I’d like to discuss my preference for writing fantasy rather than, say, social realism.

Why, when after a prolonged period of writing only poetry, did I choose to write Dustless, and not a literary novel set in contemporary London or Tokyo?1

It’s over a decade since I began the novel, and my memory of that period is quite hazy. However, I had for a long time – many years, I think, and possibly since adolescence, or even earlier – a particular idea for the opening of a story, and it was this idea (which was also a mood, an atmosphere – an ambience) which formed the kernel of the novel I ended up writing. I felt it was a haunting idea. It may even have emerged from a dream, I don’t recall. In a way, it was little more than a sketch, or image – not the basis of a story at all – but it possessed a kind of gravity, and drew narrative towards it. (I’m sorry, I’m being terribly vague, but I’m trying not to spoil the story for anyone who wishes to approach the novel without too many preconceptions.) It was also a fragment that implied a world.

Anyone who gets a little way through Dustless is likely to realise that the novel is heavily influenced by Asian culture in general, and by Japanese culture in particular. In a The Player-style pitch2, I’d sometimes describe the world I was creating as “Blade Runner meets The Seven Samurai” – not actually a very accurate description, but I had in mind a world where sword-bearing warriors lived among technologically advanced cities.

So, I had the kernel of the start of the story, and I had a very general notion of the kind of characters and of the imaginative environment through which I would like them to move. If for a moment we were take the “Blade Runner meets The Seven Samurai” notion of the world literally, then we are already quite removed from conventional realism, and into the domain of fantasy. And although I was (and continue to be) fascinated by Japanese history and culture, I didn’t want to base my characters and societies too squarely on Japanese models. I felt that Japanese culture is, in some ways, so subtle and refined, and so idiosyncratic, with so many layers of code and assumption, that I wouldn’t be confident of creating credible characters. I wanted to honour my characters with credibility, if that makes sense, and to do that, I had to honour them with a world which I felt I had under my control3.

Fantasy is also a matter of inclination. When I was younger, as a child and a teenager, I wrote all the time, and I was particularly drawn to writing fantasy. I was influenced by Tolkien, and like many children, I’m sure, enjoyed creating worlds with their own maps and geography, names and conventions. I made ‘small epics’. (I have a memory of drawing out scroll-like maps on the backs of rolls of unused wallpaper my parents gave to me.)

In some ways, I have no interest in creating realist novels – the art in such novels seems to me to be to create worlds that are conventionally plausible, which is to say, is to depict accurately a world that is generally agreed or assumed to be truthful – a likeness to a world that really is. I don’t believe in such a world – on the contrary, I believe in a world that is continually in the state of creation, of being made up. In terms of fiction, verisimilitude to a non-existent (indeed, impossible) world can be wonderful and beautiful, and I tremendously admire many of the great writers who have attempted this verisimilitude, but it is a philosophical choice for me, at this time in my writing life, anyway, as well as a matter of preference, to choose fantasy fiction rather than any other type. In some sense, not at all mischievously, I would suggest that fantasy is more truthful to life than realism.

I find fantasy liberating. For example, the image with which I set out to start Dustless could possibly have been transposed into a realist setting, but it wouldn’t have felt very plausible – and then, once such a start had been made, any subsequent realist narrative would have felt extremely constricting. Realism immediately clamps you into a fairly defined method of composing: the world has to be the world as we agree it is supposed to be. Fantasy, I feel, allows for far more freedom. You can shape the world as you wish – if you wanted a landscape that incorporated a desert, and then a jungle, you can simply create that, whereas in a realist fiction, you would have to specify locations, and order your narrative to accommodate shifts between these specific locations. In the fantasy novel, ordering these symbolic landscapes can be more seamless and fluid – and so, in an odd way, more convincing.

I’ll continue this discussion in a further post.

1For a little more background to the circumstances leading to my starting Dustless, please see the post, Ambient literature | 1
2Robert Altman’s 1992 film, satirising Hollywood, in which people pitch their screenplays in terms of mash-ups between other films, [“It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman“, and “not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate“]…
3At some point, somewhat ironically, the social world of Dustless became so labyrinthine and detailed that it became hard to keep track of my imagined societies, so they began to take on a reality that obliged me, in the end, almost to research them, even though they had no basis in historical fact.