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Friday, October 23, 2009

Interview with Alison Sinclair (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Mihir Wanchoo was able to interview Alison Sinclair regarding her release of her latest book Darkborn (read FBC's review of it here). Alison Sinclair is also the author of Legacies, Blueheart, Cavalcade and Throne Price. Fantasy Book Critic would like to thank Alison Sinclair for taking the time to answer a few questions for its readers. FBC would also like to thank Sarah Ash for helping us get in touch with Alison.


1] Could you please give us a short introduction about yourself and the type of books you write!

I’ve been classified as a literary SF writer, and I’d say I’m of a fairly traditional literary bent – definitely a SF writer at the core, but one influenced by mainstream literary writing and drama, particularly the modernist writers of the early decades of last century, when writers were exploring new ideas drawn from the scientific and political movements of the time and finding new forms in which to express them, and the SF of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when writers added to the golden age emphasis on science and technology the concerns with their impact on the individual and society.

Those concerns and influences spill over into my fantasy, but the fantasy is also tapping even older literary roots, from the my early adolescence in Scotland where I received an education based in the nineteenth century arts tradition, and from a late-awakening interest in history. I didn’t distinguish myself in history at school, and it wasn’t until the century I was born in became history that I abruptly started to take an interest in it again, and notice where official history differed from the experience of living through those times.

Recently I read a comment by Eleanor Arnason, that prompted a definite click:

Science fiction deals with the effect of science and technology on people. Fantasy deals with the things that have been devalued in industrial society: emotion, intuition, personal loyalty, the sense that human beings are part of the natural world. Both are ways to analyze the changes caused by industrialization, to understand what has been lost and what has been gained (quoted in Pamela Sargent (ed), Women of Wonder: The Classic Years; from “On Writing Science Fiction” in Denise du Pont (ed), Women of Vision.)

In my ‘other life’, I am presently studying for a MSc in Epidemiology at McGill University, in Montreal. That comes after a career in the physical and biological sciences that has included research in molecular and structural biology, a degree in medicine and a brief stint in medical residency, and work as a clinical researcher and writer in the pharmaceutical industry.

2] What books have you written up till now and can you tell us a bit about each of them?

My first published novel was Legacies (1995), but the world of the Burdanians had been with me in some form or other for a long time – my version of the child’s imaginary country was a planet. The writing of the novel in its mature form took me about five years, because I was learning on the job (not to mention finishing off a PhD and doing a postdoc plus other activities at the time). Its core is a very twentieth century question: how does a people reconcile itself with a history of atrocity, in this case the planetary catastrophe caused by the space-explorer’s star-drive?

Blueheart (1996) was the second – I wanted to write a book set on a water world, because I had a fascination with the sea, and I was working in molecular biology at the time, so I wanted to explore the practicalities and ethics of human genetic engineering as well as terraforming. The third point of origin was Rache Scole Blueheart, wanting to do a different character than the volatile Burdanians. Then I started with the discovery of the body floating in the ocean, the body of a woman who did not legally exist, and the plot – and Rache’s life certainties – began to unwind from there.

Cavalcade (1998) was the third, a response to the X-files and all the alien abduction mania in the media at that time – the start point was ‘what if the aliens asked for volunteers, who would go, and why?’ I wrote it thinking it would be a first contact story, but it turned out to be a story about human relationships, politics and ideals in an alien environment, about emigration, and about the baggage one takes with one.

Throne Price (2001) was a co-written novel, part of a longer story that my co-author, Lynda Williams, and I developed over quite some years. I’ve since bowed out of the project, but Lynda is well on into what will eventually be a 10 novel sequence.

I have three unpublished science fiction novels looking for a home. One is a stand-alone that was sparked by a lecture in medical school about cultural misunderstandings between physician and patient, which got me wondering what a physician from a very different tradition would look like. The other two are from a series of medical science fiction that got started because I wanted to do a story with medicine and starships, which cross-pollinated with epidemiology, worldbuilding, ethics and politics.

Given the change in the market, my agent kept nudging me to attempt a fantasy novel, and after sustained ‘but I don’t have the background!’ foot-dragging, I admitted just how much fantasy I had read and absorbed over a lifetime, and that I did have an idea, which got me writing Darkborn and its sequels.

