Let’s start from the beginning. Who were the writers who inspired you to become an author?
Ursula le Guin is the first person who springs to mind. I first read her when I was about eight or nine and just fell in love, and every time I go back to her I find another layer or message or subtle game in her writing. I think something else that really affected me as a very young teen was reading Solzhenitsen and realising the sheer power of words. That stories were more than just adventure or fun or escapism, they can also be a weapon of resistance, a blazing light, a source of hope and voice of anger. I’m not saying my writing compares to either of theirs, but I think that duality of both beauty and power in storytelling was a really fundamental discovery and it stayed with me even though it took me a long time to actually start writing myself.
What is the very first piece of fiction you ever wrote?
Oh dear! A book called A Known Distance. It was a two worlds fantasy thing with a mother trying to find her child. It was … my learning book, shall we say. It served a purpose in proving to be that I could write, and giving me some material to practice on but it was a bit of mess!
Think back at your debut book. How did you approach the ‘getting published’ process? Any tips, resources that you can share with our readers?
I don’t have to look back too far, fortunately! One of the most useful things I did in terms of readying myself for submitting was joining Twitter. I know it can be a hellsite and a distraction, but I found it incredibly useful for learning more about what agents and publishers were looking for, who were the kinds of people I wanted to work with, where opportunities were opening up etc etc. That and the support of the friends I’ve found has made Twitter a really valuable resource for me over the last few years. My tips for actually submitting would be to a) read your submission again, b) research who you are sending it to, and c) be professional. And accept that rejection is part of the process – try to see it as proof of your bravery and keep going!
Tell me about your debut speculative novel, This Is Our Undoing. What was the inspiration behind it?
Powerlessness, in a word! It came out of my sense of helplessness in the face of huge global, existential issues around climate change and the rise of far-right populism. I wanted to write about those small individual decisions/choices/resistance that are often all we as individuals can make, and explore the importance of them, their power. I also wanted to try writing a murder mystery, sort of just to see if I could. It didn’t really end up being a normal murder mystery, but the process definitely added to my respect for thriller writers’ plotting abilities!
Is there a particular character in the book that it’s closer to your heart? What makes it so?
Kai. I love Kai and wish I could protect him from everything! He’s a strange, fey, lost child and he along with his fascination for foxes became the heart of this novel, I think. I didn’t really plan it that way, but I think his fragility and fierce determination to fight ‘the monsters’ encapsulate the questions of what is powerlessness and power, or right and wrong. But as well as being this symbolic heart, he is also simply a traumatised, hurting child who needs to be loved and I want to give him that!
How did you find the publishing process, in general?
Fabulous! And more time consuming than I anticipated but a lot of that time commitment has been my choice so I definitely don’t begrudge it. I love how involved I feel in the process, and I am so excited by the support and kindness that has greeted my book. I can’t wait to see where we go next.
What is your take on social media, when it comes to being an author? Do you think that an author should have at least one channel of communication with the readers?
As I said above, I love Twitter as a tool for researching the publishing industry & connecting with writers. I haven’t really got to the point of having much communication with readers but I would like to maintain some sort of channel, yes. I think it should be something you can step away from if you need to because you have to protect yourself, I think, but as long as it is a positive connection then I think it must be really rewarding for both reader and author to have that link.
What is the hardest part of writing, in your experience?
The rejections! And I say that coming from research science where the rejections are brutal compared to publishing! It can be really hard to hold on to your faith in yourself and your stories in the face of ‘failure’ and set-backs and the dreaded email silence; and there’s so little you can do to control that. You just have to remind yourself that it happens to everyone, and keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.
What do you think about Awards in publishing?
I think they are a mixed blessing. As a reader they’re a fabulous shortcut to new books, I think. They are great for raising the profile (and sales!) of books, and for establishing author credentials in a way that must help them in their publishing career. I think there is a tendency in the larger/older awards to be quite narrow in their focus, which is frustrating, although I think there are some fantastic new or genre awards which are really bucking that pattern. Like the Jhalak prize or the Women’s prize, for example. I only learned recently that a lot of prizes charge the publishers a considerable entry fee which is terrible as it’s instantly such a barrier to smaller presses, and to bringing about change.
What do you think is the status of publishing today? I’m referring to issues such as representation, diversity, etc.
This is something that as an under-represented author lies very close to my heart. Publishing is still very much centred around and lead by male white, cis/het, middle class, London-centric, able-bodied people. I think there is a greater awareness of this, and more desire for change, than there has ever been before, and I think that there are sectors of the industry where change is visibly happening – particularly in indie presses and an increasing number of agencies. But publishing is a juggernaut, and when the system works for the people who lead it, when change would make those people uncomfortable, it is really hard to bring about fundamental systemic shifts. I think we’re moving in the right direction, but I do occasionally despair of ever seeing significant change in the industry core.
The Big Four Vs Small Presses. What are your thoughts in terms of strengths and weaknesses?
Linked to the question above I think one of the greatest strengths of the smaller presses is that this is where change is happening. These are the publishers who are stretching the boundaries, both in terms of what stories are being told, but also who is telling them. I love that. It’s so exciting. Smaller presses are always going to have less marketing heft compared to the Big Four though, so you are starting from a much more challenging position in the ‘race’ to get your book in front of potential readers. But then, publishing with a Big Four means you are one of hundreds of authors in their ‘stable’ so you are getting a fraction of their attention, effort, passion, where-as with a small press you are one of a few authors and I think the greater closeness and commitment really shows. Which is a huge plus for the author.
What are you working on at the moment?
Editing a speculative historical massive beast of a book about colonialism, inherited trauma, belonging and botany (and real, actual romance, which is a first for me!). Drafting a speculative story set in a near-future Estonia/Russia full of digital ghosts, hedge magic, bees and found family.
If you had to recommend an author and a book, who would it be?
How long have you got? If I had to pick one based on recent reads, Intisar Khanani. She writes YA fantasy with all sorts of fab diversity and really thoughtful ideas. Or Natasha Pulley, whose books are always so deft and subtle and odd.