Eric Slade is the 15th author to participate in my interview series with independent authors of literary fiction. If you publish independently and wish to participate, please click through the image on the right column of the screen that reads “Call for Survey Respondents: Indie Authors of Literary Fiction”. If you wish to receive email notices when future interviews are published, click the link toward the bottom of this post, just above the bio.
1. What novel (or piece of writing) did you author that inspired you to fill out my survey? Include a link so readers can check it out.
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
I knew a girl in college who claimed she could make it rain. One afternoon, while sitting on her screen porch, she explained to me how she did it… and it happened.
That’s essentially the first sentence of the book. And it was the seed of the story. Was this paranormal event a coincidence, was she crazy, was she high, was she a liar…or was it magic?
I believe this one concept was driving the story, with different images or moments that illustrated the concept for me.
3. Keeping with one survey question, you identified a great theme for your literary work. Did that theme exist at the beginning of the writing, or did it emerge only through the telling of your story?
Cloudbusting is essentially a coming-out story, with either urban fantasy tropes or literary magical realism.
I am obsessed with questions about “deniable magic” – a concept Jo Walton spelled out in Among Others – that magic can always be deniable if you want it to be. You can explain it away by claiming it’s coincidence or insanity or lies.
But this question works better in literary fiction. In straight genre fiction, such as urban fantasy, epic fantasy or paranormal romance, you’re usually dealing with a world where magic is understood to be real and possible. In the reader’s expectation, magic is a given.
The question of magic works differently as a dramatic element in a “realistic” character-driven, literary story.
I believe themes are patterns that emerge through the writing, but also through the reading. I don’t think themes are necessarily entirely conscious; they’re just beneath the surface or hanging out in our own shadows. A thoughtful reader is as likely to identify themes as the author. A writer that goes into a work with fully formed themes is probably going to produce something heavy-handed and insufferable.
I began Cloudbusting with a few questions and proceeded as if it was an investigation. The answers to those questions emerged as story elements – a scene, a character trait, an image…
The original question about the possible explanations for a paranormal experience led me into a lot of tangential questions – most of them psychological in nature. And behind that process, I was also asking myself, as a writer, “Why is that question so fascinating to me? What is it really about?”
Characters are the first thing I fall in love with, and psychoanalyzing them drives me through the entire process. I start with their own words. I especially like to eavesdrop on them arguing. My first drafts look like scripts or screenplays. I transcribe the conversations first, and then write the action later.
In Cloudbusting, psychoanalyzing these characters and their motivations revealed themes of sexual shame, repression, rage, powerlessness, and the discovery of one’s power. Ultimately, it is a coming-of-age-novel, with paranormal elements that are neither urban fantasy or magical realism.
So, I guess the theme revealed itself to me in the telling of it, as the pattern connecting all the different story elements.
4. Did your perspective on this theme change as you wrote the story? Did you find yourself less in control of your narrative than you expected? Or did you find that you knew all along, based on your convictions, how the story would emerge? Were you, in other words, the “alpha” in the emerging narrative?
I felt that I was “shrinking” both myself and my characters, in the psychoanalytical sense. I had to write – let my characters speak – in order to see those patterns. I don’t think I placed the thematic elements clinically, but my intention was to let them come out.
Because literary fiction is more internal in nature, and given that I was writing in first-person, I set limits for myself to ground the work. I could have attempted a Virginia Woolf-inspired stream-of-consciousness fever dream, but that would have been self-indulgent and insensitive to the reader. I limited my narrator to reporting action and conversation, with very little opportunity to philosophically comment internally.
I wanted the concepts and the layers to be entirely dependent upon external dramatic action and dialogue.
As a writer, once you see the patterns that are emerging, you can tweak the subsequent drafts with word choices that reinforce those themes. The trick – or I guess the goal – is for the thematic layers to feel surprisingly intentional – inevitable – without being forced.
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
For me, literary fiction is internal and psychological in nature, and it’s subtly layered. The prose is multi-dimensional – it communicates more than just straight visual description and action.
When I read something that I would call “literary,” I expect to work a little bit. I find great satisfaction in detecting the subtle patterns of meaning, in analyzing the psychological dynamics at work, and in recognizing the nuanced details the author left for me, like clues.
With literary fiction, I’m not just immersing myself in the wonder of another world; I’m also interested in witnessing the process of other people’s minds – the author’s mind and the characters’ minds.
I think “literary” is an expectation that can be applied to all genres, as much as it is one type of storytelling. It can be the place where the boundaries of genres get blurred, stretched, or even obliterated; or it can be a kind of subtext, a game played between the author and the audience.
There is a level of participation required by the reader of literary fiction.
