Astrologers mystify us regularly with accurate predictions based on the movement of the planets. Shamans bedazzle us with healing rituals that result from messages from long-dead ancestors. Quantum physicists thrill us with conjecture about parallel universes and unified field theories, notions we can barely wrap our heads around. Just when we think we have a theory that explains everything, we discover some new “event” that doesn’t fit snuggly into it. For years the speed of light was absolute, and now it’s not! If even science can’t keep up with the parameters of reality, how can anyone deny that there is much more out there than meets the eye?
So yes, I believe wholeheartedly in magic (if we can agree to use the word to define the sphere of knowledge that we can never quite attain), and I celebrate it. I look for instances of it in real life, and I take every opportunity to read other people’s versions of it in fiction, from Gabriel Gracia Marquez and Isabelle Allende to Alice Sebold and Alice Hoffman. Yet it has taken me forever to weave magical realism into my own fiction.
One of the reasons for this, I think, has been a fear of taking magical matters too far. At what point does magic become fantasy or paranormal writing? If you have a ghost in a story, is that automatically paranormal? While I totally respect books that fall under those categories, I never aspired to write fantasy or paranormal myself; they’re simply not genres in which I feel comfortable. I’m a realist by nature, a realist who believes that magic is a property of reality, just as wetness is a property of water. But even the term “magical realism” feels ambiguous to me. It feels like a place where you can lose your footing easily.
I wrote a historical novel some years back based in part on the Nordic legends in the Poetic Edda and in part on the history of the Roman, Germanic and Hun tribes that lived during the reign of Attila the Hun. While the historical elements in the novel were, well, historical, the elements from the Poetic Eddas were full of dragons, dragon slayers, magic swords, etc. That may sound like a strange project for someone who claims not to write fantasy. I got around it by not showing any dragons in my book; instead I let the characters describe their vivid encounters with them. I, the author, never said the sword in the story was magical, but several of the characters would swear by it. To my thinking I stopped just short of fantasy in every instance. Yet several reviewers referred to the book as fantasy.
The other day I read a news story about a little girl in Seattle who receives gifts from crows. Apparently she unwittingly began feeding crows at the age of four, when she would accidentally (but consistently) drop crumbs from her lap as she got out of her mom’s car in the driveway. Later she fed the crows on purpose, scattering crumbs from her packed lunch on her way to the school bus. When she graduated to putting crumbs out on a feeding tray, the crows began thanking her by leaving her gifts—shiny stones, pieces of broken jewelry, a crab claw once—on the same tray. This is an amazing event. Since crows don’t usually leave gifts for people who feed them, it could be construed as magical. Maybe there is something special about the girl that the crows are able to discern. We don’t understand the “why” of situation, but we see the possibilities in it. If it were the beginning of a novel, we would surely identify it as an instance of magical realism, yes?
The secret of magical realism is making the magic feel natural, I think, like the magic in the crow story. Magical events may need to be played down in order for this to happen. They must take place in a world that is absolutely familiar to us. I think one of the reasons my historical novel was sometimes considered fantasy was because my characters lived in a world that reflected their beliefs in the fantastic, the magic swords and dragons, and so on, a world that would not feel “natural” to modern readers.
For magical realism to work, the magical events must take place within the realm of the ordinary, the rational. The world must reflect the very same history that we already know, I think. If the story takes place in 2010, then Obama must be the president. If a scene takes place in someone’s kitchen, then the stove has to be one that would be familiar to us. The oven cannot turn out to be a portal that opens into a tunnel that takes us into a place that exists only in the imagination of the author. That would be fantasy. If things from outside our familiar world drop into it, they must drop in in a manner that is in keeping with our understanding of how things work. An old woman is drinking her tea on the sofa when all at once she is lurched forward and spills a bit of tea on her blouse. Her first reaction is to say, “Why, Albert, must you always sit down so gracelessly, like a bull in a china shop?” But she stops herself short, because she remembers that Albert is dead, a few weeks now. What lurched her forward and made her spill her tea? Could it have been Albert’s ghost? Would this be an instance of magical realism? If Albert’s spirit comes walking into the room all shimmering and otherworldly, we’ve probably crossed over into paranormal. If the old woman only thinks Albert died but it turns out that he is really now a vampire or a werewolf, then we have definitely crossed into paranormal, maybe into fantasy as well.
Even though I’m still seeking to better define it, I have come to realize I’m comfortable writing what I think of as magical realism. The more I look around in the rational world, the more magic I see. A lot of people say that we live in the age of distraction nowadays. We are all so busy with our social media, our constant communications with our family and friends and with complete strangers via email and texting. We are so busy playing online games and watching cute dog videos and reading blogs about things happening all over the world. Against this background of excessive commotion and intake of information, the magic that exists in the rational world, the stuff that happens beyond the grasp of our current understanding, can be as beautiful and surprising as the trinkets the crows bring to the little girl in Seattle. I don’t expect to receive any gifts from crows myself, but I’m glad to have discovered her story, to find myself inspired by it and looking for more stories of gifts from crows, in my reading and in my writing too. And in my life! As Einstein says, in a well-know quote which appears in his book Living Philosophies: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.”
For a quarter of a century forty-five-year-old Zinc has worked as a caretaker for a wealthy old man, living in a small casita on his ranch in New Mexico. She doesn’t make much money, but she has the old man, her dogs, and gorgeous views of the mountains. She is basically a very content recluse who doesn’t invest much time thinking about what she might do if her circumstances change. So when the old man dies suddenly, and his daughter all but throws her off the property, Zinc is forced to reinvent herself—and quickly.
With a touch of magical realism and a collection of offbeat characters, The Accidental Art Thief explores the thin line between life and death and the universal forces that connect all things.