Lara Elena Donnelly on the Intersection of Politics and Narrative

Lara Elena Donnelly on the Intersection of Politics and Narrative

Lara Elena Donnelly

Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier series transports readers to a city being overtaken by a facist government. Amnesty, the third and final book in the series, is on shelves now but there was a time when Donnelly believed the story would never extend beyond book one. Here, Donnelly shares how political events that took place after she wrote Amberlough impacted readers’ perception of her work and generated demand for more books in the series.

Recently, I was having lunch with a writer friend, and relayed a comic incident about a visit to a podiatrist’s office. It had a lot of laugh lines. It had moments of tension and disbelief. But at the end of the anecdote, she said, “You know, that’s the kind of thing people always say ‘I bet you’ll use it in a story someday.’ And you never do.”

Real life anecdotes don’t translate easily into fiction. My funny story didn’t have stakes. It didn’t have emotional heft. It didn’t make good on an implicit promise; there was no satisfaction at the end, no resolution. Real-life anecdotes, no matter how amusing, amazing, traumatic, or strange, don’t usually offer what fiction does.

Conversely, the balance and irony and satisfaction of fiction aren’t often present in real life. This is something I’ve been bumping up against a lot as I wrap up a trilogy about the rise and—most relevant to this article—the fall of a totalitarian regime in a fictional world, while all around our ears the real world just seems to be sinking further into nationalism, racism, xenophobia, war-mongering, corruption, and chaos.

I started writing Amberlough years before Trump announced his candidacy. Ages before Brexit. You could argue the stone had already struck the pond, and that the ripples had started to spread, but I had no inkling of the coming tidal wave back in 2010, 2011, 2012. Even when we announced the sale, in January 2015, it was just a book about nightclubs and gay spies. A dazzling romp. Says so right on the cover.

But in the fall of 2016, as I started doing pre-launch events, as the first advance reviews began to come in, the book meant something new. Something urgent. Every panel I was invited to speak on, every interview I gave, every promotional blog entry I was asked to write, everyone wanted to ask about politics, fascism, and our current political climate. I started to flinch at the word “timely.” As if we had planned the release to coincide with all of this.

After the election I started to crack bleak jokes—we thought this book was going to be a niche, cult thing: a queer little not-quite-fantasy a couple of people might passionately enjoy. But now it was “a book for our times.” Thanks, Trump, I guess. Cue laughs.

People talked about the first book in terms of resistance, which confounded me and seemed like a stretch: One character collaborates, one runs away, and only the third one stays to fight. But one thing I have learned in this is that people find the messages they need in books. And they needed that message from this one.

Amberlough was meant as a standalone, initially, but as it went through edits I started to wonder if there wasn’t more story to tell. It didn’t look likely that I’d get the chance. Remember: cult queer niche not-quite-fantasy. Until March 2017, about two months after Trump’s inauguration, when my agent called and said, “They want two more books.”

In the press of pushing out thousands of words a day, for days on end, working toward that deadline, trying to write the bridge between the last scene of Amberlough and the nascent plot of what would become Amnesty, I began to second-guess my narrative choices.

Armistice is a book explicitly about revolution: an armed and violent resistance to totalitarianism. One I needed, for my plot. But it wasn’t happening around me. The opposite, in fact: People were tired, cynical, exhausted, afraid. I felt, almost, that I was peddling a lie. That I was writing this to give people what they wanted, what they thought should happen in the face of such appalling corruption and intolerance: Resistance. A revolution that succeeds. A revolution that exists, at all. That arms itself and trains itself and earns support abroad and at home. Many things that were manifestly not happening in the real world, where politics don’t move according to the needs of narrative.

The real world didn’t look like what I was writing, but I could still draw on the emotional realities of living in it. Which is what I ended up doing as I dove into drafting Amnesty. You want to talk about cognitive dissonance? In this book, the revolution has come and gone, and now it’s all about mopping up. A mess of striving, squabbling, disagreement, and politicking. Ironically, Amnesty drew the most from my experience of the 2016 election, though after a lot of revisions the parallels aren’t as obvious—aren’t parallels at all anymore, really.

I wanted it to be a story that defied expectations and complicated assumptions. So many stories present a successful revolution as the solution to a problem, and not simply another upheaval with brand new consequences. I wanted readers to look at beloved—or reviled—characters in new lights, under new circumstances.

Amnesty is a story about characters who do turn their real lives into narratives, and use those narratives as tools. Or even wield them as weapons. At the end of the day, none of the books in the Amberlough Dossier is an allegory or a metaphor. They aren’t fictionalizations of real events. But they are about the stories people tell to themselves and everyone else to contextualize their own actions; stories they tell to make sense of their own chaotic world.

Lara Elena Donnelly is a graduate of the Alpha and Clarion writing workshops. Her fiction won the Dell Magazine Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy and she has been published in Icarus, Strange Horizons, Grim Corps, and Mythic Delirium. Donnelly has worked as professional fire performer, belly dancer, and is knowledgeable in aerial acrobatics and burlesque. Amberlough is her debut novel.


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