I’ve been asked many times to put my Tufa novels, about a race of Celtic faery folk living in modern Appalachia (the final one, The Fairies of Sadieville, comes out April 10), into a recognizable genre. Like most authors, I like to think my stories transcend such mundane concerns; but at the same time, like most readers, I like to have my searches narrowed down for me. Imagine a whole bookstore or library without genre sections.
And that’s the main use of genre designations. For example, one of my favorite novels, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, is as deeply-thought and emotionally powerful as any “literary” work; but when I look for it, I expect to find it in the “mystery” section, because that’s its primary genre. So, to look for my Tufa novels, you’d check fantasy.
But ultimately, that doesn’t sit quite right. That puts the Tufa novels in the same category as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, and you’d be hard-pressed to find less similar works (and that’s not meant as a value judgment). And therein lies the danger of genre: it’s either so broad, or so narrow, it becomes meaningless.
Some have called the Tufa novels “urban fantasy,” and that’s probably more accurate, with one major caveat: there’s no “urban” in these fantasies. They are centered around a tiny town in the American South, far from any cities. The characters may be at heart otherworldly, but they function in contemporary society as farmers, police, paramedics and soldiers. I’ve toyed over the years with terms like “rural fantasy” or “dirt road fantasy,” but they always seemed forced.
So I’ve occasionally fallen back on a relatively new genre designation, “magical realism.” It rose to prominence with the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other South American authors; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Allende’s The House of the Spirits are premiere examples. In those countries of origin, magical realism also allowed subversive political content, an aspect that has been minimized as the genre expands.
What separates magical realism from full-on fantasy? In general, it gives the real world as much emphasis as the otherworldly elements. A loose guideline is that the stories are realistic except for one fantastical aspect, and the drama comes from how that single thing affects the reality. For example, IF the Trueba family in The House of the Spirits has the ability to contact the spirit world, THEN it will affect all their life choices. It’s similar to boiling down all science fiction to the question, “What if…?”
My Tufa novels ask the question, “IF an ancient race of faery folk hid among us, identical to us for the most part, THEN what happens when they can no longer hide?” That’s the core concept, and to me, magical realism is the genre that best expresses it.
Then again, definitions are almost completely against the spirit of the thing. As Mexican literary critic Luis Leal says, “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.”
Whatever you call it, The Fairies of Sadieville, the sixth and final Tufa novel, will be available April 10 in hardcover and audio.