Guest Thaisa Frank: Do I Choose My Material or Does It Choose Me?

Guest Thaisa Frank: Do I Choose My Material or Does It Choose Me?

[The profile of Thaisa Frank (A Brief History in Camouflage, Sleeping in Velvet), in last week’s Revealing Q&A, mentioned magic realism regarding her debut novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, releasing May 25, 2010. And that mention prompted Suzanne to write me with the following:

Do authors consciously choose their writing style and genre, or is it simply the only way they can write? for instance, I was really intrigued by your profile of Thaisa Frank yesterday….I would love to be able to write magic realism, as her profile mentioned to be able to create a character who disguises herself as furniture, but I’m not sure I have the imagination to pull it off.

Thaisa appreciated the question and, in today’s guest post, she answers how it worked for her when writing Heidegger’sGlasses.]

It’s always interesting to listen to questions because they make me think about other people see my work since I can never see it for the first time. Also, questions like yours, Suzanne, help me understand the way I write–in this case whether I choose a particular way of writing or whether it chooses me. So thanks for asking about whether I chose magic realism.

I think a miraculous sense of the world chose me long before I was in a position to choose. Since being a little kid I was hard-wired to see the absurdity of the world, to daydream, and to wonder about the limits of language.

But before I get into that, I would say that I don’t work in the tradition of magic realism but in the tradition of surrealism. Even though these categories are often used interchangeably there’s actually a big difference because magic realism invariably involves a community of people who believe in some magical force that exists in the world (often contact with the dead, the ability to time travel, the appearance of angels, sometimes the belief in the totemic nature of objects.)

The world of magic realism, in other words, is an extraordinary world. It’s a world where magic penetrates the ordinary. Surrealism, on the other hand, posits one absurd situation in a perfectly ordinary world. (A man wakes up transformed into a huge bug, or is accused of a crime he never committed and isn’t even named). The ordinary world is determined to proceed according to its plodding, often legalistic, ordinary laws.

A Hundred Years of Solitude, by Marquez is a good example of magic realism. People commune with the dead and can see their dreams. In The Trial, by Kafka, a man is accused of a crime he not only hasn’t committed, but which is never spelled out to him. He has nothing magic to resort to, but must appeal to the plodding legal system. This absurd situation shines a lens on the absurdity of the legal system.

Heidegger’s Glasses certainly touches upon a community that believes in the occult. But only a few characters in the book are part of that community, and the two protagonists are definitely not part of it. What becomes surreal is the premise that there are people who answer letters to the dead in an underground mine that has been converted into a romantic 19th-Century world, with a cobblestone street, gas lamps, and a canopy of sky that changes from night to day. This world is an absurd dream in the midst of a Germany’s failing war.

Without question, this world chose me. I could see the underground mine long before I knew what people were doing there. One of my favorite phrases is by Wallace Stevens from Adagia in which he says the imagination is the weather of the mind. I don’t really know what the “imagination” is. It seems to come from outside of the self, to be far beyond the world of dreams. But the point is not where it comes from. The point is that the image of the underground mine felt given to me. It was as though I discovered something that already existed.

Later, when the book fleshed out, the mine became a logical extension of carrying the Reich’s concerns to an extreme. (These extremes include a concern for record-keeping, a belief in the occult and an obsession with architecture and the 19th century.)

As is the in all my stories, I invariably discover that the particular extreme has universal resonance. In this case, the extremism isn’t just about the Reich. It shines a lens on aspects of conflict in the world today. This may be why I ended it in the 21st century. But long before I had any conceptual picture of the novel, I knew the last scene–where it was in time, who the character was, and where it took place. Paradoxically, then, the imaginative and surreal landscapes shine a lens on the ordinary world.

But I want to return to question of what the writer chooses because your question, Suzanne, made me think about a fairy-tale element in Heidegger’s Glasses.

Fairy tales are neither magic realism nor surrealism. They don’t require a belief in the supernatural. But they come from a distant past where wolves can talk and enchanted people can wake up. They create deeply shared cultural images because most of us learn them as children. They draw upon a cultural imagination and don’t require a belief in magic.

The fairy-tale element also felt like something that chose me. But once I saw this element I brought it into bolder relief, finding places and people that felt prone to enchantment.

Yet to tell you more about why I did that would be to swim in waters that are beyond language–and make up a story about why I told a story a certain way. Perhaps The Black Forest, which figures in the book, reminded me of the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Perhaps I felt that the character who most believes in the occult was prone to becoming enchanted. And perhaps I wanted to lift World War II further into my imagination and the reader’s imagination so we all could see it better, because imagination offers distance. Or perhaps the fairy tale is simply very deep in me.

In the course of writing this blog I realize I don’t use this element in my short stories. And it interests me that it came out in a novel.

I hope these have answered some questions about the way I work. Also–below–I’ve listed some writers who work in magic realism, surrealism–or both, as well as one writer who works with the fairy tale. Please feel free to write me at if you have questions. And, Larramie, thanks for inviting me to do this blog.

Note: Magic realism and surrealism aren’t fantasy. In fantasy one never quite forgets that one is reading make-believe. In magic realism and surrealism the reader suspends disbelief.

Magical realists:
Marquez: A Hundred Years of Solitude;
Voltaire: (New Viking Penguin Edition of Voltaire in which I have an Author’s Afterward talking about elements in Voltaire that might be helpful in understanding magic realism)
I.B. Singer: (Short Friday is a good short story collection with which to start.)
Borges: Labyrinths, Ficciones,

Both Surr:alism and Magic Realism:
Borges: Dr. Brody’s Report

Marquez: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings
Kafka: Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle
Gogol: The Nose

The Fairy Tale:
Almost any collection by Angela Carter

Lord of the Rings: Tolkien
The Wizard of Earthsea: Ursula LeGuine

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10 thoughts on “Guest Thaisa Frank: Do I Choose My Material or Does It Choose Me?

  1. Interesting post. My gut reaction is that it is impossible to choose ones style or voice, it is just there, and our job is to find it and clean it up. But, I know of many writers who switch genre’s purposely and thus, their styles change to fit that genre…so I think it is more complex than I originally thought.

  2. This is just wonderful, thank you Larramie and thank you Thaisa for answering this question better than I could have imagined. I really can’t wait to read your book, I love the premise and the setting.

  3. Wow, what a wonderfully lucid definition of these terms! Thank you, Thaisa — and thank you for this inspiring glimpse into your writing process. I love the fact that you knew, from very early on, where and how your novel would end.

    p.s. one of all-time favorite stories is “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” — and now I see why you would place this in the “surrealist” category — the world into which the angel (or very old man with enormous wings!) falls is so very ordinary, so — well, == fallen. And this being, who becomes more like a creature as time goes on, is just beyond the understanding or imagination of the townspeople. I guess it’s the reader who’s able to imagine more, and so to SEE the surrealist element.

  4. Hi Thaisa,
    A wonderful blog. Helped me to define a number of terms I was unclear about. Personally I gravitate towards surrealism…particularly to Kafka. Best, Lynne

  5. This was both inspiring and clarifying. It’s great to see that you wrote a novel, Thaisa. Fascinating choice of time and place, especially given the genre you wrote in. Also, I did not realize that some of the listed authors wrote in several genres. That, itself, is a revelation to me. I did not understand the distinctions between the genres before reading this and a related discussion. I guess I never thought to articulate the questions. It is always educational to be able to share in your process, Thaisa. You have a gift for illumination as well as creation.

  6. Your comment on the difference between fantasy and surrealism or magic realism was very intersting to me. The most gripping of fantasies then occured to me… would you say that to be true of the Hobbit, or does that somehow surpass the realization that one is “reading make-believe”… in other words is the intensity of the experience of the world a factor, or is it just that the fantasy world is not ours and does not claim to be… whereas surrealism and magic realism ‘seem’ to take place in our actual and real world? A book like The Hobbit into which one can disappear for hours seems like a world in and of itself…

  7. Thank you, Thaisa. Particularly pleasurable, yr triangulating the two off of the fairy tale, as a third stream. Your answers provoke further questions of course in this reader’s so-called mind. ¿Does the title of the piece, and your affinity to surrealism, imply there’s a kind of automatic writing at play in your work? ¿If surrealism’s a style, not a genre, is magical realism likewise (& is the latter distinct from “new fabulism” of Chabon, Lethem, Saunders)? Etc. P.S. A magical realist perhaps overlooked, of possible interest : Kelly Link’s collection “Magic for Beginners.” And Victoria Nelson has a salient piece, “The Strange History of the American Fantastic,” which some might enjoy.

  8. Nice to see you’re still in the game. I took a class from you in 1989 at UC Berkeley extension.

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