Readers, today we greet Morgen Rich, writer of boundary-pushing epics. She has some fantastic things to say (and some great recommendations to make!), so be sure to check out her work when you’re done!
Hi Morgen, and welcome! Tell us a little about yourself and your work.
First, I want to thank Kristin McFarland for hosting this series of author interviews from various genres. I think it’s a fascinating study of differences and commonalities among writers and genres, and I will be following it to discover what those are! I hope others will, too, and that they’ll join in the discussion here on Kristin’s blog.
Why, you’re welcome! I do plan on posting some follow-up analysis to all of these interviews. I’m just finishing a book right now, I swear.
About me? I’m tempted to use Steve Martin’s line in The Jerk and say, “I was born a poor, Black child,” but that’s because I’m mischievous. I am a hybrid of Scottish, Irish, Cherokee, and Comanche ancestry. I was born and spent most of my youth and some of my adulthood in the southwest. I’ve lived in a lot of places in the U.S. and Western Europe. I have a background in academia and still teach university courses in English and Communications from time to time, though I consider myself a full-time author and independent publisher now. I started my literary life as an early reader, and I’ve been writing fiction and poetry for well over 20 years, though I hadn’t considered publishing commercially until about 5 years ago.
Over the years, I’ve written medieval fantasy, poetry, and contemporary literary fiction (mostly short stories, at which I think I truly suck). My main writing interest is Speculative Fiction with a decidedly feminist slant, and I lean toward epics. I’m in the process of releasing my current work, the first novel in The Staves of Warrant series, in serial form. The novel’s parts will be the first released by my independent publishing house, Bookmite Press. I hope to have the company open for submissions by the end of this year.
You describe your work as speculative fiction. What exactly does that mean?
Laughs. Let’s just get right to the hard question, shall we?
That’s why they pay me the big bucks. And by “they,” I mean me, and by “big bucks,” I mean nothing at all. *grins*
Speculative fiction is most often an umbrella category for works of fiction that are difficult to categorize in traditional genres. Speculative Fiction has a lot of sub-genres. For instance, one sub-genre, science fantasy, is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. When one tosses in the epic aspect, something like Star Wars or the Pern series would fit into the category.
Although there was political discussion about specific works being speculative in ancient Greece, the term “Speculative Fiction” seems to have been coined in literary circles in 1889 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in an article on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. That short novel is something of a dystopian Rip Van Winkle tale that grows around a science-fiction element—in this case, something akin to (but definitely not) cryosleep.
Since the term was coined, however, the genre has all but refused to be defined, and there are about as many definitions as there are definers. Nathan E. Lilly at Greententacles, for instance, has an assortment of definitions by a variety of literary types. For anyone interested in exploring the topic further, I’d say Lilly’s list is a good place to start. Interestingly enough, the list is housed on a section of the site entitled “Articles That Never Die.” The fact that the definitions were posted in 2002 and are all, without exception, still relevant to the discussion of what constitutes Spec-Fic speaks volumes for the nebulous nature of the genre itself. Looking backward to Bellamy (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) and the birth of the term in relatively contemporary literary discussion, Spec-Fic definitions have been debated for over 200 years. I can’t resolve that debate.
Speculative fiction elements in my own work include:
- More than one genre (epic, fantasy, science fiction = epic science fantasy)
- Magic in the same narrative space as science and technology
- The “what-if,” interrogatory nature of the story
And you write epic fantasy, too?
Without injecting spoilers, I will say The Staves of Warrant trilogy is set in the Shifting Worlds universe, and the first world that readers see is described by characters and appears to function like a medieval fantasy world. The story is epic in the traditional sense, both in scope and in length.
What made you decide to write across these genres?
My muse couldn’t resist the imaginative possibilities. I laughingly say that as an Aquarian, I just can’t resist What Ifs. I’m sure I drove my parents insane with all of my “But why” or “But why not?” questions as a child. And maybe because so many of those questions weren’t or couldn’t be answered, playing with boundaries, mixing up the Whys and Why Nots with the What Ifs, feels right to me. Spec-Fic allows me to keep asking questions, some of which may never have answers.
