Why I Write Speculative Fiction

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

Web Editor’s Note: Today begins our new Tuesday genre columns. Please join me in welcoming Melanie Marttila to the DIY MFA team! Her column, Speculations, will focus on all things speculative fiction. To learn more about Melanie and the other new members of the DIY MFA team, check out this post right here.

When Gabriela first mentioned the possibility of me writing a semi regular post on science fiction and fantasy for DIYMFA, I was furiously happy. Now that the opportunity has materialized, I want to do my best to serve the DIYMFA community. Since this is my inaugural post, I thought I’d start with an introduction of sorts. When I tell people that I write fantasy and science fiction I’m often asked why. What made me choose that particular commercial genre?

The Enduring Influence of Children’s Books

My default response is because that’s what I read when I was growing up. When I got my own library card, C.S. Lewis’s chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Cycle, Madeleine L’engle’s Time Trilogy (now quintet), and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series were the books I took out again and again. I eventually bought all of them for myself. [Book addict tip: Remember, it’s not hoarding if it’s books.]

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t discover either Ursula K. Le Guin (now one of my favourites) or Robert Heinlein until I was in university. If I’m being honest, though, my connection to fantasy goes back even further.

The Search for Identity in Comic Books

Before the library card and before the storybook, there were comic books. I don’t want to date myself, but, back then, in smallish town Northern Ontario, the selection was pretty limited for a girl looking for someone of her gender in comics. I bought what I could find, though. It was mostly Wonder Woman (mythic Amazon warrior woman), Batgirl (gadgeteer), Huntress (gadgeteer), and, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, Dazzler (genetic mutant).

I didn’t go for the ensembles at first, but when the X-Men started on the Dark Phoenix (mutant/cosmic entity) story arc, I was there. I was hungry for stories featuring a strong, female characters that propelled the plot. Were there any influences pre-comic book?  You betcha.

The Magic of Myths and Fairy Tales

I’ll have to blame this one on my maternal grandmother. She had a set of Collier’s The Junior Classics. Think of them as Reader’s Digest Condensed Books for kids (I really am dating myself here, aren’t I?).

They ran the gamut from fairy tales, through the Greek and Roman myths, legends like King Arthur and Robin Hood, to abbreviated retellings of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. You could say that these little stories started a life long love affair. Sadly, the set was given way before I recognized their value. Of course, I was reacquainted with many of these stories throughout elementary, high school, and university. It was the sense of wonder that kept me coming back.

And before even The Junior Classics, there were nursery rhymes. Think about it. A man can’t keep his wife, so he puts her in a pumpkin shell? A girl grows a garden using silver bells and cockle shells? Three guys set sail on a sea of dew in a wooden shoe? A cat plays a fiddle and a cow jumps over the moon? How magical is all of that? Of course, later on, I learned some of the darker origins of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, but that only made me love them more (moar, I tell you!).

So I’ve been raised on fantasy, and to a lesser extent, science fiction, since infancy. I’m sure, for readers of the genre, the same is true.

We Write What We Read

Hold on there, Mellie, I hear you say, I, too, was raised on nursery rhymes and myths and legends, but I enjoy the most literary of fiction. How do you explain that?

I’d suggest that you likely gravitated toward the cautionary tale of Jack and Jill, or Old Mother Hubbard’s poor, hungry dog, rather than the more fanciful verses. You may have rolled your eyes at the continual divine interventions of The Iliad, but revelled in the battle scenes, romance, and political intrigue.

This is to say, each reader (and therefore writer) filters the texts of their childhood, oral and written, through their own evolving world view.

From Where You Dream*

And here we come to the core of my motivation. Before anything else, I was a dreamer, not only in the night time (I was also a somnambulist and somniloquist), but also during the day. I’d get that thousand yard stare and I’d be gone. I’d tune everything else out.

My daydreaming got so bad at one point that I was tested for epilepsy (true story). It was suggested that I might be having petit mal seizures. Not so. The world of my dreams was just so much more compelling to me than what was going on in school, I couldn’t help myself. I’ll share a little secret with you: I still do it.

It’s how I’m wired and that’s why I’ve chosen to write fantasy and science fiction. The writer doesn’t really choose what she writes. The writing chooses the writer, in my opinion. Yes, I’ve written and published poetry. I’ve written literary stories and won prizes for them. The thing is, magic saturated whatever I wrote. Wacky ideas about science or technology found their ways in.

Eventually, I stopped seeing these bits and pieces as anomalies and accepted them for what they were: my creative go-go juice. It’s my non-life-threatening addiction. Fantasy and science fiction get me running to the page, or the computer. They’re what I’m passionate about in my storytelling.

And that’s the best and only reason to write anything.

*From Where you Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler

Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at http://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Sara Letourneau

    Ohhhh, I’ve been looking forward to this post ever since I was told you would be doing an SF&F column! And what a lovely first article, Melanie. 🙂

    I actually got into speculative fiction “late.” I didn’t read much of it at all until I was about 20, when I read the Lord of the Rings (after seeing the film trilogy). That whet my appetite and led me to Tolkien’s other works, as well as C.S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Ursula K. Le Guin (I grinned when you said she’s one of your favorites). And now, speculative fiction – or more or less, fantasy – is most of what I read.

    • Aw, thank you, Sara 🙂 What a lovely welcome!
      While I do read quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy, I try to mix it up with non-fiction, classics, mysteries, historical fiction, and even literary. I’m firmly of the opinion that I learn something from every book I read (learning mutt).
      I have to be eclectic. My to-be-read pile (virtual and print) is reaching epic proportions (!)

      • Sara Letourneau

        Same here. Fantasy is most of what I read, but I also enjoy historical fiction, literary fiction, and nonfiction. Some of my favorite non-speculative books of all time are Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

        “I have to be eclectic. My to-be-read pile (virtual and print) is reaching epic proportions (!)”

        Ohhhhh do I know that feeling well! XD

  • Congratulations, Melanie! And also to the DYI MFA regulars. Snagging Melanie is a real boon to an already wonderful lineup.

    The Once and Future King was my touchstone for fantasy as a preteen. To this day, a personal favorite. My first role in a high school play was as the Mock Turtle of Alice in Wonderland fame.

    But I must admit that I did most of my reading in speculative lit as a mother. Both of my daughters were avid fans of Le Guin & Alexander. Of course, Lewis & Pullman. It was through them that I discovered J. K. Rowling and many, many others.

    And now we have Melanie to take us to unknown worlds. My passport is stamped and ready.

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