Friday, May 8, 2009

Genre Blocks: Urban Fantasy

Genre Blocks brings together a librarian and an author to discuss specific genres from two deeply involved but different perspectives. Kim Harrison, author of The Hollows series, teamed up with librarian Leanne Ellis to discuss Urban Fantasy.

The conference program quotes Wikipedia's explanation of Urban Fantasy as “a subset of contemporary fantasy, consisting of magical novels and stories set in contemporary, real-world, urban settings -- as opposed to traditional fantasy set in wholly imaginary landscapes.”

Urban Fantasy comes in two flavors. In an open setting, magic or paranormal events are commonly accepted, as in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels. In a closed setting, magical powers or creatures are concealed, as in Harry Potter or Twilight.

A common trait of Urban Fantasy is a first person female protagonist. These characters frequently, to quote Ellis, “kick ass and don't take any lip.”

As the name indicates, the stories are set in urban locales. The culture of that urban area sets the tone for the story and offers a unique way of presenting situations and conflicts. Supernatural creatures may come in many shades of good and evil and distinctions between each side may be subtle. Leanne Ellis noted that in more modern novels, the protagonist has a strong sense of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong and faces the perilous challenge of deciding between the two.

The genre comprises a cornucopia of supernatural creatures from vampires and werewolves to faeries and sprites. Different authors may have different ways of presenting the worlds they create, but any paranormal system has its own set of rules. Even when those rules don't go hand in hand with traditional rules (for example, vampires that come out in the sunshine and sparkle), a good author will provide the reader with what they need to believe that their system works.

Ellis gave readers advisory suggestions for the genre: readers who enjoy fiction that possesses a magical or mythic view of reality, like Alice Hoffman's books, might make a comfortable shift to Urban Fantasy if they can appreciate a well built fantasy story as well. Similarly, books that combine mystery, sexual tension, and humor like Janet Evanovich's series may be a good introduction to Urban Fantasy which prises those same elements.

Ellis provided a long list of recommended reading, which I will omit, but the names that seemed to come up the most were:
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (this was essentially the first book in the genre and is essential reading for the genre)
Borderland by Terry Windling
The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

Two resources for the genre that Ellis recommends are Romantic Times, which reviews romances but has a section devoted to Urban Fantasy; and the website Urban Fantasyland :

During the second half of the panel, Ellis interviewed Kim Harrison about her books, which I transcribed as best I could below:

Where did Rachel come from?
Desperation. It started as short story and took over. I wasn't big on urban fantasy at time and when I was writing it, I thought it should be fantasy... I had no idea Urban Fantasy would explode like it has. I just brought it together in a way that worked for me... I fell in love with the characters. It was something magical, but with the girl next door.

Did you come up with Rachel and work the world around her or did the world come first?
I used to think the world came first, but as I watched my writing style develop, I realized that it's the character that comes first. I just start with a name and an attitude, put them in a situation and see how they react. It's like when you sit down with a person for the first time, you get to know them and go from there. It's definitely the character that comes first.

As you write, do you find you go places you didn't think you'd go?
My writing style is based around the plot. I will spend two weeks writing out the plot, then write the dialog from there. But I never write out the relationships. The relationships evolve on their own... which can get me in trouble because at page 200 some of the little things don't work out and I have to re-write my plot.

Why vampires and werewolves, why did you include those beings?
A lot of that came from early reading; I loved the Sci Fi greats and things like The Blue Book of Fairy Tales, The Red Book of Fairy Tales, and The Brown Book of Fairy Tales. They were huge and I felt good when I was reading them. It was often the same fairy tale told different ways. Another influence was Ray Bradbury. He wrote about monsters in one book and they were right downtown. I read it and thought to myself, “How powerful, as a writer.” I try to bring the monsters in. I don't see them as vampires, I see them as the dark side of us.

Audience Q+A:

Do you ever get feedback from the Wiccan community?
I used to get quite a bit when the books first came out. Most were along the lines of “are you Wiccan?” and “Where do you get your research?” I'm not Wiccan, but I've learned from the Wiccan community who has contacted me that lot of my magic is organized the same way that Wicca is, which I found kind of interesting.

You're very popular in prison libraries, possibly due to six inch heels on the cover. You don't handle covers i assume?
No no. Actually, the majority of my readership is female between the ages of 19-45. Because of the cover design, male readership is growing by leaps and bounds. I get a lot of firemen and a lot of cops as well.

What started the Clint Eastwood connection?
I really like characters that CE plays, especially in his westerns. A loner coming in that can take care of town's problems but not necessarily eager to do so. But he does so in a just way, though not necessarily legally... I like that kind of character. Another reason is marketability. If a reader goes into a bookstore and asks for “that urban fantasy book with the blue cover” it's not much help, so if they tag onto the fact that it's got a Clint Eastwood title, it's easier for readers to get the book they're after.

Rebecca Krznarich, Reference and Adult Services Librarian, Whitman Public Library

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