Writing to genre stinks: Two debut novelists on the hard line between fantasy and realism -- and why it doesn't make sense

Two authors on using fairy-tale elements to explore trauma & memory, and why "Is this real" is a loaded question

Published June 28, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Stephanie Feldman, Rene Denfeld       (stephaniefeldman.com/HarperCollins/Gary Norman)
Stephanie Feldman, Rene Denfeld (stephaniefeldman.com/HarperCollins/Gary Norman)

In their debut novels, Rene Denfeld and Stephanie Feldman both use fairy-tale elements to explore trauma and memory. Here they discuss genre, gender and the politics of “realism.” Who defines what is real and what is fantasy? Do genre labels classify authors’ identities rather than the stories they choose to tell?

Rene Denfeld is the author of "The Enchanted," winner of numerous awards and accolades, including a prestigious French Prix, an ALA Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a Texas Lariat Award, the Oregonian's No. 1 Book of the Year, long listed for a Carnegie award, and finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan prize. "The Enchanted" was inspired by her work with men on death row. Rene currently works as the chief investigator for an indigent defense firm, and is the happy mom to three kids she adopted from foster care.

Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel, "The Angel of Losses," is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. It arrives in paperback in June. Stephanie teaches fiction writing at Arcadia University and lives outside Philadelphia with her family.

Stephanie Feldman: I heard you say that the book started with the voice and the idea of enchantment, but did you ever try writing fiction about prison in a strictly realist voice?

Rene Denfeld: That's a great question, because to me, "The Enchanted" is a realist novel. The narrator believes he lives in a magical, enchanted place. He may be in a death row dungeon, but to him it is enchanted. That's his reality. The charging golden horses that live underground, the little men in the walls — they are as real to him as the stone that surrounds him.

In my work as a death penalty investigator, I often deal with people who have a much different sense of reality than I do. Their reality might be shaped by mental illness, or terrible poverty, or often, by a lifetime of horrific abuse. But it is their reality. When someone tells me they see something I don't see, I remind myself, "This person is seeing something that maybe I am missing." I am not there to pass judgment on their reality. I am there to listen to it, to hear it, to accept it.

It's a very narrow, dominant culture view to look at something like a death row prison from the outside — from the position of someone with a full belly and a safe home — and assume your view is, in fact, the reality. To do so misses so many important truths, like how being inside can change one's sense of time, or how inmates find hope while waiting for death, or how even the very concept of death changes when you are going to be killed. Fantasy and dreams and storytelling are signs of hope. Can you imagine a life without stories? Without dreams? I am fascinated by our ability to respond to despair with our imaginations.

So, long answer short: "The Enchanted" is a realist depiction of both the life of a death row inmate, one that captures his ability to find magic and joy even in the midst of horror.

And how about for you? In "The Angel of Losses," both real and imagined folk tales play a significant role in the search for identity. Do you feel the inclusion of myth and magic makes a book more or less realistic? Has the concept of realism in literature been defined by a very narrow, predominately male-dominated literary culture?

Feldman: I also believe that the fantastic is often the most honest way to capture reality. My book is interested in identity and history, and how they're socially constructed in tandem. I thought about how family, national and ethnic history informs who we are, but mostly I worked backward, wondering what our self-image has to say about what came before, or how preceding generations made sense of what came before.

I'm also fascinated by how we can recover history that's been lost (records destroyed, stories untold). And if you're building history, you start with meaning, not facts. Your narrator's vision of the prison tells me as much about life there as the details I might read in a journalistic account.

I think many writers and readers adhere to a hard line in literature between fantasy and realism, a border that's never made much sense to me. One reader expressed frustration with my book — she didn't know whether it was "fantasy" or not. Things happen in the book that don't happen on our earth. (That I know about, anyway.) But the relationships are real; the love and frustration and self-destructive anger that animate them are real. The European past it describes is also very real, as it lives in our imaginations, as it informs my identity and how I think of myself — even if it includes an angel and a wizard.

Genre labels frustrate me, because genre itself is so porous. But I do find myself returning to the word "fantastic" (or, when I'm feeling particularly literary, "fabulist"). Even then, "fantastic" isn't telling people what the book is; it's telling people what the book isn't. To me, "fantastic" just means unlimited. So maybe you're right that this has something to do with the greater status quo. One part of society defining what's real and what isn't; what's allowed in art, and life, and what's forbidden.

Denfeld: The concept of genres frustrates me, too. I've been told "The Enchanted" is genre bending — it is difficult to pigeonhole. But aren't many good books? I fear writing to genre. If you sit down and think, "I'm going to write a thriller," or "I am going to write a mystery," it seems that would limit you. You'd end up throwing away everything that didn't fit the box. That would be an excellent way to stifle writing an authentic truth.

In "The Enchanted," I gave my narrator free rein to tell me what he was thinking. Lots of what he said surprised me, but as I wrote it down, I could see the truth in it. At one point he talks about how time is different on death row. Not just the passage of time, but the meaning of it. Time, he says, "is measured in meaning." Once locked, men lose the meaning inside time — they are untethered to the past as well as a future. They quite literally lose all sense of time.  As I was writing that section I instantly recognized that I had observed this with men on death row, but until that moment, it had not risen to my consciousness.

I love the concept of using writing to make sense — of what came before, of what we are and the meaning of those around us.

