The Big Idea: Nicole Peeler

Does a “beach read” novel need an intellectual justification? Probably not, but if it actually has one, that’s always a bonus. And as it happens, literature professor and debut novelist Nicole Peeler has some rigorous and righteous background justification for her novel Tempest Rising, which follows the mystical adventures of half-selkie Jane True. Not only that, but Peeler also lays out some deep thoughts on “urban fantasy” in general, and why it speaks to us here and now. Hey, that’s a pretty big idea, so it’s good we’re all already here. Let’s get to it.

NICOLE PEELER:

By trade, I’m a professor of English literature. And yet, when I finally wrote a book, it wasn’t the study on the pre-ideological formation of values in contemporary fiction that I’d always intended. Instead, I wrote an urban fantasy named Tempest Rising, which is about a girl who discovers she’s half-selkie.

In other words, I wrote a book that, on the surface, is the opposite of the novels I teach and read for my day job. From its inception, I envisioned Tempest Rising as a “beach read,” something fast-paced and sexy that a reader could gobble up in a day. Conversely, I teach Modernist literature, one of the most intellectually challenging genres possible, in that Modernism sought to elevate aesthetics over ethics and to eradicate the literary axioms taken for granted by writers and readers for centuries. These were texts meant to challenge, complicate, and obfuscate reality.

And yet, the Modernists weren’t merely being obstreperous. Rather, they were attempting to forge a literary style that was not only original, but also more effective at representing their lived experience than the rigid conformity to surfaces which is literary realism. As I teach in my classes, Modernist literature was fractured and difficult not because the Modernists were jerks, but because they were weathering the death throes of the philosophical assumptions Western culture had taken for granted for so many years. In many ways, then, Modernist texts are traumatized texts, testifying to their authors’ struggles to make sense of a world apparently crumbling around them.

Which leads me to my idea for Tempest Rising, specifically, and for urban fantasy, in general. There’s been much talk in the media about the “rise” of urban fantasy. Oftentimes, this coverage is attached to a particular cultural obsession with sparkly vampires. And yet, as most commentators have admitted, there is more going on with this interest in the supernatural and the paranormal than a mere teeny-bopper fad. There’s something about urban fantasy, with its very specific images and themes, that appeals to readers from diverse generations and walks of life, right at this moment.

When I started planning my own urban fantasy, it was very obvious to me what my Big Idea was going to be. I’ve always been fascinated with religion, mythology and fairy tales, and especially the idea of Jungian archetypes: the theory that, somewhere in the deepest recesses of our brains, lie the imprinted memories of our earliest ancestors. Jung’s theory explaining why diverse cultures share similar mythologies is fascinating, needless to say, but I’d always been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, wielder of Occam’s Razor. When I imagined myself asking Holmes the same set of questions that inspired Jung, Holmes’ response was obvious: “Perhaps these creatures exist.”

And so, the world of Tempest Rising was born: I knew the sorts of supernatural creatures that would populate my world and how they would live amongst us. The idea of archetypes that first hooked me, however, has also offered me insight into the current interest in the supernatural and paranormal. According to Jung, we soothe our fears of that which goes bump in the night by weaving narratives–complete with morals, warnings, and vivid images of loss. In other words, folk and fairy tales are an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world, just as the grand aesthetic experiment that was Modernism was also an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world.

Think, now, of the times we live in, post 9/11: a world riven by various wars, natural disasters, the real plague of AIDS, the media plagues of Avian and Swine Flu, an increasing distrust of authority figures, and the nihilistic horror of terrorism. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, is it any wonder that urban fantasy, the genre of the contemporary fairy tale, is on the rise? After all, urban fantasy offers a vision of the world in which traditional evils–vampires, werewolves, zombies–are often times merely misunderstood. Meanwhile, traditional heroes–vampire hunters, government agencies, the Church–are often revealed to be sanctimonious, narrow-minded, and murderous zealots. The binaries neatly dividing good and evil are blurred in this genre, and the underlying message in many urban fantasies seems to be that the individual must make his or her own choices: that we must rely on our own experiences and intellect in a world that wants to brand outsiders as evil, to force ideological dichotomies on reality, and to make soldiers of us all.

