Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Magical Cities

I seem to have survived yesterday's torrential downpour, and today is lovely. Yesterday I didn't get any housework done because it was too rainy and it was a great day for curling up with a good book. Today I may not get any done because it's too nice. :-) No matter how much I say I want to stop with this all-or-nothing behavior when I'm writing, it just seems to be the way I work. When I'm in a certain phase of work, then I can't seem to accomplish anything else. It's not so much the time, since I'm generally not writing ten hours a day, or anywhere close (except maybe toward the end). I just don't seem to have the physical, mental or emotional energy to do anything else, whether it's responding to an e-mail, doing anything around the house, socializing or handling business matters, when I'm in writing mode, even if I'm only actually putting words down for a few hours a day. I'm not sure any time management or organizational system can help with that, other than perhaps a lot of self-discipline to force me to do things that need to be done before I get to the day's writing. I'm counting this week as kind of a "spring break" to get caught up, but I'm trying to already be thinking about the next project and see if I can get a little more balance going in my life. I can't afford to put the rest of my life on hold when I'm in writing mode. That's no way to live. It may help if I don't let my writing muscles get flabby between projects.

I've been thinking more about yesterday's topic of defining urban fantasy, and I suppose it makes sense that the publishing world sees "urban fantasy" as darker and grittier, since "urban fiction" is sort of the literary version of gangsta rap -- about the underbelly of society -- the crime, the violence, etc. It's using the city as jungle metaphor, with the suggestion that when the chips are down and survival is at stake, we're all basically animals. Some just have more obvious teeth, claws and fur than others.

But I've always had a different view of the city, probably because of the way I've been exposed to cities. I had a reasonably suburban childhood or else lived on army bases, which is still fairly suburban. My exposure to major cities was to drive through or around them on freeways, so that my impression was of glittering spires soaring above, just out of reach. It was kind of the city as ocean metaphor, where all I saw was the surface, where things are bright and colorful, and I didn't realize there was a darker, scarier ocean floor. Going to "the city" for me as a very small child meant going from Abilene in West Texas to Arlington to go to Six Flags. The whole Dallas/Fort Worth area is essentially one big city, but when we went to "the city" we never actually got into the major cities. Then later, going to the city meant going to Oklahoma City to shop at the mall -- a mall that even today is pretty much on the outskirts of the city itself. Plus, cities in this part of the world aren't truly "urban." Even the poor, gritty inner-city neighborhoods are pretty suburban in comparison to northern cities. The houses are smaller and shabbier than in the suburbs, but they're houses on lawns instead of row houses, and the apartments are "garden apartments" rather than tenements or high rises, so it's not exactly the concrete jungle. Around here, the truly urban environments -- as in lots of apartments, apartments over stores, stores you walk to instead of park in front of, abundant public transportation, not a lot of grass or greenery -- are very upscale neighborhoods. It's a carefully created ideal of what we'd like city life to be.

My first real exposure to real cities -- not just driving through, but living in them or visiting the center of the city -- was in Europe, so the cities were like something out of a fairy tale. There were streetcars and fancy old buildings, or else shiny glass and steel modern buildings that were practically art, in and of themselves (I lived in an area that had been very industrial, so it was pretty much wiped out in the war -- the historic old buildings had been restored, but everything else started with a clean slate). I think the first really big city I visited was Frankfurt, and then after that, Paris. The other cities I visited all still had remnants of medieval walls, or else had castles sitting above them. So, yeah, obviously my idea of what magical or paranormal things happen in cities is probably going to be a little different from the dark underbelly approach. I've been criticized for writing a sanitized version of New York, but really, the way I write it is the way I see and experience it (well, aside from the people with fairy wings and the talking gargoyles).

Maybe we need new terms to clarify the situation. "Urban" fantasy to me doesn't have to be modern -- there are China Mieville's books, which have that gritty urbanness but which aren't modern, and a lot of the Terry Pratchett books use the urban environment while still being set in some quasi-medieval/Dickensian Victorian past. Then there are the modern books, the magic alongside computers and cars stories, and those don't necessarily have to take place in a city. It was loads of fun writing that in a small town where the weirdness stands out more. To further complicate matters, there are the books where people from the modern world end up in a magical fantasy world and see that world from the modern perspective. I guess what I most look for is what you could call "colliding worlds" fantasy, where the magical and the modern intersect in one way or another. I label my own work "fairy tales for modern times," which I think sums up my approach to storytelling. My agent calls it "light urban fantasy." And, for now, the publishing world calls it "general fiction," which means the people who might like it will never find it without help from a friend.

And now I'm going to head out into the world to buy a new toaster oven (mine died after about 16 years) and pick up the DVD of Enchanted -- possibly the only less-gritty view of magic in New York than I write.

No comments: