An Interview with Stephen Leigh
Stephen Leigh explores the struggles of youth in the new contemporary fantasy, The Woods, where reality and fantasy seem to exist side by side. The characters Rob Mullins and Mark Dyson face a growing fear about adulthood streaming into their young lives that threaten the world of magic, which they believe exists.
For Stephen Leigh who also writes under the name of S.L. Farrell, the latest novel brings his total to 24 books for the Cincinnati-based author. He also enjoys a background with over 40 short stories under his belt. Besides writing, he teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University.
Leigh embellishes his works with a wide canvass of cultural influences such as the Celtic world in the Cloudmages series or the Vatican connections in the Nessantico Cycle.
The Cloudmages series mixes a Celtic mythos with a unique cyclical magic emergence that becomes a quest for power for the regional lords. Yet the scope is wider, as the magic can be controlled by sealife and rock entities.
The Nessantico series blends politics and war with sorcery and religion where the world evokes a city state on an island like that of Paris or the Rennaissance power found in Venice. The following interview deals with how magic fits into the realm where fiction and reality meet.
Daring To Ask: The blurb for your novel, The Woods, states it is a ”contemporary novel where the borders between reality and fantasy are blurred.” Our blog, Daring To Ask, examines the intersection where reality meets fiction. As a writer, why do you consider that intersection important?
Stephen Leigh: I’ve always been fascinated by the thought that there might be hidden realities that are there if only we had the ability or the inclination to see them -- much like Alice staring into the mirror and wondering about what the world on the other side would be like. I’ve played with that concept a bit in other books, like ABRAXAS MARVEL CIRCUS or THE BONES OF GOD or even the CLOUDMAGES series.
In this one, that intersection is especially blurry. A reader could conceivably question whether the ‘magical’ elements are real, whether they have an explanation, or if they exist only in Rob’s head.
Daring To Ask: Your novels show how characters face social, political and economic pressures from their worlds. The role of nonfiction tries to inform people of how we face those forces in reality. Does fiction have an advantage in showing specifics of how characters face those forces?
SL: The advantage (in my opinion) that fiction always has over non-fiction is that the non-fiction writer is limited by reality. In fiction, if I want to explore something -- such as, for instance, what defines ‘gender’ and how that impacts us, as I did in DARK WATER’S EMBRACE -- all I need to do is invent a world that allows me to play directly with that concept. I’m not confined by history or geography or the way things are now. I don’t have to go searching through history or countries to find a social situation that might happen to fit and try to shoehorn my theme into it.
Fiction is much more free and pliable... and as a result, sometimes lets us get at things that we can’t really examine all that well in non-fiction. Don’t get me wrong; I love non-fiction, and I mostly read non-fiction anymore -- but I’m reading it for the creative sparks I receive. For me, non-fiction is often the source of fictional ideas.
Daring To Ask: Do you see your contemporary example of magical realism as in the vein of del Toro or García Lorca — how would you describe its difference? Is this an example of how a story moves away from words to see what those words represent? Or showing personal feelings through some distortion of natural images?
SL: I can’t claim to be a genuine magic realism author, but I do play with some of the tropes of magic realism in this one -- for one, the fantasy element just is, and I don’t try to explain it or justify it. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Borges (and del Toro and Lorca too). I’m fascinated by the way the Latin culture (in particular) accepts a supernatural component as part of their reality, and thus allows the blurring of the line between fantasy and the rest of their lives.
In a similar manner, I think younger people and some adults who haven’t yet lost that ‘childishness’ are also able to see things: they’re there, they’re accepted, and sometimes trying to find explanations can just push them away. I remember my daughter creating an entire imaginary circus of people and performers and animals in her head in incredible detail (run by the magical Caleb Mundo, whose name I stole to use in THE ABRAXAS MARVEL CIRCUS). She created it all out of her dreams and her imagination, populating that place with all sorts of fascinating creatures and intricate relationships. She could do that because she hadn’t let the world put constraints on her mind, hadn’t let adults tell her that it wasn’t ‘proper’ or ‘healthy’ to use her imagination in that way.
Daring To Ask: Do you see nature, as in the woods, being more tied to that other world of magic? Does this mean that some life force could be present within the other world that can’t be detected though reality’s science?
SL: The neighborhood of THE WOODS is based on the neighborhood in which I grew up. There were woods directly behind my house, and behind the houses across the street, and it was a rare day that I wasn’t in those woods. They were truly magical for me -- the “Seven Caves” in the book describes a place that I and my friends found and played in. Everything in the woods seemed imbued with a long history or some magical connection... or at least we could believe that it was. For a long time after my friends stopped playing there (about the time we hit adolescence), I would still return to the woods, just to walk around or maybe just sit there and pretend I was somewhere else, in a true primordial place, a place where fantasy was still possible.