Urban fantasy, like its folkloric and literary predecessors, offers no more and no less than a narrative restructuring of life: one which highlights cultural anxieties about our world even as it offers escape through storytelling. So move over Modernism! These “beach reads” bite back. And we like it.

—-

Tempest Rising: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Tempest Rising. Follow Nicole Peeler on Twitter. Visit her group blog, The League of Reluctant Adults.

38 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Nicole Peeler

  1. … Is it wrong that what I really want, after reading that, is 1000 words about modernist vs realist literature?

    Also, “soldiers of us all.” would be an awesome name for an album.

  2. Yeah, I have a BA in English and that was a confirmation of everything I suspected. The field seems still to be dominated by specialists in a rigidly defined species of groupthink.

    Perfect example: ‘soldiers’ are assumed by one and all to be mindlessly evil doers of evil deeds who must be opposed by the enlightened ones in University English departments.

    I wish the author the best. If her book is well-written I’m sure it will do well, in spite of her ironic venom for those that think differently from her.

  3. ben: If it becomes a band, I’m on bass. And I’ll work on that essay for next time. ;-)

    Skar: I teach at the university local to Barksdale Air Force Base, and most of my students and friends are soldiers. My brother and father were both in the military, and my brother is now a policeman. Just because I believe that the world, right now, does want to make us soldiers does not mean that I think soldiers fight on the side of “mindless evil.” Those are your words. Rather, soldiers, like all of us, have to pick their battles and pick their sides. The soldiers that I know and love deal with such complicated issues daily, and I see them as individuals unique not only in their valor but in how they struggle with the issues of morality and conscience that they’re forced to confront, daily, because they want to protect their families and their nation. In other words, I try not to judge any person by their job, whether it’s on a military base or a college campus.

  4. Nicole
    [blockquote] Meanwhile, traditional heroes–vampire hunters, government agencies, the Church–are often revealed to be sanctimonious, narrow-minded, and murderous zealots. …that we must rely on our own experiences and intellect in a world that wants to brand outsiders as evil, to force ideological dichotomies on reality, and to make soldiers of us all.[/blockquote]

    My apologies. I obviously misunderstood your intent.

  5. Yes, I firmly believe that the current political climate does want to define us as soldiers–as either “with” things or “against” things–but we get to choose which side we fight on. Oftentimes UF has a hero or heroine confronted with just such a choice. Take, for examples, Jaye Well’s Red-Headed Stepchild. The character, Sabina, in that book is an assassin for her people (a soldier) who thinks she’s fighting on the “right” side. She comes to question her choice, however, and ends up rebelling. Sabina never ceases to be a soldier–that’s still absolutely her identity. But confronted with certain truths she follows her conscience and fights against what she realizes is a despotic regime, rather than for it.

    Eventually, these are the sorts of choices that are going to confront my own characters. There will be some of my characters depicted as “mindlessly” following certain leaders, just as, in real life, people of all walks of life “mindlessly” follow whatever ideology has captured them. That said, many of my characters are going to confront their demons head on and illustrate how even people with degrees in English can come to their own conclusions, independent of what they learned from their leaders or from their professors.

  6. Indeed. I can only agree. We are all responsible for our choices and must be willing to honestly question everything, soldiers and English majors included. Unfortunately that questioning is anethema to our current political leaders, both those in the ascendant and not.

    My earlier response was prompted by the inclusion of ‘soldiers’ in the list of bad things the world wants. Again, I obviously missed your true intent.

    Best of luck.

  7. Was I wrong that I assumed that by “soldiers” she was speaking figuratively? Soldiers being any people that have been indoctrinated into some kind of force and are being directed against something else. I didn’t think Nicole was actually talking about the 101st air-born.

  8. Thanks, Skar! And I chose that word after a lot of deliberation. Living so close to a base, I see both a lot of mindless patriotism and a lot of really amazing people who articulate and defend their beliefs in ways that blow my mind. I think we all have knee-jerk reactions to words such as “soldier,” and I wanted to give the a little hammer. :-)

    Ben: I was actually talking about you, specifically. Just kidding!

