This essay first appeared in The Speculative Fiction Showcase in July of 2016
Ten years ago I was hit in the face with a pint glass. I was in a pub in Sydney and it was around three o’ clock in the morning. The night ended with some broken bones in my hand, an emergency room visit, and an interesting cab ride at nine am. It’s a story I tell with some frequency, often in much greater detail, most often when someone notices the scar above my left eye. In its retelling, the story has been curated into a series of events that closely resemble what happened on that summer Saturday night. It’s my own bit of personal narrative non-fiction, one of many anecdotes I spin when I’m out socializing and I have a few drinks in me.
Like that night, the most vivid events of my life are abbreviations—weddings, deaths, first loves—are augmented fictions that I store away in a series of unreliable memories. They are retold eliding the boring bits, accentuating the important stuff. The details have changed nearly as many times as the stories have been retold, each time bending the whole toward cleaner narrative.
I’m not unique. Everybody’s memories are colored nearly as much by their retelling as they are by what actually took place. Especially if we’re retelling those stories to entertain. A study at Stanford in 2004 noted in the abstract:
Compared to telling it straight, the creative process of telling a story leads to qualitative and quantitative changes in later recall
Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated to the phenomenon known as Memory Conformity which lists many examples of people vividly remembering events that didn’t even happen to them. In short: memories are a kind of personal fantasy, somewhat unmoored from objective reality.
When I set out to write Petifleur and The Colored City, I wanted to write about a world affected in the same way we affect our memories. Resentment could cause vines to grow over loved ones’ bodies; cows in a field could be as large as tractor trailers; libraries could go on forever. I wanted to create a world whose rules exist on the continuum between the way we dream and the way we remember our own experiences.
Memories become exaggerated over time, at least the best ones do. Sometimes the worst ones as well. This is why I love stories that work on the magical realism side of fantasy: narratives that blend our day to day life with outsized exaggeration or impossible incongruities.
The titular piece in one of my favorite short story collections, Vampires in The Lemon Grove somehow manages to be about vampires while playing with a nod to the agonizing glut of literary stories about aging men and their relationships with younger women. Still—despite those huge marks against it—the story all fits together. The fantastical and the mundane reinforce a beautiful theme of loneliness in the story.
All fiction is by necessity fantastical, even the realist stuff, but I find the most expressive fiction to be overtly so. It’s one of the reasons most of my stories shamelessly veer in and out of the fantasy like wild drunks, even if I do write the odd realistic drama.
Petifleur was inspired by a photo I took in Valparaiso, Chile. My partner Laura stands in front of a cerro full of multicolored houses, all stacked on top of one another like children’s blocks. The image fills me with a sense of wonder and feels, itself, like an invitation to adventure. To the extent that The Colored City exists in my manuscript, it is based on memories from my time in Chile.
The setting is meant to evoke my wonder, however it’s anything but literally accurate to the city it’s based on. Instead, it’s accurate to my quite subjective sense of being there—all the way down to the beating heart that pumps a river of color deep under its hills.
The subjective reality of narrative writing—fiction or non—is what lends power to the medium. When I write, I’m inviting you to visit my own imperfect sense of the world around me, fantasy and all. Sometimes I want you to share the magic of a far-flung colored city. Other times I’m inviting you to find out what it’s like to catch a pint glass to the face.