On Mythic Fiction
Among the intriguing things said by my remarkable Classics professor back in grad school, the one that stuck with me the most was that Greek religion had been invented by poets. The wedding of story with profound mysteries and truths makes for the best religion and best fiction, I think, and as a writer, even of more realistic (or quasi-realistic) fiction, I like for my work to have a kind of mythic resonance—a feel and structure that deepens the emotional and imaginative feel of a piece.
It’s a quality that I find as well in a lot of fiction I like to read. Sometimes I can recognize the writing’s specific connection with ancient and powerful sources, but far more often it comes in the hint of the story’s connection to older stories, older patterns—a signal that its intent is to brush up against primal, eternal questions and truths, and more importantly, to treat those truths in all their nuance, complexity, and contradictions.
If part of fiction is, indeed, exploration (and I think it is), tapping into mythic suggestion and pattern can be part of the process of exploring. Joyce’s Ulysses and George Lucas’s Star Wars films (the early trilogy, and I think the best of them) adopt the structure of myth in very different ways, but all of them brush against profound currents of story, letting us know that the issues they address are common to all of us, complex and deep in their experience. I think that writers can ready their fiction to enter that kind of realm by listening to old stories, old patterns; so I like to play with myths and structures in the process of inventing stories of my own.
The easiest way to do this is to re-position or “translate” a myth from its world to the one in which your story is set. I don’t mean a retelling of (or reflection on) the myths (though Canongate’s series contains some remarkable writers), nor do I mean Percy Jackson stories in which mythological figures appear as characters—the Riordan books may be good, but I haven’t read them. I’m thinking of 20th century novelists like Joyce, Robertson Davies, John Banville, who use myth to underpin stories set in more contemporary realities, lending otherwise realistic stories a kind of evocative feel and intent.
How does a lesser writer get at these qualities? How do I allow my stories to brush against mythic worlds, to allow opportunities for me to re-examine my otherwise simpler story with an eye toward its larger, wider, and deeper implications? How do you bring the magic to the mundane, the profound to the everyday?
The easiest way is to “translate” the myth—reset the Odyssey in 20th century Dublin, as Joyce does in Ulysses, or the Orpheus story as that of an Indian rock star, as Salman Rushdie does in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. This kind of activity asks you to consider everyday life as the stuff of myth, because modern people are still mythmakers, still hunger for rapt and meaningful story, and story set in our own surroundings. In my own novel, Vine: An Urban Legend, I recast Euripides’ Bacchae into a story about a group of amateur actors, working in a small mid-Southern city, set on performing…of all plays…Euripides’ Bacchae. As the original Greek tragedy did millennia ago, my own story becomes dark and bloody, addressing issues that strike me as large and eternal questions. Trajan’s Arch combines elements of The Odyssey and of the myth of Orpheus with archetypal patterns of coming-of-age, set in a plausible, even realistic span of the 1970s and 80s.
But the story doesn’t have to retell a myth to recapture the mythic. There are famous maps and patterns, largely outlining the stages of a hero’s journey, which underlie a number of modern narratives. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, Vladimir Propp’s outline of Russian folk tale, Walter Otto’s hero’s journey, the Native American myths of immersion and concealment that are found in women’s rituals of initiation—all can be adopted as story patterns that, if used flexibly and inventively, can give a story depth and universality.
In short, read myths and books about myth. I’d advise Campbell, Karen Armstrong’s Short History of Myth, and spending a week in the worlds of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. If you don’t emerge with new and transforming ideas for your stories, this exercise is not for you. I know simply that it is for me, a never-ending and fascinating resource in the craft.
Book Synopsis for Trajan’s Arch: Gabriel Rackett stands at the threshold of middle age. He lives north of Chicago and teaches at a small community college. He has written one novel and has no prospects of writing another, his powers stagnated by drink and loss. Into his possession comes a manuscript, written by a childhood friend and neighbor, which ignites his memory and takes him back to his mysterious mentor and the ghosts that haunted his own coming of age. Now, at the ebb of his resources, Gabriel returns to his old haunts through a series of fantastic stories spilling dangerously off the page–tales that will preoccupy and pursue him back to their dark and secret sources.
Over the past 25 years, Michael Williams has written a number of strange novels, from the early Weasel’s Luck and Galen Beknighted in the best-selling DRAGONLANCE series to the more recent lyrical and experimental Arcady, singled out for praise by Locus and Asimov’s magazines. In Trajan’s Arch, his eleventh novel, stories fold into stories and a boy grows up with ghostly mentors, and the recently published Vine mingles Greek tragedy and urban legend, as a local dramatic production in a small city goes humorously, then horrifically, awry.
Trajan’s Arch and Vine are two of the books in Williams’s highly anticipated City Quartet, to be joined in 2018 by Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men.
Williams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent much of his childhood in the south central part of the state, the red-dirt gothic home of Appalachian foothills and stories of Confederate guerrillas. Through good luck and a roundabout journey he made his way through through New England, New York, Wisconsin, Britain and Ireland, and has ended up less than thirty miles from where he began. He has a Ph.D. in Humanities, and teaches at the University of Louisville, where he focuses on the he Modern Fantastic in fiction and film. He is married, and has two grown sons.