That’s It!

ThesisI’m done.

I finished my critical afterword for my thesis at 8:57 this morning, printed it, and put it into my nice file folder. It’s all ready to turn in this afternoon. (I’m working through lunch and then leaving work early in order to get it to Montevallo before the English office closes at 5:00.) I even brought pretty file folders for my projects so the professors won’t lose them!

I can’t believe it’s over. I’m not going to see this again until October 29th, when I walk into the Palmer Commons in Comer Hall to defend my thesis. My adviser will be there, along with the two other committee members. I’m not sure how long the defense will take, but I will certainly be posting a celebratory blog post when I’m done! (Hopefully Steven takes me out to dinner to celebrate, too.)

While the actual thesis itself might be done, I still have one more thing to do before the entire project is considered 100% completed: find a literary journal/magazine that publishes novel excerpts, or find a publishing company that I would want to query and write that hypothetical query. My adviser has already given me several places to look, so that’s going to be my job for the next few weeks to keep my mind from freaking out over the fact that my defense date is in exactly three weeks.

Three weeks from now, we’ll know whether I’ll be walking across the stage on December 7th or if every second of these last two and a half years were for naught. I’m so anxious about this whole thing that I might throw up when I turn these notes in this afternoon.

Soon this series of Life as an English Grad Student will be coming to an end. I know that’s it’s not a true “series,” because I write in it rather sporadically instead of constantly keeping you in the loop on how everything is going, but being able to share that journey has been something special. (I just realized I’ll have to change my blog’s tagline when I graduate, too.)

Thank you to each and every one of you who has stuck by me and read my blog even though I haven’t been keeping it as updated as I want due to life. (And I didn’t want to announce an “official” hiatus because I didn’t want to be “that person” because there’s still that nagging thought in the back of my mind that things will go haywire if I do.)

My critical afterword is posted below, if you’re interested in reading it. If not, then I hope you have a wonderful day and that everything goes smoothly for you!

And as always, keep reading.


On Unconquered

Unconquered tells the story of Shibya, the last unconquered territory on the continent of Terra. The citizens are only able to hold the Demon King’s army at bay through help from the local Thief Lord, Drake Sylvasson. Drake’s world is turned upside down, however, when a girl from another universe – one called Earth – lands in his district. Now Drake must figure out a way to get Mira home while helping the Duke of Shibya defeat the Demon King once and for all.

While this project started off in a composition notebook in my undergraduate years, it never really went anywhere. I started major revisions on the story when I was told that I could submit a creative thesis for my degree instead of an academic one, and through Dr. Wurzbacher’s guidance I’ve managed to find several craft books that have helped solidify my writing and turn what was a mess of sentences into something (almost) coherent. We structured my reading list around the theory of magic and gaining a more sophisticated understanding of how writers throughout literary history have incorporated elements of magic and fantasy into literary fiction, not just genre fiction. One of those books was Burning Down the House, a collection of essays by Charles Baxter. Two of the essays in particular, “On Defamiliarization” and “Counterpointed Characterization,” were instrumental in helping me figure out how to work through this story. “On Defamiliarization” talks about the concept of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, with Baxter saying,

The process of defamiliarization is a technique for finding a certain kind of detail that resists the fitting of the object into a silhouette, that is, into a ready-made symbolization. Shklovsky advises a search for elements that don’t fit — misfit details. […] If you have a familiar object or action to describe, you would do well not to name it, or to give it a new name, or to write as if you’re seeing it for the first time, in a state of what might be called   profitable forgetting. (Baxter 31)

Viktor Shklovsky is the Russian critic who introduced the concept of defamiliarization to the world, alongside Russian formalist criticism. Baxter goes on to tell about Shklovsky’s contributions to literary criticism, which started with his essay “Art as Technique,” published in 1917. In later essays, Shklovsky talks of “a process in which the object is stripped of its usual meanings. It is desymbolized, widowed. This removes the tyranny of meaning over event” (Baxter 33). If you let your art, your story, be controlled by meanings, your story’s imagery will become stale and lifeless.

