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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, July 23, 2007

fanciful fairy tales, realistic myths

Warm rain patters outside, a slow tom-tom beat thudding from a heavy rhythmic drip on an overturned plastic watering-can. The humorless swish of traffic forms a backdrop sound: the Monday-morning rush. Garbage collectors and other municipal workers have gone on strike in Vancouver and in the District of North Vancouver, but I heard no mention of the City of North Vancouver on the radio as I lay groggy in bed, so I have taken out our recycling and unlocked the building's garbage-box out back. A raindrop still lies at the lower edge of the right lens of my eyeglasses; I haven't bothered to wipe it away.

In a certain sense I feel that I've given up the struggle against my own method. I'm still preparing to draft chapter 30, digging into my existing notes and creating new ones, all in the name of research.

Over the weekend the seventh and final Harry Potter book was published, with the surrounding media and consumer frenzy that has become standard for this series--incredible, looking on as a writer. I've thought about the adulation of the books' millions of fans, and about the comparative ease of writing fantasy (if you have the imagination for it)--the only "research" really needed is the creative research of working out your world--and wondered what the hell I'm trying to prove with my heavily researched work.

I do speak from experience, since The Odyssey was itself a fantasy show. The only part of the show requiring actual real-world research was in creating the "upworld" of waking reality, in which our character Jay was lying comatose and undergoing therapy. As it turned out, we need not have bothered even with that, since we could not really get any of the therapy ideas into the shows, as the network had strong, fixed (and, we thought, corny) ideas about what they wanted to see there. A political accommodation was reached in which the network got to "own" the upworld, while Warren and I, the writer-creators, "owned" the downworld. We still had to write the upworld material, of course, but we were kept on a much shorter leash since this was the part of the show that the network executives thought they knew. They didn't--but we conceded the point, since the upworld was only a small part of the show. We had nearly untrammeled freedom over the rest--the important part, the part that people tuned in to watch.

As I suspect often happens in television, our research was really for naught. The network actually wanted the familiar, the phony, and the saccharine. In defense of a better-researched approach, I offer The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. There is a place for such shows, to say the least.

But in light of the overpowering success of Harry Potter, why bother with research? When you can have adoring fans impatient to dive into your imagined world and live there as much as they can, why fool around learning about boring so-called reality, where people don't even like being?

The answer, I think, has to do with the level and type of authority that the created work has in the eyes of its audience. While reading The Old Enemy by Neil Forsyth I came across a great definition of myth:

Myths are the stories that we believe.

To read a Harry Potter novel requires the classic suspension of disbelief: you set aside your skepticism about the possibility of what you're reading in order to enter into the world of adventure. It's a game of make-believe which you eagerly join, but which you would never confuse with reality (although you might passionately wish the world were more like the world of Harry Potter).

This means that the Harry Potter books are, in a strict sense, fairy tales: stories of wonder and enchantment that are frankly fabricated, happening in a never-never land at the far end of an impossible train-ride. To read one of those books is to ride that train into the imagination.

A story set in the "real world" is, at least potentially, saying something about that world--our world, the world we live in. I'm going to go further and say that a work of historical fiction, if it's about a part of the world that has had a definite influence on our own, can give an impression of providing a plausible explanation for how we got to where we are--for some of the causes at work in our world. It does not demand that we suspend our disbelief, but, if it's good, actually commands our belief--at least in a sense.

And to the extent that it's a story that we believe, it is not a fairy tale, but a myth--part of the software we use in dealing with reality. In other words, to the extent that we find it to be believable, we find it to be true, because it is about the "real world". The real world may be boring compared to the realm of imaginary adventure, but it's also very important to us.

This, I think, is why we need "real" stories as well as fantasies, and why it's worth the artist's time to spend months and years researching the "real world". As Aristotle says, art imitates life, and only careful study can produce a lifelike imitation.

So: back to the books.

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  • My apologies that I'm leaving this in your blog here, Mr. Vitols, but I just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts in this blog on various different things pertaining to your projects, past and present, and of course... your hand in creating "The Odyssey" back in the 90's.

    I've been buying up box sets of shows that really sparked my imagination, and when I was looking for your show tonight, I just randomly found your blog instead. It was a totally unexpected find, but a very welcome find nonetheless!

    I've truly enjoyed what I've read so far about your creative methods and the extent of effort that you have put into other writing projects.. it's been so much fun reading about the thoughts of one of the men whose creation helped set me off in various paths through my life. (While it wasn't the sole cause of my decisions in life, your show did kick-start my interests in creative writing when I was younger, and I'm pretty sure it also had a hand in sparking my interest in Psychology, which is my current field of study that I should be wrapping up a few months from now.)

    It's been a real treat reading about your thoughts on various things so far, and I'm looking forward to reading up through some of your previous entries as I get the time to do so.

    Once again, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and creativity with us.


    By Anonymous Kyle, at July 28, 2007 7:40 PM  

  • Hi kyle. No need to apologize for making supportive comments! They're very much appreciated. It's not often that I hear that some created work of mine had an effect on someone's life--I value that feedback.

    I don't know whether you found a way to order The Odyssey, but the people to ask are here: http://www.omnifilm.com/catalogue_sales.shtml. I recently talked with Michael Chechik (producer of The Odyssey), and he says he's considering making DVDs of the show, if he gets enough requests. There are a fair number of requests, so lobby them and add your name to the list.

    Many thanks again for leaving your comment.

    By Blogger paulv, at July 29, 2007 6:56 AM  

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