  9. So hopefully the whole “Vampires are people too and jsut want to be loved” thing will never quite reach teh point where they do in fact start farting rainbows.

    Whew. I was kinda worried about that one.

  10. Back to the book – finished it last week – it was a very enjoyable book with some engaging characters. I look forward to the next one in the series.

  11. Wow – this dsicussion was WAY too heavy (and, honestly, pretty cool) to drop the “farting rainbow” bomb into it. Sorry folks. Mayhap I’ll read the posts BEFORE commenting next time.

  12. “Meanwhile, traditional heroes–vampire hunters, government agencies, the Church–are often revealed to be sanctimonious, narrow-minded, and murderous zealots.”

    This right here is probably my biggest problem with urban fantasy. It doesn’t really do anything to blur the dividing line between good and evil, it simply inverts the equation. We’re led to believe the government is solely out for world domination, the Church wants only to enslave our minds, and that vampire hunters are simply agents of a genocidal army. And the implication is that anyone who supports these groups gets lumped into the “sanctimonious, narrow-minded zealot” category.

    I concede that large, powerful institutions (such as government, church, corporations) have certainly done more than too much harm by forcing ideologies and branding outsiders as evil. But to imply that one must either be wicked or stupid to practice a religion/support the government/work at microsoft does nothing to diminish the classic “us vs. them” animosity.

  13. This looks great, and I totally had a class when I was getting my BA in English that this would have been perfect for, so I emailed my professor and let her know about it in case she wants to look into using it next time around.

  14. In a half-formed response to Tim at 13, I think that even the mirror image of “us vs. them” does diminish the animosity, to an extent. True, it isn’t the accurate and entirely realistic depiction of real life that we might aspire to…but if a beach book, via this polarity reversal, makes someone question the original “us vs. them” I think it’s diminishing the animosity by promoting thought on the idea.

    As you may tell from my run-on sentence, I do not have an English degree. But I wanted to play along too.

  15. I too am tired, oh so tired, of hearing “religion is bad and/or stupid”, the “government is evil and/or stupid”, and the “corporations are evil and/or stupid” as well as the rest of the currently safe yet pseudo-rebellious memes that permeate so much of the popular culture. It seems to get pounded on/preached an awful lot.

    Yet can it not be argued that holding those memes as well as their opposites in the same head would result in “blurred lines” in that person’s head?

    If you postulate that “The Man” gets his line of propaganda promulgated just fine without the help of pop-culture then pop-culture being dominated by the pseudo-rebellious influences simply helps to balance things in people’s heads. (I personally don’t buy that postulation but the point remains the same)

    It’s, as always, the heads that only allow entrance to one side of the debate that we have to worry about.

  16. Joel: I’m writing down “must make vampire characters fart rainbows . . .” ;-) Just kidding. And don’t worry, my students comment ALL THE TIME about stuff they haven’t actually read. I’m used to it.

    Tim: I entirely agree! And I am not, in any way, arguing that the dichotomized stance you’re describing is in any way correct. That’s why I liked the Modernists: they challenged binaries. Anyway, I was commenting upon the fact that urban fantasies do often suggest a discomfort with authority, not that they should. That said, however, there are a lot of UF’s out there in which the good guys ARE the government agencies. Jeaninne Frosts’s Cat and Bones series has a “good” gov’t agency, as does Jen Rardin’s wonderful series about Vayl and Jaz, both of whom work for the government.

    Thanks, Mel! :-) Hope your professor likes it.

    T.M. Thomas: It’s good you raised the issue that, at the end of the day, these books are not, at their heart, cultural critiques. Thanks you. Sometimes I, too, need to be reminded of is fact.

