Harlan Ellison is considered a kingpin of sci-fi, but he once threatened to kill a person's pet for saying as much.
Despite holding universes full of planets and beings outside our own reality, the science-fiction-fantasy genre can be limiting for authors who work in warmer, realer places.
Youngstown State professor Christopher Barzak accepts the genre affiliation, and sci-fi-fantasy circles have reciprocated with awards and praise for his two books published by Bantam, One for Sorrow and The Love We Share Without Knowing. But a term that might make a better fit for his work is "supernatural realism."
Barzak will offer a sample in his own voice at this week's Literary Picnic at the Thurber House. The first reading in the long-lived outdoor series devoted to emerging Ohio authors will also feature poet James J. Siegel and creative non-fiction writer David Giffels.
In a phone conversation earlier this week, Barzak explained, "I've always liked stories that have a kind of otherworldliness to them. I'd read [sci-fi] writers like Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin, and then as a young teenager to twentysomething was reading people like Jonathan Lethem or Karen Joy Fowler. They set stories in the recognizable world but there were fantastical things happening. I liked the kinds of metaphors that you could use to reflect on our world by setting up another one side by side.
"When I would read a certain kind of fantasy or magical realism, those stories made a lot of sense to me," he continued. "I felt that was a genre that might have some kind of room for me, even if I'm not doing it in a traditional manner."
Barzak's first novel, One for Sorrow, explored adolescence through a relationship formed between a 15-year-old boy and the ghost of a classmate murdered in the nearby woods. It earned him the Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy book and a review from the Village Voice that called the writing "lovely" and "melancholy."
The adjectives stick easily to Barzak's follow-up as well. Released last fall, The Love We Share Without Knowing is a collection of short stories set in Japan, inspired by two years the author spent teaching English there.
The tales are united by recurring characters, an American cultural impact and a sad but strangely irresistible longing, and defined by the author's attention to place and detail. His words evoke sensory overload in relation to Tokyo, then a palpable quiet around a faded shrine in a bamboo forest.
The Love We Share also has its own cast of spirits, including a shape-shifter and the members of a suicide pact.
Originally he planned to read from this book for his Thurber House appearance. But as Barzak explained on the phone, Literary Picnickers may get a preview of a novel in progress, Wonders of the Invisible World, in which the author applies his unique storytelling approach to the erasure of history within Rust Belt communities.
"It's a novel about three generations of a family in Northeastern Ohio and it's told from the point of the view of the youngest child in the newest generation," he explained.
"There's an element of magic in this book like in my first two; in this case it's a sort of gift for being a seer that runs through his family, but it shows up weird. He can't really see the future, only the past, these visions with no context, so the story's him trying to restore his family's past."
Barzak hopes to have his new literary fantasy finished by the end of the year.