Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

A U T H O R   I N T E R V I E W
First Dance With Peter Damian Bellis
t o w a r d   a   n o r t h   a m e r i c a n   m a g i c a l   r e a l i s m

BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN

AUTHOR PETER Damian Bellis writes: "My father was a college English professor from Pensacola, Florida who ended up teaching in Minnesota. During my childhood, we spent our winters in the mid-west and our summers on the Gulf, so I have a sort of split-personality in terms of how I remember my childhood which clearly informs my writing."

Thus began the shaping of this North American magical realist's writing career. At age six, Bellis declared he was going to be a writer, then "promptly wrote nothing for the next twenty years," he said, focusing, instead, on reading. "I felt that if I wanted to be a great writer I better read everything I could."

As a side effect of working toward that greatness, Bellis has found himself entrenched in the marvelous landscape of magical realism. His fiction collection, One Last Dance With Lawrence Welk and Other Stories, consists of short stories and an excerpt from his book, The Conjure Man, most of the content falling inside the realm of magical realism.

Bellis studied English and American literature at Northwestern University, then went on to teach high-school English for seven years. His goal to write became an established one ten years ago. His first book was actually a work of non-fiction: The Surprising Truth About Depression, which he co-wrote with a psychiatrist.

Then, Bellis published One Last Dance with Lawrence Welk and Other Stories (River Boat Books, St. Paul, MN) in 1997. While he describes himself as a writer at the beginning of his career, Bellis's work shows an astute understanding of story and storytelling traditions; his work does not have the painstakingly tight feel of an author's first book, but instead gives off a casual confidence indicative of wisdom. His stories mine territory which is magical at times, gristly with realism at others, attesting to his finesse in employing magical realism as an appropriate storytelling vehicle.

I had the opportunity to chat recently with Bellis about his book (Last Dance) and American magical realism (MR) in a casual e-mail interview:

TKS: From Last Dance, there are a number of stories which qualify as MR. Have you always had a writer's inclination toward MR?

PDB: Since my dad was an English professor, there was no small supply of books. By the time I was sixteen I had read Twain, Hawthorne, Melville, and most of Conrad, but I also read Tolkien, Heinlein, and Asimov. After I graduated from college I turned to Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Then I discovered Gabriel García Márquez. Since I had enjoyed sci-fi/fantasy and great literature, MR seemed to be my kind of literature. I read everything I could. So you could say I began with a reader's inclination towards MR. My writing certainly reflects this inclination.

TKS: I have had that same experience with discovering MR for myself and realizing it was "my" kind of literature. What is it, precisely, about MR which speaks to your reader's (and writer's) sensibilities?

PDB: I feel an affinity to MR because it expresses for me a world of infinite possibilities.

TKS: Some publishing industry professionals think MR is not very commercial; that is to say, MR is hard to sell. What's your opinion of the marketability of MR? Any concerns?

PDB: It's unfortunate that MR has such a reputation. But it's not a function of whether a book is MR or not. It's really a function of complexity and depth, which is how I define great literature. The sad truth is that great literature is a hard sell. An editor at Anchor Books once told me that the market nationwide for "literary" fiction was 50,000, and what he meant by literary fiction was probably broader than what I meant.

TKS: Your stories are deeply grounded in their settings. In particular, I found your southern locales vibrant and charmed. How does sense of place affect you in matters of choosing what and how to write?

PDB: I usually begin a story with an image in mind. I tend to be very visual. My goal is to allow the reader to be enveloped by the experience, and certainly a strong sense of place is integral to achieving this. But creating this sense of place is not so much a conscious choice; it merely reflects the way I think. In "The Lingering Death of Eamon Patterson" I was thinking about two images: my grandmother's fig tree, and a medicine-man show I had seen at the Minnesota State Fair. I thought about my grandmother and the summers we spent there and then the medicine man came onto the stage and suddenly I saw the entire story unfold in my mind, much as a movie unfolds. I can't describe the process any better than that.

TKS: I am intrigued by your suggestion that Hawthorne was one of "our first magic realists." A lot of people would like to begin and end MR in locales south of our border. If you could put together a short list of American authors who have contributed to the pool of work which might be classified as MR, who might they be?

PDB: As for a short list of American authors...first I would expand that to include American/English. Second, I need to preface this list with a few remarks.

American literature was grounded in the very beginning in a cultural ethos that embraced the supernatural, the mythic, the legendary. We did not separate that aspect of our lives from the everyday routine. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, the Brer Rabbit stories, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill (and other tall tales) -- all of this was part of our oral storytelling tradition. Our great writers pulled from this tradition. Hawthorne was simply the first to weave the magic of this folk culture into a complex social, political, and moral tale, The Scarlet Letter. (Later he penned The Marble Faun, which is a bit darker, but comes from the same wellspring.)

Mark Twain was next; his Huckleberry Finn reflects the superstitious, the magical in numerous stories/tales via Jim, but also in the very texture and movement of the piece from the miraculous escape from drowning by river boat to a very real belief in the power of ghosts to the overall miracle of the journey downstream. If MR is a fiction that posits the mythic, the supernatural in a familiar, everyday text, then Huckleberry Finn must be classed as a precursor to it because of its texture.

Other early "magical realists" include, from the American side, Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville (the symbolic, mythic fury of the white whale), and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) from the British side.

You could, of course, move from these into a subcategory of MR, sci-fi (H. G. Wells, Huxley, etc.); but aside from those writers we could truly call "magical realists," like Bernard Malamud, the thread of MR runs through a wide range of literature in the twentieth century as well. Mark Twain was only the beginning.

