Back to School

Yesterday evening I found myself in an undergraduate literature class for the first time in more than twenty years, giving the lecture on Gemsigns that I mentioned here. The students were smart and engaged, and had insightful things to say and intelligent questions to ask. We had a wide-ranging discussion, which I thoroughly enjoyed; and I was delighted that so many of them spotted the references, literary and otherwise, that are tucked away here and there in the text. Hard work is meant to be its own reward, but there’s nothing like someone else’s appreciation of your efforts to remind you why it is you do what you do.

There was a moment, when they all came in and sat down and took their notebooks and copies of the novel out of their backpacks, that just about floored me. I remember being that student, coming into class and taking out the assigned text, ready for discussion. I never imagined, back then, that one day the book another bunch of bright young people would be tackling would be mine. I’m not even sure, back when I was a student in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at MIT, that any of the texts we studied were by living authors. Certainly none of them were sufficiently earthbound and available to have come in and talked to us. In a rather lovely irony, I find myself exalted by the experience of being an author who is and who did.

So many thanks again to Professor Tony Keen for asking me, and to his class at UND’s London Global Gateway for being such an interested, interesting bunch. I was very, very happy to be back in school.

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(Further bonus: Tony was able to make the BSFA interview I did last year with Kate Keen available to the students as a resource, and I now have a copy of it: Stephanie Saulter BSFA Interview | 25 June 2014.)

WOW Festival 2015: Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games & Rape

It’s International Women’s Day, and the final day of WOW – the Women of the World Festival, now in its fifth year at London’s Southbank Centre. I was there yesterday as one of the panellists for Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games and Rape, to talk about the use of sexual violence and ‘fridging’ – the rape, murder or abuse of a female character to provide motivation for a male protagonist – in fictional narratives. The others were Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College; Laurel Sills, co-editor of HOLDFAST magazine; David Moore from Abaddon Books; and our chairperson was Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman.

It was an intense and in-depth discussion, before a standing-room-only audience in the Festival Village. Here’s what we – and they – had to say.

 

March! and the end of hibernation

February passed in a blur of editing, and it ain’t over yet – I’m stealing a few minutes to post this before I get back to turning Regeneration from a decent draft into a manuscript fit for publication. (Someday I must write something wry and witty about the paradox of struggling to generate as many words as possible during the writing, only to then delete as many words as possible during the editing. When I have time and wit to spare.)

Finishing isn’t the only reason I’ve been looking forward to March. A number of cool things are happening this month:

The Women of the World (WOW) Festival runs 1-8 March 2015 at the Southbank Centre. I’m on the provocatively titled panel discussion Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games & Rape next Saturday, 7th March from 12-1pm, along with Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College; Laurel Sills, editor of Holdfast Magazine; and David Moore of Abaddon Books. We’ll be chaired by Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, and will be discussing why so many plotlines across so many platforms revolve around cruelty and sexual violence against women. It’s a difficult, emotive and necessary topic; I’m very honoured to have been asked to participate. The entire festival is wonderful, so get yourself a ticket (Day Pass is only £20 and gets you into everything all day long except the Stand Alone events).

Next up is an event that isn’t public, but I’m so pleased about it I’m going to mention it anyway: on 17th March I’ll be giving a talk to students who are reading Gemsigns as part of “London in the Literature of the Fantastic”. The course is being taught by Anthony Keen at the University of Notre Dame’s London Undergraduate Program. They’ll also be reading E. Nesbit, The Phoenix and the Carpet; P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins; John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids; Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere; Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels; Paul Cornell, London Falling; Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked and the Divine; and watching Doctor Who: The Web of Fear.

On 24th March I’ll be at the North London Lit Fest, in conversation with Farah Mendlesohn and Aliette de Bodard. When Farah contacted me about this she said we’d be talking about migrations and crossing boundaries, so come for what I imagine will be a wide-ranging discussion!

And finally, on 26th March I’ll be popping along to the HOLDFAST Anthology launch party. Laurel and Lucy have done an excellent job with the magazine in its first year, and I’m looking forward to celebrating their latest milestone. There will be wine and books and readings and wine. It’s a fitting start to spring.