Baxter’s description of “write as if you’re seeing it for the first time” is a technique I employ in my own writing. While the story takes place in an alternate reality already, the time period may be easily recognized by a reader as being similar to our own medieval period. However, small things happen throughout the story that remind you that you are not on Earth: there is magic, for one, and there are monsters. In one particular moment, Mira compares Foxy to George Weasley, a character from the Harry Potter books that fans and some non-fans alike would recognize. Both Foxy and Drake are confused by this comparison, which prompts Mira to respond with, “Harry Potter?” as if reminding them where the character is from. When they still don’t understand, she’s shocked. In 2018, it would be very difficult to find someone who does not at least have passing knowledge of the Harry Potter universe, whether that be an in-depth knowledge or just “That’s that book about the wizard, right?” I undertook the task of making everything that would seem extraordinary — or at the very least, out of place — seem regular and mundane to the citizens of my world, while things that would seem ordinary to those of us reading it (such as the aforementioned Harry Potter dialogue) is strange and confusing to those residing in this world.

As an outsider struggling to grasp the rules of the alternate universe she’s entered, Mira functions as a stand-in for the reader in my fictional world. She is able to ask questions and get answers that would otherwise not be provided to us. For Drake, the main character and the narrator of the novel, it’s not out of the ordinary for the seamstress to be using magic to make her dresses or for his people to live underground in tunnels and make shady dealings with those who want to stage a mutiny against the king. Were it not for Mira’s questioning, there would be many things that the reader would not have explained to them. At one point, Mira asks, “You said something about getting me a ‘thief dress’ and a ‘cloak.’ Makes it sound like you’ve got a dress code.  If you dress in the same thing all the time, how do people not recognize you for what you are and arrest you?” This is something Dr. Wurzbacher pointed out: How do people not recognize the Thieves if they’re always dressed in black? In her role as a stand-in for a curious reader, Mira asks this obvious question, prompting Drake to explain that the garments are really only for missions “where silence is key.” Mira accepts this and they move along with their lives. Baxter writes,

There is always something anarchic about the imagination: it likes to find details that don’t belong, that don’t fit. […] The familiar gives way, not to the weird, but to the experience of a truth caught in mid-air. It produces the near laughter of recognition, as if every truth contains within it another truth that neatly contradicts it. (Baxter 33)

With my writing, I wanted to take familiar objects and governmental systems (such as castles, swords, and warfare, things that would be easily recognizable to the reader) and switch it up a bit. I wanted it to be recognizable but still not-quite-right. Not weird, but not familiar, either. The more Mira discovers about the world she has landed in, the more the reader realizes this world is not quite parallel to our own, but rather intersects at points along the way. Her probing questions bring up details about the story’s world that Drake, the main character, would never have revealed to the reader otherwise. There is something fascinating about discovering something new, at first thinking it is very similar to what you already know, and then realizing it is far different than you originally imagined. Baxter’s discussion of the familiar giving away to a near-truth is best represented in two particular novels I read for this project, Ready Player One and The Lightning Thief, which both deal with the concept of defamiliarization in different ways.

These novels are not “weird” but rather feature vaguely familiar situations that make the reader think about the source material the book is referencing, such as the 1980s with Ready Player One and the Ancient Greek myths with The Lightning Thief. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline deals with a post-apocalyptic world where people spend more time in the fantasy world of The OASIS than in the real world. A certain sect of players in this world are called Gunters and they have an obsession with everything pertaining to the 1980s. The setting of Ready Player One is in the 2040s, so the 1980s are a strange and unfamiliar time. Everything referred to — be it Spielberg or Tron or Pac-Man — is given almost a holy reverence. Instead of making something completely new, Cline took things from the past that his readers would be familiar with and made it unfamiliar to his main character, leaving those of us who either lived through the 1980s or who had family members who grew up in the 1980s to shake our heads and laugh at Wade’s naiveté. The Lightning Thief deals with defamiliarization in a different way. It takes a few concepts that everybody recognizes with varying degrees of familiarity — summer camp, Greek gods, and kids with learning disabilities — and scrambles them all in a blender. The result is that you have the story of modern-day Greek gods and demigod kids. The Greek gods are given modern-day makeovers, with Hades ruling the Underworld from Los Angeles (because where else would you put the Underworld?) and Mt. Olympus perched atop the Empire State Building’s 500th floor. Medusa works at a garden gnome emporium. Ares is a biker. Cerberus loves red squeaky balls. It is the classic Greek myths, just with the modern world laid on top of it. My story world attempts to utilize both ways defamiliarization is presented in Ready Player One and in The Lightning Thief. I want to take the historical reality of Earth’s medieval period, as the The Lightning Thief does with the Greek myths, as well as take the impossibly magical fantasy world of the OASIS in Ready Player One and build a word that has some roots in reality and yet stays fantastical all the same.

