Today I have the pleasure of interviewing, together with Leticia Lara from the wonderful Fantástica Ficción, E.J. Swift author of Osiris, Cataveiro and Tamaruq. You can also read a translation of the interview into Spanish at Fantástica Ficción. Hope you enjoy it!
Leticia Lara & Odo: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Which other authors have influenced you? Is there any current writer that you admire?
E.J. Swift: I’ve written stories since I can remember, so it wasn’t a conscious decision to become a writer - just something I’ve always done, and I hope I always will do.
There are so many writers I could list who have been influential. Margaret Atwood is a huge inspiration. The Blind Assassin is one of my favourite novels and one of the most affecting works I’ve read. I’m also a big fan of Jennifer Egan, who is one of those rare writers who can switch between tragedy and comedy within a sentence.
A few recent novels I loved were The Kills by Richard House (2013), The Race by Nina Allan (2014) and The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne (2014) - I seem to be drawn to fragmented narratives.
LL&O: What is your process of writing? Do you have the plot in your mind and let yourself go or do you plan every little step of your characters?
EJS: It’s different for every novel, but the process is more organic than structured. I don’t plot intensively in advance. I write scenes out of sequence, as they come to mind, and when I have enough material, I start working out how it all fits together.
With Osiris, the story grew from the concept of the place, this very hostile environment in the middle of the ocean, which believes itself cut off from the rest of the world. With Cataveiro, I had a strong sense of the characters of Ramona and Taeo, and wanted to explore the tension between them and how this is reflected with the broader themes of the novel, even though their paths intersect very briefly.
LL&O: How did it affect you the change of your publishing company from Night Shade Books to Del Rey UK?
EJS: I already had the contract with Del Rey UK when Night Shade Books changed hands, so that was very reassuring during a period of uncertainty, to know that the sequels would be published at least in the UK. On the US side, Night Shade Books continue to publish Osiris, and I’m hoping to have US ebooks available for Cataveiro and Tamaruq very soon. I commissioned new artwork for these from the wonderful artist Ben Baldwin, which I’m looking forward to sharing once the ebooks are ready.
LL&O: What can you tell us about the current wave of clifi (climate change fiction)? Do you think it has come to stay?
EJS: I think it’s almost impossible to write anything set in the near future without addressing it, at least as background detail. And in a lot of science fiction set further into the future, there’s reference to some kind of environmental restoration, before progress can begin again - Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, for example. I mentioned The Race earlier - one of the themes it explores is the devastating environmental consequences of fracking, which is a recurring threat in the UK at the moment.
LL&O: Who is your favorite character from your books?
EJS: I would have to say the Alaskan, who appears first in Cataveiro. She’s an outcast, exiled from her own country, fiercely intelligent, and first appears as a rather Machiavellian villain. I loved gradually filling in her backstory, and developing the relationship between her and her employee, the street kid Mig. It would be great to write some of her earlier life story one day.
LL&O: Reading Osiris and Cataveiro I feel amazed by the background of the stories, the world as a desert place. Do you see it as a possible (and terrible) future? Are your books a warning?
EJS: I first read about the threat of climate change in-depth when I came across Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. And it was terrifying, reading that. Since then I’ve tried to keep myself updated on developments, and it’s obviously gained increasing media attention.
Certainly the destruction of the natural world is something I feel very passionate about. I read an article recently which talked about the media frenzy that would be generated if evidence were found of even the most primitive life on Mars. The writer made the point that by contrast, we are happy to watch hundreds of species go extinct every year on Earth, some of which we won’t even have a chance to discover. So I suppose the books are in part my reaction to what is happening here and now - and what we could lose if we don’t do something to stop it. In Cataveiro, especially, I felt there was an opportunity to explore some of those ideas - through the story of the last jaguar, for example.
LL&O: How do you feel about "The Spiders of Stockholm" being included in Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award longlist?
EJS: That was amazing! Jared Shurin, who edited the story, had submitted it back in July, and I had completely forgotten about it. So it was a massive surprise to find out it had been longlisted. I hope it might bring some attention to Irregularity, which is a gorgeous anthology. Jurassic always publish great collections.
LL&O: In Osiris there is growing tension because people from the west are not allowed to enter the richest part of the city. What do you think about the current conflicts caused by illegal immigration both in America and in Europe? How can Science Fiction help overcome this kind of problems?
EJS: Science fiction, and literature in general, can give a face and a voice to the unfamiliar, and remind us to empathize, to be compassionate. In particular, I think science fiction has a unique power to explore real-world situations through allegory. Setting a novel in a futuristic sea city gave me the freedom to examine some of these conflicts without the anxiety of misrepresenting a community. I wanted Osiris to be a failed utopia - in the beginning, the city was open to everyone, but when resources are stretched as a result of environmental catastrophe, the walls come down. It’s a classic reaction.
LL&O: Also in Osiris, the menace of terrorism is used as a political weapon in order to advance certain agendas. Did you find inspiration for this in some real-world politics?
EJS: I think real-world politics have inevitably influenced my work. I was definitely interested to explore the rhetoric of war, particularly when it came to writing Tamaruq, the third book, where the city of Osiris becomes a pawn in the ambitions of north and south. I’m fascinated by the way that language frames, justifies or warps our perspective on aggressor and victim, from media to politics to the way history is recorded.
Two writers I admire greatly who write about some of these tensions are Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows is a great example) and Aminatta Forna, who has explored civil war in Sierra Leone and Croatia in her work.
LL&O: What is your opinion on the situation of women in genre fiction?
EJS: We have a long way to go towards gender equality, and not just in genre fiction. When I was writing Osiris, I wasn’t thinking about what genre I was writing or how it would be marketed, I was focussed on the story. It was only after being published that I became aware of the discussions around gender within science fiction.
It was around that time I started cataloguing my reading, and was horrified to realize I was reading far more male writers than female. Since then I’ve had a strict 50-50 or bias-towards-women-writers rule for myself, and I’ve discovered some brilliant writers I’d never heard of. It’s quite alarming when you identify as a feminist, and realize that unconsciously you’ve been contributing to the problem yourself. I’m not a reviewer, but I make more of a conscious effort now to write about books I’ve enjoyed on my website, particularly by women.
LL&O: In Osiris suicide is like the ultimate taboo. Do you think that our will to live is strong enough to guide us even through the direst of futures?
EJS: Yes, I think we’ll endure, the question is how (and I really hope it’s not like the far future section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is one of the darkest futures I’ve ever read), and whether we can maintain a society that is truly humane. Because it’s always the most vulnerable sections of society who suffer first. In Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, one of the scenes that really stuck with me was a girl in the airport desperately asking if anyone had the anti-depressants she needed, because she had run out of medication, and nobody did. But I loved that book because it also highlighted the capacity of art to endure. So if the apocalypse comes, hopefully it will be more Station Eleven than Cloud Atlas!
LL&O: Have you ever been contacted by Spanish publishers to translate your books?
EJS: Sadly not, though I would love to see my books translated. I’d love to see more non-Anglophone work translated into English too.
LL&O: Are social networks important for your relationships with other authors and with your readers?
EJS: Yes, but I have something of a love-hate relationship with Twitter. Of course it’s useful as a professional network, and more importantly it’s lovely to connect with other readers and writers, to talk about books, to find recommendations for books you might never have heard of. I find so much of my reading through recommendations online. On the other hand, it can also feel like a total time sink, and all too often any nuance or reason is lost in a sea of people shouting.
LL&O: What are you working on right now? Can you give us a sneak peek of your future projects?
EJS: I’m working on something a bit different from The Osiris Project - and not quite so dark! I can’t say too much about it yet but it’s a standalone novel, a contemporary setting with speculative elements.
LL&O: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
EJS: You can find out more via my website - www.ejswift.co.uk
I’m also on twitter (@catamaroon) and on Facebook facebook.com/ejswiftauthor so please do say hello.
LL&O: Any other thing you would like to add?
EJS: Thank you for having me on the blog, and for asking some really interesting questions!