Where Ideas Don’t Come From

My least favourite question these days is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?‘ Sadly, it’s also one of the most common. It pops up in interviews and conversation; it’s posed by any number of people, however briefly and randomly met. For many, it seems to be the obvious question to ask a writer.

I’m afraid that whatever makes it obvious to them is lost on me. Every time I’m asked I wonder if they envisage a place where ideas exist in their multitudes to be examined and acquired, much as one might cast a judicious eye before surreptitiously squeezing the tomatoes in a supermarket. Perhaps they imagine a quasi-mystical space where writers in search of ideas stumble over the germ of their next opus. Either way the question presumes that ideas are things one goes out and gets; as though they exist independently of the person who has them.

That is rarely how it happens, and the pained expression on the face of every writer who has to come up with a polite answer should be a clue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the question. It would be far more sensible to ask (though not necessarily easier to answer), ‘How do you get your ideas?

Ideas arise not from place, but from process.* In my experience this process mostly takes place without any conscious intervention on the part of the writer, and the results are often as much of a surprise to her as to everyone else. Somehow, in some way which I am unable to adequately explain, different bits of stimulus and influence, knowledge and opinion, affinity and experience, combine to produce the magical thing (and I think it is very close to magic) that we call inspiration. It is a deeply mysterious alchemy, and I do not understand how it works.

I’ve never met anyone who does. I suspect that even if you are able to trace your epic tale of star-crossed romance between the children of rival hunter-gatherer tribes back to an article you read six months ago on neolithic basket-weaving, you’ll struggle to put your finger on precisely what it was about that particular piece of paleoanthropology, that on a particular day sent your imagination soaring.

So when you ask a writer the dreaded question and we lamely answer, ‘I don’t know,’ we are not being evasive or disingenuous. We are telling you the literal truth. And that strangely commodified perspective embodied in the construction of ‘where do you get’ is not only incorrect, it’s jarring – as though we had been asked to quantify a rainbow, or draw a map of love.

If ideas come from anywhere, that place is a state of mind. And you don’t go looking for them. They come looking for you.

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* It’s true that some writers have techniques for triggering this process, which may include spending time in a particular place: a country walk, a cottage by the sea, the stacks in the library or the shed in the garden. But the trigger is at least as likely to be an activity as a location: doing the ironing, walking the dog, doodling, gardening.

Here’s to you, readers. Thank you.

It’s the final day of 2014: traditionally the watershed moment in this season of lists. What was best about the year that’s gone? What resolutions should one make for the year to come?

I am a great list-maker when they are a tool for getting things done; not so much when it comes to ranking experience. Or aspiration. I read sublime books this year; but the most valuable may have been the two I started and didn’t finish because, despite interesting ideas and potentially engaging characters, the writing was pedestrian and the editing was poor. No writer can hope to appeal to every reader, but those novels reinforced my commitment to make sure that if someone doesn’t finish reading one of my books it will not be because of a lack of care or craft on my part. Nor did I achieve everything I intended to when the year began, and the things I did accomplish happened at different times and in different ways than I anticipated. Priorities shifted. Plans changed. Life intervened.

On reflection, there is little that I could wish had happened differently.

This year my second novel was published here in the UK; my first was released in North America; and I finished writing my third and sent it off to my publisher. Given that on this date three years ago my first ever manuscript had not yet been put in the post for submission to potential agents – much less me actually having an agent, still less a publisher – that feels astonishing. Meteoric. It’s a thing to be proud of, and I am. But there is an interesting duality here, because it turns out that the flip side of being proud of what I’ve accomplished is to be profoundly humbled by its effects.

Much of my intellectual and emotional life has been bound up in books. I was lucky enough to be raised by loving parents in a stable and happy family, and my world was less conventional and narrow-minded than many. But it was still small, still constrained by the realities of the place and time in which we lived. There were limits to what was understood and expressed and aspired to by the people around me; but I was a precocious reader, and I learned early that the universe expanded within the pages of a book.

Other concepts of how to live and think and be; other truths and mysteries; other information about the world, other ways of understanding it, other times and places were there, in those volumes that were always bigger on the inside. Reading has been a transformative experience for me, over and over again. I learned the power books have to take you elsewhere, to touch the soul. I have collapsed in laughter, or in tears; had my perspective profoundly altered; and from the depths of a novel rethought what it means to be human, and to carry the weight of all our histories.

