I first heard of R.J. Anderson from my critique partners. They were passing around a copy of Faery Rebels and raving about it. Even more interesting to me was the fact that Rebecca (the “R” in R.J.) was a Christian who wrote YA fantasy for the general market. Not long after that, Rebecca somehow magically appeared on this site and engaged in conversation on a couple threads. I appreciated her comments and thought it would be neat to talk to her more about the “mythology of faery” and writing YA.
From R.J.’s bio: Her first novel SPELL HUNTER (known as KNIFE in the UK) was longlisted for the Carnegie Award and named one of the Canadian Library Association’s Honour Books for 2011; it and sequels WAYFARER (known as REBEL in the UK) and ARROW have become UK bestsellers. Her latest novel ULTRAVIOLET, a psychological thriller for older teens, was published by Carolrhoda Lab in Sept. 2011 and will be followed by a companion novel in 2013.
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MIKE — Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us! Stephen King described stories as “relics,” part of an undiscovered world that a writer is excavating. What kind of world is R.J. Anderson unearthing for readers to discover?
R.J. — All my books so far have been rooted in the same fundamental concept — that there are extraordinary magical, supernatural, or extraterrestrial beings living secretly as part of our own modern world, and that only a few humans ever learn of their existence. That’s a fairly standard fantasy trope, but the twist in my books is that these beings find us to be just as extraordinary and awe-inspiring and even enviable as we ordinary humans find them.
For instance, my first book Knife (published in the US as Spellhunter) is the story of a fierce young faery hunter who fights to save her dying people while concealing her forbidden friendship with a human. But it’s not told from the human’s perspective, it’s told from the faery’s, and with one slight exception in my second book Rebel (Wayfarer in the US), so are all the subsequent books in the series. There are thousands of tales about humans being enchanted by the faeries and lured into their realm, for good or ill — but I wanted to write about faeries being amazed and awed by the simple realities of human life.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Even angels long to look into these things,” referring to the unique nature of the relationship between God and humanity. That idea fascinates me, so I keep coming back to it in different ways.
MIKE — That’s an interesting twist on the subject. So, apart from magic dust, what do you think first attracted you to the world of faery?
R.J. — It definitely wasn’t the magic dust — in fact one of the first things I did when writing Knife was to deprive my faeries of magic. I was tired of seeing small faeries portrayed as cute, childlike beings accompanied by sparkles, rainbows and magic wands, and I wondered why they couldn’t be tough and fierce and even dangerous instead. That led me to speculate about what would happen if a group of small winged people had to confront the harsh realities of life in the modern world — if they were menaced not by gnomes and goblins, but by hungry animal predators and hazards like lawnmowers and electrical wires. If they didn’t have magic to make their lives easier, how would they survive? And what would happen if their secret existence was discovered by one of those monstrous, gigantic humans?
Though interestingly enough, the Oakenfolk’s struggle for survival didn’t end up being the main focus of the story in the end. The central plot of Knife resolves around the question of how and why the faeries lost their magic in the first place, as well as the exact nature of their relationship to humanity — which turned out to be even more interesting to me, and also paved the way to the second and third books in the trilogy.
MIKE — In his classic essay, The Ethics of Elfland, G.K. Chesterton suggested that a distinct “ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales” and that there are “many noble and healthy principles that arise from them.” So rather than distancing us from the world and making us disenchanted with it, as some suggest, faery tales ground us in reality. Do you think this is true, and if so, why?
R.J. – I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that fantastic literature has a unique ability to slide past our set opinions and prejudices, and encourage us to consider moral and spiritual truths in a new way. The classic fairy tales and fantasy stories are about the struggle between a simple, humble good and a powerful evil, and they constantly remind the reader that human effort is not enough — that supernatural intervention is required before good can triumph.What could be more Biblical?
C.S. Lewis remarked in one of his essays that reading fairy tales was a great deal healthier for him as a child than reading the so-called “realistic” stories about boys becoming popular at school and winning at sports and so on — the latter provoked him to envy and dissatisfaction with this world, whereas fantasy transported him to a better one. “I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like any fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories.”
MIKE — Mythology and folklore are often anchored, however loosely, in historical facts or events. Some have suggested that faeries and the surrounding mythologies are actually rooted in demons and the occult. How would you answer that?
