Americaland

At Clarion, I was nailed more than once for drawing on America as a setting and source for my writing. Given that I’m British, and my stories were being critiqued by a group of very intelligent and culturally aware Americans from across that vast continent, I really had no defence.

After one critique Neil talked to me about Americaland, the fictitious facsimile of the United States where many British writers set stories, himself included early in the early issues of Sandman. Americaland is real place for British writers, it is built from thousands of fragments of American TV, films, music, comics and other cultural artefacts. It’s a place filled with 1950’s dinners and long desolate highways among other things. And its just as imaginary as a Britain filled with red telephone boxes and bowler hatted business men.

(One draw of Americaland is the British tendency towards naffness…IE…any story that seems fascinating and dark in Americaland becomes utterly naff if you transplant it to the UK. Batman in Gotham = Dark Knight. Batman in Birmingham = mentalist in tights. If you are British and want to write Batman, or any other American archetype, then welcome to Americaland.)

Americaland is as much a fantasy world as Middle Earth or Dune. Some of the most fascinating fantasy worlds are the ones that overlap our reality so closely that the reader can almost accept them as real. Perhaps that’s why Americaland, with all its inaccuracies and cliches, can be such a compelling place to set stories in. Whenever I turn my hand to any story of the horrific or dark fantasy variety, I find Americaland creeping in from the edges. However hard I try to root these stories in the Britain I know, American locations and characters crop up again and again. When I turned to my imagination for material this weekend, it gave me a man and woman meeting in a dinner and going on a road trip. Its a story that can only take place in Americaland. So do I accept where my imagination is taking me, for all its flaws, or rail against it and force myself to write in British settings?

You tell me.

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9 thoughts on “Americaland”

  1. This idea sounds promising. I want to read the story. In America, we like to make up our own various Americalands (witness my own beloved San Francisco) anyway.
    Besides, I’ll help make sure you don’t go putting any boots and bonnets on the car…

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  2. I’m guilty of this too. The diners especially. There’s just something that draws me in. For now though I’m railing against it and trying to think about (and include in my writing) the places I grew up in.

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  3. As a reader of speculative fiction I’m not especially bothered about the setting of a book being true-to-life. I read to escape from the hum-drum of the real world after all.

    I do want the setting to be internally consistent though, so that it feels real. Gotham may not represent any real american metropolis but it’s fine by me as long as it feels like Gotham to the core, in all its details.

    It is more difficult to convince a native however. I’m reminded of those episodes of Lost which are supposed to be set in the UK but are clearly filmed in Australia. They’ve cast the Australian actor who can do the best imitation of an English accent and dotted the streets with red post-boxes in a vain attempt to cover up for the fact that the place looks and feels nothing like the UK.

    I guess it would be equally hard for Americans to read an English representation of Americaland without spotting similar flaws. The devil’s in the detail.

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  4. Megan – Cool. and also this is an excuse for me to visit california again soon. reserach and all that…

    Sam – good to know I’m not alone!

    Daniel Hall – nice of you to take a break from you duties to comment on a mere mortals blog! And yes, I agree that internal consistency is the key.

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  5. I think there are several different threads here that could be unpicked.

    First: Yes, Americaland is as fake as Middle Earth or Dune. But if it’s written well enough, it can be as real as Middle Earth or Dune. It may not be a real place, but I’m not sure it should be dismissed out of hand just because of that. We’ve absorbed Americaland all our lives. I think it’s valid to explore that. Of course, if our stories rely on lazy stereotypes, we’re doomed.

    Second: There is an assumption that if you want your story to be widely read, it’s set in America. Guy Hasson’s recent editorial on the world SF blog summed this up really well.

    http://worldsf.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/wednesday-editorial-guy-hasson-on-writing-for-two-cultures/

    Third: your “British tendency towards naffness” – we call it the cultural cringe down here in New Zealand. The thought that telling a story from your own country just won’t sound as compelling as one from Americaland. We don’t just get American popular culture here: commonwealth countries sit on the border of Americaland and, well, call it Britainland. From here, the sun coming up on a rainy Soho street is just as mythic and remarkable as a deserted Nevada highway.

    There’s certainly a lot of interest in the view outside of Americaland at the moment, from District 9 to River of Gods. But still, every time I start writing I have the same doubts as you. Would you read a Science Fiction story set in New Zealand? Not the mythic New Zealand-, um, -land, but the real place?

    In the end I think the story will dictate where it wants to be told. Personally, about a third of my stories seem to be set in the US, a third in the UK and a third here in New Zealand. I’m OK with that.

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    1. Hi Grant,

      Thanks for that, Much to think on in what you have said. As a rule I don’t tend to write on the basis of what I think people will read Instead I choose stories based on where my imagination wants to go. So it’s an I ternal rather than an external factor that draws me into Americaland. And I for one would like to read a story set in Newzealandland!

      Damien

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  6. Personally, I have always struggled to write science fiction locations not familiar to me. For this reason, all my earthbound stories have been set in London or the Home Counties. Probably, I ponder too long on details during the writing process and thus convince myself a lack of specific knowledge of a locale would prevent me from describing it accurately. However, as one of the other respondents said: the trick is making it convincing, which is not the same as accurate.

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    1. Science fiction might be a whole other kettle of fish. Americaland tends to be a setting for horror and urban fantasy, because of it’s mythic qualities. Science fiction often relies on much more realism in it’s settings, which actually makes it’s sensawunda greater.

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  7. You rumbled me Damien!

    Unlike my predecessor, I try to keep up with the times and am working on my web-presence.

    I don’t yet have a Twitter account however.

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