From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Puppet Strings: J M McDermott

J M McDermott, author of “Gods of the Spiderhole,” has very strong opinions about politics (and really, who doesn’t?). But how do authors who want to convey that nugget of political philosophy in their writing do so without turning their audience off? As the author says, “it would be about as effective as influencing change as a fart on a crowded bus.” In this week’s Puppet Strings: Behind the Story, J M McDermott meditates on how he accomplished it with his tale.


My first task at attempting to write good polemic fiction was to find some way to make the stink less stinky. I had to mask it in something really overwhelming and interesting, so the readers don’t know they were in the middle of some polemic writing. Since I write fantasy novels, I used magic. You may not have realized you were getting a heavy dose of political writing, because you were ingesting all sorts of symbols in the spiderhole walls. Imagine a fart disguised in all sorts of incense and spices. You’ll breathe deep before you realize you just inhaled a fart!

My second task was to make sure that my characters were actually characters, and true characters. As I am not, at this time, Hispanic, nor have I ever been to San Diego, exactly, I read urban anthropology books wherein characters from this world were allowed to speak freely, and entire transcripts of conversations were recorded. I tried my best to keep the issue rooted in true people, with true concerns.

My third task involved caffeine and alcohol and sacrificial donuts and the less said about this task, the better.

My fourth task involved editing out every single ounce of political writing in the story. Remember the Faulknerian quote to kill one’s darlings? Exactly what I tried to do. If any of my political beliefs remain, they are veiled inside of the actions and true natures of these situations and magicks and characters.

I researched and wrote a political story. Then, I actively attempted to edit all of the politics out of it.

Talking politics is the fastest way to get people to close their mind. Keeping people’s minds open, and letting their minds work out the problems might not change the world, but it might change the way people think just a little bit. Then, someone else changes the minds in question a little bit more. Then, someone else does with something else. Then, before you know it, a political message might be listened to exactly as if you had left in all that overt material in your own writing.

I know how unpleasant it can be to do that instead of firmly arguing your politics all the time, but that’s really the only way I’ve found that produces art instead of opinionation.

Despite all the manueverings and editings and posturings to keep my own true opinions to myself, I suspect that all writing, whether we intend it to be or not, is political. We are all political animals. We have cliques in high school. We play favorites unconsciously with our kids and pets. We express — intentionally or not — our morals, our prejudices, and our unconscious desires whenever we express ourselves in the realm of ideas. All of these steps I have taken to cloud politics are actually not going to work, and were merely my way of prioritizing the craft of fiction over the TRUTH YOU OUGHT TO IMPLEMENT AND EVERYONE SHOULD LISTEN TO ME.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Caffeine and donuts? I’ll be in the comments all week to discuss craft.

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