From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Willow Fagan

Could you tell us a little about the process of writing “The Interior of Mr. Bumblethorn’s Coat”?

One of the seeds for the story was this coat that my friend wore pretty much all the time. It was a massive, dark blue coat that went all the way down to my friend’s ankles. My friend had made the coat himself, with some help from his mom and her sewing machine, and had literally sewn a blanket inside of it. The coat looked like something a wizard might wear, and I decided that I had to write a story about it. I felt that the only way to capture the epic nature of the coat would be to have it contain a world.

That story seed combined with another idea that was floating around in my mind at the time: a nomadic city with living buildings. As I began to write, the story also became a way of expressing some of the emotions I was dealing with at that point in my life: dislocation, powerlessness, the sense that my own mind was not a safe place. From this mix of elements, the story flowed fairly easily. My writing process is usually fairly intuitive; it feels to me more like I am discovering the story than like I am consciously orchestrating it.

This is the first secondary world story that I have written as an adult, and it was interesting to venture into that new territory. While I had some sense about the world before I started writing the story, much of it I discovered through that process. I believe that this is similar to what Hal Duncan refers to with the word “worldblazing”. I would alternate between that improvisational mode and periods of reflection/planning about how the elements of the world could fit together. These two modes became a kind of feedback loop.

Mr. Bumblethorn is literally burdened by the world he left behind. How do you develop a character’s history? Do you find that their pasts wholly define them? Can clean breaks be made or only gradual changes? Which do you find most interesting to write?

As I mentioned above, my writing process feels more like discovery than like conscious decision making. I attribute this to the large role my unconscious mind plays in creating stories, worlds, and characters. There is of course a role for the conscious mind as well, in terms of first opening up and getting out of the way, and also in terms of translating and arranging the somewhat raw material, but for me the bulk of my creation emerges from a somewhat mysterious internal place.

Anyway, all of that is a fancy way of saying, “I don’t entirely know how I develop characters’ histories.” I’m very interested though in the way that characters carry their pasts, and in how and to what extent they allow their pasts to define them. My interpretation of Mister Bumblethorn is that he is “burdened by the world he left behind” precisely because he is running away from that world.

I think that sometimes dramatic changes happen in people’s lives (fictional and real) but I’m not sure that I believe in clean breaks; in my experience, change always takes times, and occurs in spirals and layers rather than straight lines.

If you had Mr. Bumblethorn’s choice to command the world, save it, or leave it, what would you choose?

What an interesting question! I hope that the people reading this also take a moment to reflect on what their own answer might be. I think that my answer would shift from day to day depending on what was happening in my life. There are certainly some moments when I would love to seize the power of a god and other moments when I feel inspired to go on a quest to save the world. And, of course, some times when I wish there were some other world I could escape to. One could argue that writing fiction (especially speculative fiction) stems from that desire to enter into another world. That makes me think of one of my favorite quotes, from Anais Nin: “I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living.”

In that light, escaping from this world into a world of your own creation, in which you can command everything, might be necessary (at least at times) in order to save yourself and to later be able to re-emerge into this world and fully engage with it.

You have recently written a story entitled “Her Chains, as Supple and Invisible as the Ghosts of Snakes.” You have another story in Fantasy entitled “My mother, the ghost.” In “The Interior of Mr. Bumblethorn’s Coat” ghosts are active participants in society. Does your fiction reflect your understanding of the spirit, the soul, or consciousness?

You’ve definitely picked up on the fact that ghosts are a theme in my work. I think that primarily I am drawn to ghosts as a metaphor for those things that will not stay buried, for past pain which continues to haunt, for the way that history can break into the present. That said, I do believe in the reality of spirits and spiritual realms. I am a witch in the Reclaiming Tradition, which is a broad and diverse tradition but which frequently draws inspiration from animist sources, i.e., from sources which experience the world as ensouled, as a place in which each creature and object has a spirit. Personally, I find a lot of resonance in the philosophical position of panpsychism which is, boiled down, the idea that matter is intrinsically conscious.

So, my worldview has space for ghosts (and ancestor spirits) to exist. But, while I’m sure that these perspectives do have some influence on my fiction, I do try to keep them separate. I don’t want my writing to become a propaganda vehicle for my beliefs, because I think that can dull and diminish fiction. I also want to have the freedom that fantasy offers to explore infinite possibilities, including things which I personally believe are impossible.

Thank you for your time. Before we conclude, could you tell us what is next for you?

Recently, I’ve been focusing more on writing creative non-fiction. A few months ago, I had an essay called “letting go of my imaginary boyfriend’s actual hands” come out in the zine Absent Cause. I have another essay coming out in Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s newest anthology “Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification and the Desire to Conform” and also one in the forthcoming anthology “Queering Sexual Violence”. Partially based on the experience of writing these pieces, I’m facilitating a workshop in a few weeks at the North American Students of Co-operation Institute, entitled “Writing Our Way Home: Using Poetry and Prose to Map the Roots of Pain and Envision Routes to Transformation”.

Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.