Interview: Science Fiction Reality

At the Gemsigns launch in Kingston I met local blogger, sometime reporter, professional make-up artist and apparent all-round Renaissance woman Tameka Coley, and we agreed to do an interview. Life unpleasantly intervened in the form of a death in Tameka’s family (for which I offer my deepest condolences) but we got there in the end, doing the interview by email after I’d got back to the UK. It went online yesterday.

In a post on her own blog, Tameka talks a bit about how she came to be at the launch and what prompted her to want to do the interview. That post is Introducing: Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter. The interview itself appears on the New World Cafe Blog as Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns … science fiction reality, and is also linked under the press tab above. I’m reposting it here in its entirety as well. In addition to a few of what I’ve come to expect as the ‘usual’ interview topics, Tameka asked some very smart questions about the Caribbean context and contemporary implications of the novel.

Tameka has a Facebook page, writes the Sour Skittles blog, and is on Twitter as @tsansai. Her friend Patrick Fuss writes the New World Cafe blog. Thanks again Tameka and Patrick – it was a pleasure.


When did you know that you wanted to become an author?

There’s no eureka moment when you say, ‘Ah ha! I shall be an author!’ What you know you want to do is write. From that follows the desire to be read. From that, if you’re lucky, comes the opportunity to be published. One day you wake up, and hey presto! You’re an author.

Do you remember the first literary piece you wrote?

I’m not sure what you mean by literary piece, but in any case, no – it would have been an essay or short story from back when I was doing my degree, and I no longer have any of those papers. Around 7-8 years ago I wrote two screenplays, but Gemsigns is the first fully realised piece of long form prose fiction I’ve ever written.

You’ve worked in real estate, the food industry as well as various corporate roles; how have your experiences in these fields translated into or influenced your writing, particularly Gemsigns?

I know a lot about a lot of different things, and I get to incorporate that awareness in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One of my early reviewers commented that it was obvious that I understood the way big corporations work, and how they interact with government and the media. She was right. I’ve also worked directly with the public sector, advising government departments and local councils here in the UK, and so I understand the political mindset and the way public policy is developed (or not). And I’ve set up and worked with charities and non-profits, so I understand the way the voluntary sector works as well – that was useful for showing the other side of the religious argument, the United Churches charitable mission that attempts to help the gems.

What makes Gemsigns a gripping tale?

I think it’s gripping because the risks feel real. What’s at stake isn’t distant and unrelatable, it isn’t the destruction of planets or the notion of falling prey to some supernatural evil. It’s the forced labour of human beings. It’s families being torn apart. It’s a mother’s inability to protect her child from harm. It’s women being forced to bear children whether they want to or not. It’s gem-bashing, which is intentionally portrayed as being no different to gay-bashing, or the lynching of black men in the American south. It’s knowing that whether people are protected from, or subject – legally subject – to being treated in this way turns on the whim of a fickle public who are easily swayed by media scare stories, and the moral fibre (or lack thereof) of the politicians who purport to lead them. None of that is far-fetched, it’s well within our collective historical memory – and for some people it’s within their living memory, even their day-to-day reality.

I couldn’t help making a connection between your story and slavery/colonialism, especially with the clashes between the gems, gemtechs and the norms. Would you say this was in any way influenced by race relations in the Caribbean where you were born?

Very much so. But one of the things I’ve learned, sadly, is how widespread that kind of prejudice-driven conflict is. It’s not just reflective of race relations in the Caribbean and Americas, but also the current debates over immigration in the UK and Europe, religious intolerance, discrimination against women, homophobia … the list goes on.

Your novel raises many questions about what it means to be human. What would you say makes us integrally similar and/or different?

I think my answer to that is Gemsigns. One way to read the question it poses is: are we made human because of what is or is not in our DNA, or by the way we treat each other? I know what I think, but it’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves.

I couldn’t help thinking about the idea of  ‘created races’. What’s your take on this, and was there any inspiration in that regard for Gemsigns?

I wanted to put the whole idea of justifying discrimination and abuse under a microscope. So often throughout history the logic for why the dominant group consider it acceptable to treat others as inferior to themselves is founded on the notion of those others being ‘really different’, to the point of thinking of them as not entirely human – as another, lesser species. It was a justification for the enslavement of people from sub-Saharan Africa. It’s been a justification by men for keeping women subservient. Even today it’s often how people manage to excuse or ignore the appalling treatment of gay and trans and disabled people. Science has often had to prove that the ‘really different’ notion is untrue before governments and individuals are prepared to let go of it.

