Fiction is Built on “Types” – Proceed with Caution


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The following Q&A is a piece I wrote for my Author Interview at Smashwords regarding The Time Dancer, “a novel of Gypsy magic.” With my exotic characters carrying over into the sequel, The Two Magicians, I needed to address concerns that had been raised over the word Gypsy. For my own peace of mind, and so that I could clarify the matter for readers, I went back to my original notes to review what I had been thinking and learning about Gypsies at the time of writing The Time Dancer. I then did some fresh research (this time aided by the Internet) to check on how the term is currently being used, or eschewed, by whom.

Q: Have you been criticized for your characterization of “Gypsies” in your novel The Time Dancer?

A: I have been criticized for using the term, but I don’t believe anyone who reads the book is offended. My fictitious Gypsies are modeled on the Gypsies of India, who embrace the title. East Indian Gypsy dance, costume and culture inspired the descriptions of my magical “time dancer” Esmarelda and her clan. I have taken care to describe an assortment of “Wanderer” peoples, as varied as the lands they cross, based on my additional research into actual Traveler cultures around the world. I understand that the Roma of eastern Europe are no longer calling themselves Gypsies. While they are said to be descendants of East Indian Gypsies who migrated to Europe centuries ago, the Roma have long claimed their own culture, their own homeland, and their own name. You have to understand that way back when, Gypsies, from the European perspective, were newcomers from another continent; they were deemed to be heathen, foreign in every sense, and therefore immoral and untrustworthy. Derivative slang words have further burdened a perfectly good name for perfectly fine folks. The Roma have a private and unique culture, which they have tried to preserve in the face of many social and practical pressures to conform. In this, they are like other ethnic/religious groups who endure mild to extreme persecution rather than relinquish their identity or autonomy. I recommend the book Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca (1995, Random House – note that the word “Gypsy” for Roma was still in favor at time of publication) for the insights it provides regarding Roma history and culture, and how a word that only ever spoke to me of beauty, mystery and music came to be so fraught.

Yes, I kept my notes for 25 years. For each book I write, I make a small binder with bits of information I collected that were important to the story, as well as notes concerning book design and production, art, permissions and important contacts. In the case of The Time Dancer, my notebook includes a post-publication letter taking me to task on the “Gypsy” question. More recently, a good friend brought this up as well, based on her personal experience. I have come to welcome these challenges to characterizations and stereotypes in my writing, and now I make every effort to get such feedback before a book is in print! It’s important to be clear in our own minds about why and in what way a character is a “type” (physical/regional/gender), and appreciate the importance of the words we use to describe them, or the dialogue we write for them, both for readers who may identify with the fictitious person and those for whom s/he will be “other.”

As we see in the Q&A, wording that gets a pass in one decade may be out of favor down the road. We cannot always see that coming, but we have experienced such rapid changes in attitudes and social norms in our own lifetimes that the savvy writer must always be giving some thought to the future. While genre fiction is absolutely fueled by easily recognizable types and a breezy way with pop culture memes, and literary novels are more descriptive and specific, all novelists would do well to take a step back and try to see their work from the perspective of other times, places and cultures. We all want our work to have staying power, but too many writers shield themselves from criticism for fear of getting discouraged or missing the wave, and instead rush to publication. Well, I do get discouraged by criticism, especially when I know in my gut that it’s valid, but that’s what makes me get back to work. I let the thing rest, I do more homework, I pick it up again, and I make it better.

And then I go around again. (And I don’t worry about the wave. Waves crash quickly and keep on coming, there’s always a new one to catch.)

Looking at The Time Dancer two decades later, I found flaws, you can be sure. It was my first attempt at a novel, and my dear publisher had a hands-off approach to editing. He believed in the author’s voice. I believed that once I had a publishing contract someone with more experience would polish my work to brilliance. Not possible, didn’t happen! But we still produced a story that many readers enjoyed and continue to enjoy. Taking a red pencil to the work myself as I prepped it for the e-book edition, I realized that to keep what was good about it, I had to “stet” my novice mistakes as well. I did a light edit to adjust some punctuation and word usage, and otherwise left it alone.

I have two rules for writing and publishing books: 1) Don’t skip any steps; and 2) Don’t go backwards. If you follow the first, you won’t have to break the second.

When you order The Time Dancer from the Amador Publishers website, I will send you an autographed copy of the first printing of the first edition. Warts and all, it’s still a fun read that will stir your imagination and give you a pleasant reprieve from this troubled world.