Sci-fi and fantasy authors reveal truths in the strangest fiction

Author Lev Grossman in his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Writers of realistic fiction are often are asked to wrestle with the question of autobiographical influence in interviews and essays. Some critics have made a cottage industry out of guessing even in the absence of hard data: Is the character a stand-in for the novelist? Is the plot based on something that actually happened in that person’s life? Does the lost love exist?

Authors of speculative fiction face a completely opposite expectation, discovering that spectacle comes with the assumption that fantastical characters, dystopian story arcs, even an encounter with an alluring ghost emerged whole from the author’s imagination, without any help from anything as boring as the pesky and unreliable imp known as reality.

I found this out firsthand with the publication of my own Southern Reach trilogy this year. The books revolve around Area X — an eerie, disquieting wilderness closed off from the rest of the world. Comparisons were made to all kinds of fantastical forbears (H.P. Lovecraft, Boris Strugatsky), but hardly anyone asked how much of it was based on real life. And the answer was: quite a lot.

I was influenced by actual doomed historical expeditions, actual weird workplaces — not to mention the sometimes odd biodiversity encountered while hiking in North Florida, where I’ve lived for 20 years. In my fictional tales you can find the residue of my visits to abandoned lighthouses, my mental anguish during the seemingly endless Gulf Coast oil spill and my experience in the strange “tunnel/tower” at the gardens in Sintra, Portugal.

Speculative fiction writers would be fools to bet against the power of the richness and strangeness of the real world by pulling almost anything solely from the imagination or from other books. Indeed, the great fantasist Angela Carter admitted that she had to turn to personal expressions of feminism in books like “The Bloody Chamber” to avoid having her fiction become too stylized, a surreal facade too removed from the real to be affecting. Yet fans generally assume that is precisely what fantasy writers do: generate the images, characters and events out of thin air, second-hand research, or just borrow and rework them from earlier literature. Why?


“There’s a sense among readers and critics, and probably among authors too, that [science fiction and fantasy] are somehow more fictional than regular fiction,” says Lev Grossman, author of the bestselling Magicians series. “They’re more loosely tethered to the real world, so they don’t reflect or aren’t affected by what’s happening in it. Which is silly if you think about it. Mrs. Dalloway is no more real than Harry Potter.”

According to Ann Leckie, whose novel “Ancillary Justice” has won major SF prizes like the Hugo and Nebula Awards, many still believe SF and fantasy “is all about the rockets and ray guns and space squids, but Real Literature is about Real Profound Things.”

It’s clear when you talk to some of the top authors in the field that there’s little or no difference in process or results compared to “normal” fiction, except that sometimes you end up with a dragon in your story and sometimes you don’t.

Leckie drew on just about the most mundane real-life experiences imaginable for “Ancillary Justice”: three years as “an Emergency Backup Lunch Lady at all the schools in the district at one time. I met a lot of kids from various backgrounds.” It turns out that kind of humdrum drudgery can come in handy if you want your universe-spanning space opera to feature realistic child characters.

For all their fantastical mise-en-scene, Grossman’s Magician novels also constitute a map of his life. “The connections are oblique, and the material tends to get transmogrified, [but] Quentin, the hero, is essentially me at 17, except taller and better at math. His first and last attempt to smoke a cigarette is mine. A former girlfriend, with whom I’d had a difficult break-up, turns up in ‘The Magicians’ as a river nymph, beautiful but terrifying, with pointy interlocking teeth.”

Grossman also cheekily gave the example of a reviewer in the New York Times who once suggested “I had swiped my vision of the afterlife from Philip Pullman’s books, when in fact my vision of the afterlife comes almost entirely from my memories of gym class in junior high.”

Gym class isn’t nearly as visceral as it gets, however.

Lauren Beukes’ incendiary time-travel serial killer novel “The Shining Girls” came out of her rage “about a 23-year-old old friend who was murdered by her boyfriend and how he walked away because the police botched the investigation so badly,” she said. “Getting involved with the case and trying to help her family made me realize that our idea of justice is a fairy tale inspired by TV shows and movies.”

For the forthcoming novel “Lagoon,” about an alien invasion, World Fantasy Award winner Nnedi Okorafor had to conjure up experiences as an athlete and also relive the trauma of having twice witnessed a Nigerian “necklacing,” or public execution where “an alleged lawbreaker has a tire put over his or her neck and set afire.”

Okorafor said she tends to inject her “happiest, hilarious, craziest, most colorful and most painful experiences” into her fiction. She also used other people’s extreme experiences — third-hand tales, related by her mother, of the tungwa, a strange creature seen by relatives in the forests of rural Igboland in Nigeria. “A floating sphere with human skin that explodes into tufts of hair and teeth,” the tungwa fit “right into the story” of “Akata Witch.”

I don’t know what Okorafor’s relatives saw or didn’t see, but I can sympathize. While hiking in North Florida I’ve witnessed strange things, encountered dolphins in freshwater canals, stared down a wild boar and had to jump over an alligator. I’ve survived being caught out on the marsh flats during a ravenous thunderstorm and, once, been so utterly lost and disoriented that I couldn’t find my way back for hours. All of that is captured in my so-called speculative fiction and is what gives my novels life on the page.

VanderMeer’s final book in his Southern Reach Trilogy, “Acceptance,” will be published in September.