In another essay in Burning Down the House, Baxter talks about the concept of “Counterpointed Characterization,” under the chapter entitled the same. In talking about counterpointed characterization, Baxter brings up the stereotypes of the fiction writer: “[I]t has often been the task of those who write fiction to expose elements that are kept secret in a personality, so that the mask over that personality (or any system) falls […] Masks are interesting partly for themselves and partly for what they mask” (Baxter 88). Baxter is taking to task the usual model for a story, where one character conflicts with another. Usually this means a protagonist clashing with an antagonist, but Baxter wants this to be something slightly more. The phrase “counterpointed characterization” means the pairing of characters who bring out a crucial response to one another. This does not always have to mean that these characters are in conflict with each other, but it may mean that not everything has to be one hundred percent black and white. It is perfectly acceptable to have some gray areas in the morals. For example, Drake is the leader of a band of thieves who have installed themselves in a complex tunnel network running under the district of Shibya on the continent of Terra. His people are the last ones that are free and unconquered, thus the title of the story. When you think of the word “thief,” you most likely envision someone who steals (and possibly does worse) for their own profit. However, these Thieves are the last line of resistance against King Andras and his Ghouls, and are recruited by Duke Miles of Shibya in order to find a way to take Andras off the throne. Dark and light are usually seen as opposites, but when combined into one character, Drake, who has both light (wanting to keep his country out of the hands of the Demon King) and dark (he’s an outlaw) inside of him, things begin to take on a new, grayer morality. I counterpointed Drake with Duke Miles of Shibya, who one would expect to be a strictly moral person and offer his tithes and such to his king without much squabbling. However, Duke Miles does not approve of his new ruler and has taken steps to put Andras out of power, including contacting Drake with the order to kill Andras, who turns out to be the Duke’s nephew.

Another craft book that opened my eyes to different literary uses of the magical and fantastical was Magic(al) Realism by Maggie Ann Bowers. Before starting on this project, I was unaware of the term magic realism or magical realism. I did not realize there was a term for the type of books I enjoyed reading beyond the generic fantasy genre. It’s been around for decades, and yet I had never heard of it. While magical realism is most associated with Latin America (thanks in no small part to Gabriel Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude), the roots stretch all the way back to early twentieth century Europeans. In fact, there are three phrases that magical realism has moved through over the ages, with the first being in Germany in the 1920s (where German art critic Franz Roh is credited with starting the movement); the second in Central America in the 1940s (with the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier); and the third beginning in 1955 in Latin America (which corresponds with the careers of both Gabriel Garcia Marquez as well as Latin American literary critic Angel Flores). Interestingly enough, there is no singular definition of magical realism, as every critic seems to bend it to suit their own needs. Bowers, however, defines the term as she uses it within her book: “A definition of magic(al) realism relies upon the prior understanding of what is meant by ‘magic’ and what is meant by ‘realism.’ […] ‘Magic’ refers to any extraordinary occurrence and particularly to anything spiritual or unaccountable by rational science” (Bowers 22). Realism, on the other hand, relies on the reader, “who constructs the sense of reality from the narrative rather than the text revealing the authors’ interpretation of reality to the reader” (Bowers 22). Therefore, “The key to understanding how magical realism works is to understand the way in which the narrative is constructed in order to provide a realistic context for the magical events of the fiction. Magical realism therefore relies upon realism but only so that it can stretch what is acceptable as real to its limits” (Bowers 22). Several of the novels I read for this project contain magical realist elements, but Bowers only mentions three of these in her book: Gulliver’s Travels, The Metamorphosis, and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I consider my novel to fall into the boundaries of magical realism. Drake’s narrative voice keeps the reader firmly planted in the then-and-there where the story takes place, despite the fact that it takes place in a fictional world. Mira, functioning as a stand-in for the reader, allows the reader to gather more information about the world without pulling the reader out of the story too much for unnecessary exposition. While the world of Yimir is just close enough to our world of Earth to be instantly recognizable, the further the story develops the more obvious it becomes that there are fantastical elements contained within the story, such as warlocks, inter-dimensional travel, and inhuman monsters.

