The discipline of writing fantasy and supernatural fiction has always fascinated me. An author in these genres has to convince a reader of events, characters, and situations that the reader knows cannot be real.
This seems like an extraordinary challenge. It’s far from straightforward to convince a reader to believe in events that can and do occur, let alone those that don’t. Adding known impossibilities to the burden of literary proof takes a great deal of guts and imagination. I admire the ambition, the focus, and the steadfastness of writers who work in the fantasy genre.
One particularly fine example is Amanda Labonté, whose recent novel, Call of the Sea, was published by Engen Books.
When I first read Amanda’s fiction, I was struck by how well she had interwoven timeless-seeming folklore and legend into thoroughly modern settings. Her protagonist is Alex who comes under suspicion when his twin brother disappears over the side of their fishing boat. His search for his brother, combined with his need to clear his name, sees him plunge into a world of magic and mermen lore.
Q1: One quality in Call of the Sea is that rather than disrupting the atmosphere of mermaids, mermen, siren calls and ancient songs, the taut and contemporary passages actually heighten the magic, partly through contrast, partly by anchoring the overall experience in a world we know. Was it a conscious decision to write a ‘modern’ fantasy with ancient, folkloric elements?
Amanda Labonté: In many ways, this is the only way I could have written this story. I toyed with setting the story in the past, but the story really dragged. Once I moved it up to the here and now, the story flowed much better and the motivations of the characters made a lot more sense to me, making them easier to write. Since Call of the Sea was my first book, getting the story out was the most important part of the writing process. As for the fantasy elements, incorporating mermaid mythology felt really natural. The setting really lends itself to the idea that there’s more under the waves than we can possible comprehend and I felt like this mythology made sense with this setting.
Q2: Connected to the above, would you ever set anything in an entirely fantasy world? How might the challenges differ?
Amanda Labonté: If the right idea struck me, I would definitely consider setting a story in an entirely fantasy world. It would have some interesting creative challenges because world building is its own special skill set. The biggest issue would be making the world relatable. Even when a reader hasn’t been to a particular city or town, there’s a preconceived idea of what that place is like because it’s part of our collective conscious. Whereas an entirely made-up world doesn’t have that built in awareness. At the same time, stories like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are timeless, so it’s something I would like try in the future.
Q3: The richness of the mythology in Call of the Sea is very striking. It seems there must have been a great amount of working out the folkloric details in advance, and the sheer discipline is impressive. How much of this is imagination, how much research? Which parts do you, as writer, find most exciting?
Amanda Labonté: The fun thing about writing a fantasy story set in Newfoundland is that there’s an appreciation for the paranormal and supernatural. I grew up with the idea that you leave bread on your doorstep at night in order to appease the fairies. Since I grew up around these kinds of stories, I think that made creating my own mythology a lot easier. I really jumped into researching sea creatures like mermaids and sirens but I was less interested in how they were supposed to look or act – that’s what I took from my own imagination – and much more interested in what elements I could take that would make their existence as believable to my characters as the fairy stories were to me. In the end, the use of music was one of the key elements of the mythology that I highlighted in my story.
Q4: The setting is Newfoundland, your home, and in particular an aspect of Newfoundland culture that resounds strongly to people who were raised in Newfoundland and Labrador i.e. in the beginning in which the brothers are taking part in the food fishery. What did it mean to you to start the story here? I’m thinking particularly of the thematic underlay of a young man going missing, apparently being swallowed by the sea – does this have more resonance post moratorium?
Amanda Labonté: The circumstances at the start of the book are definitely something I thought a lot about. In many ways, the fictional Clad’s Cove is very much affected by the same issues plaguing most rural parts of Newfoundland. The transition from a fishing based economy after the moratorium of the 1990s meant that many communities had to seek out new ways of making a living. Many communities turned to tourism with mixed results. Alex, the main character, and his brothers are growing up in an environment and lifestyle that they love, but that likely won’t be able to support them as adults. In many ways that makes the setting a little bittersweet.
Q5: Connected to the above, is there an inherent sadness is setting a Newfoundland fantasy at sea. Do you, and do you think your readers, associate the ocean with loss or at least yearning?
Amanda Labonté: The sea is both the most beautiful and most terrible setting imaginable. I love to look at it, especially when I visit the Cape Shore where the story is set. But at the same time, the ocean is terrifying. Not only because of all the tragedies that have taken place, but because it has so much potential to take away. Yet, for Newfoundlanders, being able to see the ocean is very comforting. Being landlocked can be a very uncomfortable feeling when you are used to seeing water on a daily basis. This juxtaposition is something I still find really interesting and I’ve experienced both feelings myself.
Q6: What other genres are you working with at the moment?
Amanda Labonté: I am currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Supernatural Causes. It’s very different from Call of the Sea in many ways in that it’s a vampire driven medical mystery series – all things that I had no idea I was interested in until the idea came to me. Like Call of the Sea though, I think Supernatural Causes is very character driven. I’ve really enjoyed trying something completely different.
I am also working on the sequel to Call of the Sea – Return to the Sea – which is also a great experience as it allows me to continue following the characters as they experience new, exciting circumstances.
Q7: In terms of reaching your market what special challenges, and indeed opportunities, are there for the fantasy writer?
Amanda Labonté: The thing about fantasy readers is that, if they like what you write, they want to see more of your work. They are voracious readers and they often reach out to authors, letting you know directly what they think of your novels. That means there are a lot of opportunity to sell your books directly at conventions and signings, but also through word of mouth since fantasy readers are quick to recommend books to each other. That can put some pressure on the writer, because you don’t want to disappoint a reader you feel like you know, but it’s also very rewarding.