3] What drove you towards writing and what is it about speculative fiction that you find so enticing?

Considering that I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was eight (called “Shipwrecked on an Island”), it’s hard to tell what exactly got me started writing. I discovered science well before I discovered science fiction (around age 14), but as soon as I discovered science fiction I started to write it.

I think I found speculative fiction so enticing in part because one is not confined, as a reader or a writer, to the limits of one’s own gender, class, and culture. Anything goes; everything that is normal, natural and appropriate is open to question. While I’ve told the story of how I discovered SF at the age of 14 before, it’s probably no accident that I battened on to it at that time, which is when social expectations of a girl really start to bear down, and that it was the SF&F produced and influenced by the British New Wave and American and British feminist and civil rights movements.

SF&F both shaped and reflects my interests: the interest in science and technology, definitely, and in its practitioners and proponents, but also the interaction between science and society and how they shape each other, how some ideas of science are incorporated into the culture and others are marginalized, how science (and knowledge in general) becomes part of human self-definition and human narrative and how it can be an instrument both of liberation and oppression.

4] Which authors that you have read and are your favorites, would you recommend to your fans especially in the fantasy/sci-fi genre?

That list could get very long and is subject to change without notice. At present my ‘pounce on with glad cries list includes’ (from within the genre)... Lois McMaster Bujold: for just about everything, but particularly for the humanism and the technical mastery and the way all the details come together. Ursula Le Guin, for similar reasons. Kim Stanley Robinson, for his take on science and scientists, and the documentary detail in his novels. Barbara Hambly, who writes a fantasy grounded in history, and history with elements of the magical. Julie Czerneda, for the biology, and the aliens, particularly her “Species Imperative” series. CJ Cherryh, who does the human-alien interface and the difficulties in translation so well. Ken McLeod, for the distinct flavour of his speculative politics. Marie Jacober, a friend who writes across genres but always on the tensions between love, politics and power.

This is by no means complete.

My entire haul from the recent Montreal Worldcon consisted of books from Canadian small presses. When I started writing, the distinctive Canadian voice and literature was very much a mainstream literary tradition, with minimal markets for SF&F within Canada. Quite a change over the last 30 or so years. I’m a member of SF Canada (Click here to visit the SF Canada site), whose 140-plus membership by no means includes everyone who is working in SF&F in Canada.

5] It's been close to 15 years since your first book was published, how do see your journey from the publication of "Legacies" up till now? Any special story to be shared about your first publication?

I’ve told the story of Legacies’ publication in an article I wrote for Focus, the writer’s magazine of the British Science Fiction magazine, in 1997 (View the full article online here). I quote myself here:

“The second publisher I sent [Legacies, then titled Homecoming] to was Random Century. In November it returned. I stoically peeled open the envelope as I trudged up the stairs, expecting the usual thank-you-for-letting-us-see-sorry-it-does-not-meet-our-needs. Instead, there was a personal letter to me from the editor, Deborah Beale. She was very interested in my writing, thought I had talent, but I was not there yet technically. There were two main flaws. I tended to overwrite. And I hadn't really learned to plot, and on that account, my characterization seemed a little picaresque. She had a few suggestions for what I might do, and she wanted to meet me next time I was down in London.

... I showed up at the Random Century offices in a suit, with garment bag on shoulder. Deborah appeared in miniskirt and leather jacket. In a crowded restaurant she wanted me to tell her the story of HOMECOMING. I tried. The noise and the effort wore me out; I begged off half way. Which was her point - I did not have a clear idea of the story. She was encouraging, nevertheless. She got maybe 500 submissions a year. Of those, she found about 8 authors she wanted to work with. I was one of the eight.

Back I went to my garret and my novel, taking Deborah's words of advice and what gleanings I could find about plotting from my reading, and started revising “Homecoming”. A year's work followed, in which I confronted the fact that I had not really reached the ending; I had merely pooped out two thirds of the way in. I wrote nine more long chapters. Just after Christmas, 1992, I bundled up some 600 pages ... and committed them to the tender offices of the GPO ...

