Rachel Hartman has had a long journey to literary success.
The Vancouver author first began building the fantasy world that would result in her first young adult novel in Grade 7. Seraphina was published the week she turned 40.
“It was amazing,” Hartman says. “It was really amazing, although I whined to them could they not bring the book out a week earlier while I was still 39?”
Hartman started writing in grade school, delving into complex, made-up worlds, but after earning a bachelor of arts in comparative literature she spent her 20s trying to break into comics.
“I was self-publishing these little ‘comics,’” she says. “You’d take them to the copy shop and photocopy them and staple them yourself. Then you’d go to comic conventions—for $50 a table—and sell these things off the table for a buck a piece. I broke even, but it was not a way to make a living.”
Then, when she turned 30, she moved with her family from the U.S. to Canada and had a baby. “I said, ‘You know, it’s probably time for me to figure out what I want to do when I grow up,’” she recalls.
So she began revisiting those fantasy worlds she created as a kid, writing while her baby napped. While her road to success required stubbornness and determination, along the way she found encouragement to continue.
For one, she was quickly signed by an agent then picked up by a publisher. There were a few more road bumps along the way, but Seraphina—which follows a 16-year-old court musician who finds herself entangled in a murder mystery involving dragons—went on to become a finalist of the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award, among other honours. Shadow Scale and Tess of the Road followed with similar success.
Some writers might find speculative fiction challenging, but Hartman says world building has always held appeal for her. “The fun part is just like we don’t know everything about the real world, you don’t have to know everything about your fantasy world either,” she says. “Having some room to grow and change over time is fun and good. With each new book I write, I learn something new.”
Hartman is making her first-ever trip to Whistler to teach two workshops on speculative fiction on April 12 for children and April 13 for writers age 13 and up.
She’ll lay out sub-genres of speculative fiction—from space opera to urban fantasy—and offer concrete tools like the “weirdness budget.” “One of my favourite tools is the weirdness budget,” she says. “The idea is that there’s only so much weirdness—counter-factual stuff that’s not part of real life—that a reader can deal with before they get overwhelmed and give up. You have to budget it.”
She offers coffee as an example. “If the people in your world wake up every morning and drink a hot beverage that’s bitter, you might as well call it coffee,” she says.
The Whistler Writing Society organized the sessions after receiving some feedback. “A lot of people have requested a speculative fiction workshop in the past, and so we’re really excited to have Rachel Hartman in Whistler to explore the genre with us,” says Stella Harvey, artistic director of the society, in a release. “It’s also a chance for local writers to get their pens rolling, and be inspired to take a leap into narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements.”
Building Worlds: Speculative Fiction Workshop with Rachel Hartman takes place on Saturday, April 13 from 10 a.m. until 12 p.m. at the Whistler Public Library. Tickets are $35 available here.