I never anticipated that I could ever have anything remotely like that effect on others. I never sought it out; I suspect few writers do. I had a story to tell and I wanted to do it as powerfully, as delicately, as sensitively and with as much of my own depth of feeling as I possibly could, knowing all the while that my best is unlikely ever to feel quite good enough. At least, not to me.

And yet the seminal events of this year for me have been the reactions of readers: in tweets and direct messages, online reviews and private emails, in person at conventions and signings. One by one, here and there, from places near and far, readers have told me that my stories touched and thrilled them. That they made them think, and see things differently. That they mattered, that they were important.

The bookseller from Illinois, who on a trip to London told me how much my stories meant to her, and to her friend at home who finds too few fictional characters whose lives speak to her own experience.

The woman I went to school with in Jamaica more than a quarter of a century ago, who contacted me through Facebook to tell me that her children are captivated by Gemsigns.

The people who found me at Eastercon and Loncon and Nine Worlds, and very shyly said thank you, and asked for more.

I want you to know that I did not expect this. It never occurred to me that one day something I wrote might be, for someone else, bigger on the inside.

Thank you. You are wonderful. You are amazing. I am immensely grateful to you, and for you.

I have been asked if living up to your expectations now feels like a responsibility. Yes it does, but it is also a very great privilege.

So here is my promise, readers, for next year and every year: I will do my best to deserve you.

Happy 2015. Let’s keep going.

2014 blog stats

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Days of Christmas Future

I completed and submitted Regeneration, the 3rd book of the ®Evolution trilogy, a week ago. You would think that means I now have lots of time to attend to neglected things like social media updates and blogging, but oh no – because so much has been neglected over the past few weeks and months (company accounts! bills! VAT returns!) that I am racing to catch up before the end of December arrives and turns me into a pumpkin. Not to mention more pleasurable offline pursuits like friends in town for Christmas and other delights of the season. So for now I’m cheating by reposting a piece I wrote for the Jo Fletcher Books Christmas 2014 Advent Calendar about the significance of Christmas in Gemsigns. (Which means, incidentally, that if anyone out there’s looking for a very last-minute bookish gift idea that has some relevance to the the week we’re in … without necessarily being, y’know, a ‘Christmas Story’ in the traditional sense … Blackwell’s. Forbidden Planet. Foyles. Waterstones. And quite possibly an independent bookshop near you.)

Here you go. I will be back with something new and original soon … possibly on how it feels to have finished! writing! a trilogy! Until then, compliments of the season.

When is a Christmas story not a Christmas story?

I’ve been thinking about this on and off for a few years now, ever since I finished writing Gemsigns. Although the events of the novel lead up to and conclude on Christmas Day – a fact which is hugely significant within the narrative logic of the book – you would never know from the jacket blurb or the majority of the reviews that it has anything to do with Christmas.

That’s fair enough, as the narrative is not constructed to reinforce the traditional religiosity of the season, nor the contemporary commerciality with which we are all familiar. The novel is, however, very interested in the construction, interpretation and evolution of myth. Part of what I was interested in when I wrote it is how the founding mythologies and legends of a future civilisation might develop, and how the cultural standards with which we here in the twenty-first century are familiar might morph and shift and adapt themselves to new ways of thinking and being. I don’t buy the idea that ancient cultural touchstones and archetypes simply disappear under an avalanche of techno-advancement, or that they survive only as a sort of throwback primitivism. I think that in the same way the pagan festivals of the winter solstice and the spring equinox were co-opted and adapted into Christmas and Easter, these cyclical commemorations, these holy-days will adapt and evolve again. One of the many things I was trying to achieve with Gemsigns was an imagining of that sort of deep cultural evolution.

Gemsigns opens with a short introductory passage related by an omniscient narrator who speaks in the riddling, mythopoeic voice of legends, epics, and sacred texts:

When describing a circle one begins anywhere. Each step precedes and succeeds with no greater or less meaning: the tale they tell remains unvaried.

