Wednesday 26 August 2015

Interview with Stephen Weinstock

I was due to review Stephen Weinstock's novel this week. However due to ill health I have had put that review off until later this year, so in the meantime I invited Stephen to be interviewed instead.

Welcome Stephen to the Magic Realism blog

Thank you, Zoe. I’m so pleased to be invited to be interviewed for the Magic Realism blog.  It’s a wonderful site; I loved participating in the bloghop this summer, and have enjoyed reading articles for a couple years.  I’m happy to help expand the interview section and hope other like-minded Magic Realism authors will step up and discuss their work.

Who are your favourite magic realist authors and why?

I would break this down into a few categories.  There were early influences of mine, before I even knew there was Magic Realism.  John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, a plain university coming-of-age novel where the main character is half-boy, half-goat, no questions asked, was a delight to read in college.  Discovering that someone like Borges could make fiction out of the wildest of ideas was a liberation.  And Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, which I might call surrealism before MR, has a quality that transcends it all: it’s the only work of fiction I have ever read that had me painfully, speechlessly, and ecstatically unable to continue reading because I was laughing so hard.

Another genre I love is the newly minted Visionary Fiction, and I feel there is a Venn diagram connection between many works in the two genres.  Castaneda’s work is a great example, and he started me off understanding the possibility of melding storytelling and higher, esoteric truths.

Finally, there is a set of favorites that represent the Magic Realism most akin to my series, 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles.  In the series, a qaraq, a group of linked souls who have lived through 1001 lifetimes, meet up in the present and recall their past life stories, a la Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights.  Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, with its magical premise and subsequent non-linear narrative in time, was a great inspiration to my laying out a karmic history spanning universes in a complex, non-linear fashion.  Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children affirmed a modern use of The Thousand and One Nights as fodder for contemporary magic.  And Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, sits on the nightstand, knowing it will fit in with where my brain is at.

What is your all-time favourite magic realist book?

But my greatest influence is Italo Calvino, and my absolute favorite book is his Cosmicomics, which follows the main character Qfwfq through his incarnations in the universe.  Each story is based on a scientific premise, the ‘realism,’ and is anthropomorphized, its ‘magic.’  So we learn what the universe was like when everything was at a single point, before the Big Bang, and no one could keep a secret.  Or follow the last dinosaur in a time when everyone has forgotten who they were.  It’s really all magical, because the science is so wondrous.  Also, technically speaking, Calvino is part of the French Oulipo school, all about mathematical games, hidden constraints, and word puzzles, but Calvino feels more Magic Realism to me.  Since every chapter of my book has someone recall a past life, they are often about inanimate objects or concepts, so I constantly pirate Calvino’s anthropomorphic literary technique.

Can you give us your definition of magic realism? 

MR is an oxymoron, and its oxymoronic quality is its simplest pleasure and defining quality.  When Marquez started things out with that image of the father unable to recall the names of things, and so every object in the house had a label, he opened up this clash of bizarre and ordinary.  What I love about the clash is that it makes you doubt what’s real and what’s magical.  Is the father’s condition a true psychological state worthy of Oliver Sacks, and so the whole world is realistic?  Or are those banal little signs on furniture and knickknacks enough to decorate a magical location? 

I also love how a basic unrealistic premise, like Gregor Samsa waking up as a cockroach, is all you need.  The author just accepts it as a given (as will the reader), and then the rest is the realistic consequences of that magical premise.  In my series, I assume the soul is immortal and that we live incarnation after incarnation.  If a group of people were aware in one lifetime of all their interconnected lifetimes, what would that do to them?  How would they assemble their history?  How would it change them in their present day ‘realistic’ world?  If you and I discovered we fought incessantly as atomic particles in the young, expanding universe, what would happen to our relationship as a therapist and patient in this life?

Tell us about your latest magic realist book?

The first book in my 1001 series is The Qaraq, the term for the group of linked souls who have shared lifetime after lifetime, and find themselves in suburban New Jersey, with an uncanny memory of their history together.  The suburban setting is the realistic backdrop humorously rubbing up against the magical premise of their immortality.  They wander into trance state recalling a past life story at children’s birthday parties, shopping at the mall, or in the supermarket freezer section (remembering an Ice Age narrative about a strangler ficus).

In the second book, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, due out soon, the group loses their ability to recall the past life tales.  This crisis leads them through a series of revelations about how everyday illusion, the Hindu concept of Maya, blocks their extraordinary visions of higher truth.  They literally grapple with Realism in order to get the Magic back.  The consequences of this struggle are rifts and jealousies and conspiracies within the qaraq.  Given its theme of endangered consciousness, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor is an example of the crossover between Magic Realism and Visionary Fiction.

Why do you write magic realism?

In many fantasy and sci-fi books, the key to the immortality of the soul is often revealed dramatically at the climax of the narrative.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone builds up the mystery forever, which is why we love it, and then reveals the higher truth in the final pages.  I like the oxymoronic quality of Magic Realism, the casual assumption from Page One that Gregor is a roach, for it enabled me to accept reincarnation and immortality without any fuss (well, a little in Part One of The Qaraq), and then carry on into all the myriad psychological and structural consequences of the assumption.  What if you knew you were immortal, but still had to get the kids to school?  What if you remembered you and your friends’ past lives, even if it meant realizing you had been the sibling of the person you were hitting on at the pub?  Would you go mad?