In the interim, unknown to me, Deborah had signed on as SF editor for the embryonic Orion. That was my second piece of pure dumb luck - she had a blank slate to fill. In March, at work, I got a phone call. Deborah: "I've read your novel, I like it very much ..." I could hear a "but" coming in the tone of her voice, and braced myself to take it stoically. "And," she said, "we'd like to offer you a contract." I went into high orbit and didn't come down for a week.

There was a but. She wanted a rewrite. In August, I got the first installment of the editorial notes, and a few weeks later, the second. They came to forty pages, covering the first two thirds of the manuscript. The remaining third returned decorated with yellow post-its ...”

Back in 1995, breaking in was supposed to be the hard part. I didn’t realize that staying in would prove even harder. But if I had any temptation to regard disruptions in publishing induced by changes in the book distribution system, new technologies and economic upheavals, as something extraordinary (not to mention feel sorry for myself on that account), such a temptation would have been dispelled by listening to someone like Robert Silverberg describe the ups and downs of his career, as he did in a panel at the recent Worldcon. An introduction to a book of short stories by women writers of the Fin-de-Si├Ęcle (edited by Elaine Showalter) included the following sentence, “With changes in the economics of publishing in the 1890s, the traditional three volume novel disappeared.” At the same time, the periodicals market opened up, so writers who would have been writing novels wrote short stories instead, to that form’s great gain. As the sage said, the only thing constant is change. Whatever the frustrations in one’s daily life, change is always good study for a speculative fiction writer, particularly change that comes from an unexpected direction, and has unexpected consequences and revenge effects.

6] How has your background in Medicine & Anatomy helped you design the worlds which you created? Specifically in the world of the Imogene-affected, what are the basic anatomical differences between the Light & Darkborn?

I came to the conclusion a while back that a technical background was both a tremendous help and something of a hindrance, in that it gives me the tools for research and the understanding of mechanism, but occasionally makes me have to work harder to get around a constraint that I recognize. Worldbuilding, and imaginative bio- and system engineering is part of what makes this genre such fun – the constant interplay in the development of the story between the physical and biological assumptions, the psychology and sociology that comes out of them, and the explanations and narratives that the imagined culture develops out of its experiences.

Regarding the Darkborn trilogy, both the Darkborn and Lightborn are human-appearing. The Lightborn are anatomically normal. The Darkborn have eyes but lack optical tracts and that part of the brain that would normally be given to processing sight is given over to processing sound. They can hear much higher frequencies than we can.

7] All your previous novels had strong SF backgrounds however deal with problems arisen from technological & human perspectives? What do you wish to explore via the questions in your books.

The themes that seem to run all the way through are: The obligations of living things towards each other. How people (and aliens, and starships, and anything with an opinion on a matter) might live together without surrendering their traditions, history and convictions. How we express our physical nature, how physical nature and biology constrains us, how we resist that, the truths and untruths we realize and tell about ourselves. The use of knowledge (scientific and magical) as a tool for exploration and liberation, and the danger of its misuse. The ethics of knowledge and power.

8] What was the specific idea which lead to the genesis of the Darkborn and the remaining books?

I was reading a fantasy novel where the whole light=good, dark=evil motif was prominent to the point of being irksome (given the cumulative exposure from the genre). So I began flipping it around in my mind. First thought was to make the ‘dark’ people the heroes, though the way it has worked out, the Lightborn aren’t exactly the villains, and even the Shadowborn have their own reasons for being as they are. The second thought was to make the split between light and dark literal. The first image was of a man and a woman on either side of a wall, who became Balthasar and Floria. As to the late nineteenth century feel of the Darkborn culture, I suspect it came out of the compost that nurtured the trilogy, the fantasy and adventure fiction set in that era that I read as an adolescent and since.

9] What can you reveal about the remaining two books in the series? In the 1st book you curiously gave a very vague description of the Shadowborn, what can you tell us about them?

The second novel (Lightborn, due out June 2010) has a lot to do with the Lightborn, who also suffer the machinations of Shadowborn, and who – for reasons that the story reveals – know even less about them than the Darkborn. It carries on Telmaine’s story, as she tries to fulfill Balthasar and Ishmael’s charge to her of protecting Vladimer and the archduke while at the same time continuing to conceal her magic. Needless to say, the outcome is disaster.

