Just starting out? Beware of Magical Realism


Once upon a time, when teachers said “You can’t do XYZ in your writing,” I listed famous authors who did it all the time. The teachers’ responses were all the same: “When you’re famous you can do that.”

MRbloghop2015Some publishers also have this theory and, I’ll stipulate that they’re not totally wrong. If you’re thinking about magical realism as your prospective genre of choice, be careful. Some publishers abhor the label and claim it’s merely an uppity name for fantasy and/or that it means the author has “literary fiction pretensions.”

In general, except when we’re talking big names and/or big advertising budgets, fantasy finds more readers than magical realism and commercial fiction finds more readers than literary fiction (or fiction perceived as literary).

What happens if you’ve written a magical realism novel? Don’t let the publisher sell it as fantasy. Fantasy readers expect certain things. Most genre readers do. So, if your magical realism novel is slotted into the fantasy genre, it probably won’t sell. Readers will either be disappointed or stay away in droves. Others will post negative reviews that are hard to survive.

It’s a catch-22 thing. Yes, magical realism is typically listed as a subset of fantasy. That’s a mistake, but “they didn’t ask me.” Magical realism uses magic that the characters don’t see as unusual or out of place in a setting that is otherwise very realistic. Fantasy readers aren’t going to buy that as fantasy. So, what do you do?

I guess if HarperCollins has given you a $100,000 advance, you keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, get another publisher or publish the book yourself. Or, if you want a slightly easier career, you might consider writing fantasy and then shifting into magical realism before you become to typecast as a fantasy writer only.

Three of my novels are out of print because the publisher not only sold them as fantasy but removed the more subtle magical realism in favor of the more overt magic of fantasy. I don’t have the stamina to re-write them. Of course, they might have been a dead horse: they might have crashed and burned no matter what genre we put them in.

I love the art and craft of writing and that means I write about the world the way I see the world. I see the subtle workings of magic in daily life. Am I a shaman? Am I psychic? Am I crazy? Am I in need of stronger medications?

Who cares?

breathoflifeThe late, highly creative Brazilian author Clarice Lispector (“A Breath of Life”) said, “I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own.” Now that’s true of most of us who write. The reader doesn’t care whether we’re crazy as long as they’re getting a wonderful story.

Only you know how your writing ends up the way it does. That’s between you and your muse. Sure, others can help you make it better. They’re called editors and publishers (if you pick the right ones). But when the cows finally come home–and they will–you have to be happy with it because it is a part of you.

If you see magic in the world, don’t let anyone else say that you don’t and turn your novel into something it isn’t. You have to be who you are and let the spirits and spells fall where they may.




This post is part of the Magical Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magical realism. Please take the time to click on the button above to visit sit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.The button should go live on or after 12:01 a.m. July 29th.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a magical realism novella folk magic in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle where granny and her cat take on the Klan.

Magical Realism: betwixt and between


MRbloghop2015In folklore, mythology and fantasy, and real or acted-out rites of passage, the boundaries where worlds meet are variously considered volatile, dangerous and rich in possibilities. Why is a bride carried over the threshold? Yes, it’s traditional, but it harkens back to the notion that a doorway was a dangerous boundary.

Myths and superstitions have flourished around the doorways, thresholds, crossroads, the littoral between ocean and beach, the lines where forests and meadows meet, dusk and dawn, and other dividing lines between realities.

You’ll find these “uncertain places”—as Lisa Goldstein calls them in her fantasy by that name—referred to as “neither here nor there” and “betwixt and between.”

herothousandfacesIn his groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes that in the hero’s journey, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Strategic points in this journey occur where worlds and realities meet.

Even in a contemporary fantasy such as the Harry Potter series, the magic of Hogwarts is distinguished from the unknown and potentially darker magic of the forest. However, as Luke in Star Wars and Harry in Rowling’s series learn, the hero doesn’t grow within, much less advance on the physical part of his/her journey without going into the swamp, the dark forest, or the unknown world outside the city gates.

Magical Realism

Magical realism usually focuses upon the boundaries between the worlds of the known and the unknown. The stories combine the natural and the supernatural in a straightforward manner and without commentary or judgement as equally real. Characters dance back and forth across the “uncertain places” as the stories progress.

In a fantasy novel, the characters approach and enter supernatural worlds while noting they’re stepping into realms that are acknowledged as magical, different or strange. In a magical realism novel, events or places that readers may consider supernatural are, by contrast, accepted by the characters as no more or less real than the everyday science and technology world in place at the time when the novel is set.

MamaDayGloria Naylor’s novel “Mama Day” is a perfect example of the juxtaposition of realms. Her first novels, The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills took a realistic approach. However, in writing Mama Day, Naylor said, “I needed to find a way structurally to have you walk a thin line between that which is real and that which is real.”

New York City in this novel represents the real. The fictional Willow Springs, on an island near the Georgia and South Carolina border represents what—in our consensual everyday reality—is not real. Writing in Challenging Realities: Magical Realism in Contemporary American Women’s Fiction, Maria Ruth Noriega Sanchez says that Naylor’s novel is an “extraordinary exploration of the intangible and the power of belief that brings into question the limits or reality and truth.”

Naylor’s approach to magic in Mama Day can be seen in my favorite passage from the novel: “She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four.”

If this were written in a realistic novel, Naylor would have produced something more like this: “She could purportedly walk through a lightning storm without being touched; imagine grabbing a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; or appear to use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot. In her dreams, she turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four in her mind’s eye.”

waterforchocolateRealism demands the qualifying words and phrases. Magic realism omits them and keeps the reader guessing and unsettled about what is really happening in the uncertain realms that are betwixt and between.

In this passage from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, “Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame,” the reader finds no “as if,” “as though,” or other qualifiers to indicate the event is figurative—because it isn’t. How you react to that as a reader depends on how you see the world and/or on how well the author has enchanted you to see things differently while reading the book.

In Mark Helprin’a Winter’s Tale, Peter Lake is riding Athansor, a guardian angel in the form of a horse: “They got up steam and proceeded calmly to the north – where there seemed to be no people, but only mountains, lakes, reedy winterstalecoversnow-filled steppes, and winter gods who played with storms and stars.” Here again, the winter gods are mentioned as matter of factly as the mountains and lakes.

When initiates go through a ritual, they begin with the everyday world and end up transformed in some way. The place where these two stages meet is often called “liminality.” Here the initiate is not quite who s/he was and not quite who s/he will become.

Early studies in this area were done by Arnold van Gennep, who coined the word, in his 1909 book Rites de Passage. Folklore, myth, fairytales and stories following the “hero’s journey” typically involve plots ritesofpassageand scenes that are similar to rites of passage. The protagonist is buffeted by storms, monsters, magic forces, conscious landscapes and other dangers during his/her physical and inner journey to the intended destination.

Magical realism lives at that liminal point, leaving the reader with one foot over the threshold and one foot in the comfortable world s/he knows. Unsettling as this can be, that’s the genre’s greatest strength—a cauldron of worlds where stories simmer and readers become part of the spell.

You may also like: Just starting out? Beware of Magical Realism


This post is part of the Magical Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magical realism. Please take the time to click on the button above to visit sit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.The button should go live on or after 12:01 a.m. July 29th.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a magical realism novella folk magic in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle where granny and her cat take on the Klan.

Basing decisions on Facebook LIKES


In her blog The Green Bough, Oriah writes that “We do not need permission to live our life guided by that which lives within us.” Nonetheless, she believes we often wait for it or ask for it.

americanpresidentmovieIn the 1995 movie “The American President,” Michael Douglas (the widowed President) wants to date Annette Bening (a lobbyist). When he mentions this to Martin Sheen (his chief of staff), Sheen offers to “crunch some numbers” to see how much of a “hit in the polls” the President would suffer. It’s both an amusing moment and a strong hint about what our leaders must think about day to day.

After all, we put them in office to serve us.

On Facebook, I see pages (everything from organizations to public figures to authors) seeking more and more LIKES. LIKES rule the roost on Facebook for, without them, status updates from official PAGES and personal PROFILES get less play in the daily news feed.

New conscience or new god?

New conscience or new god?

When people post political statements and/or platitudes, they often come with the suggestion to LIKE AND SHARE if we agree. Of course, this gets the word out about the new book, the petition drive, the cause or the event.

What gives me pause are those posts in which an individual is thinking of changing jobs, pondering a new point of view, ditching a lover or wondering whether they were too harsh or too lenient with a friend, child, spouse or co-worker. How do we help? With LIKES and associated comments.

I’m not sure this is a good way to live, crunching Facebook LIKES, so to speak, before we do or say what he already know we want to do or say. Do we really need permission from our online friends or even our non-virtual friends before we can act?

I hope not. Life isn’t an on-going political campaign or popularity contest, I don’t think. We know who we are without checking Facebook or crunching real and virtual LIKES.

Yes, it was funny in the movie; but when I see it happening on Facebook, it’s a bit frightening.


Historic Cabin Destroyed by Glacier Park Fire


The 4,000-acre (as of 7/23/2015) Reynold’s Creek Wildland Fire in Glacier National Park’s St. Mary Valley has destroyed the historic Baring Cabin. Also called the Sun Camp Fireguard baringcabinCabin, this National Register listed property was built in 1935 as part of a compound of buildings used by the park service.

It was the last remaining structure before being destroyed by the fire on 7/22 that–according to latest reports–has come within 200 feet of Rising Sun Motel and is being moved by high winds toward the now-evacuated village of St. Mary at the junction of Going-to-the-Sun Road and highway 89 on the eastern side of Glacier Park. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

The cabin was built by Harry E. Doverspike at the mouth of Baring Creek, according to NPS Division of Landscape baringcabininteriorArchitecture specifications, a mile east of the Going-to-the-Sun Chalet. The chalet as removed in 1948. The cabin, which has housed park personnel on an as-needed basis, was fully staffed into the early 1960s.

The 20×25-foot cabin (including a covered porch) was built in the rustic architecture style and  featured a stone foundation and chimney, log walls and a singled roof.

It was listed on the National Register in 1999 based on its history and architecture.


While the Blackfeet name for the creek is ápa-oápspi (weasel eyes), the name “Baring” was applied to the creek and the falls in honor of the old-line banking family who visited the area frequently during the 1920s. Author and explorer James Willard Schultz (Apikuni) named the creek, falls and nearby glacier (since changed to Sexton).

You can track the fire on this frequently refreshed map.





A something or other with no name


“To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love.” – Maria Popova in How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence

We tend to view the world through the lens of our language. Students taking language classes are often surprised that many of their pet phrases and notions have no twin in the language they’re being taught. Why not? The native speakers of that language see the world differently. My stories about, say, Glacier National Park, would be much different if they had been written in Blackfeet or Kootenai.

As a storyteller (writing in English for others who speak English), I see that naming things is both a sign of respect and acknowledgement as well as a limiting factor. When you name a mountain “Chair Rock,” you’re doing a normal thing. But you’re also making it difficult to see the rock any other way. If you see a translation of a story that includes “Chair Rock,” the name may suddenly be further away from your world view than the author will ever know.

In many cultures, people hide their true names–sometimes called “basket names”–from people outside the family because those names are linked to their true selves and telling them gives others a power over you. I can respect that. When I write, there is much that I refuse to say.

americahorsewithnonameThere’s an old gag about Dewey Bunnell’s song “A Horse with No Name,” recorded by America in 1971, that what with all that time in the desert, couldn’t the guy name the horse?

It’s hard to visualize the song, originally called “Desert,” with a horse named Fury or Flicka or Mr. Ed. Perhaps he didn’t respect the horse other than to say he was, in fact, riding a horse rather than something or other. Or, perhaps, the horse didn’t want its true name to be known.

Here, I’m respecting Dewey Bunnell and America by mentioning them. For a writer, that’s intentional because–as is often the case–those names have been forgotten while–in this case–the song is still widely known.

The specifics we include in our storytelling are there not because we are are name dropping or “adding a bunch of description” (as some call it) or playing with a place names dictionary or a “this date in history” website.

They are in the story because they confer the “dignity of autonomy” and because they’re an affirmation of their existence, as Maria Popova calls it. The realities in a story tie the story to a time and place as part of what happened their or how the world moved there. They are also in the story because the characters living in that time or place would know them and have empathy for them–as perhaps you, the reader, will know them as you read.