At the same time, one of my ongoing interests is genetic engineering and genetic medicine; the fact is we are already capable of creating people, plants and animals that did not and probably could not have evolved naturally. So I thought I’d put these two ideas together and create a group of people who really are ‘really different’, to test that notion of justified discrimination.

Who conceptualised the artwork for the cover, and what does it represent?

The publishers are responsible for creating the cover; it was briefed to a graphic design firm after consultation with me, and then finished in-house. The red circles and slashes represent a stylised molecule, blown open. I see the woman’s face as being trapped behind it. As for who she represents, there are at least three characters in the book who she could be …

How did you come up with the name Gemsigns for the book?

With a lot of effort and angst! Every gem bears a gemsign, some visible identifier that makes it easy for them to be distinguished from norms. It’s a mark of their difference, and it’s the thing that would make it easy for them to be pulled back into servitude. Two of the storylines hinge on gemsign – one revolves around a character who appears not to have any, and another character’s is hidden so no one can see what it actually is. This is not a situation that most norms are happy with. I thought ‘Gemsigns’ neatly captures much of what the story is about. The working title was ®Evolution, but that became the name of the series.

Your book also forces us to explore the question of how much is too much or what is taboo when it comes to genetic modification. In terms of human experimentations and GMOs, would you say ethics should play a part, or is it strictly a matter of survival? 

We should always be guided by ethics, but it may be necessary for what is considered ethical to be revised when what is at stake is survival. There’s little point in being ethical unto extinction. But one of the things the book points out is that once a taboo is breached – even if for the best of reasons – that situation becomes a new normal, and it’s very hard to re-establish the taboo once the danger has passed.

Gemsigns really allows for readers to think beyond the present day and even push the envelope to imagine the future of humanity … what inspired this intricate tale?

There was no one thing. All of my interests and obsessions are in there somewhere. I will say, though, that a lot of science fiction is set in the very far future, and posits a reality that is radically different from our own; I find it fascinating but it rarely explains how we get from here to there. I wanted to look at the near future, and the kinds of decisions that might or might not lead us down those paths.

What would you say was the hardest part of writing this novel?

Giving myself permission to take seven months off to do it was the hardest part. The technical challenges vary – one day it’s character, another day it’s plot, another day it’s pacing. No one thing is hardest or easiest.

How does it feel to have been offered a trilogy deal by your publisher after submitting your first book?

Fabulous! Slightly intimidating, but mostly fabulous.

Any chance of getting a sneak peek into Binary (book 2)?

Not for a while! It’s in the hands of my publishers, Jo Fletcher Books. I’ll be editing over the summer, as well as starting to work on the next book. Review copies will go out early next year.

Are there plans to make Gemsigns into a TV series/movie in the future?

Not so far. I get asked this a lot, so I suppose I should explain that this is not something I or my publisher or agent can cause to happen. It depends entirely on whether a film or TV production company approaches me about acquiring the rights to adapt the book. I can then accept their offer or reject it; but I can’t cause an offer to be made. Whether I ever get one is in the lap of the gods, but since the book has only been out for three months and won’t be in the US for almost another year, and studios generally only get interested in adapting books when and if they become best sellers, I am not at all surprised not to have been made an offer. It’s early days.

What’s next for you as a writer? Do you plan to continue exploring humanity as a theme or do you have your sights set on other subjects?

I’ve got to finish writing the ®Evolution, then I’ll take stock. I’ve got a few ideas …

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

Having interesting conversations with smart people. Reading. Going to museums, galleries, and the theatre. Gardening. Hiking.

And finally, where can readers purchase the book and how do they get in contact with you?

In Jamaica it’s available at Bookophilia in Kingston (I believe they will order copies on request if they’re out of stock); other booksellers may or may not have ordered it, I don’t know. It’s available online from multiple websites based in the UK, Commonwealth and Europe including Amazon UK, where you can also purchase copies for Kindle. A good option for print copies is The Book Depository, which ships free to many countries worldwide including Jamaica (and which has it on sale as I write this).