My own personality aside, published authors really shined the light on Spec-Fic for me, particularly female authors who pushed the boundaries of genre in their works. Mary Shelley, Madeline L’Engle, Zora Neale Hurston, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Paula Gunn Allen, so many more. But the main influence was Octavia E. Butler.
The first of Butler’s novels that I read was Dawn, the first book in the Xenogensis Trilogy. Butler’s depictions of change, language constructions, and a third gender in her trilogy blew me away, particularly when the third gender evolved. After that, I knew I wanted to explore science fiction. Fortunately, I was attending a university that houses the Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library, so I started digging up all kinds of information and decided to write a Masters Thesis on Butler’s work. When I got to Kindred, I was confounded as to why it had been categorized as “fiction.” A book about involuntary time travel without machines and interaction with one’s own ancestors as fiction without any genre label, not even science fiction or fantasy? Why was the categorization of Kindred so disconnected from the elements in that novel? I didn’t realize at the time that science fiction had such a negative connotation in the literary world because so much of what I’d read in the genre had been just as good as the “Classics.” I suspect, though couldn’t prove, that look down the nose is partly why Butler’s publisher chose fiction as the bookshelf it would sit on at Barnes and Noble and in libraries. The last time I looked, Kindred had sold well over a million copies, and many of those copies were to students, as the book became quite popular in high-school and college English courses. I still wonder how much influence the categorization as fiction had on Kindred’s academic use and commercial success. If I had to label Kindred as anything other than Spec-Fic, I’d call it historical science fiction or historical fantasy or historical science fantasy. The label fiction just doesn’t do justice to its genre complexity.
Wow, that’s some food for thought: genre labels as either limiting or frontier-opening. I think I’ll throw that idea open to the blog readers.
In the case of The Staves of Warrant trilogy, the story insisted it was science fantasy. I tried initially writing it as a medieval fantasy with a single point of view, but I discovered that the story of Grainne and other characters couldn’t be told in the confines of a single voice, a single novel, a single world, or a single genre. The crossovers between culture, magic, myth, science, and technology demanded diversity. I tossed out the whole lot of drafts (5 novels in total) and started over, this time with a Spec-Fic premise from the beginning, working to reveal that premise little by little.
What types of stories does fantasy/spec-fic/epic fantasy make possible?
Stories that defy boundaries. Stories of revolution (think Star Wars). Tales about how we evolve and adapt over time, space, and cultures. Tales of warning. That’s not to say that revolutionary, evolutionary, or cautionary tales are unique to fantasy/spec-fic/epic fantasy genres, but Spec-Fic is a fertile breeding ground for them.
What audience do you think your work attracts? How does that alter the types of stories you tell and characters you write?
My work is definitely for readers 18 and older. Writing for a mature audience gives me the freedom to explore gritty, unjust situations without fear of scarring some unwitting child’s innocence. I can create characters who are absolute scum and who do awful things to others. Writing for adults means laying the responsibility of choosing to read and think about issues like human trafficking, rape, and other social violence and injustices at the feet of those best-prepared to handle them emotionally and psychologically.
My beta readers are fans of Speculative Fiction, Feminist Fiction, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Throughout the trilogy, neither Fantasy nor Science Fiction is absent, though readers may not realize that fact immediately. My hope is that my particular blend of those two genres will appeal to readers of both genres, as well as readers who enjoy stories with strong, yet flawed, female protagonists.
How does an epic scope affect the stakes for your characters and your audience?
In epics, the stakes for characters are high and challenges not easily overcome, though those elements are not unique to epics. Progress and failure are interdependent, and in an epic tale, take time to unravel. The epic hero/ine, for instance, usually travels away from home to learn the lessons that s/he brings back. Depending on the complexity of what s/he must do and learn, the story can take a substantial amount of time and pages to unfold, particularly in the context of sub-plots.