I won’t say that there was a ‘presence’ there, but I felt that there was. I wanted it to be there.
Daring To Ask: The way Rob and Mark are described seems to hint that adolescence is closer to that intersection of reality and fantasy than adulthood and that as we age we move further into a reality that shuns aspects of a magic or even thinking out-of-the-box. What forces are making this possible?
SL: When I was a kid, we played fantasy games all the time: we were knights and ladies riding out to find dragons, to capture gold, to fight battles, to rescue those needing our help. We were soldiers fighting WWII in a French forest. We were American Indians sliding through primordial light and shade. We were astronauts exploring a strange and new world where there were no humans at all. We were anthropomorphic bears or wolves. We were anything that our imaginations could come up with.
I remember being -- perhaps like Rob and Mark -- someone who wanted to stay longer in that fantasy-land, even as my friends were moving away from the woods and our games toward the more ‘adult’ world of cars and sports and girl- and boyfriends. I found myself more often alone in the woods, as I also found myself more alone reading my science fiction and fantasy books, writing, playing music, or drawing.
Even through high school and college, I’d occasionally go walking in the woods, and see them as some other place -- and I’d note that the trails I followed, trails that had been wide and bare of grass and weeds during the time that we had all played there and worn into permanence by our sneakered feet, had mostly been reclaimed by the woods now.
I don’t know what it is that turns us away from ‘imaginative play’ as we age. It doesn’t always happen, and it doesn’t have to happen. I think role-playing games are another version of the types of things we did as kids, and I’ve played (and run) many RPG games. I think immersing oneself as a writer in a fictional world is yet another aspect of the same impulse.
Some of us never quite ‘grow up.’
Daring To Ask: Does the present state of global economics, or fast-paced need to grow up create more difficulties in retaining a sense of magic or fantasy?
SL: Honestly, I don’t know. But I do think that having a sense of magic or fantasy can provide a respite from a dreary and unpleasant world. Sometimes we all need that! The danger is when we start thinking of the fantasy as reality, and stop even trying to cope with real life.
Daring To Ask: Are the woods a symbol of the womb or some place that provided another reality?
SL: No -- as I said, I spent much of my childhood and early adolescence in the woods that surrounded my neighborhood. It was my place, the place where I could escape and be whatever and whomever I wanted to be for awhile. To me, the woods represent that time of relative innocence in my life (and the characters).
Daring To Ask: What reason prompted you to use the first person? How do you see the difference between using the first person and using an internal POV third person, especially in a story like, The Woods?
SL: In general, first person narrative has the ability to create a strong identification and bond between the reader and the narrator, and that’s what I wanted. Sure, you can get reader identification with a character in third person as well (especialy if you’re using a very close, limited third person, where you’re giving the reader a sense of the POV character’s thoughts), but there’s still the sense of the author standing between the reader and the characters and relaying the scene. In third person, the author is always there as the ‘interpreter’ for the reader.
Frankly, there’s more freedom for the writer in third person. With first person, you have the character himself or herself talking directly to the reader without the shadow of the author between them, but you also have the limitation of voice (you can’t use language that the character wouldn’t use) and you also can’t describe anything that the character isn’t directly experiencing.
In this story, I thought the reader needed that strong sense of direct connection with Rob. I don’t often write in first person in novel-length stories, but in this case, it felt right.
Daring To Ask: In writing the sample, you use the narrator, Rob, with a quick paced flow of language that replicates the adolescent anxiousness. However, a couple of words seem more advanced for him than most of the passage. Words like glacial-deposited and rivulets could be more advanced than the character’s usual. Was this a conscious choice on your part? How should a writer view the way he selects words to show the voice of the character?
SL: The novel itself is book-ended with short sections that are narrated by Rob as a much older adult, who has come back to the neighborhood that he left. You don’t see that in the sample, of course, which is the third chapter of the book. The novel is actually ‘written’ by a very adult Rob, remembering this time. Hence, the vocabulary is more advanced. It much the same technique, for instance, as in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, where an adult Scout is relating to us the events that seven or eight-year old Scout experienced.
Daring To Ask: The sample shows an anger from Mark when he kills the dog, Kitty-Kitty. Are we seeing that anger emerge because of a sensed betrayal because Mark knows Rob is leaving? Or a loss of the peer influence Mark has enjoyed during adolescence?
SL: Mark is having family issues -- his father is abusive to both Mark’s mother and Mark himself, and that abuse has been escalating. Rob, as well as the woods themselves and the fantasy play that Mark and Rob engaged in, has always been Mark’s escape from the harsh realities of his home life. Now he’s learned that Rob is leaving the city -- and for Mark that’s send his anger boiling over. He feels betrayed by Rob, even though he knows that Rob’s not really responsible for his leaving.
