Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Dystopian Fiction at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Last week I appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival: did you know it is the largest celebration of the written word in the world? (I didn't, but I do now!). It was pretty awesome, and I've blogged about what it was like to be there from a writer's point of view over at Notes from the Slushpile, so I won't repeat any of that here. What I'd like to get into is the event I did on dystopian fiction with Sara Grant, author of Dark Parties, as part of the RBS Schools Programme.

When I was preparing for Edinburgh I spent a lot of time thinking about dystopian fiction. Not all of it came out in our event: an hour is tiny window of time on my obsession! So I'm going to delve into some of it here. 

What exactly is dystopian fiction?
I think this is easier to answer by saying what it isn't. It's opposite is the eutopia: an imagined perfect society. In a dystopia, something terrible is going wrong.

Classic dystopian novels like Orwell's 1984 serve as a warning and call to action: the hero is always utterly defeated. The only way out of the mess is to change the world, now, so that this can't happen in the future.

Is this true of YA dystopian novels? Generally....no. About the worst the endings get is a little like you don't know quite what is going to happen. Sometimes there are happy endings that outrage some critics as going against what a dystopian novel is meant to be.

Do I have a problem with that? No. 'Dystopian' is a label that has been applied to novels like Slated and Dark Parties: for myself I didn't seek it out. What the YA dystopian novel is, in essence, isn't in my view the same as what came before in any event. But having said that....if a happy ending is bogus, it is going to outrage readers. It has to fit the story, and make sense in the world created.

Why dystopian? Why now?

What I'm getting at is why is it so popular just now? Is it just because of the popularity of the Hunger Games books and film, or is there more behind it? There are a number of theories.

Fear of the future: so many things are going wrong in the world. Dystopian novels imagine futures we fear: their recent popularity began in the US, and it began after the events of 9/11. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps authors are playing out their fears in their writing.

Escapism: dystopias give an exciting plot! Having a world where things are going wrong makes for a great story. An imagined perfect society where everyone gets along might be wonderful to live in, but it would make boring reading.

You're living it, right now: writers like Scott Westerfeld of the Uglies trilogy have said that high school is a dystopia. The idea is that teenagers like reading about dystopias because it echoes their own experience. And this doesn't mean that they've been fighting to the death on reality TV like Katniss in the Hunger Games. More that their lives are unpredictable, the rules keep changing, and they have no control.

The fear factor: with everything we have access to today, on the TV and internet, it takes more to scare us, so authors have to go further and further to make an exciting story.

They put your own problems into perspective: sometimes, life sucks. But seeing what Todd in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy has to get through can make our own stuff seem less of a deal.

Wanting the truth: traditional fiction for young people often paints a rosy view of the world and the future, one that may feel at odds with what is real.

Why do I write dystopian fiction?
Slated grew from a dream in the dark murk of my unconscious, so it wasn't a plan to write a dystopian novel at all. But I think I end up writing about my obsessions, things that worry me. Whether I want to, or not. I didn't set out to consider big questions, but the story took me places, and the questions were there.

Questions in Slated...
The scales of justice
If a young person commits a terrible, violent crime, why did they do it? Are people born bad, or made that way? If someone commits a crime as a reaction to horrible things that have happened to them, is it their fault? Should they even be punished? But if they are dangerous to everyone else, you can't just let them go: what then?

In Slated, underage criminals have their memories wiped, so they are given a second chance. Assigned to a new family and a new life. After my second event at Edinburgh when I was signing books, a dad who was a policeman told me he thought Slating was a brilliant idea. I'm not sure how serious he was, but is this a eutopian ideal?

Back to the question of whether bad people are born or made...if they are born that way, wiping their memories won't change them, will it? That is why Slateds must wear a Levo: a device that monitors emotions, to stop them from hurting themselves or others.

Behind Slating are Lorders, a brutal and oppressive government, and the other big question that keeps insisting I write about it is this: is it right to overthrow a government like this by any means necessary? In many dystopian novels, there are freedom fighters, attacking an unjust system, bringing it down. But what is the difference between freedom fighters, and terrorists? Is it just a matter of perspective?

I'm still working these questions out as I continue Kyla's story. Fractured is next and will be published in May 2013 in the UK. In the US, Slated is out Jan 2013 and Fractured will be September 2013. The final of the three should be published simultaneously in May 2014. I'll write it just as soon as I work out the answers to all of these pesky questions....

