Many thanks to Sam Sedgman and Free Word Online for inviting me into the Writers’ Room this week. Here’s the result.
Writers’ Room: Stephanie Saulter on Sci-Fi | Free Word Centre.
The author of ‘Gemsigns’ takes literary snobs to task with a passionate defence of science-fiction, and explains how she managed to fit writing a debut novel into the rest of her life.
Why are you a writer?
Because I can be.
I know the more fashionable answer is something along the lines of ‘because I just have to be’ or ‘because I couldn’t possibly be anything else.’ No disrespect whatsoever to those writers, but the simple truth is that I have spent most of my life not being one, and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Being a writer felt like the apex: the thing I would do when I felt that I knew enough, understood enough, could risk enough, to do it well. All those years of not being a writer were, to a fairly conscious degree, training to become one. There’s a real sense of reward about it: I’ve worked hard to build my own understanding of the world, I’ve remained curious, I’ve paid attention to other people’s stories – both the ones they tell themselves and others, and the ones they unconsciously live every day. There’s a moment when all of that starts to gel, when you think ‘I know what’s going on here. I can turn this into stories of my own. I can start to be a writer.’
This is your debut – how did you fit writing a novel into everything else in your life?
Strangely, that was the easy part. I had taken redundancy and gone freelance in the latter part of 2010, and had moved out of London into the Devon countryside to boot. It was April 2011 and I’d just finished a major project – so there was a bit of extra cash in the bank account – and I was waiting for word on several more that were in the pipeline. I had a bit of slack time, so I started organising several years’ worth of notes and research into the outline for the novel that had been steadily growing in my head for all of that time. And then I started writing it, and I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. As luck would have it, all of the jobs I was waiting on fell through. As even better luck would have it, two of my best friends came to stay over the May bank holiday, read what I’d written, and said ‘You need to stick with this. If you can afford to spend the next few months writing it, that’s what you should do.’ I knew I could rely both on their judgement and their honesty; they wouldn’t have told me that if it wasn’t really what they thought. And it was one of the few times in my life when I could afford to. So I did, to the exclusion of everything else.
Sci-Fi is often given short shrift by book critics – even though it’s enduringly popular and the home of some of our most politically-aware writing. What drew you to the genre?
I’ve never not read speculative fiction, whether based in fantasy or science. Two of my favourite and most formative books – I read them both for the first time when very young – are The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, and I suspect the course of my life in fiction was pretty much charted there. While fantasy lets you imagine a different world entirely, science fiction provides a vehicle for thinking about where our current challenges and dilemmas and obsessions may lead us. In Gemsigns in particular I wanted to look at how patterns of human behaviour recur and are endlessly explained and excused away. I wanted to examine belief systems – in a world in which science has quite literally and unequivocally been the salvation of humankind, does its works then go unquestioned in the same way that perceived acts of god are unquestioned among those of a religious bent? And what place does religion have in such a world? Is it progressive or static or reactionary? Does it survive at all?
If you want to ask those kinds of questions in fiction, if you want to speculate about what the answers may be, then you have to root the world you want to explore in some kind of internally consistent logic. One route to that is the complete otherness of fantasy, but I prefer the connection with our current reality that scientific speculation provides. That seems to me an entirely sensible and artistically valid route to take, but there’s a very weird pathology at work in the way that most mainstream critics, and even many regular readers, view science fiction. It is a perpetually limited vision which has little in common with the reality of the genre. For one thing it’s generally presumed that if it’s labelled ‘science fiction’ it has to take place in the far future, in space, with aliens and robots and ray guns. Not that I don’t love a bit of space opera myself, but I am forever having to explain that this is not a prerequisite – not least when it comes to my own work, which has no anti-gravity or esoteric weaponry whatsoever and takes place mainly in the East End of London.