Daring To Ask: Does Sheila represent the aspirations of one plane that might become lost to the adolescent as he enters more of a world filled with social pressures or added responsibilities? Or perhaps does the emergence of Sheila fit into modern literature where the adolescent meets an outsider who encourages him to seek other paths even if he has to turn away from previous beliefs?
SL: I see Sheila as mostly a vehicle that allows Rob to access what he’s actually thinking but is perhaps too afraid to voice or act upon. She gives voice to Rob’s own inclinations even when he’s afraid to admit them -- or perhaps when those inclinations are so deeply buried inside him that he doesn’t even realize that they’re even there.
She allows Rob to act as his nature would have him act. She allows him to accomplish what he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. As Sheila says to him at one point in the book, it’s not her who’s making the changes in his life, it’s him and his desires.
Sheila is a mirror that reflects Rob’s wants and needs -- as she would have been for Mark had she ‘chosen’ him. Or perhaps, Sheila facilitates Rob’s ‘magical thinking’ about what he wants to happen.
Daring To Ask: If every wish and desire bears a price, then how should we view the different levels of prices that affect adults from those that affect adolescents?
SL: We all pay a price whenever we make a decision. The act of decision closes off all the alternate paths while opening another. Part of the price is that we can never know whether one of the other paths would have been a better/happier/more fulfilling one for us.
Of course, we also don’t know if those other paths would have led us to a darker and far worse place -- because that’s just as possible.
I don’t know that children and adolescents pay a larger ‘price’ for those decision than do adults. As a child, I probably believed that my choices demanded a higher price than those of adults. I probably responded to such things with more emotion and more angst than I might now. As an adult, I’ve also learned that life-paths wind and twist and turn, and sometimes we find ourself back on a path we’d thought we’d left behind ages ago.
Daring To Ask: Do you see the development of these adolescents differently from the growth experienced by Jenna and her daughter Meriel in the Holder series?
SL: Certainly -- mostly because their societies and cultures are so different. Jenna and Meriel (as well Meriel’s children Sevei, Kayne, and Ennis in the last book of that series) are forced to grow up far faster in far harsher environments than Rob and Mark in THE WOODS. Children in the society of the Cloudmages books don’t have the luxury of the long adolescence we give our children now -- by the time they’re Rob and Mark’s age, they’d be expected to be functioning mostly as adults.
And for Jenna and her daughter and grandchildren, having the clochs thrust upon them so early forced them into confrontation with and immersion in the adult world -- with all the life-and-death results that comes with the territory.
For Rob and Mark, the consequences have weight, yes, but are ‘smaller’ in scale than those that confront the adolescents of the Cloudmages books, but still very real and intense to both of them.
Daring To Ask: The culture of the Celtic world played a major part as one of the forces that drove the characters in the Holder series. Which type of culture do you see exerting a force on Rob and Mark in The Woods?
SL: The culture that most influences Rob and Mark is our own (at least the culture of the 1970s in which they’re growing up). More specifically, they’re growing up in a working middle class neighborhood, with all that implies: these aren’t rich kids, nor poor urban kids. They’re suburban, Caucasian, and Catholic -- and that’s the world that they know and in which they’re cocooned for the moment.
I see Sheila is essentially a nature spirit, and I largely drew on Native American background for her.
Daring To Ask: From a worldbuilding perspective, the design of the magic strikes us differently when we see a world with the feel of the Middle Ages as compared to that of a contemporary scene. Which elements do you advise writers to consider in constructing magic when they shape a modern fantasy?
SL: Because I was using the parameters of magic realism, I didn’t worry too much about constructing an elaborate magic system with THE WOODS(as I did with both the Cloudmages trilogy and the more recent Nessantico Cycle. I didn’t worry about all the ‘rules’ that magic had to follow... and, in fact, as I said earlier, I left open the possibility that perhaps there was really no magic at all.
I’m currently working on the draft of another contemporary fantasy, this one set in Ireland -- as a result, I’m again drawing on Celtic myth and background with that one. I feel that in fantasy set in modern times, in real places, that the author is obligated to draw from the mythological and historical sources of the setting. So if I were writing a modern fantasy set in the United States, I might be tempted to use Native American mythology as the basis.
Or maybe not, depending on the set-up of the novel and who the characters were. After all, those who came to North America from other places brought along their own beliefs and superstitions, and perhaps those would still be operating as a result.
That’s the kick in writing fantasy: you get to create your own shadow reality, and populate with whatever excites you -- and hopefully the reader feels that excitement!
Image courtesy of Denise Parsley Leigh