Indeed, it is only in the last forty years that we have begun to distinguish mainstream literature from "magical realism." All of our writers made use of the superstitious, cultural folk ethos that made our literature unique. Even in Hemingway, the quintessential realist, there is a lengthy passage in For Whom The Bell Tolls (chapter ten) when Pilar tells the story of the executions in her town, that captures the texture, the feel, even the rhythm of life that is later captured by García Márquez in sections of One Hundred Years of Solitude. While not magical in an overt sense, this passage of Hemingway does reflect the cultural folk ethos of Pilar's people and their trials and tribulations. Faulkner does the same in a short story entitled "A Rose for Emily."

The list goes on and on, and in some cases, there are whole books that seem as if they had been penned in this modern era of MR. One such book is Thorton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Set in Peru, it reads with the detached, bemused fatalism and appreciation for the magic of life that we see in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. (I am sure García Márquez read Wilder. There are passages by García Márquez that seem lifted, at least stylistically, right out of Wilder's Peruvian fable.)

I would have to say that the difference between the MR of today and that found in the literature of decades past is simply a matter of classification. We now separate our world with greater scientific precision -- magical, folksy, supernatural stuff on one side, the real world on the other side. We as a culture did not do this in America forty years ago, and I suspect that the peoples of the South American and African countries where MR is the strongest today do not divide their world and hence their fiction, into the superstitious and the real; I believe they embrace it all, which is why we believe MR is a purely "south of the border" phenomenon.

A footnote here: One place in America that has really embraced the impact of MR is, sad to say, the advertising industry. The next time you watch television commercials, note how many reflect a sensibility which can be described as "magical realism." The movie industry also has embraced MR. Perhaps the feeling is that by using special effects, people can more readily appreciate the magical elements. As a writer, of course, I believe that the imagination can create special effects of infinitely more power and brilliance.

TKS: I have always sensed that MR relies upon a larger psychic connection to community than most other forms of contemporary fiction, which seem more interested in connecting with the singular individual's psyche (through POV, narrative techniques, etc.). In "The Lingering Death of Eamon Patterson" there is a living, breathing community defining, in a sense, what "is." Would you agree this is a defining element in MR?

PDB: I believe that the sense of community you're speaking of, the idea that what one individual suffers the larger community also suffers, is central to fiction placed in rural communities, small towns, any locale that is somewhat isolated and therefore a totality in and of itself. Since a lot of MR is set in rural communities or small towns or somewhere otherwise isolated (even culturally), it would seem to be a characteristic; yet you see the same sense of community in realistic fiction with similar settings (Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird comes to mind). I do agree with you, however, that the degree of involvement in this kind of collective suffering is much greater in MR.

Absolutely, place is a defining characteristic of MR. I'd go a step further to say that place is often treated as a character in and of itself. The short story, "Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo," by García Márquez comes to mind as an example. A strong sense of place was also one of the defining elements of both our Southern fiction and our New England variety.

The peculiarities of place lend themselves to "magical" interpretation. One could also argue the same point from a Jungian perspective. I think there is some validity to Jung's notion of an Oversoul reflecting the collective archetypal subconscious of humanity. Writers who tap into this collective subconsious seem to create "inspired" works revealing the very depths of the human soul, and for many of these writers (with MR writers at the forefront), the path into this collective subconscious is through place. (The Romantic poets,Wordsworth in particular, took this same route to create their poetry.)

For me, place translates into a series of images rather than events or intentions. Place is often the genesis of a story.

TKS: What are you working on right now?

PDB: At the moment I am working on several different projects. One is a contemporary look at a mid-life crisis in which the hero begins to grow younger as he strips away the material reminders of twenty years of marriage and frustrated dreams. That book is entitled What Ever Happened To Johnny Weismuller.

In addition, my agent is working to place my first novel, entitled The Conjure Man. It's the coming-of-age story of Kilby, a fourteen-year-old black boy living on an unnamed sea island off the coast of South Carolina in 1955. (Editor's Note: For a sneak preview, there is an excerpt of the Kilby narrative in Last Dance entitled "The Festival.") During the summer, Kilby slowly begins to break through the ignorance and superstition that characterizes life on the island. This process is sparked by his coming into contact with Thaddeus Jacobs, an old white man who had taken refuge on the island years earlier and who is viewed by the rest of the inhabitants as the Devil.

In the novel, Kilby's story is told in the first person using the Gulluh dialect. The second part of the novel is the story of Thaddeus (third person, more omniscient) and tells the story of Thaddeus' life and how a series of supernatural encounters have directed him towards the island, where he takes refuge even as he makes for himself a new life. Still he is an outsider. Meeting Kilby, Thaddeus makes one more attempt to establish a connection with another human being.

The Conjure Man is part myth, part fable, part coming-of-age story, and part satire. It is also thematically structured, like dreams, and so at times the action seems episodic, fragmented, rambling, and full of events that place it squarely in the MR category.

TKS: Do you see any trends in realism in contemporary fiction (globally and/or locally)? Do you expect there will be more interest in MR?

PDB: It is difficult to assess any real "literary" trends in America with the emphasis the publishing industry by and large places on whether a book is marketable or not.

Realism itself is not as satisfying as it once was because the current variety seems to ignore the spiritual side of life. Put together an emphasis on commercialism and a need to explore the spiritual (or fantastic) and you end up with books like The Celestine Prophecy, any one of a dozen books on angels, as well as the explosion in sci-fi and fantasy. MR is the literary answer to this need, and as more and more writers turn their talents towards expressing themselves from an MR perspective, more and more readers will "discover" the power of this kind of fiction.

Read "The Lingering Death of Eamon Patterson"

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