            While my story may fall within the boundaries of magical realism, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, nearly two centuries before magical realism was defined. On the surface, Gulliver’s Travels seems like every other travel narrative of the day, albeit one with many more fantastical elements to it. Underneath it, though, there is a very complex satire of nearly the entire British government, including education, Whigs, Tories, Britain, France, and other political systems. However, this satire cannot be seen unless you have studied those particular historical events in detail. I, for instance, had to turn to outside sources in order to appreciate the satire, even though Swift’s audience would have seen the alternative meanings overshadow the plot. This even goes against Baxter’s idea of defamiliarization, because the story is told for its moral and the surface meaning gives way upon close inspection and “most particularly undermines the attempt to present magical aspects as real” (Bowers 29). We sympathize with Gulliver on his first three travels, but by the end of the last, we can no longer do even that as the reader is now forced to come to terms with the abject cruelty of humanity. Gulliver himself abandons humanity once he is returned to England, preferring to buy several horses and live with them out somewhere away from society. While I didn’t take all of Gulliver’s travels to heart in my novel, I did employ his method of acceptance in Mira. Although she has been kidnapped and dumped on another planet, after a small breakdown she accepts her fate and starts working on getting back home. She rolls with the punches after that, and her travels across the continent of Terra end up being just as exciting as Gulliver’s travels through the oceans of our world.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis was written very near to the “start” of magical realism, and yet it does not consciously employ any magical realism, as his style differs widely from the other examples of magical realism we have available to us. The magical points are overt and obvious, and it all boils down to the point that Gregor is the one who turned himself into the monster — he became so obsessed and withdrawn that he did not realize it until he became the beetle and understood what he had become. In the beginning, his family accepts his transformation and attempts to help him through it, but once they figure out they can survive without him, they abandon him to die in his room, his father even assaulting him with an apple that eventually causes his death when the wound festers. Milan Kundera, author of The Art of the Novel, says Kafka’s novels are “that seamless fusion of dream and reality” and that “before Kafka, such density of imagination was inconceivable” (Kundera 81, 82). The Metamorphosis has fantastical elements, true, but in the end Gregor’s story is an allegory of society, wherein once someone has outlived their usefulness, many people abandon them. While my novel does not contain an allegory (and if it does, it is just as hidden to me as it is to the reader!), it does contain magic that everyone else simply accepts. When Gregor wakes up as an insect, he accepts his fate and continues to live his life, albeit a restricted version of it. Mira, although not turned into a bug, has been kidnapped from Earth and dropped into a magical alternate reality, and accepts what has happened to her.

It is clear through both The Metamorphosis and Gulliver’s Travels that pre-magical realism, magical elements in an otherwise realistic world were used more for satirical underpinnings and commentary on the political aspects of the day. This is also true of the early magical realist novels as well, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “there are three sources for Garcia Marquez’s magical realism: a confusion of time scales that suggest a mythic time; a mixture of superstition, gossip and exaggeration; and the shock of the new” (Bowers 40). In One Hundred Years of Solitude, characters live for far beyond their natural life span. The patriarch of the family, Jose Arcadio Buendia, even survives for thirty years tied to a tree in the backyard after going mad. Another character is described as being too pure for the world, despite the fact that death soon comes to all who fall in love with her, and one day just floats off into the sky, never to be seen again (Marquez 255). At one point, the entire town is seized with an amnesia epidemic, but nobody sees this as anything out of the ordinary. They simply adjust in an attempt to combat this amnesia. The only things see as out of the ordinary are the inventions of the traveling gypsy, Melquiades, even though they would be seen as ordinary to us: ice, for one thing, and a telescope, for another. Marquez’s town of Macondo, while never explicitly said to be based on Columbia, is generally believed to be based on Columbia. Marquez is writing a fictional story, true, but the veneer of truth is overlaid so thinly on top of it that the political undertones can be discovered only by those who have studied that particular period of history.  Bowers states,

Coming out of the highly traumatized country of Columbia, and writing about long periods of civil unrest such as the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) and government brutality known as ‘la violencia’ (1948-1958), his magical realist exuberance is not only a celebration of the diversity of Latin America […] but a way to express the excessive violence and confusion of Columbian, and Latin American, politics. (39)

Much like Gulliver’s Travels and The Metamorphosis, One Hundred Years of Solitude has political underpinnings, although they are only noticeable to those who have studied the time period and know the history behind it. I knew I did not want a novel that required people to have more than a passing knowledge of past historical events, or of current politics or society. I am not satirizing my own world, as my magical world is magical for its own sake, not in order to engage in any social or political commentary on the “real” world. I wanted something that would be accessible to everyone, regardless of their historical knowledge, because they would be able to get all of the information they needed straight from the novel itself.

Once I had read all of the books, it was time to search back through my writing and see where I had already applied the knowledge without knowing it, and where I could incorporate new techniques I had learned. I have found, through many workshops and many nights spent hunched over a keyboard or notebook, that my writing seems to come to life more when I write in first person than in third person. The narrator in Unconquered is Drake, a twenty-something male who has the challenge of uniting the continent of Terra under his banner and the banner of Duke Miles of Shibya in order to eradicate the dark threat that has overtaken Terra’s throne. In magical realism, the reader must rely on the narrator to show what is real and what is not, and it is through the narrator that they learn to accept the fantastical elements of the story. This is why it was important to me to have Drake be the narrator of my story. When I began this story, it started with Mira as the narrator but I knew that would require too much explanation and the reader would be drawn out of the story too often. There was so much exposition needed in order to convey something simple, whereas with Drake, as a native of Terra, he is able to simply accept that everything around him is normal. Although Mira is still a stand-in for the reader and does ask relevant questions in order to prompt more explanation from Drake, it is Drake who forces the reader to accept the fantastical elements as fact. Drake teaches the reader the rules of this semi-fantastical world, and Mira is the one who is able to call him out if something does not make sense.

Why did I choose to tell this story, though? What could I contribute to the world of literature by telling Drake’s story? I enjoyed the idea of someone who has no world experience beyond their own little corner of peace traversing a large and dangerous world to defeat a great evil, and as such I turned to look at quest stories. Quests have been around for as long as people have been writing: Beowulf goes on a quest to save Hrothgar’s Hall from the monster Grendel. Sir Gawain from Arthurian legend goes on a quest to find the Green Knight. Hercules has his seven labors (or quests) to complete. In modern fiction, the quest story was re-popularized by JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series.  While I did not put my characters on quite that large of a quest, I still wanted to include a quest element in my story. The main quest in my novel is moving Drake and his band of Thieves across the continent to lay siege to the Demon King Andras’s castle and rid the world of his evil influence. I have always been fascinated by the medieval era (most likely because of the time I spent in Europe when I was in middle school — old enough to remember and yet still young enough to believe in magic). I wanted to bring the history to life, but in my own way. Despite the fact that I wanted to breathe some sort of fantasy elements into my story, I found myself struggling with that and sticking more to historical fact, even researching items such as “when were glass windows first used” and “medieval slang.” Dr. Wurzbacher reminded me that I was working within the realm of magical realism, and that I had the freedom to make up my own rules and I was not bound to the historically – let alone physically – accurate rules of our own world. It is the same with Middle-Earth. There are many recognizable elements, but with a heavy layer of fantasy brushed on top of them. I wanted to go a little lighter: a readily-recognizable world with a light dusting of something fantastical. There are monsters, yes, and there is magic, but the vast majority of the world is no different from what you might encounter while walking down the street.

I consider my story world to take place in an alternate universe. Robert Boswell, author of The Half-Known World, sees alternate worlds as “exist[ing] in a different dimension. […] I pictured it as something like a double exposure, so that our world and the alternate world coexisted in the same space but we could only experience the other world under special circumstances” (Boswell 110). These special circumstances are defined early in my novel, when I discuss the Warlocks aligning the planet of Yimir (Drake’s planet) with our planet of Earth, and how in those alignments things are able to pass between the two worlds. This is how Victoria is able to slip back from the Other World, also known as our Earth.

My biggest struggle throughout the writing of this piece has been figuring out what to do with the blank space and how to move my readers seamlessly from scene to scene. I have taken multiple workshop classes by multiple professors, all of whom have talked about how to “show, not tell” in a story. I thought that meant I needed to put in more descriptions, to take the long way around, to make sure that everyone knew what was going on in the story. I ended up with things that were not relevant to my tale and that took away from the overall story I was trying to tell. After a few meetings with my advisor, “How can I sum this up without losing anything?” became my overall mantra. It changed from being a struggle with showing to a struggle with pacing and scene-breaking, such as handling movements through time and between scenes. I found that I could convey the same feelings without bogging everything down if I summarized it in a few sentences and moved the plot along without relying on filler to take up the white space within the pages. Throughout my revision process, I have managed to take the suggestions offered and combine scenes together to keep the pacing from going to slow as well as strike some things entirely that do not contribute to the overall plotline of the story.

I appreciate your following me on this journey through Shibya with Mira, and I want to thank you for agreeing to be on my committee, as well as allowing me to take an extra semester with this project. I look forward to meeting with you on October 29th.

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