Fantasy authors incorporate elements of the fantastical into the modern world all the time — the genre of “urban fantasy” is all about that. But when authors inject fantasy into the real world, and into events of the real world that have a history of contentiousness and hard emotions, there’s another level of complication… and of opportunity. Debut author Stina Leicht found out about both with her novel Of Blood and Honey, which takes place in Northern Ireland of the not at all recent past. How does one thread the path between fantasy and reality in a setting like that? Leicht explains.
One of my favourite writers, Terry Pratchett, once wrote that stories were parasites that search for people to happen to.
I still wonder why this story picked me.
The first seeds of Liam’s tale were planted during a Science Fiction convention panel about culture and myth appropriation. The question posed was: Is it ethical for fantasy writers to strip-mine traditional stories and characters from minority cultures? During the ensuing battle, one panellist stated that the reason fantasy had ventured into foreign cultures was because the Celtic myths were tired and overdone. I walked away with the impression that what had actually been overworked were concepts based on other writers’ works—not ancient myth. My hunch was that genuine traditional Irish myths would be as foreign to most American readers as a Martian landscape.
Irish fairy tales come in two varieties. The first are no different than our Tall Tales of Paul Bunyan or John Henry. The second, according to Eddie Lenihan, traditional Irish storyteller and author of Meeting the Other Crowd—the Fair Folk—are dark, terrifying and ghostly. In fact, they have more in common with creatures from a Stephen King story than a Disney film. In addition, I wondered what it would be like to return those traditional myths to their native soil but in an urban setting. Unlike the United States, Ireland strikes me as a place where Christianity exists side by side with the Old Ways—maybe not always comfortably or peacefully, but they both exist. I wanted to write a story that treated those elements equally.
Not long after that I was working at BookPeople as a bookseller and found a nonfiction galley left in the employee lunchroom. The ARC was for Those Are Real Bullets, Aren’t They?: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 30 January 1972 by the British journalists Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson. Like many Americans, “Bloody Sunday” meant nothing more to me than a popular U2 song. Out of curiosity, I picked up the book. The more I read Pringle’s and Jacobson’s firsthand account, the more horrified I became. To think that a government—the British government, mind you, not a third world dictatorship—could get away with such a terrible lie in spite of photographic evidence, film evidence, forensic evidence and eyewitness accounts in my lifetime was beyond belief. When I told close friends about it they thought I was exaggerating. I couldn’t blame them. Who would want to believe it?
So it was that I decided to use fantasy elements to understand the conflict. I started writing about Liam—a Catholic growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland who is told his father was a Protestant who abandoned his mother when she became pregnant. However, his Grandmother’s lies conceal more than an illegitimate birth, and he grows up with no knowledge of what he is—one of the Fair Folk—nor his true potential. Like other teens, he deals with the day to day dangers of coming of age in the middle of a war, and like others in his community, he’s traumatized by it, but Liam inherits other problems from his real father: fallen angels, the fey, a sect of Catholic priest-assassins dedicated to protecting humanity from the supernatural, and a sworn enemy. Of course, then there’s the possibility that Liam might be more than a little bit… crazy.
The Troubles is a complex subject, and Americans are infamous for treating it with little respect. That’s why I was thorough and careful in my research. The novel definitely took me into some uncomfortable places, and it wasn’t always easy to write. However, I soon began to see similarities between the Britain of the 1970s and contemporary America. In fact, I was already a good way into writing Of Blood and Honey when the news hit about the arrests at the 2008 Republican National Convention. The video of American police kicking in the front door of a student protest group in Minneapolis was both eerily familiar and downright chilling. I began to wonder if I was going to finish before history tragically repeated itself. I still worry about our vast political divide, the resulting hostility, and where America is ultimately headed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this book it’s that frightened people make terrible, stupid mistakes. Frightened people with guns make deadly ones.
It’s important to note that the British government apologized for the massacre at Bloody Sunday last summer—thirty-eight years after British paratroopers shot and killed thirteen unarmed civilian protestors and then labelled them “terrorists.” Most Americans believe the situation in Northern Ireland was resolved with the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. However, Belfast now has more walls separating its communities than it did during The Troubles, and the recent economic situation has resulted in a resurgence of tension. So it is that the legacy of that Sunday in 1972 continues to tragically affect new generations. It’s why I believe we shouldn’t turn away from its lessons. Above all, we shouldn’t forget.