I'd love comments: Why do you think dystopian fiction is so popular? Or on anything else. Thanks!
Anobii First Book Award: Slated is up for this as a debut novel with the Edinburgh Book Festival. You can vote, here. Doing so enters you in with a chance to win all 46 nominated titles, and is open until October 12.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Interview with Sam Hawksmoor, author of The Repossession and The Hunting

After careers that involved teaching, travel and photography, and working in radio drama in Africa, not to mention being a tour guide in America and Europe Sam Hawskmoor finally committed to writing for real.  The Hunting, the sequel to his debut novel The Repossession is out this week and Sam has kindly agreed to an interview, and has provided a signed copy of The Repossession for us to give away.  Details of how to enter are at the end of the interview.
Note: If you haven't read The Repossession, there are spoilers in the interview, but my (spoiler-free) review is at the end of the post along with the details of how to win a signed copy of The Repossession.

Sam Hawksmoor

The Repossession and The Hunting are both out now in all good bookshops and online.  For more details visit Sam's website.

I found The Repossession extremely gripping from page one, and I particularly the juxtaposition of the small-town community of Spurlake and the huge, sinister Fortransco organisation. What made you choose to set the story in Spurlake, and was it a challenge to weave together the elements of the small-town community with the much broader technological themes?

Spurlake is a composite taking in Hope (where the first Rambo was filmed) and other small places up the Fraser Canyon.  I have long been fascinated by these communities – many of them there following gold and silver rushes a hundred years ago or more.  The landscapes are totally inspiring and yes Fortransco is secreted in the mountains – sinister and sucking the life out of the small towns because it needs all that hydro power to make it work.  Canada is in the forefront of many new 21st technologies in bioscience and energy so it was no stretch to believe that they could exist there.  The kids are going missing and sadly this is a fact of life in these small towns.  Around 70,000 kids go missing every year in Canada (most thankfully found) but a huge percentage are not – ending up in all kinds of desperate activities in the big cities.  I know from my own nephew and nieces friends just how many aimless kids there are not cutting it, not planning ahead and looking for short cuts (all of whom also grew up in a small BC town). Quickly I might add there are some bright successful kids who are doing well but clearly there is a problem with so many kids needing to escape the family home for one reason or another.

The Repossession
In The Repossession you use some complex theories relating particularly to physics and computer science. Did you have to do a lot of research into the subject, and how much of the science is based on current scientific thinking?

Teleportation is theoretically possible.  Possibly even proven (at the micro level) but of course it is still in its infancy and requires huge computer capacity.  To introduce a note of skepticism I have Rian and Mr Yates discuss it right at the beginning of the book

“All I’m saying, Rian, is that just because someone thought of it, it doesn’t mean it will come true.  Teleportation is bunk.  Pure bunk.  No one will ever beam up Scotty.  It’s impossible.  The future never happened.  There are no aliens and we don’t commute in flying cars.  Star Trek is rubbish science.  Bunk.”

A little trick played on the reader I guess as we discover later Mr Yates has a lot to hide.  Marshall the ex Fortransco employee is there to demonstrate just how dangerous playing with matter transference is.  I felt obliged to let him tell Genie some of the ‘science stuff’ because I think it’s important for the reader to know a: how expensive all this is b: how hard it is to dematerialize someone c: what mistakes can be made.  I was speaking in a school last month and mentioned Star Trek and NONE of the kids had ever heard of it.  Put me in my place I guess.  You can’t assume kids will have seen even the new versions.  But at the root of all this was my question as a teen when I saw Star Trek – who developed this?  How did they ever get anyone to volunteer?

We have an ongoing discussion on Demention looking at how much the inclusion of scientific and technological ideas affects whether a book is marketed more at boys or girls. Did you think about this when first writing The Repossession, and did you subsequently have to remove or expand any of the more technical aspects before publication?

As explained in the previous question – my editor didn’t want too much ‘science or exposition’ in the text but I figured that some kids, girls or boys like to explore the logic of a situation.  I was intriqued with the other kids, Denis, RenĂ©e etc who are materializing in Marshall’s house. Ghosts but not dead, suspended in a digital world, maintained on thousands of servers.  All of that had be explained as succinctly as possible – and I was using the Swiss Cern Project as my model.  Chasing Higgs Bosun as just as crazy as teleportation I guess but important to lets kids know that somewhere in the world there is a real project swallowing billions of dollars on pure frontier science – just like the Fortransco project.