6. Within the scope of that definition, how did you hope to impress the reader? Did you hope to evoke emotion with a story about some element of life the reader would connect with? Or was your mission to challenge and thereby expand a reader’s perspective on a subject most others would feel is already “known”?
Well, I’m not sure how wise it was from a book marketing perspective, but I wanted the reader to choose the genre of my story based on the questions it raised. I presented questions that I do not entirely answer for the reader.
How you perceive the evidence of real versus deniable magic in the book determines what kind of story it is. Are the characters hallucinating? Is the narrator lying to you? Is this a coming-of-age story with a lot of freaky coincidences, or is it straight up urban fantasy.
7. Do you consider yourself a writer of literary fiction? Or a writer of other genre fiction that carries literary elements? Please provide an explanation for your answer.
Growing up, watching, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was always wondering: What’s it like for a normal person living in that world who’s not a member of this space-faring military?
There have to be angst-ridden teenagers living on planets other than earth…What’s going on with them?
So, I think if I want to fly away from the laser battle scenes and go observe the relationship drama happening between young people experimenting with the recreational drugs of the future…I better call it “literary.” It seems that the hardcore genre readers want to stick to spaceships exploding – they don’t care about internal, character-driven stories so much. I think most genre readers can appreciate literary elements, but only at a minimum.
Sorry, I used a science fiction example, there. I write somewhere between “literary” and “fantasy.”
If I wanted to write straight fantasy, I would start with different story goals; but as long as I continue to start with questions about the nature of the space between genres, the “literary” label best covers my intentions.
What I hope to learn how to do as an author is write something that perfectly suspends the overlap or holds the space between the tropes I enjoy. And for the reader to love it simply because it’s a fantastic, satisfying read.
8. How would you discuss your book in context of its genre? If you consider it literary, why? If your book falls more closely within another genre, what elements would you say make it literary?
Cloudbusting is contemporary literary fiction, in an updated Southern Gothic tradition, with paranormal and urban fantasy elements.
I consider it “literary” for a lot of the features that qualify it as “Southern Gothic” – the location in the southeastern United States; the use of place as a character; aged, derelict settings; flawed, eccentric characters who dabble in magic and superstitious thinking; ambivalent gender roles; dramatic events that involve alienation, poverty, class, crime, and violence.
More than anything that makes it “literary” is the requirement that the readers supply their own answers to the questions raised.
9. Is the literary community a closed community? Or are there inroads for writers of literary fiction to reach readers other than those reading literary fiction now?
Observing the emergency of the independent author movement, it seems that discoverability is key. It has been relatively easier for readers of genre fiction to discover indie authors. Because the definition of “literary” is so fluid, it’s harder for us to place our books under an obvious banner. The literary community is actually the most infinitely diverse, so if there is a small group within that trying to keep it “closed” or “gated” it doesn’t seem like that segregation is authentic.
My hope is that we can build a community of readers and authors ourselves, and help one another’s books become more discoverable. I was drawn to your interview series, Jay, because it is proactive in connecting the indie author literary community.
I would love to see literary prizes open to independent authors. I would love to see the independent author community develop its own contests to raise the visibility of the gems that are already out there waiting to be found and read.
10. Is it realistic that the Kindle Store will one day feature more independent writers of literary fiction? Or will that category always reflect traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets? (This question relates to #9, I suppose.)
Amazon is a business, and their algorithm is intended to reward sales, popularity, and quality, probably in that order.
It may be up to us to create a spotlight for our books, and let Amazon follow the will of the readers. It will only take one commercially successfully, well-reviewed, well-loved literary novel to draw attention to others like it. If we can create the experience for the readers, they will want more. And I’m sure Amazon will be happy to sell it to them.
Comment: Questions or observations for Eric Slade can be left in the comments section below. If you’re an author who wishes to join the ranks of other writers of literary fiction who have participated in the LitFic survey, click here.
Eric Slade is a writer, professional intuitive counselor, and author of the highly-regarded, wicked-popular, long-running alternative spirituality blog “Shift Your Spirits” (established in 2006).
He has authored thousands of non-fiction articles and numerous personal development courses, such as Automatic Intuition, Manifest Anything, and The Money Shift.
He holds a degree in English from the University of Georgia and lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
His works of fiction include the novels Havenwood and Cloudbusting. Visit his website here.
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
I hope he’s right about it taking a single well-received indie literary novel to open up the online literary readership.
Discoverability is hard. Many readers don’t want to put in the bit of extra effort. I use Jane Eyre as one of my touchstones when I meet a potential reader. If they like Jane Eyre, which is long and psychological and filled with principles, I may be able to persuade them to join my tribe.
