Today’s Place as Person post comes to us from a writer I very much admire, Lisa Hannett. If you haven’t yet read her collection, ‘Bluegrass Symphony’, do so!
Thanks for joining us, Lisa…
The Places You Think You Know
I’ve always been fond of Trickster characters: the sneaky, cheeky buggers who speak in riddles and are so incredibly alluring because they are never quite the stars of the show. They are completely self-serving, appearing in stories when the whim takes them, messing with the other characters’ lives, then vanishing as quickly as they came. We aren’t sure where they come from, and we aren’t sure where they go when they’re finished meddling, but we get a sense that they’ll be there forever. Somewhere, lingering in the background. Just waiting to surprise us again.
And when it comes to settings, I also fall in love with the tricky ones, the elusive ones, the ones left tantalisingly unexplored. Like Trickster characters, the most appealing settings — the ones that have the most personality — are precisely the ones that leave me wanting more. I’ve always found Lothlorien and Rivendell far more interesting than the Shire, or Mordor, or any of the other places Tolkien brings us in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. We get more information about the elves and their forests in Tolkien’s copious footnotes than we do in the narratives themselves, and yet these unexplored woods and hidden dells are the places that really capture my imagination. Likewise, the forests in which the Sithi live in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy enchanted me as a child, not just in spite of the fact that Simon and his companions didn’t spend much time there, but because of it.
These are the secret places, the mysterious locales, the ones you can only see when looking out the corner of your eye. These are the ones that infused the real forests I knew — the ones around my childhood home in Ottawa — with magic. I couldn’t walk along those paths without seeing the Sithi lurking behind the birch trees. And trust me: I looked so hard out of the corner of my eye back then, trying to catch a glimpse of the two trees of Valinor, it’s amazing I didn’t go blind.
But it isn’t just tricksy secondary world settings that hold me in thrall. I’ll never forget reading Charles de Lint’s Moonheart and Spiritwalk as a teenager, and discovering that they weren’t set in some far-off Neverland, but right there in the Ottawa I knew and had grown up in. In these books, magical creatures crawled along the dome of Tabor Hall at Ottawa University — and I looked for them, years later, when I undertook a Fine Arts degree there. Leylines crossed in my city, opening a portal to new worlds in the form of Tamson House, a magnificent imaginary mansion that stretched for the length of a whole block on Bank Street (and was, by the way, filled with all the coolest “artsy” people you could ever hope to have as housemates…) To have the ordinary streets of downtown Ottawa infused with such magic and wonder was a real eye-opener for me — literally. I didn’t have to give myself eyestrain looking out the corners for magic: it was down every alley, in the boring old shopping mall, and right above my head in class.
Nowadays, I still search for that sense of magic in the fictionalised versions of places I know in real life. Brisbane in Trent Jamieson’s Death Works series and in Angela Slatter’s story, ‘Brisneyland by Night’, are Brisbane – but at the same time they aren’t. And that’s what makes them so memorable: they have taken the real and made it better. More sinister. More captivating.
Sean Williams achieves a similar effect in his Books of the Change trilogy. I read these books about a year after I moved to Adelaide from Canada — and without knowing it, Sean sold me on South Australia simply by capturing it so beautifully in these fantasy novels. The open spaces, the long jetties, the seagulls and deserts and dusty old towns… The whole State changed in my mind’s eye once I’d read the Books of the Change. Even all these years later, I still feel that the landscape here resonates with magic.
These are real places with a compelling twist — “real” but also not quite so. We might be able to find them on a map, or at least narrow it down to a general region, but if we travelled there in person things may not be as we expect. In this way, England becomes an intangible and unforgettable character in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; Lyra’s Oxford beguiles us in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series; and the stories in my collection, Bluegrass Symphony, encapsulate the spirit of the Deep South as well as the Mid-Western American states, without ever being tied to a specific location.
So while I still love becoming engrossed in sweeping, detailed secondary worlds, there’s a part of me that always hopes for some of that magic to seep into our world, and to remain here — at least for a short while — in plain view.
Lisa L Hannett hails from Ottawa, Canada but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia — city of churches, bizarre murders and pie floaters. Her short stories have been published in venues including Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, ChiZine, Midnight Echo, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede, Tesseracts 14, and Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, among other places. Her work has appeared on Locus’s Recommended Reading List 2009, Tangent Online’s Recommended Reading List 2010, and has been published in the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010. ‘The February Dragon’, co-authored with Angela Slatter, won the ‘Best Fantasy’ Aurealis Award in 2010. Lisa is a graduate of Clarion South.
Her first collection, Bluegrass Symphony, was published by Ticonderoga Publications in 2011. Midnight and Moonshine, a second collection co-authored with Angela Slatter, will be published in 2012. She is currently working on The Familiar, Book One in the Walpurgis Cycle. You can find her online at www.lisahannett.com and on Twitter @LisaLHannett.