Hey, gang! Today we have Marcy L. Peska to talk about why she writes contemporary fantasy. She has some really fantastic things to say about contemporary fantasy versus urban fantasy, fantasy in general, and genre-writing in a larger way. Enjoy, and take notes! She has some great stuff to say.
Hello, Marcy, and welcome!
Thank you for having me. I’m tickled to participate in this project and eager to read all the interviews!
Tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I was born in Grand Rapids, MI but came to Alaska when I was 7 months old, so I’ve always considered myself an Alaskan. I’m very attached to the region of Alaska where I reside and it’s had an enormous impact on who I’ve become, as an individual, and also as a writer. For nine years of my childhood, I lived in a tiny and isolated “bush” community in southern Southeast Alaska called Edna Bay. My experiences living a sort of pioneer/subsistence lifestyle gave me a different perspective on life than many modern Americans and I think that colors my life choices, my writing voice and the general themes in my writing. Early this month (April 2013), I published my short memoir, Head Buckets & Hashtags: An Alaskan Childhood In Tweets on Amazon Kindle and that talks about my childhood in a lot more detail.
My fantasy novel, Magic All Around (5/12/13 release date at Amazon Kindle) is set right here in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska and this setting is central to who my characters are. This is a good place for me to explain why I consider Magic All Around to be a work of contemporary fantasy instead of one of urban fantasy. These two sub-genres overlap and there aren’t any universal definitions but urban fantasies are generally set in a city that is real and recognizable. My novel meets those two criteria but few people would describe Juneau, Alaska as urban. The U.S. Census Bureau considers any community with a population of 50,000 or more to be urban but Juneau has only about 30,000 people. Although it’s located on the mainland, the only transportation in or out of Juneau is by air or water and it’s a community defined more by its breathtaking landscape of ice fields, mountains and ocean, than its structures or streets. Juneau just doesn’t have that gritty, urban feel to it and neither do my characters. If there were such a category as rural fantasy, Magic All Around would fall tidily into that, but there isn’t and so contemporary fantasy is the best fit.
What made you decide to write in contemporary fantasy?
I read many genres but fantasy has been my favorite since I was about ten or eleven. I don’t think I’ve ever made a deliberate choice to write fantasy, I’ve just always known that fantasy is what I would write. The sub-genre of contemporary fantasy provides the framework, (the real-world setting and current cultural milieu) at the foundation of my novel. Nonetheless, my process was story first, sort out and define genre after. I think genre intentionality is terrific; it just hasn’t been part of my writing process yet.
What types of stories does contemporary fantasy make possible?
One of my favorite things about fantasy is how a deft author can use it to hold a mirror up to reality and help us examine various aspects of life. High fantasy and some of the other sub-genres lend themselves especially well to the examination of culture, mores and taboos. I like to think of those sub-genres as taking an anthropological or sociological approach to fantasy. Contemporary fantasy seems to lend itself particularly well to a more narrow focus: to exploring how an individual character makes decisions and interacts with his or her world and I think of this as more of a psychological approach to fantasy.
The other thing that I think is useful in contemporary fantasy is that it can be a gateway genre. Folks new to fantasy or those who usually read other types of fiction sometimes feel confused or off-put by the foreignness of high fantasy and other sub-genres that utilize extensive world building or require a greater suspension of disbelief. It’s not quite as big a leap, for these readers
to sample contemporary fantasy, where we all start with a common reality quite similar to the one we live in on a day-to-day basis. Then, once a reader has begun to enjoy a dally in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak, that reader is more likely to venture into deeper water.
What audience do you think contemporary fantasy attracts? How does that alter the types of stories you tell and characters you write?
I think contemporary fantasy attracts and accommodates folks from across the age spectrum and readers with a lot of different genre preferences because it frequently crosses genre boundaries with contemporary fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, romance, mystery, chick-lit, you name it. As I touched on earlier, my approach to fiction writing is to share the story I have inside of me rather than to create a story that meets a particular set of criteria for a specific genre or audience. Then, once the story is complete, I can define genre and audience and learn to market to the right folks.
How does contemporary fantasy affect the stakes for your characters and your
First, I want to say that you ask great questions and you’re making me think more deeply about genre than I have since I was in college back in the early 90’s. I hope you won’t be grading my answers!
Definitely no grades here! I actually worried more about writers grading my questions than grading their answers in any way!
I don’t think any genre, or sub-genre, has an exclusive license on low, medium or high-stakes situations. The more research and/or world building an author does, however, the further up the stakes continuum they tend write; there’s a level of investment on the part of the author and the reader that must be paid off. The opposite, however, certainly isn’t true. In other words, plenty of authors write high-stakes stories in genres that require little to no research or world building.
I consider contemporary fantasy to be low on the research and world building scale but I’ve read novels in this sub-genre from across the stakes continuum. As a reader and a writer, I often prefer low to medium stakes stories. Again, there are exceptions to this, but as a rule, I have little tolerance for anxiety, suspense, tension and large-scale carnage. In my life, and in my writing, I’m more concerned with personal, family and community level challenges than I am with impending doom or grand battles of good versus evil.
Why do you think people love to read contemporary fantasy? How do you think the genre affects its audience?
I believe that reframing the way we view our environment and our experiences has the potential to change our thoughts, feelings and reactions to those things. All genres…no, all art, has the potential to catalyze this kind of transformation, but the proximity of contemporary fantasy to consensus reality (not too close and not too far) makes it a brilliant vehicle for stories that may inspire readers to generalize what they learn from characters and transfer that knowledge to real-world scenarios to reframe their own views.
For fun, what is your favorite genre to read? Why?
Fantasy has always spoken to me most deeply and most comfortingly, with science fiction in a close second place. I suppose this has a lot to do with growing up among people who valued questioning reality, questioning mainstream culture, questioning authority…questioning everything really! I internalized those values and, for me at least, this is what a good fantasy does, it takes the characters and the reader (maybe even the author) on a journey where they’re forced to reevaluate the nature of reality and how they respond to it. That being said, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that fantasy and science-fiction make up the bulk of my reading diet. (It totally makes up a large portion of my reading diet, so no judgment here!) I read widely and enjoy a variety of fiction and non-fiction
genres, especially things related to psychology/mental health, dogs and Alaska.
Wow, Marcy, you gave some great answers and got me thinking about still more genre-related blog topics. Thanks for stopping by and chatting with us!
This was fun; thank you for interviewing me and getting me thinking more about genre.
Readers, if you want to track Marcy down, you can find her at…