I am also a structure junkie, my main motivation for creating the 1001 series, and this obsession gets back to Magic Realism ultimately.  Going back to Calvino and the Oulipo, I love the idea that there are hidden structures or constraints that I have to incorporate in each chapter.  There will be 1001 chapters in the series, each with a past life story someone recalls.  Within each of these tales, there is a reference to one of the 1001 Nights from that epic.  This gets complicated once you understand the history and structure and complexity of The Thousand and One Nights, but suffice it to say that I have to slip in a magic carpet or a dreaded serpent and make it work organically within the narrative. 

There are eleven of these hidden structures woven into the books.  Before you call my neighborhood mental health clinic, know that I actually start each chapter by considering these constraints, and they actually help me chart out and provide material for the chapter.  But I’ve always loved arcane, puzzle-like forms buried within books, music, or architecture, and I believe this is part of what makes the 1001 series Magic Realism.  That blurring of lines between the unreal and the real in this genre corresponds to the blurring of lines between what lies on the surface of the text and what lies beneath.  In The Qaraq and the Maya Factor, it’s about how everyday reality blurs the hidden ways of the world, but also how those hidden truths serve our everyday lives.  That’s the fun and the truth of Magic Realism to me.


In his past life before writing 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles, Stephen Weinstock created music for theater companies, choreographers, and dance studios (Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham).  He has worked as a musician/teacher at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, NYU, and the ‘Fame’ school. For years he had the idea of a novel puzzling out an intricate past life history between a group of souls, but only with the epiphany of using the ancient frame tale structures of The Thousand and One Nights did he decide to jump fields.  By day he still bring dancers to ecstasy with his improvisations, but at night he enters the world of metempsychosis, time-honored storytelling, and worlds ranging from historical fiction to romantic fantasy.

See more of Stephen’s work, and the 1001 series, on his website.

Join the free email service 1001/Qaraqbooks News, and find out when The Qaraq and the Maya Factor comes out, including a free giveaway:

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

"Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you."

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…
Goodreads description

I often discuss why a novel I am reviewing is or is not magic realism, but in this case I will not do so. The reason for this is to avoid spoiling the plot for you. 

At the centre of the novel is the question: who or what is the writer of the letters that Driver Wang receives - letters that claim to come from the reincarnation of the character that Wang encountered in his several lives. This mystery drives the narrative on and has us, the readers, and Wang himself looking around for an explanation. The answer may or may not be magic realist. It is not a spoiler to say that the book is shot through with ambiguity - Wang had endured a spell in a mental hospital as a child, so could the arrival of the Watcher be part of a delusion?

The Watcher narrates Wang's previous incarnations and the interaction between the Watcher and Wang. Although the incarnations happened at different times in Chinese history and the incarnations are very different (Wang is a woman in one) there are some common themes to these accounts. The two characters are attracted to each other (they are often homosexual lovers) and yet one will always end up betraying and hurting the other.  The Watcher claims that the letters are an attempt to bring a halt to this. As a writing device this means that Barker's novel is able to span the long and brutal history of China while keeping focused on one person. The letters are in effect a series of related short stories. 

The letters are interspersed into the account of Wang's life in contemporary China and his unsatisfactory home and work life. Wang's childhood and youth are recounted in a series of flashbacks that help explain why this potential high flyer drives taxis for a living and why he had a breakdown. Wang is struggling to cope with his current life: it is asking a lot for him to take on his other lives. The book is a study in how to draw a psychological profile of a character, as understanding Wang becomes possibly as important to the reader as the identity of the Watcher. 

Susan Barker's book is a stunning piece of writing, weaving the various threads in a way that enhances rather than hinders the plot and pace. The historical elements are beautifully if horrifyingly well-drawn. 

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Monday 17 August 2015

Video - Isabel Allende on Gabriel Garcia Marquez

After the death of the great Gabo - Isabel Allende gave this interview to Democracy Now about the importance of Marquez "the master of masters" to South America and to her personally: "It was as if someone was telling me my own story."

It's a fascinating interview and includes some clips from an interview with Gabo himself.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

A School For Fools by Sasha Sokolov

By turns lyrical and philosophical, witty and baffling, A School for Fools confounds all expectations of the novel. Here we find not one reliable narrator but two “unreliable” narrators: the young man who is a student at the “school for fools” and his double. What begins as a reverie (with frequent interruptions) comes to seem a sort of fairy-tale quest not for gold or marriage but for self-knowledge. The currents of consciousness running through the novel are passionate and profound. Memories of childhood summers at the dacha are contemporaneous with the present, the dead are alive, and the beloved is present in the wind. Here is a tale either of madness or of the life of the imagination, in conversation with reason, straining at the limits of language; in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, “an enchanting, tragic, and touching work.”
Goodreads description

As I read this book I was reminded of a formative time in my life. I had left university only to become ill and as I waited for an operation I spent my time reading and watching films on television. One of the books I read was One Hundred Years of Solitude and so began my love of magic realism. One of the films I watched was Tarkovsky's film The Mirror. I was in the right state of mind for both book and film. I had time. I was willing to let go of expectations and experience these remarkable works of art. The experience was almost a mystical one.  

