From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Willow Fagan, author of Scatter and Return, the Eyes of the Princess

Willow Fagan was born in Southeastern Michigan, during an April snowstorm. He now lives in Ann Arbor. He appears to be in the “twenty-something-not-really-sure-what-he’s-doing” phase of his life. Currently, he works part-time as a tenant counselor informing tenants about their rights, while reading Tarot cards and engaging in various writing and activist projects on the side.

Of these projects, he is most excited about a workshop that he will soon present for the second time: “Sculpting the Chaos of Trauma into Narratives of Change.” In general, he is drawn towards the intersection of creative expression, social justice work, and personal healing. His stories have previously appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Behind the Wainscot.

Tell me a little about Scatter and Return, the Eyes of the Princess. What was the first image or phrase or impetus that made you sit down and spin it out?

When I sat down to write this story, I opened with the line that remained the same throughout all the drafts to the published version: “Yes, yes, the princess is locked in the tower.” But there was some contemplation and coalescing of images and situations that I did before I began to write. I knew that I wanted the princess to have locked herself in the tower as a response to abuse from her father. That image resonated with me because of my own experiences of abuse from my father.

So this story is an example of the type of stories — those which turn the chaos of trauma into narratives of transformation — that the workshop I’m presenting focuses on. Writing the story helped me process and integrate my own traumatic experiences, a process which is mirrored within the story by the narrator’s strategy of telling stories in order to coax the missing pieces back to the princess.

I’m hesitant to reveal all of this but I think it’s important for survivors to speak out about their experiences. I also hope that this story helps others in some small way to understand their own histories and perhaps even to catch a glimpse of a path towards wholeness.

At the same time, I don’t want to reduce the story to a singular interpretation or issue. One of the things I love about fiction is the way so many different meanings can be found within a single story, and I think that stories have a way of escaping or straying from their author’s intentions.

Even from my own perspective, I can see a variety of places and sources that this story draws from: my love of fairy tales and retellings of fairy tales, my fascination with golems, my sense of humor, my knowledge of divinatory systems, my desire for feminist subversions, my fondness for strange and intricate creatures.

Tell me a little more about this workshop you’re going to teach, and the people you worked with last time you taught it.

The first time I presented the workshop was at the Allied Media Conference in 2007. The AMC is an annual conference that focuses on social justice, independent media, and empowering marginalized voices. Utne Magazine recently named the organizers of the AMC as one of their 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World, and I’m honored to have been a small part of that.

In the workshop, I try to create a safe, supportive space for people to start writing narratives that help them heal from traumatic experiences and/or narratives that spread awareness of the social factors which enable and worsen traumas. I work from an understanding that trauma is deeply connected to the disruption of narrative; one definition of trauma is that it’s an experience so intensely threatening that it cannot be stored in memory in the typical way and lingers in the mind outside of the orderly flow from past to present to future.

Alongside this, people who experience trauma are also often silenced, their stories pushed away. For these reasons, writing and sharing narratives can potentially bring both personal healing and social transformation. Throughout the workshop, I also try to illuminate the connections between trauma and various forms of oppression, including the concept that oppression itself can be traumatic and the ways in which oppressed groups are targeted with violence.

Where do you get your ideas?

For me, ideas come in three main ways. First, I’m a pretty introspective person, and I often come up with metaphors to try to express or understand my emotions. Sometimes these metaphors become the seeds of stories. The second main source is through watching movies or reading stories. I’ll think things like, “Hmm, it would be a lot cooler if the story went in this direction. Oh, hey, I could write that story!” These two methods usually only help get me started, though. When I’m actually sitting down and writing, a lot of the story just comes to me, as if it’s some interior shape or landscape that I’m discovering.

What are some examples of stories and movies that have prompted you to write your own versions? Or, if you don’t want to name names, what kind of changes have you made?

It’s funny, because this question prompted me to look back at the stories I’ve written — I could find only one that had been directly inspired by a movie. So I think the answer I gave before wasn’t full; usually, those moments when I think of other possible storylines don’t result in me actually writing those specific stories but instead seem to feed the story-making part of me as raw material or potential skeletons of plot, which then get reconfigured and mixed up and come out as new stories. At least I think that’s how it works.

The one story that I did find was inspired by the claymation classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In my new version, Santa becomes a tyrant, of whom it is said “with one hand he offers a present, with the other he holds a whip.” Rudolph, by virtue of his glowing nose, is able to see beneath the surface of the ice to the deep cracks that threaten the whole of the North Pole. Hermey wants to be not just a dentist, but one focusing on preventative measures — the denizens of the North Pole eat a lot of candy, which comes from the peppermint mines, which are the cause of the cracks. So it’s kind of a mash-up of Rudolph with Cassandra and global warming. I had a lot of fun writing it, but I’m not quite sure if anyone will ever publish it, because of copyright concerns.

What are your favorite words?

Right now, I’m pretty fond of the word “ecstasy.” And “spacious.” Oh, and “labyrinth.” And “dreamscape.” I could probably go on and on, so I’ll stop here.

Your favorite names?

I really like the names Sebastian and Jonathan. I also tend to be fond of names that end in “ia,” like Maria.

What author do you admire and hope to be compared to someday?

I absolutely love the short stories of Aimee Bender, which are strange and resonant and often very moving. Some of the best of them are like postmodern fables or fairy tales. I’d be thrilled and honored to be compared to her, although I don’t think I’ve mastered the craft nearly as much as she has yet.

What author do you admire yet hope never to be compared to?

Sylvia Plath.

Where is the strangest place you’ve read a book?

While I was studying abroad in London, I decided to re-read Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. My plan was to go to each location the novel mentions, and read that section of the story there. Some of the places I couldn’t get to, of course, but I read the book while on the Underground and while sitting on benches all over the city. I kept hoping (and half-believing) that something spectacular would happen when I reached the end — mostly I imagined running into Neil Gaiman — but of course no magic door appeared in the brick walls, and I couldn’t even find the last streets mentioned. Still, reading the book in this way was a great way to explore the city and even somewhat of a quest.

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