Who and what the Shadowborn are and why they are out to cause mayhem is the matter of the third book (Shadowborn, due out May/June 2011), where Ishmael learns the purpose of the Call and the reason his life has been so dangerous of late, and Balthasar discovers how his family is connected to the Shadowborn.

10] In your book the Darkborn have no vision however perceive the world by the ability to “Sonn” how would you describe this ability and what organ does this sense arise from?[Eyes, Ears = sight, sound]

Sonar gave me the rough idea – there’s a fascinating book called Sensory Exotica by Howard C. Hughes, published by MIT Press in 1999, with sections on sonar, electroreception, biological compasses and chemical communication. I’ve taken appreciable liberties, one being giving some Darkborn the ability – with a lot of practice – use sonn passively.

11] You have always created exotic and well detailed worlds in all your previous books. What is it about world-building that makes you create such vastly different yet fully realized worlds?

An early and enduring fascination with natural history and with the great diversity of working life and working systems. I get to do the research that underlies them; I get to tweak them; I get to work out the consequences of my tweaks; and I get to invent characters who belong (or not) in those worlds, and create stories around them.

Thinking through and then dramatizing the consequences of living in darkness, perceiving through sonn, and having, absolutely, to avoid sunlight, was sometimes quite a challenge. While writing the Darkborn, I had to describe everything in terms of shape, hardness and texture, lose my entire colour vocabulary and all allusions to things at a distance, and abandon all the language of interaction that involved looks and glances. Writing the Lightborn, I got to put all these things back in, but had to be obsessive about lights and shadows, and making sure that everyone had enough light.

12] On the cover of Darkborn, a beautiful woman is shown wearing gloves, is this Telmaine? Why does she have eyes if she is a Darkborn?

I like the cover very much – the elegant clothes, the gloves, the composed and slightly wary expression, the dark hair: it’s Telmaine. But yes, she is clearly ‘looking’, and though Darkborn do have eyes, they are blind, so that was my one quibble. But it was the publisher’s say.

13] All novels of yours have a theme of conflict amongst two groups which served as a lynchpin for the story, should we consider this as a hallmark of your writing & what would you say about this?

Western culture is full of binary oppositions, starting from the good/evil paradigm of the dominant religions. We think in binaries. Much of standard conflict in storytelling is set up in terms of two sides in opposition, with a third element that appears to perturb any established dynamic.

For me, there’s a personal element – we moved to Canada for the first time when I was seven, and from then on, I became a child of two cultures. Television had not yet had its leveling influence, and the manners and mores of Britain and Canada were quite distinct, especially from the perspective of a child trying to learn the social rules. Canada was preoccupied with its own two solitudes, the political and cultural struggles between its English and its French heritage. In addition, I’ve spent my life between CP Snow’s two countries of arts and science, and as a woman in science, at times felt something of an immigrant to a strange land. So the clash of two cultures, and the experience of negotiating that clash, is something that is written on my psyche.

14] What are your plans for the future? As a writer, what still challenges you and what do you want to accomplish?

I’ve the usual long list of possible projects in my notebooks, from lablit (term for the realistic presentation of scientific endeavour), to space opera. Some of those have been incubating for decades. Although what does get written will likely depend on what is most likely to find a market – and I can’t even say “in these strange times”, because I’m well aware they’re no stranger than any other! If I were granted a year out, I’d use it to explore new technologies of storytelling – hypertext, interactive, mixed media, and see if I had any stories to tell that belonged in these forms. No matter the modulations of market, fashion, and form, storytelling still seems to find its way out.


suzie said...

Great interview. This book is definitely on my TBR list.

elnice said...

I like the elegant clothes and gloves on the cover too! I have never heard of SpaceOpera. Great interview.

Elie (Ellz Readz)

sideon said...

Excellent interview questions, and amazing answers from Alison Sinclair. This goes on my "must buy" shopping list!

The Reader said...

Thanks Suzie, Elnice & Sideon! I'm glad you liked the interview :) It's all thanks to Alison who's given such excellent answers.


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