A School for Fools reminds me of Tarkovsky's film. Maybe this is partly because of its non-linear structure, the poetry, the disorientation, the slowness even, the focus on a young man growing up. It also reminds me of these things because you have to be in the right state of mind. I am not sure I was/am in the right "zone" to really appreciate the book. Perhaps the pressure of having to read and review a book a week for this blog played against me. The book is complex and full of symbols and not by any means an easy read. Nevertheless I was able to appreciate much of what it had to offer, if not fully enjoy it. 

At the centre of the novel is the narrator, or should I say two narrators, because the book's central character is a young man with schizophrenia and two distinct personalities, Pavel and Savl (Paul and Saul of the Bible), and the narration flicks between them in a sort of internal or possibly external dialogue. But the duality of the book doesn't stop there as we see the world through Pavel's eyes and find that other characters have two personifications. 

Pavel also has a problem with linear time and the narrative jumps backwards and forewards  without warning. Pavel can be at once a schoolboy at a special school (the school for fools of the title) and a successful engineer wooing a woman. I took that to mean he is at once the schoolboy and what he should have been. This is psychological magic realism of the first order.

Other elements of magic realism include the butterflies Pavel collects, which appear in the winter as well as in the summer. The schoolteacher and the boy's idol, the inhabitant of a dacha on the other side of the river, is able to be both alive and dead.  The river is identified by Pavel as the river Lethe. 

With so many magic realism books to read I seldom allow myself the luxury of saying that I intend to read a book again, but I do want to return to this book. I will do so when the time is right and my mind is able to fully grasp the book's brilliance. 

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review. 

Saturday 8 August 2015

Magic Realism Video No 2 - Salman Rushdie

In this short video Salman Rushdie really hits the spot when talking about magic realism: "Once you accept that stories are not true, once you start from that position, then you understand that a flying carpet and "Madam Bovary" are untrue in the same way, and as a result both of them are ways of arriving at the truth by the road of untruth, and so then they can both do it the same way."

The video is part of a longer interview with Rushdie in which he also talks about computer games, linear storytelling, inspiration, Islam and terrorism, and more. You can find the full-length video on the excellent Big Think website here:

Wednesday 5 August 2015

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks

Annabelle Aster doesn’t bow to convention—not even that of space and time—which makes the 1890s Kansas wheat field that has appeared in her modern-day San Francisco garden easy to accept. Even more peculiar is Elsbeth, the truculent schoolmarm who sends Annie letters through the mysterious brass mailbox perched on the picket fence that now divides their two worlds.
Annie and Elsbeth’s search for an explanation to the hiccup in the universe linking their homes leads to an unsettling discovery—and potential disaster for both of them. Together they must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen…and yet somehow already did.
Goodreads description

Last week as part of the Magic Realism Bloghop I interviewed Scott Wilbanks, author of The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster.  If you haven't already done so, do read the interview here:  As you can see from the interview Scott has a quirky sense of humour. This also appears in his novel. In his interview Scott talks about what he considers to be magic realism. In this book the magic comes from time travel. Time travel arguably is a magic realism subgenre (or should that be sub subgenre?) with Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveller's Wife appearing second in a list of 100 favourite magic realist books on Goodreads (between One Hundred Years of Solitude and House of Spirits.

There is another interview with the author at the back of the book, which includes an explanation of the title. It turns out that lemoncholy is a real Victorian word meaning melancholy. I am not sure that I would describe Annie's life as melancholy. She seems a pretty self-sufficient and emotionally resilient to me, making the most of a bad hand in life. And she has the lovely Christian as her best friend, a vulnerable but emotionally generous young man. Annie attracts a group of loners and misfits around her as allies in her quest to defeat the evil Mr Culler. Most of them are very well drawn, the exception is Annie's love interest, Nathaniel (but that may only be in the context of the others). One criticism/suggestion I might make is that even where you have a character, such as Cap'n or Edmond, who has shadows in the past they side with Annie too easily, without too much of a struggle. I was waiting for a crisis of some kind, even a betrayal, but they never came. This means that the dramatic tension was mainly generated by the actions of the baddies - Culler and his associate Danyer. Culler is an arch villain - pyschopathic without any redeeming feature. There is a plot twist at the end of the book about Danyer which I will not reveal, but let me just say that I didn't see it coming. 

The other generator of tension is around trying to work out what the consequence of Annie interfering with the past will be. Scott Wilbanks is obviously having fun with the concept and plot possibilities created by time traveller. If anything he has too much fun with the concept and the characters. I felt that he could achieved more with less. Nevertheless this is a fun take on time travel with a feisty heroine and some excellent supporting characters. 

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher in return for a fair review.