As well as the sci-fi elements, there is the strong emotional story between Genie and Rian, the central characters. Did you enjoy writing from both Genie and Rian's perspectives equally or did you naturally lean more towards one or the other?

Hmm, I’d say I was definitely in love with Genie’s character but Rian is the rock she clings to.  I wanted Rian to be flawed, to be more human.  It’s Genie who gets him through illness, keeps him going, but they need each other.  I had a hard tussle when Ri goes to save her near the end because I really didn’t want him to storm in, guns blazing.  There would be a temptation to do that I guess in a movie, but I knew he couldn’t.  He’s just a boy, not James Bond.  He’s going to get his heart broken as he realizes this.

Their relationship is loving, and as romantic as it can be given their circumstances, but you touch on some extremely dark themes within their families and the wider community. Though all valid elements of the story, did you ever worry that some of these themes were too dark for your readers?

No. Going back to the 70,000 kids going missing every year in Canada (it’s a million in the USA and no one even counts how many in the UK).  We have the highest number of kids being fostered in the UK right now.  Things are going wrong in families, kids are suffering, reacting to the recession, or dysfunctional parents who put themselves before their kids.  Readers can perhaps take comfort that they aren’t in this situation themselves but the darkness is out there. Genie and Rian have found each other and together they are ‘safe’ no matter what.  That’s what I was striving for.

And a technical question for all of the aspiring authors who may be reading this. Of all the current YA novels I have read, The Repossession has the most swearing (though all entirely in context) but you barely touch on any level of physical relations between Genie and Rian. Was this a conscious decision on your part or were you influenced by your publishers?

Gosh I don’t even recall any swearing (Pretty sure my editor chopped most of it out) and as for sex… she was Very particular about that not being there. Clearly they are intimate but hey, they are sick most of the time so you’ll just have to figure they do stuff off the page.  (There was a tender scene in the cave after the fire but snip snip…)

The Hunting
The Hunting, the sequel to The Repossession is in the shops now. Can you tell us anything about your future projects? Will we see more of Genie and Rian?

I have a plot for Genie and Rian in a third book. (Spoiler alert they manage to survive The Hunting but don’t come out emotionally unscathed).  I have delivered another book to Hodder – another set in Canada a harrowing post-virus novel.  We shall see what happens.

How can people keep up with your latest news, events, signings etc.?

I update my website from time to time and there’s dates when I’m at a school (Dunhurst 14th Sept) or bookshop.  I think Chichester Waterstones August 25th and Woking Waterstones on the 8th Sept.  In October I’m hoping to sit down and start something new.  That’s when I’m happiest anyway.

Sam Hawksmoor, thank you for the interview.

You are very welcome.

For more information about Sam Hawksmoor visit his website.

Julienne's review of The Repossession by Sam Hawksmoor.

Tackling the emotive subject of disappearing children and examining the extremes of current technological theory, Sam Hawksmoor's first novel, The Repossession, thrills, entertains and disturbs from page one.

It tells the story of Genie and Rian, a couple fighting to escape the small-town attitudes in the isolated community of Spurlake, Canada.  But their escape leads them to a dark, sinister secret that is intertwined with the very community they are fleeing.

In the Repossession, Hawksmoor deftly wraps a tender teen romance in a disturbing vision of the power of corporate-funded technological advances.  Gripping and thought provoking - read it and you will buy the sequel!

The Repossession and The Hunting are both out now.
For more information visit Sam Hawksmoor's website.

of The Repossession by Sam Hawksmoor
To enter the draw just post a comment below.  Have you read The Repossession?  Do you agree with my review?  Do you want to say something about one of the subjects Sam has touched on in his answers?

For an extra entry, repost on FB or Twitter (and tell us that you have).
So one comment, a FB post and a tweet = three entries to the draw.  Bargain!

Competition closing date - August 31st.  Winner's name will be posted here Sept 3rd.  
Winner to contact us within 7 days using the contact form so that we can arrange postage

And the winner is ... MICHELLE
A huge thanks to everyone who visited and commented

keep an eye out for more giveaways in the future