Monday, June 18, 2012

On how reality can be the spice of fantasy

Inspired by Kim’s Summer Reading post a couple weeks back, I’ve decided to make use of my spot this month by sharing some of the non-fantasy titles that have most inspired me. 

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  This is a blog devoted to fantasy, so why bother mentioning those other books? 

Truth is, while my focus as an author has been fantasy, I’m a strong advocate of reading across a wide variety of genres.  In fact, I really hadn’t read much fantasy at all until I started writing it. My lack of familiarity with the genre was a source of insecurity for a long time, but I’ve come to realize that broad reading habits can be a strength, not a weakness, in one’s journey as an author.  Cross-fertilization, as any biologist will tell you, keeps the meme pool alive and happy.

This is not by any means a comprehensive list of titles that have influenced me.  In putting it together, I decided to leave out historical fiction entirely (the post was just getting too long!), but historical fiction has had a huge influence on my work, so to leave it out is a serious omission.  (As recompense, I promise to spend some time on historical fiction titles on my blog for Eolyn.)  There are other titles missing, too.  Still, this short list will give you an idea of the books that have stuck with me over the years, and that in one way or another, have come to influence my approach to storytelling.

Blood, Bread and Roses. Judy Grahn’s unique retelling of human history takes menstruation from its marginalized place in today’s society and puts this expression of women’s power right at the heart of cultural evolution. Her arguments may, on occasion, seem a little far-fetched, but she opens up a new and very thought-provoking perspective on women in history.

Adam, Eve and the Serpent. Elaine Pagels has published a large body of critical work on the early Christian Church.  In this volume, she shows how Augustine’s interpretation of sex and the “fall of man” was adopted as doctrine, not so much out of conviction and faith, but in an effort to justify the emerging power structure of an increasingly lucrative and patriarchal church. 

To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking. What I remember most about this book is Harold Kushner’s interpretation of Genesis.  Kushner shows, point-for-point, why the traditional Augustinian view of Adam, Even and the Serpent makes no sense.  He then offers his own interpretation, beautifully coherent with Eve front and center as a heroine of human history.  This was one of the seeds that gave rise to the myth The Origin of Magic as told in Eolyn.

Warfare in the Ancient World by Brian Todd Carey.  Everyone who writes epic fantasy knows that sooner or later, no matter how hard you and your characters try to avoid it, you will have a battle on your hands.  Carey’s classic volume describing 26 key military confrontations of ancient times was the first book I ever picked up on the topic of warfare, and it was a good choice.  Accessible and interesting, even for a reticent beginner like me.

The Country Beneath My Skin. I have sung Gioconda Belli’s praises many times and in many places.  This memoir of her involvement with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua is a must read.  She is a true modern heroine, a poet and a warrior, and many aspects of her journey inspired the crafting of Eolyn.  

Medicine Cards.  More than an alternative tarot deck, Jamie Sams and David Carson’s collection of animal images and totems was one of my first introductions to the world of animals from the perspective of Native American mythology.  Many of the animals that appear in Eolyn are tied to the symbolism described in this and similar texts.

The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen.  In many ways, Eolyn is a story about cultural extinction; the loss – or near loss – of an indigenous tradition of magic.  I’ve learned about the dynamics of extinction, particularly biological extinction, from many sources, but Quammen’s is one of the best.  Superbly written, easily accessible to the non-biologist, it will transform the way you see the world and our role in it.

That’s my partial list of non-fantasy favorites.  Now it’s your turn.  What are some of your favorite non-fantasy titles, and why?

posted by Karin Rita Gastreich


Terri-Lynne said...

Adam, Eve and the Serpent--great, great, great. And while I've not read most of the books on your list, I've read similar. Hmm...same taste in reading...who'da thunk it. ;)

I can do individuals battling, and I've done big battles, but I did manage around a war without ever having to write a battle scene. But you'll have to wait until you read Beyond the Gate to find out how. :)

Medicine Cards! Did I tell you I had the otter done? I'll send pics once it's healed up.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

An otter? That's too cool.

For all my griping, I don't really mind doing the battle sequences; it's just that it tends to be the hardest part, where I hit the core of my insecurities, and have to work the hardest. But it's also where I learn the most. Kind of reminds me of...ballet class, actually. Painful & challenging & fun in the same way. :)

batgirl said...

Lost Country Life is a vital source for anyone writing pre-industrial or agrarian societies.
And not specifically a writing-research source, but Light In Early Italian Painting is a brilliant book about how painting worked as a craft and a concept in the pre-modern world. Usually art history books make me furious. This one makes me rethink my assumptions.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hello batgirl!

Have you ever read "The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant? I'd be curious to know what you thought, given your background in art history.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point, Karin! I do think everything we read and experience goes into the big, swirling thinktub of our brain, and all of that has an impact on the fantasy we produce. I can't think of any non-fantasy that inspired me offhand (except for romance novels, and ok, I'm just too lazy to list other stuff right now), but I know there's a lot of work out there that has influenced my writing. Great post!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks, Kim! I love the image of 'the big swirling thinktub of our brain.' ;)