Books bring fantasy into real world

Wellington author Hannah parry will be a featured author in the Dunedin Writers & Readers...
Wellington author Hannah parry will be a featured author in the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Wellington author Hannah Parry is a featured author at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, which runs from today until Sunday. The Star chief reporter Brenda Harwood asked Parry some questions about her entertaining literary style, which brings fantasy into the real world.

In your debut novel, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep (2019), you bring literary characters to life through the device of a "summoner", who can read characters into existence. What inspired the concept?

I’d read books before where people either bring characters out of books or enter books themselves, and I’ve always loved how true that rings to the experience of reading a book.

When we read, if the book is doing its job, it always feels as though the characters are standing right beside you.

What I wanted to do with the summoners in particular was celebrate the way in which each reader experiences a book differently. When a summoner reads a character from a book, what comes to life is their own particular interpretation of that character.

I wanted to explore the malleability of literature, and how no two readers ever really read the same book.

The book features some of fiction’s best-loved characters, from Sherlock Holmes, to Dorian Gray, and Uriah Heep himself. Are these characters some of your all time favourites? Or did they require significant research?

I definitely cheated in the research department by using characters I loved!

I knew early on that one of the main characters in the book was going to be an English literature academic, and that whatever his specialty was would shape the world of the book.

I decided on Dickens partly because his world is vast and alive, with so many colourful characters and gaps in the stories to play in. From there, that branched out into other nineteenth-century books, which all had the best characters anyway.

My own PhD was in children’s literature, not Victorian literature, but I loved and had studied Dickens and Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde and the others.

You set the book in modern-day Wellington, overlaid with the fantasy world in the form of the Victorian-era "street". And in your second book, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians (2020), you continue to bring magic into the real world. How do you meld the two worlds together?

I always start by thinking about how I want to use the fantasy world to explore what’s happening in the real one.

So, in Unlikely Escape, the Victorian street in central Wellington started as a way of thinking about our relationship to reading, and the experience of reading British texts in the very different setting of New Zealand.

With the Shadow Histories books, I wanted the way magic interacts with the world to heighten the real social issues at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment, and particularly the question of power.

Once you’ve got that central idea, you can have enormous fun taking it all literally and thinking about how various literary characters or historical figures would fit into the magic system, and I love that.

Can you give us a taste of what you will be talking about during your sessions for the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival?

Yes! In "Escaping the Humdrum", Gareth Ward and I will be talking with Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb about the way we build the fantasy worlds of our books.

In "Women, Past & Present" a panel of us (Angela Wanhalla, Steff Green, Vanda Simon and myself) are going to speak on what we’ve learned from the women of the past, and what they can tell us about the future.

In "Magical Rights", Lynn Freeman is going to talk to me about A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, which came out last year, but also more generally about fantasy and its flexibility as a genre. I’m hugely looking forward to talking to everyone there.

You will also be in discussion with acclaimed author Elizabeth Knox in the final festival session "Placing Fantasy Inside the Real World" on Sunday. What particular subject will you be discussing with her?

We will definitely be discussing her latest, internationally acclaimed novel The Absolute Book, and I have a lot of questions about her worldbuilding, her otherwordly characters, and the way reality and fantasy intersect in her books.

I am very, very excited to talk to Elizabeth — she’s one of our greatest literary treasures and her work is always so intelligent, unexpected and beautiful.


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