R.J. — Certainly a great deal of fairy folklore has a malevolent, horrifying aspect, and sometimes the occult and Satanic connections are overt — as in the story of Tam Lin where the faery folk “pay a teind to Hell” every seven years. But there’s also a strong connection to Christianity in western fairy folklore as well, such as the speculation that fairies are the forgotten children of Eve, or the spirits of infants who died unbaptized and couldn’t go to heaven, or the virtuous pagans of ages past. None of which are Biblical ideas, of course, but it does show that many of the Irish, English and Welsh people who believed in fairies did so in conjunction with their belief in Christianity, and not in willful opposition to it.
I personally think the widespread myths about fairies have their origin in the universal God-given awareness that powerful spiritual beings exist in a realm which is invisible to us, and that some are good and some are evil. Like so many aspects of natural revelation it’s become muddled over the years and a lot of unbiblical ideas have gotten mixed up with it, but there’s still truth at the core.
MIKE — So you would disagree with those who say that faery tales are not only a waste of time, but that they are purely a vehicle for evil and occultism. Are there other biblical themes recurrent in the genre?
R.J. — Many of the most classic and beloved fairy tales and fantasy stories are tales of sacrifice and redemption, of rebirth and resurrection, of the weak, despised and humble triumphing over the wicked, mighty and proud. The idea of a faithful few — a remnant, if you will — struggling to do what is right in the face of oppression, persecution and temptation also comes up again and again in fantasy literature. There are so many rich and essentially Biblical ideas there to be explored and revisited, I almost can’t imagine why I as a Christian wouldn’t want to write fantasy. After all, Edmund Spenser, John Bunyan, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and many other believers were responsible for shaping the genre.
MIKE — Your novels are categorized as YA. I have an ongoing, but civil, debate with many writers and readers about the YA craze. My two main questions always come down to this: (1) Why is YA currently so hot, and (2) What actually distinguishes YA from general lit? As a YA author, I’d love your take on those questions.
R.J. — My faery books straddle the line between MG and YA, since they’re categorized as “10 and up” in North America and “11+” in the UK. My paranormal psychological thriller Ultraviolet is unquestionably YA, though, and I read a lot of YA, so I’ve thought about the genre and what makes it special quite a lot.
I read “adult” fantasy and SF for years before YA fantasy became popular, and one of the first things that struck me when I checked out the better recent YA novels was their clarity and directness — by which I definitely don’t mean that the books were dumbed-down and simplistic compared to the adult ones; in fact some of them had quite complex and multi-layered plots. But they were very tightly edited. The focus was on telling a strong story with engaging characters, vivid language and a meaningful plot, and there was little or no room for authorial self-indulgence. No long-winded descriptions that didn’t advance the story, no pretentious displays of grandiloquent verbiage, no wasted scenes. I found that refreshing, and I think a lot of other adult readers do as well.
Another thing that I believe draws people to YA is its freshness and ingenuity. Because all YA books tend to be shelved together in libraries and bookstores regardless of their content, YA authors are free to blend and combine ideas from a variety of genres: fantasy, science fiction, mystery, historical, romance, western, thriller, horror… I came across more jaw-dropping plot twists, unique scenarios and memorable characters in my first year of reading YA than I’d encountered in years of reading adult novels. And it opened up a whole new range of possibilities for me as an author, as well.
To answer your second question, what distinguishes YA from adult fiction is not that it’s shorter or less complex or uses simpler language, or that it teaches a moral lesson. Good YA doesn’t shy away from big issues and serious questions, it doesn’t talk down to the reader, and it doesn’t offer easy answers, or necessarily any answers at all. What makes a book YA rather than adult is that it contains characters teen readers can identify with, explores issues that are relevant to teens, and tells the story in a way that teens will find interesting.
But as it turns out a lot of those characters and issues and stories are of interest to adult readers as well, because many of the themes involved are universal: the quest for identity and finding one’s place in the world, coping with conflict and upheaval and loss, falling in love, making mistakes and having to fix them, learning to understand people who are different from you, and so on. The only difference in YA is that these things are happening to teen characters, and they’re happening for the first time. There isn’t that jaded, slightly patronizing tone of “Ah yes, I remember the days of my youth…” that you get in adult literature about teens. In YA novels, the action is happening to the teen protagonists right now or else it’s happened very recently, and there’s a real urgency and intensity to it.
You can find out more about R.J. Anderson and her books at her website. Thanks so much, Rebecca! Great stuff.