What if?

Thursday, Oct. 15
WILLIAMSTOWN -- "There's something delicious about escaping into a world of what-if," says Rachel Barenblat. "What if there were magic? What if there were werewolves, and they were nothing like what pop culture tells us? What if the world is different than it's always seemed?"

Barenblat, a Lanesborough resident, and Inkberry, the local literary arts group she helped to found, have teamed with the Williams College English Department to organize a local reading by two authors who specialize in "what if."

Speculative fiction writers Elizabeth Bear and Margaret Ronald will be on hand to discuss the hows, whys and what-ifs of their work at 7 tonight in Griffin Hall 3 at Williams College, 844 Main St., Williamstown.

The event will include readings from each writer, a question-and-answer session, and a book signing.

Called "the what-if genre," speculative fiction can be difficult to define, but it tends to refer to stories in which the author plays with reality.

A number of subcategories fit under the "spec fic" umbrella: science fiction, alternate history, fantasy, horror, apocalyptic and dystopian literature, fairy tales, cyberpunk and steampunk fiction, and magical realism, to name a few. Authors from Isaac Asimov to Margaret Atwood to J.K. Rowling can be counted among the spec-fic crew.

The Hugo Award-winner

For Bear, her fiction is "fiction in which one or more speculative -- which is to say contrafactual -- elements are vital to the narrative structure. Or, less elaborately, weird fiction."

What does she think -- does she write sci-fi or fantasy?

"Yes," she replied. "Science fiction is, after all, a subset of fantasy."

She writes in other genres as well: mysteries, mimetic fiction, historical fiction, young adult.

The Hartford, Conn., native is the author behind the Shakespearean fantasy novels of the "Promethean Age" series; her most recent is "Hell and Earth," published by Roc Books in 2008. She also has written two trilogies of Norse fantasy for Tor Publishing and two trilogies of science fiction for Bantam Spectra. She is currently at work on her next "New Amsterdam" novella and final "Jacob's Ladder" book.

She has received many awards, including the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and she has been nominated for many more, including the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award. But she focuses more on people than prizes.

"The most gratifying thing about being a writer, actually, is when I receive a letter from somebody for whom one of my stories has made a personal difference," she said.

Which is why she likes meeting readers.

"They almost always have interesting things to say about books," she said. "And geeks are fun."

Bear doesn't really believe in what writers call process.

"I try not to have a process," she said. "My attitude is essentially whatever works, works: There are no rules, only tactics.

"What you do in any case is stare at a keyboard and try to think up things that are clever, true or beautiful -- or preferably all three."

New and acclaimed

An Indiana-born graduate of the Williams College English Department who now lives outside Boston, Ronald is the author of the critically acclaimed "Spiral Hunt" and has two sequels forthcoming from Eos Books.

The first sequel, "Wild Hunt," will be released in January of next year. One of her short stories has just come out in "The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 1."

She considers speculative fiction to be a catch-all term for "anything outside the realm of realistic fiction." She categorizes her own work as fantasy.

"Any time I try to write science fiction, it ends up being fantasy wearing a science fiction hat ... Fantasy is just something that sparks my imagination more, perhaps because there's more leeway for strange, symbolic work," she said.

In 2004, Ronald attended the Viable Paradise writers workshop on Martha's Vineyard. The experience, she said, was intense.

"It's a week packed with writing, reading other workshoppers' writing, critiquing, writing some more, listening, and then writing again. I came out of it a bit dazed, but my brain was fizzing with new ideas.

"But at the same time, there's a sudden feeling of community -- all of the workshoppers are speaking the same language and can sympathize about the same problems," she said.

To get that feeling of community at home, she is a member of BRAWL, a Boston sci-fi and fantasy writers group.

"BRAWL looks at most of my work before I send it out," she said, "and every time they make it better."

And reading other writers' work helps her to develop her own as well: "The more you do it, the easier it is to see your own work with clear eyes."

For Barenblat, an old friend of Ronald's, Halloween is the perfect time of year for fantasy/sci-fi speculation.

"There's definitely a connection between speculative fiction and the Halloween season," she said. "In Maggie's first book, we meet a detective in Boston who uses magic to sniff out missing people and things. In one of Elizabeth's trilogies, the realm of Faerie plays a major role. So both authors have gravitated toward themes which many of us associate with this time of year."

To reach Laura Marshall: lmarshall@berkshireeagle.com.

If you go ...

What: An evening of
speculative fiction with authors Elizabeth Bear and Margaret Ronald. The event will include readings, a Q&A session and a book signing.

When: 7 tonight.

Where: Griffin Hall 3 at Williams College, 844 Main St., Williamstown.

Information: (413) 664-0775, www.inkberry.org.


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