Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Guest Blog: M.J. Hearle on Writing, Perceptions and Genre

I was at a backyard barbecue recently – the sort of occasion one gets dragged along to by a partner where you don’t know anyone and spend half the afternoon introducing yourself – and got stuck talking to a stockbroker named Randall. His name might not have actually been Randall but if it wasn’t it should have been. Randall seems like the sort of name a stockbroker would have: strong, confident, and a little obnoxious.

It became clear quickly that we had little in common. Randall liked talking about money. I don’t have any money, so I couldn’t contribute much to the discussion. When he realised I wasn’t a prospective client, any semblance of polite interest began to fade from Randall’s eyes. It only flared up again when I told him what I did for a living.

‘An author, huh? Published too? What sort of stuff do you write?’ Randall asked, puffing cigar smoke in my face (he wasn’t smoking a cigar, but it feels like he should have been).
Clearing my throat, I answered without a shred of embarrassment, ‘I write supernatural fiction.’
Randall’s eyebrows twitched, and his top lip curled into a smirk. ‘Oh...really?’ he said, in the kind of patronising tone only the truly ignorant can muster. ‘Why? Why would you choose to write that junk? You’re a grown man. It’s all a bit silly isn’t it?’

I smiled and shrugged, biting back my reply that it was probably a bit silly to wear a three-piece Armani suit to a casual backyard barbecue, thanked him for his opinion and moved on. I think he was grateful to see me go. Men like Randall, creatures of facts and figures, have a hard time relating to people like me. I make them uncomfortable. Storytellers don’t fit easily into their carefully ordered, rigid view of the universe (which probably looks something like the Matrix – everybody and everything reduced to a flashing green number.)

Now, if Randall had nodded politely and told me that he personally didn’t enjoy reading about things that go bump in the night, I wouldn’t have minded (though I would have been surprised as such a response required a level of tact presumably beyond his reach). Books are like ice-cream, and not everybody likes strawberry mixed with their chocolate. I don’t like reading westerns – not because I have anything against cowboys on the high plains, it’s just not a flavour I particularly appreciate. What bothered me about Randall’s reaction was the way he dismissed an entire genre without a second thought, as though it was an irrefutable fact that supernatural fiction was terrible and those who wrote it, fools.

When we’re young we happily gobble up the fairy tales our parents read us, delighting at the monsters and the magical turns such stories feature. As we grow older, some of us begin to look down on these stories, locking them away with our old toys, leaving them to gather dust. We forget the power they have and our imaginations start to atrophy. Soon the only narratives we can tolerate are those that take place in a recognisable reality, and anything that challenges or pushes at the constrictive boundaries of this reality is regarded with suspicion, or worse, contempt.

I used to feel sorry for people like Randall and their shrunken, malnourished imaginations until I realised something startling – these people felt sorry for me. They looked at my ability to suspend disbelief, to indulge the impossible, as some kind of developmental shortcoming. A few steps removed from mental retardation or insanity.

Why choose to write about such things? – they ask me, and my response is always the same...
Why assume there is a choice?

What moves us, moves us. It’s a simple as that. A psychologist might be able to pick apart my predilection for the paranormal. Might be able to point to incidents in my childhood that helped shape my creative direction, but what it boils down to is, I dig this stuff. Not only that, but I genuinely believe supernatural fiction has literary merit. Of course there’s plenty of pap out there, but there’s enough genuinely good work that I’m always surprised the genre is given such short shrift.

You only have to look at the writings of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Block, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and that poor whipping boy of the critical community Stephen King, for evidence of great stories of the supernatural that hold up to literary scrutiny. All of these authors can weave tales that astonish and terrify, but most do so in the service of a greater message. They use genre conventions and metaphor to reveal basic human truths much more artfully than straightforward, realistic fiction. In other words, the spectral happenings are just the garnish on the meal, not the meal itself.

When I started writing my first novel, Winter’s Shadow, I knew I wanted to write about love and death. I wanted to write about that difficult transitional period between adolescence and adulthood. I also knew I wanted to write about monsters. So I crafted the tale of young woman named Winter Adams, who discovers there’s a whole other world beyond the one she can see with her eyes. A world full of magic and terrible things that wish her harm. One of those terrible things just might be the man she’s fallen in love with.

I wasn’t attempting anything profound, but I didn’t approach the story carelessly. While it’s true the surface mystery contains many supernatural twists and turns, it was the deeper mysteries of the book, those grounded squarely in the real world, that interested me: love and death. Winter learns a lot about both over the course of the novel, and her journey is all the more satisfying for it. If I’d left out the supernatural aspect I might have garnered fewer sneering responses from the Randall’s of the world, but I wouldn’t have had as much fun writing. And, I suspect, the readers who’ve picked up the book wouldn’t have had as much fun reading.

M. J.

 Winter's Shadow by M.J. Hearle is available now.


  1. I may not condone violence, but I do condone 'accidentally' spilling gallons of red wine on the fancy suits of literary snobs like Randall!

    As you (more eloquently) pointed out, it takes all kinds – the world would be a much poorer place without imaginations like yours in it, Mr Hearle.

  2. Brilliant insight into the scathing snobbishness of the 'Literati'!

    They all just need a good dose of supernatural-goodness :)

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  4. Brilliant post, wonderful sentiment, and eminently quotable for my pinboard on the wall, for those days when I wonder, "Why must I insist upon the supernatural?"

    Ah, yes. It is because I have no choice. Thank you, Mr Hearle.

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