Author Sean Stewart mixes fantasy with social issues to create stories that are serious fun.
Thursday, July 30, 1998
Sean Stewart, whose writing has most often been classified as science fiction, frequently mixes elements of fantasy with social or psychological issues. His first two novels, Passion Play and Nobody''s Son, won Canada''s top award for science fiction and fantasy, and his third novel, Resurrection Man, was named by the New York Times as one of the top 100 novels of 1995. At a time when much popular science fiction and fantasy has become formulaic, Stewart is playing with new ways to incorporate the elements of those genres with mainstream literature.
"I''ve always wanted to write meaning-of-life thrillers, books that address social issues but don''t skimp on swordfights," says author Sean Stewart, "books that combine the ''fun'' value of genre literature and issues that affect peoples'' lives." Stewart points to Shakespeare, Melville and LeCarr as examples of writers who have successful mixed entertaining elements with serious issues.
Earlier this month, Ace Books released Mockingbird, Stewart''s sixth novel. The book chronicles the period of time in Toni Beauchamp''s life between the death of her mother and the birth of her daughter.
Written in the first person, Stewart shows a keen empathy, perhaps surprising from a male author, for the emotions of a pregnant woman. The writing often approaches lyricism as Beauchamp describes her world and relationships. It''s also filled with soft humor.
"Momma has the most beautiful voice. Sometimes she claims to have been an actress in her younger days. I can''t prove that, but no one who hears her speak can deny the power of her voice; not clear at all, but worn soft with smoking and tears and bourbon, and laughter too. I don''t think I''ve told you how much my mother laughed, or how much her laughter sounded like crying."
On one level, Mockingbird is a gentle look at the relationship between mothers and daughters: Even as Toni does her level-headed best to reject all of her mother''s values, she finds herself becoming progressively more like her. On another level, the story is filled with magic, spirits and voodoo-esque fetishes that take Mockingbird to another level and touch on the "sense of wonder" that''s one of Stewart''s favorite topics.
"The sense of wonder is the sense that something is mysterious and exciting," says Stewart, "it''s a kissing cousin to the sense of the sacral. That the rise of fantasy literature [beginning in the late ''60s] mirrors the decline of organized religion is no accident."
He points to both JRR Tolkien''s seminal (and much imitated) Lord of the Rings as a prime example of fantasy writing based on thinly veiled Christian values.
"The basic moral stance of LOTR revolves around the conflict between pride and despair, and the value of humility," says Stewart. "These are folk-accessible questions about spiritual matters that society has dropped the ball on."
While Stewart''s earliest works were more recognizable as belonging to the science fiction/fantasy genre, beginning with Nobody''s Son, Stewart made the decision to get more personal with his work.
"My wife said, ''You''re going to have to put a little of yourself on the line,''" Stewart recalls. "So I started using more of my life in the novel, indirectly and directly.
"I want my books to be formally distinctive--not just a vampire, or a space-opera novel. They are all handmade."
Stewart describes the standard science fiction/fantasy novel as being built with a kit, there are specific forms and props that are consistent throughout these books. Nobody''s Son, Resurrection Man and Mockingbird represent Stewart''s rejection of the accepted form. At the same time this approach gives Stewart an individual voice, it increases the chance for failure.
"The difficulty with doing really original work is that it''s difficult to know what''s crap," says Stewart. "You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself. You have to be willing to fuck up, fall flat on your face, if you''re going to do anything great." cw
Sean Stewart signs copies of Mockingbird at Bay Books in Monterey at 2pm Sunday. 375-1855.