I can be reached via the contact form on my website, I’m also on Twitter as @scriptopus.

Riding the come-down

After a year of angst and anguish, painfully slow progress, wrong turns and backtracks and the startling discovery that yes, the second book really IS harder to write than the first, I’ve finally done it. Binary is complete.

Back on 9th May I said I thought it would take another couple of weeks; as so often with this book I was both right and wrong. I got to the end and typed ‘The End’ last Wednesday, neatly inside my estimate, but it took another 4 days of morning-to-midnight work to fill in missing bits of text and fix errors, incoherences and inconsistencies. The obvious ones, anyway. I’ve no doubt that editor and assistant editor, agent and alpha readers will catch lots of things I missed. And thank goodness for that, because at this point I know I’m far too close to it to be able to see it clearly. It’s only been done for a day and a half, and I am swinging like a pendulum between sunny confidence that it’s a flawless book full of fabulous characters and a fantastic plot — and a dreary conviction that my reach has far exceeded my grasp, that the mysteries I’ve constructed are so intricate they will make sense to no one but me.

Here’s a prediction you can lay money on: I’m going to be wrong on both counts. With any luck I’ll be very wrong on the second, and only a little wrong on the first.

I can say that because when I finished Gemsigns a year and a half ago and sent it off to the loose group of friends, family and acquaintances that I dubbed the ®Evolution Readers, I felt pretty much exactly like this. I was mentally exhausted, emotionally drained, and I honestly didn’t know whether I’d written a good book or 100,000+ words of gibberish.

Turned out it was, fundamentally, a good book. And after about a month of not looking at it, I was able to read through with a clear head and see that; and with the comments of those alpha readers to hand, fix the inevitable outcrops of error and poor prose. So I am comforted by that memory, and confident that the experience will be repeated.

In the meantime Gemsigns is making its way in the world — to as wonderful a reception as any debut author could hope or dream of (see the Reviews link above) — and will be formally launched in the USA next May as part of the Jo Fletcher plan for world domination. I have a sorely neglected house and garden to attend to, and next week I’m off to Jamaica, to visit family and friends I haven’t seen for eighteen months, sun myself and swim and hopefully decompress a bit. There’ll be promotional events there too, including a local launch, reading and discussion at Bookophilia, Kingston’s premiere bookstore. And I have the third book of the ®Evolution to think about, to plan and to write.

But not just yet. The pendulum needs to stop swinging first.

Lost in translation

I’ve been extremely absent from the blog- and Twitter-spheres lately, due to a perfect storm of various seasonal maladies (hack, cough), a jaunt to London for a restorative dose of culture and companionship, and a bit (not enough) of writing. All hope of completing the first draft of Binary before the end of the year has been blown away on a bitter north wind, but at least Gemsigns is shipshape and ready to go to print. But sadly, as of yesterday it’s been confirmed that it will emerge without one line that I had really, really hoped to be able to include. Longtime readers of this blog might remember a reference I made, way back when publication was just a vague hope on the horizon, to a phrase that served as inspiration both for the story and its first working title. Well, I wanted to acknowledge the importance of that phrase, and honour the author, by using it as an epigram in Gemsigns; and I am sorry to report that after many months of chasing the necessary permissions I have had to admit defeat. But not for the reasons you might think. Along the way I’ve received an intense education on the legal complexities of licensing another’s work for reference in one’s own, particularly when different territories and publishers are involved. However, despite navigating all the contractual issues more-or-less successfully, the decision to drop it was, in the end, an aesthetic one – though deeply instructive of the commercial forces to which even the most creative of legacies is subject.

As my agent remarked, it’s no bad thing if the wider world knows what goes into getting a book from script to publication; and as my wise and wonderful publisher Jo Fletcher has already blogged eloquently and at length about exactly what happened, I’m going to repost hers here. I can’t bear to write it all up again.

This week, Beloved Reader, we are going to talk about epigrams. (There: I can see how excited you are, and all I have done is written the word.) For the avoidance of doubt, an epigram is a pithy saying or remark which expresses an idea in a clever and amusing way. I am sure you will be fascinated to know that this literary device comes from the Greek, ἐπίγραμμα, via late Middle English, and it has been employed for more than two thousand years.

