While many fantasy novels take themselves seriously, occasionally you get a tale that’s not just of might and magic, but of mirth as well. Such is the case with A City Dreaming (hardcover, digital), a new urban fantasy novel from Daniel Polansky that’s not only been compared to the Harry Potter books and the Hellblazer comics, but also to the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the animated sitcom Archer. Though in talking to Polansky about the novel, it seems this tale was inspired by a certain city as well.
I always like to start with the basics. So, what is A City Dreaming about?
A City Dreaming is about M, a wastrel, vagabond, and very modestly talented magician who returns to New York after an indeterminate time spent wandering. By nature an extremely lazy gentleman, with a penchant for chess and mild narcotics, M would prefer to fritter away his pseudo-immortality in dive bars and city parks. But our version of New York is slightly stranger than even its real world counterpart, and it’s not long before he finds himself pulled into all manner of misadventures, predicaments, and even the occasional tussle.
Where did the original idea for it come from, and how different is the final book from that idea? Like, did you come up with the idea for it while working on one of your Low Town novels, but realize it wouldn’t work for that?
So I moved to New York in 2013, and I was sort of ambivalent about doing so. A City Dreaming grew out of a conscious desire to see my day to day life as being something extraordinary, as worthy of celebration. At first, I didn’t really intend it for publication, it was really more of a personal exercise, something I worked on in the evening after I’d finished working on whatever books I was under contract to write, a surreal sort of journal which I hoped would encourage me away from melancholy.
The more I trained myself to see the city through M’s lens, the easier it seemed to be. I kept finding these little seeds of the vignettes which would ultimately populate the book; I would meet someone who, if you squinted, or if you’d had a few, might well be a water nymph come up from the East River, or go to a party that might plausibly be thrown by Auberon and Titiana. At some point I realized that I had sort of inadvertently written a peculiar sort of novel, and I might as well put a title on it and see if I couldn’t get a little money out of it, for groceries and booze and whatnot.
A City Dreaming has gotten praise from some cool people. After reading it, Tom Isbell, the writer of The Prey trilogy, called you, “the love child of J. K. Rowling and Kurt Vonnegut,” while David S. Goyer, the guy who wrote the Blade movies and co-wrote Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, compared A City Dreaming to “a mash-up of Trainspotting and Harry Potter.” Do you think these comparisons are fair?
I mean, I’ll take it. I think both of these quotes speak to the idea that A City Dreaming is somewhat outside of the traditional fantasy narrative, which I think is basically true. Part of the point of A City Dreaming is that it eschews the “quest” structure of much of modern fantasy. That is to say that, like actual human existence, the protagonists spend more time bumbling about, trying to give meaning to their day to day, rather than, say, searching for a magic sword with which to kill some sort of satanic analogue. Plus, there are, you know, lots of drugs and cursing.
I also wanted to ask you about something that was said by Alex Bledsoe, who wrote The Hum And The Shiver. He said the character M was, “part John Constantine, part Sterling Archer.” Uh, that kind of implies that M, while skilled, is also kind of an idiot. And a big smoker. Care to comment?
Ha! Only the first and the third. M is very, very clever, if not nearly so clever as he supposes himself to be. He is, however, a bit of a debauchee, which I assume is what Mr. Bledsoe means with the Archer comparison.
I actually haven’t read either of those, so I’m not sure I can speak to this in an intelligent way. Apologies.
No worries. So are there any authors or specific books — or even movies, TV shows, and comics — that you see as a big influence on A City Dreaming, something that’s not that obvious and that other people have missed?
I stole from a million different things for A City Dreaming, though mostly it was tiny snippets rather than anything substantial. The structure has a sort of limited connection to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser books, with Fafgard and the Gray Mouser just interested in getting drunk and making trouble, rather than, say, overthrowing Sauron.
In terms of the writing itself, I’m a big Evelyn Waugh fan. A lot of the overlapping dialogue and the humor was probably influenced by his lighter stuff, Vile Bodies, Decline And Fall, etc. For the magic system, or really lack thereof, I tried to basically make everything work like the duel between Merlin and Madam Mim in The Once And Future King by T.H. White, which, for my money, remains the best of these sorts of things. John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Chandler, really I could go on and on. A good writer is a better thief.
A City Dreaming includes zombies, magic, and pirates, among other things. In thinking about how they would work in your novel, did you look to other depictions in fiction, and if so, which ones? Like, did you make your zombies slow like Romero’s, fast like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, goofy like Plants Vs. Zombies, what?
It’s definitely a grab bag of different influences. A City Dreaming is steeped in pop culture references of different kinds, and I’m always interested in how our interpretations of these genre archetypes play against each other. So, zombies for instance. Do we go with the classic Haitian myth, essentially a more terrifying form of slavery, one in which not only the body but the mind and soul were likewise shaved away from the subject? Or your classic shambling figure? For that matter, why not brush up against reality a bit? I mean zombies are kind of silly, right? Like, people don’t have very sharp teeth, really, that’s why we invented weapons, because we’re not great at murdering people with our finger nails. You try and bite someone sometime, you’ll discover real quick it’s a good way to fracture your jaw. Anyway, it all kind of mish mashes together in the novel.
As you said earlier, the book was inspired by, and was thus set in New York City, where you live. But given that it’s set in New York City, and contemporary times, do you think of the book as a social satire on our modern times?
A City Dreaming is very much a satire about urban life in the opening days of the 21st century, and at the same time a fantasy novel, with spell and demons and magic duels and all that fun stuff.
Actually, I tend to think that the speculative aspects of the book work to highlight some of the absurdities of modern existence. Satire, after all, is a fun house reflection of our own existence, sharpening the edges and whatnot. As I said before, New York is such a strange place, it often seemed like it was only a turn of the knob to imagine that you could get on a subway train early in the AM and find yourself taken to a different world, or that an underground flea market might be operated by the fae.
I mentioned The Magicians earlier. Those books have been adapted into a cool TV show on the SyFy Channel. Has there been any talk of turning A City Dreaming into a TV series or a movie?
If there was, I really couldn’t talk about it. Sorry.
No worries. But speaking hypothetically, if it was being made into a movie or show, and the producers asked you to pick the cast, who would choose and why?
Hmmmmmm. I would demand that M only ever be filmed from behind, so that you couldn’t see his face. Or that he would be played by different characters in different scenes, so that you could never get a clear handle on him. Also, everyone would be normal human looking, not freakishly attractive, like they are in every movie and TV show on earth these days.
Lastly, if someone enjoys A City Dreaming, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why?
All of them! Every single one, a work of staggering and indeed, near-divine genius, as well as containing within its pages the cure for cancer and a formula for halting the aging process.
I kid, mostly. A City Dreaming is really quite different than the rest of the books I’ve written, so I’m not absolutely sure that someone who enjoyed it would enjoy the other stuff I’ve written. If you liked the hard boiled aspects of A City Dreaming, read the Low Town series. But if you want something more epic, I’d say check out the Empty Throne series. And if you want to read a book about anthropomorphic animals killing each other — and really, who wouldn’t — then The Builders is right up your line.