I paid extra at the conference to have a consultation with an agent. This is standard conference practice and really is the reason many new writers go to conferences. They hope they’ll find an agent. I came to MCWC the first time nursing that hope as if it were a flame in a windstorm. I met a wonderful, interesting encouraging agent who does not represent fantasy and science fiction, but told me to call her when I wrote something that wasn’t category fiction. Now I think that I’ll never find an agent at MCWC, but the consultations are still interesting—and, you never know.
I’ll call the agent Julie Faber. This isn’t her name, but she was a really nice person and I’m going to make fun of her, so, name-change. I was her last consult before an hour long break, just in time for lunch. Julie had wavy brown hair, drawn off the sides of her face with slim amber-colored barrettes. Before she struck out on her new career, she edited a well-known short-story magazine, and no, it’s not Glimmer Train.
We exchanged pleasantries. She asked which story was mine, and then said, “Oh! The dog bite story!” My story opens with a woman being attacked by a fighting dog.
“I’ve been bitten by dogs several times,” Julie said.
I thought, oh, great, let me just reopen that trauma for you.
“What I meant was, your opening is authentic and scary.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, good. Thanks.”
“And I like your writing. I like the detail. You’ve got convincing characters with real problems.”
She picked up the manuscript and started paging through it. The pages made that shoop-shoop sound as they brushed against each other. Shoop, shoop, shoop. “But I had some trouble at the end.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. Usually, when a story fails, readers think the ending is the problem. “It falls apart at the end.” You hear that a lot. The ending is usually not the problem; it’s just a symptom. That could have been what was happening here, but I didn’t think so. I thought I knew what was coming.
“She, um, there’s a change in your narrative voice. A complete change. It’s very strange. Suddenly she’s a. . . does she change? Into a, a dog?”
“A wolf,” I said. “It’s a fantasy story. She turns into a wolf.”
“It’s a werewolf story.”
She peered at me, the way I peer at people when they’ve thrown a non-English word into a sentence—like je ne sais quoi—and I have to confirm that I heard it right before I can interpret it. “Oh. I wonder how I would know that.”
How, indeed. Here’s one way; you are reading a story about an ordinary young woman, only she doesn’t seem quite ordinary. She seems to have secrets. Then she transforms into a wolf. Then you think, “Oh, it’s a werewolf story.” That’s one way you could know.
Before I said that, or something less snarky but still snarky, she said, “I don’t read fantasy. I can’t understand it.”
I did not say, “No! Really?” And I did not say, “Sure you can! You don’t give yourself enough credit. Look how fast you figured out she was something in the canine family!” I don’t think I actually said anything.
The magazine she used to edit runs stories that go like this:
There is a man. He lives in an apartment. His apartment is dreary. The man is depressed. The man looks out his window and sees a foggy, dismal street. There follows a paragraph of breathtaking lyricism, describing the foggy dismalness of it all. The man is building a scale model of the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks. The man lost someone close to him; maybe an ailing parent, less likely a partner, most likely a child. The man remembers something surreal, like an angel hovering over the toothpick Taj Mahal. Sometime later, the story ends.
The angel is not fantasy, however. It might be psychological, or it may be symbolic, but it isn’t fantasy, because these stories are literary.
People like Julie have no trouble believing in situations where no one has to pay the rent and they can stay in their dreary apartment and build toothpick Taj Mahals, but cannot accept that a woman might turn into a wolf, because, that’s, you know fantasy, and they can’t understand fantasy.
However, there was more to Julie than I might have supposed, because she asked me where I would market a story like this. I told her. Then she said, “What kind of story can you write, in fantasy?”
“Any story you can tell in category fiction or mainstream, you can tell in a fantastical world,” I said. “It could be a mystery, a family saga, an adventure.” I tried to think of an example. “For instance, have you read Toni Morrison?”
She shook her head. “No.”
No? Nobel Prize for Literature Toni Morrison? Haven’t read her? I said, “She has a book called Beloved. It won the Pulitzer. One of the main characters is a ghost. That’s fantasy.” Less hopefully now, “Have you read Michael Chabon?”
She looked unsure, started to shake her head.
“The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It’s a police procedure set in an alternate world. That’s fantasy.”
I did not say, “Shakespeare, ever hear of him? Midsummer Night’s Dream, that’s fantasy; The Tempest, fantasy,” because that would have just been mean.
I thanked her for her time and left.
Later I was whining to the others about this experience and Donna said, “That’s interesting. She was educating herself.”
So maybe this intelligent, personable young woman is not a complacent bigot after all, and is going to experiment with the world of fantasy. Maybe she’ll step off Main Street into that narrow, overgrown side alley. What’s the worst that could happen? The thing all the anti-fantasy bigots–that all bigots, actually, secretly fear; that she’ll grow to love it.