Writing magical realism
It took writer Peter Grandbois some 40 drafts to get his new novel, Nahoonkara, the way he wanted it before it was published in 2011. He’s happy with it now.
But that doesn’t mean he puts much stock in the fact that it was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The genial assistant professor at Denison laughs and shrugs when asked about the recognition. “That sounds bigger than it is,” he says. “There must have been several hundred books considered for those prizes.” He acknowledges that the nominations are a high compliment. But more satisfying than such acclaim, he says, is having appreciative readers.
Grandbois’ protests aside, it’s clear that Nahoonkara has been exceptionally well received by critics. “Exquisitely crafted,” one reviewer says. “Haunting,” writes another. “Full of wonders.”
The novel isn’t your standard, straightforward narrative. Told by multiple voices in the first, second, and third persons, it comprises a series of dream-like vignettes about a nineteenth-century family and their life in two places: the homestead in Whitelake, Wis., and a tiny mining town in Colorado. The action moves back and forth among places and times, building the story in nonlinear fashion. Moreover, Nahoonkara seems to partake of several genres – it’s part play, part poetry, part narrative, part flight of fancy. Grandbois calls it experimental fiction.
The novel’s quasi-surreal aura also arises from the author’s use of a writing style called magical realism. Elements of the mysterious – some would say the spiritual – intermingle with realistic features. And aspects of nature, such as spiders, trees, and mountains, play almost conscious, intentional roles.
“Magical realism asks the reader to open up to wonder,” Grandbois says, adding that his characters’ storytelling – and their pursuit of self-identity – show how truth is ever-changing and even becomes increasingly mysterious throughout individuals’ lives.
All of this makes Nahoonkara a perfect tool for Grandbois’ teaching. In his creative writing classes, the author uses parts of the first and the 40th drafts to introduce his students to multiple aspects of the creative process – the challenge of facing a totally blank page, the courage required to take risks and even to fail in their writing, and the necessity of editing, reshaping, and – hardest of all – cutting.
He asks students to build their imaginations by practicing the same painstaking exercises he himself uses, such as creating a one-page “life story” for each character, and narrating an imagined step-by-step walk through a town.
“Half the job in a creative writing class is to help the students improve their craft,” Grandbois says, “and the other half is to open them up to the creative spirit in themselves.” He encourages his students, like the fictional characters he creates, to constantly reinvent themselves as writers.
Grandbois himself is well-practiced in the art of self-reinvention. In a previous incarnation, he competed on the U.S. Fencing Team and nurtured Olympic aspirations. (Nowadays he coaches Denison’s fencing club.) He has worked in his family’s business in Denver, taught high school English in Chicago, and lived for a time in Spain.
Next up for publication? That’ll be a novel told from the point of view of an Ojibwe/Canadian Christian priest who figures in Grandbois’ ancestry. And there’s much more in his writing pipeline.