From the sheer standpoint of the amount of time it takes to read an epic story, readers set off on a journey in which their time is a tangible stake. I am painfully conscious of that commitment and stake. Yet, a story that spans a broad distance (time, space, culture, etc.) also gives readers a chance to see characters develop in a multitude of environments and circumstances. That’s something of a trade-off, and I hope readers feel the investment was worth it in the end.
The nature of an epic is tragic, though not always in the sense of “and the main character dies,” and there is a fine line between tragedy that bums out a reader and tragedy that is situated in a more satisfying conclusion. So, readers have a stake in the endings of epic stories. The risk that the story won’t turn out the way they’d expected or a beloved character will die, are stakes. Readers are savvy. If they invest time and emotional energy in a story, they expect satisfying fruition. Bilbo Baggins survives, but is he happy after his own adventures have ended? Is the end of Tolkien’s epic satisfying to the reader? I can’t speak for all readers. For me, it was satisfying despite the element of tragedy with Frodo. As a reader, I expect an epic to tell a big story with a lot of smaller stories inside of it. By using smaller stories to ameliorate the tragedy in his tale, Tolkien was able to bring his story to satisfying fruition for me. He proved to me that I’d invested my time wisely. My stakes in his story paid off, despite the cost of my emotional tie to an endearing, heroic character who doesn’t survive.
Why do you think people love to read speculative fiction? How do you think the genre affects its audience?
I hate to speak for readers other than myself, but I’d guess readers who love Spec-Fic do so partly because they are drawn to the worlds of possibility the genre delivers. Spec-Fic lets readers’ imaginations soar in directions they might not have otherwise—beyond the realms of reality, plausibility, and probability to cohesive possibility. Consider China Miéville’s Railsea or Perdido Street Station. They contain settings and characters that are unreal and both implausible and improbable, but within the stories’ plots, settings, and characterizations lie cohesive possibilities—someones, sometimes, somethings, and somewheres that readers can accept as what Miéville molds them into, as well as what they may represent to readers.
I think Spec-Fic readers enjoy flights of fancy, too. Because Spec-Fic has no boundaries except those the author inserts or readers interpret, it is fluid, and fluidity is a desirable trait in flights of fancy.
Speculative fiction draws readers into the story, prompting them to ask themselves the same questions the author and the characters are asking. What would happen if . . . ? How would this change culture, relationships, perspectives, me? Could something like this really happen? Has it happened already?
For fun, what is your favorite genre to read? Why?
That’s a tough one because I’ll read anything that’s well-written. In addition to fantasy, science fiction, and spec-fic, I have been known to pick up a detective novel or dozen, a horror story, a romance, historical fiction, non-fiction, and “Classic literary fiction.” As a child, books and reading were my windows into worlds that interested me more than the one I lived in. I guess I’ve never gotten over that entirely, though I now also see them as windows into a world more complex than my child-mind could comprehend. I read all genres because I’m compelled to stare out into the world through every sliver in the stained-glass window of literature.
I love to connect with readers and other writers and just about anyone interested in writing, publishing, or Speculative Fiction. I adore hooking up with people who love gardening, architecture, and animals, especially big dogs! News about my work is always posted on the sites listed below:
World Enough and Time is my Website and blog, which includes book reviews of works by other authors, articles on various topics I’m interested in or that readers and friends have asked me to discuss, links to my interviews, and coming in the very near future, author interviews and posts by some of my writer friends!
For occasional e-mails with news about releases, sales, and giveaways, I have a mailing list that people can subscribe to (and unsubscribe from at any time).
Thanks, Morgen, for spending some time here! I definitely want to throw some of these topics open to blog-readers; what do you guys think about genres that are every genre and no genre at all? Are genre labels limiting? What shelves do you shop in the store?