Awards being open to indies should be a given already, but it isn’t. It’s as if the awards committees aren’t willing to do the work, and are afraid they’ll be swamped. But they are letting the judgment of a small number of agents and publishers pre-vet the available novels – many times even before publication – and the books that are left out because the publishers don’t think they will be commercial successes, preventing them from having the chance.
There have been attempts already to create indie ‘seals of approval,’ but there is no indie literary fiction award per se. Some of these are thinly-disguised attempts to sell editing and other services. I understand these sites have to stay in business, but I think the combination is a deadly one.
Slade Roberson says
I agree with Jay’s premise that theme- or topic-related classification and sub-categorization is at the heart of discovery of “literary fiction.” I think that a “break out literary novel” would open up the market for other books like it *because of it’s topic, or its style, or some other aspect, beyond just being “literary.” Example, a break out literary hit about surviving cancer may not necessarily raise interest in a literary coming of age novel, but it could impact other novels about cancer or mortal illness, in general. There was a wave of “sick lit” that moved through a few years ago, books like The Fault in Our Stars, created a “trend” in romantic stories where mortal illness was a component. I could see something similar happening in terms of “literary” books, either through popularity or an award…BUT I agree with Jay entirely that it makes more sense for the topic or sub-genre or “keywords” being more relevant that “literary.” That label may be falling away from fiction. The term “literary editor” is no longer meaningful because of the way we talk about contemporary fiction these days.
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
There’s always been death in stories – because there is death in life. In my memory, Love Story was a huge hit.
A disturbing trend in more modern stories has been the sick or disabled person who tidies him- or herself out of this life as a solution to a ‘problem.’ Which reflects how society sees people who are broken – as disposable. Is this the other side of the coin of disabled people fighting for their rights?
But I do see value in keeping the keyword ‘literary’ for stories which appeal to those whose own use of language is more careful than… it’s going to sound snobbish no matter how I say it!
Literary can go way too far – some experimental novels are unreadable, however clever. But I think it still implies care in all aspects of the writing. My own preference is for that to be in service of plot and character development, rather than the point of the ‘story.’
Jay Lemming says
I have been getting more and more pragmatic in my approach to what is called “literary fiction”. Meaning, we can discuss ad nauseum what literary fiction is and isn’t. But if you want to sell your books–and assuming you have developed your craft to the point where you have a solid work of literature in hand–you need to be able to get it in front of readers who will be interested in it. And when I say “pragmatic”, I also mean “impatient”. The longer we keep talking about the definition of literary fiction, the less likely we are to EVER move to a point where we can position those above-mentioned works more attractively to readers. If we need to drop “literary fiction” from a book description because a reader will find it pretentious and make them turn away, then by all means, let’s do so. Sell a book, find a happy reader, make a little money for your efforts. That’s it. That’s the whole point. Then, once that happens, do it again. If people trip over stones as they walk along, then the term “literary fiction” is a boulder that the whole writing community keeps walking into face-first. No one that I know enjoys endless nose bleeds!
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
Your marketing background is one of the things that attracted me to this thread. Mostly marketers I’ve run into want to go for the ‘publish four books a year at 2.99, promote like crazy, build your email list, and this is the only way to win the indie game.’
I’m so hoping that the special snowflakes like me can find a way around this ‘indie marketing wisdom’ – because if I could follow that model, I would have done so already.
Or gritted my teetht and begun the LONG process of finding a traditional publisher.
With literary and marketing on your CV, you’re in a good place to do what you’re doing, which is to be seeking consensus and data – on which we, as what is now a ‘genre,’ can do to make ourselves competitive and find our natural readers as well.
Pragmatic is good. I will use the ‘literary’ label, among the seven keyword phrases allowed for searching, because ‘mainstream,’ ‘big book,’ and ‘commercial’ – which might have been appropriate, have disappeared as categories, and I have no mystery or sparkly vampires or SFF elements. Pragmatic enough for you? ‘General fiction,’ as a repository of everything not already in a genre, doesn’t represent good writing as it might have in the past, and literary is as close as I can find to ‘well-written.’
Since my lifelong reading has included so many of the classics, obvious elements permeate my own writing – as long as they are not allowed to interfere with story.
I might have preferred that the designation of literary be awarded by some outside critic; but in the current world, waiting for that to happen, as an indie, is ludicrous. Or expensive (Kirkus reviews for indies?).
I’ve been looking for something like this discussion for a long time – forgive me for jumping in, and thanks to Theo Rogers for guiding me to it.
‘Sell a book, find a happy reader, make a little money for your efforts. That’s it. That’s the whole point.’ Exactly.