Last year, I had the pleasure of ARC reading Victoria Carless's beautiful middle-grade novel, Gus and the Starlight. I was blown away by the way Victoria wove magic realism into a story that remained grounded, realistic and relatable.
Today I'm so happy to have her on the blog to share with you her process for writing magic realism. Will you try it in your next WIP?
Victoria writes works of fiction and for theatre. Her novel for young adults, The Dream Walker, was nominated for the Queensland Literary Awards and the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. Recently Victoria was commissioned by the Museum of Brisbane to write a work for The Storytellers, an interactive, award winning exhibition celebrating the layers of the city’s history. Victoria lives in Brisbane with her family, a nervous cat and a blue heeler who is 98 in dog years.
I have always included an element of magic realism in my stories. It’s a genre I love as a reader but it’s also a tool we can use as writers to weave metaphor into a work or deal with tricky ideas in a less overt way.
Perhaps I’m partial to magic realism because I started my writing career as a playwright. When we enter a theatre space, we are invited to suspend our disbelief. We naturally accept that a length of rope is a snake, even though intellectually we know it’s just a rope.
My first play that featured magic realism won the Queensland Theatre Company’s Young Playwright Award in 2006. It featured a talking dog but dealt with the serious topic of Australian border politics. I guess that’s when I become hooked on magic realism as a form. It’s a natural extension of storytelling to enchant an audience or reader, in my humble opinion. Who doesn’t want to believe in magic sometimes?
When I started writing fiction, I took the very strategic approach of just writing what I wanted to write. There are definitely some half-finished manuscripts languishing on my computer, ideas which I haven’t yet found a way to resolve. Indulging my love for magic realism however has led me to write the stories which found publishers. For example, the concept of dream-walking, or entering other people’s dreams, in my novel for young adults, is the central premise of The Dream Walker, published by Hachette in 2017. My middle grade novel, Gus and the Starlight, published in 2022, features a child who can see ghosts. I have a soft spot for this literary device. It’s been good to me and I am so grateful publishers have been on board with it.
To me, magic realism fuses a familiar world and setting with elements of magic; enchanted places, objects or moments, usually made manifest through the character discovering they have ‘powers’.
I find moments of magic realism work well when paired with a story steeped in hard-boiled realism, for example the gritty reality of a family or community experiencing socio-economic challenges. I love it when characters are released even momentarily from the difficulties of their everyday lives to experience moments of transcendence. Magic can be a great equaliser.
And although I write for children and young adults, I don't think the use of magic realism needs to be limited to works for children. Books like those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez which transport us to epic magical reinventions of history are celebrated and enjoyed all over the world. But stories with magic realism don’t necessarily have to be expansive, feature travel time or cross continents to be enjoyable. I also love books which, just as matter of factly, transport the reader to a familiar world but with a striking vein of magic.
The short story collection by Australian author Paige Clarke, She is Haunted, opens with a story in which the main character, who is pregnant, negotiates with God in regard to her unborn child’s life. She offers up their pinto mare and the family dog to ensure her baby stays safe. God in the story is just a regular guy, albeit with a long beard who walks across the paddocks to her house. The ho-hum appearance of God in this story makes the negotiations more poignant and harrowing, because the magic of him is also somewhat mundane, even though he has the power to take what she loves away.
In fact, the ‘miracle in the everyday’ concept shows us that magic needn’t necessarily mean creating a full-blown fantasy world. Sometimes magic can be found in the unlikeliest places. For instance, in Karen Foxlee’s middle grade masterpiece Dragon Skin, Pip, the main character, finds something truly enchanted in the dry creek bed by her hot dusty town. As she brings the foundling creature back to life, it too nurtures something dormant in her, enabling her to find the inner strength and confidence to manage a difficult situation at home. It’s the perfect metaphor for empowering young characters, and in turn, readers. Dragon Skin shows us what resilience can look like, and it’s awesome.
What is important I think, and editors have confirmed this with me in the many iterations a book goes through on its way to publication, is to understand the rules of the world you are creating when you are deploying magic realism. If you understand how it works, the features and the constraints of the magic elements you have included, then you will be able to realise them convincingly. Sarah Armstrong does this well in her middle grade marvel Big Magic. The seam between our familiar reality and the world of magic where a girl can fly is perfectly stitched together.
The middle grade age group is a very rich one to write for, and it’s probably no surprise magic realism crops up a lot in books for this age group. There's a lot going on when you’re between the ages of 8 and 12. Family is so important but then so are friendships, which can become all-encompassing. We tell children they are on the cusp of big things like puberty (my body's going to do what??). The notion of High School is advancing and they are required to choose subjects that will orientate the rest of their lives. We expect them to become more responsible at this age and yet they still have a foot in childhood. I like to weave magic realism, or a sense of other worldliness, into my stories for this age, as I am very interested in the idea of magical thinking in children, in order to explain things that still too are difficult to grasp in reality.
For me, there is no greater honour than writing for young readers. They are honest in their appreciation (or critique) of storytelling. For me it is so rewarding to strive towards delighting young readers through fiction. And I am so grateful magical realism exists as a way for writers to reach out to readers, and share new ideas or worlds or ways of being with them.
Visit Victoria Carless's website, or buy her books: