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Dan Frey: Truth and The Real Power of Fantasy

Dan Frey has a new book out today — Dreambound — and here he is to talk about where that book comes from, and what the real world showed him about fantasy and imagination. And away we go:

I’ve been a fantasy fan since the double-whammy of Narnia and Middle-Earth hit me in childhood. But when I became a parent, I decided it was time to put aside childish things (bye-bye D&D group) and live firmly in the real world. Suddenly, I had a screaming infant to take care of, so I couldn’t be bothered with elves and fairies and magic.

I don’t just mean fantasy literature. The very concept of imagination felt like my enemy. I was extremely (obsessively?) protective of my newborn daughter, which manifested in inventing elaborate scenarios about saving her from outlandish danger. I’d hear a creak at night and imagine fighting off a band of home-invading child-traffickers. A bush would rustle at the park, and I’d envision myself tackling a charging bear (in suburban L.A.? You never know!)

These daydreams were insistent, vivid, and troubling… and they got me interested in exploring the dark side of imagination. The ways in which the inventive capacity of the human mind could weaponized against us. And that kernel led to Dreambound: a story about a series of fantasy books that takes on a dangerous life of its own, and a father trying to save his daughter from getting lost down a rabbit hole of fantastical beliefs.  

It was born out of my specific experiences as a parent… but it resonated with something much bigger that was going on in the world. Plenty of people have called out the “post-truth” paradigm we’re living in, one where the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred, and objective truth feels like a quaint, distant memory. Fantasy is no longer just what you find in the nerdy corner of the bookstore; it has taken the form of conspiracy theories and bullshit masquerading as revelation, and it has become more popular than ever.

A decade ago, belief in such things might’ve just seemed quirky, but now it’s clear that fantastical thinking has real-world impacts. A President was elected on a platform of half- and non-truths, and then, when he lost his bed for a second term, used more of them to nearly unravel democracy (and may yet rise from the grave to do it all again). Meanwhile, we’re hurtling through grim climate milestones, driven just as much by decades of denial as by fossil fuels. Fear of child-blood-drinking coastal elites has resulted in real-world violence. And don’t get me started on anti-vaxxers.

Richard Andersen’s book Fantasyland persuasively argues that this tendency toward self-delusion is uniquely American, growing out of a four-century history of religious zealots and hucksters. It is seen in our collective stubborn belief in by-your-bootstraps entrepreneurship, and finds its latest expression in a Silicon Valley culture that chases one fantastical dream after another (often, off a cliff).

As I’ve watched these cultural waves spread in the last few years, I’ve felt myself gravitating away from fantasy. I wrote a sci-fi book that was as grounded in real science as possible. I worked as a screenwriter on projects that were less imaginative, trying to present myself as a Responsible and Professional Writer. And as a parent, I found myself determined to teach my kids to live in the real world, goddammit; I was going to raise intelligent, logical thinkers.  

Thus Dreambound was born, initially, as the anti-fantasy fantasy book.

And in many ways, the book is just that–an indictment of magical thinking, using the tropes of fantasy fiction to criticize not just the genre itself, but the impulse at the root of it. A way to question or desire for stories that transport us out of the real world, when there are so many problems in this world that urgently need our attention.

But I am grateful that it morphed into much more than that… because my perspective shifted when my daughter faced an actual life-threatening emergency. An ordinary COVID infection led to a rare condition called MIS-C. Her fever spiked to 106 and her organs inflamed, threatening heart failure. In case that wasn’t hard enough–while we were in the ER, desperately awaiting a diagnosis, my wife (who was 10 weeks pregnant) suffered a miscarriage, and had to be taken to a different hospital.

It was a hell of a week. And there was no time to grieve the lost pregnancy because I found myself in a COVID-isolated hospital room with a very active toddler confined to a metal crib, hooked up to an IV and EEG 24/7. The doctors told me to keep her calm, even as they kept coming in with needles and scary tests.

There were no child-traffickers to punch out or bears to wrestle. There were only countless hours at the bedside of a sick, restless little girl. And the only way I could keep her safe, physically as well as emotionally, was by making it fun. Playing make-believe with her toys. Inventing stories to keep her mind off the painful, frightening medical treatments. 

How’d we get through the hardest week of our lives? In a word: imagination.

As a result, she came home from the hospital with a healthy heart… and so did I. I finally understood why I had fantasized about fighting off all manner of absurd mortal threats. I needed to believe I could protect her. From anything. But it turned out, the key was not superhuman strength. It was simply hope, in the face of darkness. 

So as much as Dreambound is about the danger of fantasy, it is also about the power of imagination to get us through anything. And it’s dedicated to my daughters, who inspired the book, and I hope one day it will inspire them too.  

In this thrilling contemporary fantasy novel, a father must investigate the magical underbelly of Los Angeles to find his daughter, who has seemingly disappeared into the fantastical universe of her favorite books.

Dreambound is a glorious mash-up of fantasy and modern-noir. A little bit Jonathan Carroll, a little bit Neil Gaiman.”—David S. Goyer, executive producer of Sandman and Foundation

When Byron Kidd’s twelve-year-old daughter vanishes, the only clue is a note claiming that she’s taken off to explore the Hidden World, a magical land from a series of popular novels. She is not the only child to seek out this imaginary realm in recent years, and Byron—a cynical and hard-nosed reporter—is determined to discover the whereabouts of dozens of missing kids.

Byron secures a high-profile interview with Annabelle Tobin, the eccentric author of the books, and heads off to her palatial home in the Hollywood Hills. But the truth Byron discovers is more fantastic than he ever could have dreamed.

As he unearths locations from the books that seem to be bleeding into the real world, he must shed his doubts and dive headfirst into the mystical secrets of Los Angeles if he hopes to reunite with his child. Soon Byron finds himself on his own epic journey—but if he’s not careful, he could be the next one to disappear.

Told through journal entries, transcripts, emails, and excerpts from Tobin’s novels, Dreambound is a spellbinding homage to Los Angeles and an immersive and fast-paced story of how far a father will go—even delving into impossible worlds—to save his daughter.

Dreambound: Bookshop | Amazon