Another presumption is that stories rooted in speculation about where scientific development might take us cannot possibly have any literary merit; that they are by definition tech-heavy thrillers with little character development or emotional weight. It’s a bizarre view that having the one somehow precludes the other. Now it’s certainly true that there are a lot of SF & F novels out there that we could probably all agree aren’t literary masterpieces, but I’m not aware of any other genre – crime, romance, or even the vaunted category known as Literary Fiction – that is universally judged by its least accomplished examples. I never know if the lit-crit establishment that looks down its collective nose at science fiction is being accidentally obtuse or intentionally obfuscatory, but they certainly manage a strong line in self-deception. What kind of books do they think Frankenstein and Brave New World and 1984 were, before they were deemed classics? Do they really imagine that Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell are not writing about the possible futures that might result from the decisions we make in the present? Have they not noticed that Hilary Mantel, celebrated author of, among other things, Beyond Black, is a jaw-droppingly good writer of supernatural horror as well as historical fiction – and that she illustrates the human condition just as well there?
How do you write?
When I’m in the early stages of a project, trying to work out what it’s about and who’s in it and what happens, I tend to scribble in notebooks and carry them around with me. It’s sort of the stream-of-consciousness phase when you are following the threads in your head, making connections. The writing down of things at this stage is more mnemonic than anything else. It’s not exclusively longhand, sometimes there are rambling, random screeds typed into the computer, or tapped out on my phone. A lot of it may look suspiciously like gazing blankly out of the window with a cooling cup of tea in your hand, or going for long, aimless walks in the country, but it’s all part of the process of writing. And it’s iterative; I have episodes like that throughout. I find you need them, as you work through knotty plot points and develop character arcs.
But when I actually feel the shape of the thing strongly enough in my head to be able to start turning it into prose, I write on my laptop (which is a MacBook Pro if anyone wants to know; I used Microsoft Word for Gemsigns, Scrivener for Binary). I find it very difficult to pop in and out of story-mode, so I try to dedicate big chunks of time to it; I haven’t yet got the knack of how to do something else all day and then write for a couple hours at night. So I’ll set aside a span of days in which that is all I’m going to be doing, and I treat it like a job; I start around 9 or 10 in the morning and I go all day. I usually begin by going over what I did the day before, which serves both as a first edit and to get me back into the mood and moment of the piece; and then I take it forward. I’ll have a word count I want to hit: I feel defeated if I miss it and triumphant if I exceed it. In theory I stop around 6 in the evening, make dinner, and that’s it for the day. In practice, especially if it’s going well or if I’m close to the end of a scene or a chapter, I go back to it and work into the night. Having a laptop means I can move around the house, so although I often start in my office in the basement, which has the ergonomic chair and the desk at the right height, I tend to migrate up into the kitchen or out into the conservatory. I’ve written huge amounts of both books sitting cross-legged on the sofa. It’s hell on my back, but good for the words.
If I’m in the mood to write it doesn’t matter whether I’m in the city or the country; the last really good bit of work I did on Binary was in the Barbican Library in London. But being able to take a break and go for a stroll along country lanes at four o’ clock in the afternoon was great for Gemsigns. By then you’ve been working solidly for a few hours and you need a breather and to take stock, and there’s usually some unforeseen problem that needs solving. The solution would almost always emerge about ten minutes after I’d left the house. All my farming neighbours got used to seeing me standing stock still in the middle of some muddy track, making notes on my phone. The arch-villain emerged fully formed out of a hedgerow one day, and some of the most cutting lines of dialogue were composed in the company of sheep.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned from writing?
That because it was easy today doesn’t mean it’ll be easy tomorrow. As a rule, the more you do something the better you get at it and the easier it becomes. Maybe that will happen for me with writing too, but it hasn’t yet. I’ve been struck, as many new novelists are, by the challenges of the second book. Some of the things that felt almost reflexive with Gemsigns, that just sailed out of my head through my hands and onto the page without any fuss at all, have been a real struggle with Binary. And some of the things I felt most unsure of with Gemsigns have been the simplest, most fun parts of writing Binary. I’ve learned not to presume that because I’ve written one decent book I can now just churn them out. Getting it right on the page is a constant challenge.
What are you reading at the moment? And how is it?
Cloud Atlas, and it’s wonderful, but honestly it doesn’t lend itself to my schedule at the moment. I’m finding I don’t have time for more than half an hour’s reading late at night, and it’s the wrong kind of book for that. Cloud Atlas is a novel you should curl up with on a long, lazy afternoon with no distractions. A good book for a tedious train journey. I may have to finish it on one of those.