Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What's a little ghost or two?

Two weeks ago I blogged about my rare chance to be a diva at When Words Collide. As hard-working authors we often feel like that proverbial duck who stays afloat on the surface by paddling madly below it. When Words Collide is an annual cross-genre literary festival held in Calgary, and it really knows how to make a hard-working author feel like a regal swan, even while we are paddling madly underneath. Not just the big touches like paying hotel and airfare, per diems, and workshop fees, but also the small touches like being picked up at the airport, chauffeured to events, and treated to a fun day at the Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum at the end. There were five author guests of honour and one publisher guest of honour. I represented mystery and crime, Patricia Briggs and David B. Coe (AKA D.B. Jackson) revealed the many faces of fantasy, Michael Cassut carried the standard for science fiction in both books and screenwriting, and Shirlee Smith Matheson brought her multiple talents to YA fiction and historical non-fiction, while Jamis Paulson of Turnstone Press brought the insights of editors and publishers.

Everyone at When Words Collide took a personal interest in us and in our needs and comfort, and in return, we gave them our best effort. Two solid days of workshops, two public readings, four to five panels each, keynote speeches, formal hour interviews and two hour-long informal coffee klatches. Hours and hours dedicated to the celebration of the written story in all its forms. The festival had 460 attendees, eight tracks of programming, a murder mystery dinner banquet, and a dizzying nightly array of parties celebrating book launches, local writing groups and fine scotch.

I think the organizers will sleep for a week. I know I will. And as from any good conference, I believe all the attendees went away feeling energized, inspired, and in love with storytelling. As the conference name suggests, part of the programming magic came from setting up inherent contrasts between panel members, with titles such as Mystery, Science Fiction and Fantasy – with myself, David B. Coe and Rob Sawyer each arguing the merits and limitations of our genres – and East vs. West in Canadian mystery writing.

On the former panel, the discussion of crossing the genre lines was very interesting, indeed thought-provoking. Both Rob and David pointed out that although mystery and crime feature prominently in their own stories, mystery writers rarely venture into the realm of science fiction or fantasy, beyond the occasional vampire or ghost. Mystery readers, in their observation, are much more rigid and narrow in their interests and preferences, and many prefer to stick not only to straight mystery but even to a particular sub-genre, such as cosies or British police procedurals. A mystery writer introduces a fantastical element at his or her peril. Cross-genre mysteries which do expand into fantasy or sci-fi will not attract readers of both mysteries and speculative fiction but will instead limit their appeal to that narrow band of readers who like both.

It seems some of us like our stories, characters and settings to be "real" and others don't, although it's arguable whether talking cats or quilting ladies who solve mysteries, or even superheroes like Jason Bourne bear any resemblance to reality. One man in the audience hazarded a guess that since part of the appeal of mysteries is solving the puzzle, the laws of nature and the universe must be predictable and reliable, rather than subject to the whim of the author who changes reality as he pleases, introducing disappearing knives or ghost who walk through doors without regard to whether that could really happen.

It's an interesting idea. What do you think? Do you read both types of fiction, and if not, why not? I confess I have never had any interest in the "unreal" world, but after meetings and lively discussions with several interesting and thoughtful speculative fiction writers, I have decided to give fantasy a try. Not as a writer – let's not get ahead of ourselves – but as a reader. And who knows, maybe a little ghost will sneak its way into an inspector Green novel down the road... Do you think he'd mind?


Unknown said...

I hope that people will read a book that combines elements of SF and mystery. If not I've wasted a lot of time on my novel. I'm just going on what I enjoy reading, which is mysteries first, then SF. I'm writing a book I'd want to read. I guess I'll have to see if this is a rule that everyone knows but might not be true.
Larry Gasper

Barbara Fradkin said...

I think the first rule is to write the book you'd like to read. So go for it, Larry!