    Skar: Exactly. There are so many forces in our polarized society trying to tell us how to think. I really like that UF often depicts people struggling to figure stuff out for themselves, even if they come to flawed decisions or end up taking their frustrations out with a flaming axe of magic. I think we all feel that way, somedays. ;-)

  17. TM: I would have said “The Giving Tree,” but I had a student accuse it of misogyny, and defend her point very well, so now even THAT book is ruined for me. *le sigh*

  18. There is something to be said about the fact that many–not all–UF authors these days are Gen Xers and younger. Disillusionment against institutions and authority are bound to show up in some of our work. But as Nicole so brilliantly pointed out, a lot of these stories really are about people trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Moral relativism is just as often attacked as moral absolutism in many stories. In other words: Institutions suck, but then so do a lot of individuals, and often good and evil aren’t mutually exclusive.

  19. TM: I would have said “The Giving Tree,” but I had a student accuse it of misogyny, and defend her point very well, so now even THAT book is ruined for me. *le sigh*

    Awesome.
    I wouldn’t let it ruin books for you though. When I was in college I got perverse pleasure, (sometimes I think it’s the only way I stayed sane) in thinking up the most ridiculous positions to take on a given piece of literature and then extracting symbolism, or whatever theory of criticism we were exploring, to support my point in lengthy papers or presentations. The presentations were the hardest though, because I had to keep a straight face in front of a professor who had, more often than not, a very pained look.

  20. Tim #13 – I think it signals a lack of imagination to think that killing evil creatures of the night is a non-profit-ONLY industry. There’s simply GOTTA be some profit in there somewhere! At the very least, confiscating all the property and investments of creatures who are hundreds of years old has gotta be worth the trouble, right?

  21. Jaye said: Institutions suck, but then so do a lot of individuals, and often good and evil aren’t mutually exclusive.

    I think this is a valid observation and something I’ve enjoyed about UF, as opposed to previous genres I read like space opera/military sf/epic fantasy. There is a lot more moral relativism in UF, in my experience.

  22. Er, what do obfuscate and obstreperous mean?
    PS You had me at the book cover. I just added it on my November book order list.

  23. Jaye: Well said. :-) I like that idea of people in UF just trying to figure out who to believe in any more.

    Skar: Haha! You were that student! I should have known. ;-) And I know that look well. I was totally giving it to the Giving Tree student, but by the time she got to, “And THEN he SITS ON HER STUMP,” I was sold. That book is pretty f-ed up, on further consideration. And speaking of books, your recommendation looks awesome! Sort of reminds me of Orbit’s Monsters Inc… but with more guns.

    Tumbleweed: There’s totally a profit margin there . . . once you can keep your employees from being exsanguinated. And you should check out Monsters Inc from Orbit Books. ;-)

    T.M.: If you mean morally relativistic in its oldest sense (rather than the current “point your finger and shout ‘relativist'” definition) than yes, I would agree with you. ;-) It does vex pre-conceptions about “good” v. “evil” but UF also has very clearly defined no-nos when it comes to properly heroic behavior.

  24. Dirty Wizard Hunter: Sorry, you snuck in while I was already commenting. “Obfuscate” means “you should put my book on your November order list” and “obstreperous” means “Oh, you already did? Well then you are a very discerning reader. Thank you.” ;-)

  25. Firstly, I have not, as yet, read your book. I only found out about it about 10 minutes ago. However, I must say that the thought of someone who has your background writing a book of that nature just gets me all a-tingle.
    Why? Because essays like this exist:
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2009/10/whos-afraid-of-the-avant-garde/

    If only classical composers would write a ‘beach read’ every now and then to let us ‘outsiders’ in on even just a thin veneer of what’s going on.
    I’m a musician and my guitar player just got his English Lit Ph.D. with a thesis on ‘Post 9/11 Ethics’. Huh? As luck would have it, our drummer is an English teacher and when they start discussing Foucault and Adorno, I’m SO lost. And these are my buddies!!!
    If you can give me a Charles de Lint/ Guy Kay clone with a side-order of ‘pomo’…I’m be a slave for life!!:-)

    Looking forward to reading the book soon and I’ll supply feedback.