More generally, and for our purpose today, it’s that quote that you find at the head of a chapter or start of a book or part of a book.

Why am I particularly interested in epigrams today? Pay attention, and you shall hear of the travails of one of my Beloved Authors – we’ll call her BA – who has Tried To Do The Right Thing.

BA wanted to use a quote from The Book of Imaginary Beings by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and I advised her that she would need to get permission, and to start with the agent for Borges’ estate, supplied via the Society of Authors (a font of useful knowledge for such things). Now, what generally happens here is that the copyright holder either (a) says, ‘Yay! Go for it! No fee!’ or (b) says, ‘Yay! Go for it! X pounds, please!’ And then there will be some forms to fill in, mostly dealing with how exactly we’re going to credit the writer, and that’s that. Obviously, we hope for option A, rather than B, which can work out costly (lines of songs tend to be a bit on the pricy side, for example).

In this case, though, all started well: the agent who handles Borges’ estate referred BA to the UK publisher, Random House, and it didn’t take too long for them to come back with permission, free of charge for the UK and Commonwealth, excluding Canada.

The problem is, I generally buy World Rights, which means that BA needs permission to publish this quote everywhere – but after some discussion we agreed that as long as North America was covered – as we’ll be bringing the book out as part of QUSA/JFB USA – we’d not worry about the rest of the world.

So, girding her loins once more, off BA went again, this time to Penguin in USA and Canada, respectively.

In her explanatory email to me, she said, ‘Here’s where it gets sticky.’ She is a master of understatement, this one!

The Book of Imaginary Beings was written in Spanish, so the issue is not one of just permission to reprint, but to use a particular translation: in this case by the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

Penguin US did publish the di Giovanni translation, and do control world rights outside of the UK – but their agreement with the author’s estate means they can license only a completely different translation, by one Andrew Hurley.

So yes, we can have permission, and free of charge at that – but it’s for the wrong words –because both BA and I agree that the later translation, of this sentence at least, is not as good.

To make matters worse, Penguin Canada has still not responded.

Oh, and to get the okay for electronic rights, she was told she would need to go back to the agency.

So back she went to the agent. Any vague thoughts she might have had of circumventing the North American situation by dealing direct with the agency were blown out of the water when the agent revealed that yes, she could and would let BA have e-rights, for a small fee – but only for the Hurley version!

This is the point BA came to me, and we agreed, after some discussion, that since it was clear the author no longer wanted the di Giovanni translation out there, she would step away from the epigram.

And there, I thought, we would leave it, and I would use this sorry tale of months spent chasing down the permissions to show you how hard your Beloved Authors work to make sure the books are as perfect as they can be.

But there is a post scriptum: I was checking the spelling of di Giovanni (because my copy ofImaginary Beings is mysteriously MIA) when I came across this. I am paraphrasing, but in short, Borges’ widow and erstwhile personal assistant, Maria Kodama, rescinded all publishing rights for the existing collections of his work in English – including the translations by di Giovanni, in which the author himself had collaborated – because (it appears) the translator received an unprecedented half of the royalties! Kodama herself commissioned the new translations by Andrew Hurley, which have become the standard English texts.

And now I have to tell Stephanie Saulter – for it is she – that my main reason for pulling out – that the author himself had gone off the translation – appears to be very far from the case. Still, we’ve made the decision and moved on.

The one thing I can promise you is that losing that line from Imaginary Beings will make not one jot of difference to the fantastic story that is Gemsigns, coming to a bookshop near you next spring.

BINARY extract: Supper therapy

It pleased her greatly that he had learnt to enjoy food, instead of treating it as no more than a tedious refuelling that took him away from his tablet and screens. They had formed an instinctive, unspoken rota back in the beginning of the Squats, making sure he had a tasty meal and company to eat it with every day if they could; prying him gently offline and into the more visceral interactions of meat and bread and touch and speech. She had watched him change over those lunches and suppers, bit by infinitesimal bit, could almost map each new word or glimmer of expression that he gained against a taste or texture that gave him pause, and fired a new, old pattern into the altered web of his brain. Some deeply buried instinct for humanity had stirred with every bite.

(Postscript: I can’t post proper extracts from Binary, not until Gemsigns is out, but no harm in the odd un-spoilered paragraph here and there. I’m quite pleased with this one.)

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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