I included a glossary in the back of Conjure Woman’s Cat because the story includes folk magic terms, blues songs and performers’ names that they characters in the story would know. If Conjure Woman’s Cat were nonfiction, I could have included footnotes. The glossary seemed less distracting.

Part of research is changing what a writer knows about his or her story in progress from a something or other to something specific and loved and known within the context of the tale and the language in which it’s told. To paraphrase Jim Croce, like the pine trees and the croaking toad, everything in the story has a name.

If an author gets those names right, s/he can immerse you into the real and/or fictional world where those names arise even though–like maps–they’re not the territory.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)EScover2014Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Emily’s Stories.”

Top Five Magical Realism Books at Amazon


If you’ve heard about magical realism, but haven’t knowingly sampled it yet, the top sellers on Amazon are a wonderful place to start.

  1. TNightCircushe Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, September 2011.  I read this as soon as it came out and it became one of my favorite books. It edged out The Tiger’s Wife as that year’s favorites as I wrote in this post.  The fact that it’s still number one, shows it has staying power and that people continue to find it. It has a long list of starred reviews, telling me the critics also like it. A circus shows up out of nowhere, displays breathtaking feats of real magic as though they are mere illusions, and then disappears. What a joy to read.
  2. mermaidsisterThe Mermaid’s Sister, by Carrie Anne Noble, March 2015. This book is the 2014 Winner of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award for Young Adult Fiction. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m impressed with the general tone of the reviews and what I can see via the book’s “Look Inside” feature. The cover is delightful and the publisher’s opening words about the story are tempting: “There is no cure for being who you truly are…In a cottage high atop Llanfair Mountain, sixteen-year-old Clara lives with her sister, Maren, and guardian Auntie. By day, they gather herbs for Auntie’s healing potions. By night, Auntie spins tales of faraway lands and wicked fairies. Clara’s favorite story tells of three orphan infants—Clara, who was brought to Auntie by a stork; Maren, who arrived in a seashell; and their best friend, O’Neill, who was found beneath an apple tree.”
  3. windHear the Wind Sing and Pinball, by Haruki Murakami are two novels issued in this one volume set for release next month. They haven’t previously been available in English. According to the publisher, “These powerful, at times surreal, works about two young men coming of age—the unnamed narrator and his friend the Rat—are stories of loneliness, obsession, and eroticism. They bear all the hallmarks of Murakami’s later books, and form the first two-thirds, with A Wild Sheep Chase, of the trilogy of the Rat.” I am tempted by this book, but more tempted by the book sitting in position number five.
  4. godhelpGod Help the Child, by Toni Morrison, April 2015. I have read most of Morrison’s work and have this book on order.  While the cover is disappointing, the reviews are positive. The publisher describes the book this way: “At the center: a young woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life, but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love. There is Booker, the man Bride loves, and loses to anger. Rain, the mysterious white child with whom she crosses paths. And finally, Bride’s mother herself, Sweetness, who takes a lifetime to come to understand that ‘what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.’”  I’ll stipulate that so far, I’ve only read what I can see via “look inside,” but based on that, I think it will be difficult for any author in 2015 to match the power of this story.
  5. penumbraMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (audio version), by Robin Sloan, October 2012. I read this book when it came out and found the story and characters strange and compelling. I don’t care for the cover but, like Morrsion’s book, the reviews are positive. And, what can be more tempting for an author than a publisher’s description that (1) starts out like this: “A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore” and (2) begins like this: “Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left far behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there–the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.” I hope the world will always have bookstores that can be described this way. The book kept my attention, but not enough to re-read it as I have The Night Circus.

There’s a lot to like here if you’re of a mind to sample the latest magical realism. Then, stop by Malcolm’s Round Table on July 29 when I’ll be taking part in a magical realism blog hop.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella set in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle, “Conjure Woman’s Cat”

See the Indie View interview about how I write and why I wrote this book.

Listen, writers, this is gospel or my name’s not John Doe


A Facebook friend of mine claims that every story you want to write is sitting “out there” in limbo or maybe Topeka waiting for you to discover it, copy it into a DOCX file, and send it off to HarperCollins for $1000000000000000.