  26. Harry: That is amazing. Thanks for sharing! I loved it.

    Laurence: First of all, I’m happy to have made you tingle. That does a gal’s heart proud. Secondly, this is such a fascinating article! It’s so true that, while I can read the most experimental fiction, and I can totally appreciate the po-mo artworks of people like Rothko (pretty colors!), most experimental music makes my ears bleed. But I think a lot of that is the reliance of some experimental music on dissonance, and the whole point of dissonance is that it sounds wrong to us. I guess it makes sense though, since the different senses each art form engages are so different. Like I said, even if you want a “real picture,” Rothko won’t actually offend because he’s giving you something lovely, even if it’s not a traditional still life or portrait. And with literature, there’s usually something to latch onto. For example, I always say Martin Amis is one of my favorite writers, but when I think about it I realize that he’s not, really. I love his ideas, but I would never pick up his fiction the way I would pick up Philip Pullman, Iris Murdoch, Robertson Davies, or Hemingway: for the comfort factor. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that our ears are such weird, delicate instruments and their function is so different from our sense of sight, or from the reasons that we read. Anyway, I do love my Foucault and Adorno, and I talk about Foucault’s Panopticon a lot, but Nietzsche is my own personal (lunatic) philosopher. Meanwhile, that’s awesome you play bass. I don’t think you really need to know philosophy to do that, and I actually think that playing bass is even cooler than Nietzsche. I’m musically challenged, but I do love experiment jazz, especially this guy: http://www.kornstad.com/. He plays experimental saxophone and it’s tres sexy. As for my book, it’s more Tom Holt or Christopher Moore than Charles de Lint. Just warning you. ;-) Hope you enjoy it! It still feels weird that it’s out there, now.

  27. Really great essay, Nicole. This is such an interesting slant! I’ve seen the 9/11 comparisons, but I find your explanation here fascinating.

    Anyway, I was just reading ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature,’ a moldy-smelling old book by Lovecraft I found at my UBS, and the intro makes an interesting point vis a vis the place of religious conventions in all this and a slight variation on the idea that fairy tales are there to make sense of the chaotic world:

    “Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore.”

    He more measures the “weird tale” by the creation of a sensation of “dread” of unknown forces, and he’s dealing more in horror, but your essay made me think about it. Especially where you mention the “traditional heroes–vampire hunters, government agencies, the Church…” maybe it’s not just that their way of dealing with frightening and unknown forces has seemed noble-but-not-yet-effective to some, or wrongheaded or sanctimonious to others, but that they’re not equipped fight the fight, because of the Jungian nature of what’s actually being fought, which is literally a “war on terror.”

  28. Carolyn, that’s fascinating! I love the pun you’ve made on “war on terror,” and I think you’re spot on. So much of urban fantasy is about anxiety with current social orders, with politics, and with the bizarrely stilted contemporary dialogues regarding “values,” but a lot of it is just about anxiety, in general. Great point, thanks!

  29. I haven’t read through the whole article yet… but I have to object to classifying Tempest Rising as a “Beach Read”. Yes it’s fun, and yes, it’s light-hearted, but a word to the wise. Do not take this book to the beach unless you want to come home with an incredible sunburn.

    Beach books need the ability to put the book down and go do something else for a while. Tempest Rising was definitely a “single sitting” read.

  30. So it’s been a year and a half but I finally got to read Tempest Rising. Yup! It was a whole day and a half read! And now I’m hooked:-(………….Nah, make that ;-)
    A very fine job. Now I’m off to get the next one. You have to love the whole instant gratification of ebooks. It’s 11at night, I’m 30 minutes drive from a good bookstore at the best of times and yet I’ll be well into it before I ‘hit the hay’ tonight!
    Keep them coming!

  31. Well, that didn’t work out so well. Last week I went on Kobo and got Tempest Rising. No problem there.
    Now, when I try to get Tracking The Tempest, it comes up Not Available!
    No real worries. I switched to iBooks and got it there for the same price. But it would have been nice to get it from a Canadian source. Just like last week.
    Just thought you’d like to know. Doubtless, it’s a cunning agent thing to make you super-rich. However, these things have an unfortunate way of going off the rails. So forewarned etc…..
    Keep ‘em coming! Keep ‘em available;-)

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