When you were writing "The Angel of Losses," how much did you try to direct the story? As a writer I am always curious how other writers approach the creation of story. Did you feel you were following Marjorie, or leading her, or perhaps a little of both?

Feldman: I do try to direct my stories; I always begin with a loose outline, a guide-map so I don't write in circles. But I also let the characters break from my plans. For many drafts, I followed Marjorie without knowing exactly why she was doing what she did. With every revision, I chipped away a little more at her decisions, statements and actions, asking myself, "Why?" over and over again like a toddler. Sometimes I realized I had gone in the wrong direction; other times, I saw something new about her that helped illuminate the path forward. So I'd say it was a little push and pull.

It's difficult to untangle the author from the characters. Readers keep asking how much of me is in Marjorie. Just last night, I met a reader for the first time and she blurted out, "It's like Marjorie's standing right in front of me!" (For the record, Marjorie's taller, but we do have similar hair.) The related questions are: Is my family Orthodox Jewish? (No.) Am I estranged from my sister? (No.) Did my grandfather tell me fairy tales? (No.) Maybe fantasy as a term makes sense to me because it fits my experience with writing in a broader sense. I never set out to write autobiography; I choose stories that provide an escape from my daily life. Of course, it's not that simple. All of my characters are struggling with philosophical and personal questions that plague me as well, but what we share lies far below the surface.

I know that you work with prisoners -- and I don't want to ask you how much of "The Enchanted" comes from your real life. It feels like such an invasively personal question! But, I'm curious: What was it like for you to re-create a place that you know so well? To be in control of an environment that must, I assume, leave so many people feeling helpless? And how do you feel about that inevitable question: "How much of this story is real?" I'm sure you're asked that a lot.

Denfeld: There are things that happen in "The Enchanted" that I have witnessed — and there are things I have never seen. I just kind of surrendered to the story. You're the first person to recognize that I was giving voice to the powerless. As I wrote it I realized I was telling stories that had never been told. Every year thousands of men and children are sent to prison and they just … disappear.

I think some readers are afraid to ask me, "Is this real?" Especially because of the scenes involving a character called the white-haired boy. And yes, it is real. Those things happen. All the time.

I am fascinated with how our culture treats violence. We turn it into titillation, into entertainment. It's OK for people to rubberneck on graphic scenes of rape and murder on television. What is not OK is really showing — without a single graphic scene — how terribly these things sunder the soul. I find that moral reversal troubling.

"The Angel of Losses" deals a lot with Jewish heritage. I'm assuming this was the world you knew. Did you ever worry you might be opening yourself up to criticism by putting yourself in the role of storyteller? That being the storyteller of a culture comes with a burden? Coming back to magic, do you think the use of fable is a way for us to communicate those difficult truths to others?

Feldman: Yes, "Is this real?" is such a loaded question! Just because something didn't happen to me personally, or isn't journalistically reported, doesn't mean it isn't real. The realest moment (for me) in "The Angel of Losses" comes at the end, in the Vilna Ghetto during World War II. It's my version of a teacher's friend's story, which I heard once, decades ago, starring my own invented characters. But that moment happened, over and over again, and it happens today, too, in different circumstances. I felt the same way when I read about the white-haired boy in "The Enchanted." I didn't know if he was based on a real person, if he was a composite, or some other kind of construction, but I understood immediately that people suffer in that particular way.

I definitely felt nervous about telling this story. I was wary of assuming the authority to speak for a cultural group, as well as writing in the voice of someone who experienced a specific trauma that I haven't personally experienced. Maybe that's why I couldn't write this story without incorporating (and inventing) folklore. Legends and fairy tales are another kind of history; a way for a group to pass down experiences and values, truth without fact. We write and read to understand and identify with each other, and to contend with the soul, as you say. (Not that this allows us to dismiss the politics, though -- who tells, and how, marginalized people's stories.)

I've joked a lot about not being Jewish enough to write the story that I wrote, but I wouldn't have written if I wasn't Jewish "enough." Now, many Jewish readers have told me how impressed they are with my scholarship, and I have to confess that they never heard of the Angel of Losses or the Berukhim Penitents because I (mostly) invented them. I love that those figures feel so real. And ultimately, all of the impossible creatures and wizards and magic are doing the same work that the characters are doing -- investigating family, responsibility, love, forgiveness, morality -- they're just doing it on another level. Those different layers and how they fit together make the novel what it is.

How do you think this perspective will follow you into future work? Is this flexible reality specific to how you see the prison and its people, or does it apply to the larger world?

Denfeld: What I discovered writing "The Enchanted" was that I was always meant to write fiction. I have so many stories to tell. That is the joy of being a novelist—we are the conduits to tell the truth of other people. It is immensely freeing. The best part is telling those stories brings joy to us. Because we get to be the first reader, in a sense: to have that same jaw-dropping sense of excitement when we open the first page and say, "I wonder where this story will go." By writing fiction, I feel I no longer have to have one answer. And nothing is better.

By Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld is the internationally bestselling author of three novels. Her latest, "The Butterfly Girl," out now from Harper.

MORE FROM Rene Denfeld

By Stephanie Feldman

Stephanie Feldman's debut novel, "The Angel of Losses" (Ecco/HarperColins), will arrive in paperback in June. It's a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

MORE FROM Stephanie Feldman

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Books Fantasy Realism The Angel Of Losses The Enchanted Writers And Writing