was nothing personal.
But the fact is that I got here by writing what I knew, which to others often seems to be the unknowable. I remember speaking to others of fantasy, and of the dreams I had. and they looked at me if I was either an impractical idiot or a talented madman.
But… the fantasy, the distant horrors from beyond our world… Are they so inaccessible to our understanding? Is it so difficult to chart a course to the questions surrounding fantasy?
The dreams, the distant gods, the magic, the heroism and the desire. All those things that drive human nature, that are the source of so much conflict, the backdrop of our world, painted with new hues in realms of fantasy. We are all intimately aware of the powers that move us, aren’t we? Even if we cannot express them perfectly. The heart and mind are moved by forces beyond our control. Every person who has ever felt his life shaped by chance or circumstance understands this. This is the known and the unknown, the encircling enigma of existence. People in control, losing control. Magic, the force that guides and directs, the hidden wills and machinations of things beyond ourselves. The helplessness we sometimes feel. And those who take up the sword? They’re the ones who choose to fight, to resist. To deny the enormity of the universe’s will and simply choose to be what they are, in defiance. Will they succeed or fail? Time, and only time, will tell.
This is what I knew: The unknowable. And this is what I chose to write.
I’ll end this by quoting Gene Wolfe, from his sci-fi masterpiece, ‘The Book of the New Sun’:
“So powerful is the charm of words, which for us reduces to manageable entities all the passions that would otherwise madden and destroy us.”