Does that sound crazy or what?

actorsFar be it from me to dispute it because the gospel truth is stranger than fiction. Working writers use meditation, dreams, magic, quantum entanglements and whiskey to meet with their characters once a month and talk about stories. Think of these people as, not beta readers, but beta writers.

Every one of them has ideas. Like actors, they all want to direct. These meetings are like casting calls (when you have a new story to write), brainstorming sessions (when one of them wants to run an idea of the flagpole) or encounter groups (when the sock puppets get out of control).

It’s completely safe because weapons are checked at the front door and watched over by a guy who looks like Dirty Harry. If you get too close to the guns, he says, “Well, you gotta ask yourself, do you feel lucky punk?”

theoaksI meet with my characters at a seafood joint called The Oaks in Panacea, Florida. The real Oaks has been closed for years, but with powerful meditation techniques and/or a shot of Scotch, the place returns out of the Ochlockonee River mist with the same reality that Brigadoon appeared to Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas in the Scottish Highlands.

Since Eulalie (Conjure Woman’s Cat) is the best cook, she fixes fried mullet, hush puppies and slaw for the crowd while we shoot the breeze over old times, swap recipes for cathead biscuits and saw mill gravy, and stay away from the guy guarding the weapons.

Last night, Eulalie asked how her next story was coming along and I had to tell her it was running behind schedule. Emily (Emily’s Stories) said I promised her she could look for ghosts at the old Perkins Opera House in Monticello, Florida. “I know where it’s hiding,” she said.

nogunsRuby (The Seeker) wanted to know why she didn’t didn’t have a part in Snakebit. “Anne and I are like family,” she reminded me. “Who the hell do I have to sleep with to get another story?”

Laurence Adams (The Sun Singer) showed up even though his story doesn’t take place in Florida and said, “If you had finished writing another story set in Glacier National Park, it would be selling like hot cakes this summer during the hotel’s 100th anniversary. Please tell me you people aren’t eating mullet. High class Floridians don’t even eat mullet.”

You can see why we check our weapons at the door.

Okay, here’s what you do.

  1. meditationChoose a real place for your meeting. Make sure the owners (if any) don’t know about the meeting.
  2. If you know the names of your characters or prospective characters, write them on a piece of paper in blood (hopefully not yours) and bury it (the paper) in a deserted graveyard while nobody’s watching. If you are looking for fresh ideas, include words like “Chainsaw Killer,” “Honest Lawyer,” and “Sexy Vixen.”
  3. Steal somebody’s meditation techniques off the Internet and suddenly feel like your eyes are getting tired, that your brainwaves are entering the alpha state, and that you can “see” your meeting hall filling up with wonderful people and probably a feel wannabees. (Don’t over-do the meditation and go into a stupor.)
  4. Check all weapons.
  5. After finishing your favorite foods and beverages, ask your current and prospective characters if they believe stuff like “every story you want to write is sitting ‘out there’ in limbo or maybe Topeka waiting for you to discover it, copy it into a DOCX file, and send it off to HarperCollins for $1000000000000000.”
  6. When they say, “Does that sound crazy or what?” tell them you’re ready to hear some better ideas. Listen carefully with an open mind and an open heart. (This means not saying, “Hey, dirtbag, what kind of bozo idea is that.”)
  7. tonightshowNow, listen, writers, this is gospel or my name’s not John Doe: When you come out of your meditation (assuming you come out of it), you will have the best darned ideas for the best darned stories in the best of all possible worlds.
  8. This is important: Don’t discuss your new idea with anyone specially friends and family for they’ll share it with everyone and before you know it, some clown from Chicago or Miami will be sitting in a chair on the “Tonight Show” telling the world about YOUR BOOK. Well, it would have been your book if hadn’t blabbed the storyline to people who can’t keep a secret.
  9. Write the thing. Then give Jimmy Fallon a call. I know, I know, he’s no David Letterman or Johnny Carson, but he’s probably good for couple hundred grand in sales.

There you go.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)99centsMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Jim Crow era novella, “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” which is on sale on Kindle today (July 18th) for only 99 cents. Eulalie claims she gets a 50% cut of the action or else.