Reimagining fantasy

For the casual reader, the thought of a typical fantasy book probably conjures up visions of dragons, elves and various other Tolkien-esque creatures. It’s an image that makes noted fantasy author Charles de Lint bristle.

“I love reading high-fantasy stories, but now I find it tiresome because I think that there’s nothing really fresh about [those stories], whereas in the real world, there’s always fresh stories,” says de Lint in a phone interview with Xpress.

Telling fresh stories has been his business for the past 23 years. De Lint, along with like-minded writers such as Neil Gaiman, have been largely responsible for dragging fantasy out of the castles and cauldrons and into the real world. There may not be flying dragons here, but that doesn’t mean that the author is at a loss for words in making the ordinary fantastic.

“Fantasy is a color; it’s a way to get their internal landscapes on the page so you don’t have to use internal dialogue all the time,” explains de Lint. “You can interact with a supernatural character instead. I love to see how the supernatural character changes the character and their lives.”

When de Lint speaks of his characters, it’s almost in a reverential tone. It’s a manner of speaking about them as if they are living, breathing people. But it’s not hubris that makes de Lint care for his characters. It’s something else entirely.

“[Charles] really believes that people have something positive within them, and wants to write about it. I never want his books to end because I love his characters so much,” says Charles Vess, a noted fantasy artist who has worked with de Lint in the past, most notably on 2002’s Seven Wild Sisters (Subterranean Press).

Charleses in charge: Fantasy writer Charles de Lint, left, and illustrator Charles Vess. photo by Mary Ann Harris

Together, de Lint and Vess are more than just occasional collaborators; they represent a sort of mutual-admiration society that has resulted in more than 70 books in print and three World Fantasy Awards between them. This summer, the film version of Vess’ collaboration with Gaiman, Stardust, was released to rave reviews.

“I’ve seen the movie about six or seven times,” says Vess. “The first time I saw it was in a screening with Robert De Niro in New York for about 30 people. When the lights went up after the movie, the producer asked me, ‘What do you think, Charles?’ And I loved [the movie].”

But for de Lint and Vess, fantasy is less about the supernatural and more about reality. Without a good story, fantasy writing is nothing more than a Dungeons & Dragons campaign carried out onto the page.

“I want to tell stories about real people, and because I love fantasy, I want to include a fantasy element,” says de Lint. “[One] of my favorite quotes from a review of my writing was that I do for fantasy what Stephen King does for horror. In other words, it explores ordinary real people, but how their lives change by the influx of fantasy.”

Lives changing, mythic creatures: These certainly are the staples of fantasy. But for de Lint and Vess, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. What is unusual is de Lint’s self-effacing way of speaking of his success, including his recent string of books aimed at the young-adult market. (His most recent release in that series, Little (Grrl) Lost, was recently published by Viking Children’s Books.)

In this post-Harry Potter literary world, marketing to younger readers has become a very profitable branch of publishing. And yet, de Lint claims the series was anything but a marketing ploy.

“I missed the boat all along,” he says. “When I started writing, I started writing high fantasy, and when that stuff got popular, I was writing this contemporary stuff that had a very small audience, but it was a story I needed to write. It’s the same thing with the young-adult stuff. I didn’t start writing young-adult books because of Harry Potter; I started writing young-adult books because I had an editor who wanted me to write young-adult books for her.”

But poor timing aside, de Lint is grateful for the success he’s had in the literary world—and well aware that literary fame can be fleeting.

“At any moment,” he says with a laugh, “I expect somebody to show up at the door and say, ‘You aren’t supposed to be a writer, you’re supposed to be digging ditches, and here are your new papers.’”

[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]


Charles de Lint and Charles Vess will appear at Malaprop’s on Monday, Sept. 10. 7 p.m. Free. www.Malaprops.com or 254-6734.

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2 thoughts on “Reimagining fantasy

  1. nikki talley

    wooo hooo! i got really into de lint during my time in canadia…can’t wait to meet him in our own lil beloved malaprops! (and i have to say i was a wee star struck when he sent me a personal email thanking him a cd i sent him…) xo

  2. I’m rarely starstruck, but I kinda felt the same way when I got a package from Vess. Sure, it was just a CD of images to run with the story … but it was from CHARLES-F***ING-VESS!

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