Geoff Ryman is a Canadian writer whose novels and short stories have won several awards. He writes science fiction and fantasy as well as more straightforward literary work–and sometimes he gets downright experiemental, as he did when he wrote 253, one of the earliest online hypertext novels. He has taught many writing courses, including a workshop at Clarion, four workshops at Clarion West, a week’s writing course with Colin Greenland for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, and three writers’ workshops in Cambodia. And yet I am astounded (and somewhat ashamed) to say that I’d never heard of him until early this year, when I read his beautiful novel Was.
Was is a gorgeous, intricate, moving work that combines several narrative threads into one unified, powerful hole. The central “what if” postulated in the novel, which ties together the various threads, is that the Wizard of Oz is based on the real, entirely mundane life of a young, abused girl in 1870’s Kansas. Ryman interweaves the tale of that girl, who is slowly driven insane and ends up in a mental asylum, with three other narratives: one, about the making of the movie in the 1930s and Judy Garland’s life both before and after the movie; two, about a former horror star who is dying of AIDS in 1989 and is obsessed with Judy Garland and the search for the historical Dorothy; and three, about a psychologist who cares for the institutionalized Dorothy before she dies.
As you might expect from such a work, there are layers within layers. Overriding them all is the theme of the destruction of childhood—the childhood of individuals, and the childhood of a nation. But the novel doesn’t lack hope; it offers moments of grace and redemption. In an intriguing afterward to Was, Ryman discusses how U.S. fantasies and U.S. history collide, corrupt, and can serve as antidotes to one another.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Geoff Ryman for the Chronicles Network. If you’d like, you can read the interview online by using the link embedded in this sentence. Then, if Ryman’s thoughts about writing, teaching, and reading grab you, pick up a copy of Was. I dare you not to weep, as I did, all through the final eighteen pages of that novel—for what might have been, and for what was.