The narrator then tells of a hunted child fleeing unnamed but terrifying pursuers; an escape whose end is indeterminate. Told in the present tense, the subsequent context makes it clear that this incident has occurred in the story’s past, forming an in-the-beginning backdrop to a tale that unfolds in our future: in a London that has survived the apocalypse of a generational pandemic and the dystopia of the resulting slave state. The omniscient voice is gone now, for in the confusion that follows few people are sure of anything, and absolutely no one knows everything.

Day by day over a winter week, the reader witnesses events from the perspective of a range of characters who identify with different political, social, economic and, yes, religious camps. But it is only on the sixth of these days that the reader learns precisely which week they are witness to: for the sixth day, the day of reckoning, is Christmas Eve and the seventh day, the day of resolution, is Christmas.

Within the world of the story these commemorations are no longer the common knowledge of our own era. They are significant to some of the characters, and that significance drives their actions within the narrative, but they no longer matter to society as a whole. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are historical artefacts, observed only by a minority and neither commercially nor socially important.

This is not, then, a Christmas story. Except it kind of is. Among its many characters and influencers are a small child of great significance to the world he inhabits, a powerful bureaucracy (and outlaw theocracy) who are threatened by what he represents, and a band of second-class non-citizens struggling to assert their own humanity and their right to the same freedoms, privileges and responsibilities as everyone else. Their ability to do so is both compromised and symbolised by their commitment to protect and cherish the child, whose existence has the potential to undermine the system under which they are oppressed.

The fact that these conflicts play out to their conclusion over Christmas was not merely for the convenience of the plot. I very consciously wanted to construct a new cultural paradigm within a science-fictional setting. Science fiction rarely, it seems to me, takes the past as seriously as it does the future (one could make the parallel argument that fantasy rarely takes the future as seriously as it does the past, but that is a subject for another essay); it rarely acknowledges how much of its future-world-building must perforce be influenced by the full depth and richness of what has gone before. I thought it would be interesting to use a holy-day of great historical and cultural significance for the unveiling of a new revelation; to take the date that gave us anno domini and from it launch a new era. What happens in Gemsigns at Christmas is what that day, in that possible future, will be remembered for.

This is not, of course, something that religious traditionalists – either within the world of the book or out here in the ‘real’ world – are likely to be pleased about. They generally cannot countenance the notion that the way people live and the things they believe can, must, should be constantly subject to question; subject to change. But I like to think that the legendary rebel whose life informed and whose death founded our own era, if he ever existed and was as good and brave a man as we imagine, would approve.

Sci Fi November: Two Dudes Interview

I’ve been interviewed for Sci Fi November by the Two Dudes in an Attic speculative fiction blog, following their earlier review of Gemsigns. The questions were interesting and thought-provoking; in fact they provoked so many thoughts that the interview was split in two! Both sections are now up (and they’re not that long, promise). I like it when the questions I’m asked let me talk about things that I think are important, and these did. Here’s part 1, and here’s part 2.

Many thanks to Andrea Johnson for inviting me to participate, and introducing me to the Two Dudes.

US Edition

US Edition

Holdfast #4: Diverse Reflections

It’s been very quiet on the blog for weeks and months now … and it’s going to stay that way until book 3 of the ®Evolution trilogy (no longer Gillung, it’s now titled Regeneration) is complete, which I reckon will be in another 4 weeks or so. I may write about some of the challenges later, when they are all firmly behind me … but for now am only popping my head up briefly to direct you to the latest issue of Holdfast Magazine, Diverse Reflections. Co-editor Lucy Smee interviewed me for it back in the summer; you can read that here, but do also check out the fiction and non-fiction, the bookshelf and playlist recommendations, and the cross media articles. Holdfast has also successfully crowdfunded their first anthology, and I’m told that should be ready by Christmas.

Calabash Highlights & Conde Nast

The Calabash Literary Festival gets a five-page spread in Conde Nast Traveller! Worth a read, and if you’re wondering, yes: I am one of the distant figures soaking up Red Stripe and sunshine on a rickety driftwood platform in the middle of the ocean. I put in a slightly more dignified appearance on the festival’s highlight reel, which captures a few moments of my reading from Binary, and I talked about some of my personal highlights in this post.

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