Gwyneth Jones

building sandcastles

Gwyneth Jones interviewed


Gwyneth Jones

Can we talk about Ann Halam, your alter ego?

GJ: When I was first starting out as a writer there were two things that made me want to write for teenagers and older children. One was that I really liked those kinds of books and I’d grown up with a respect for them. C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Alan Garner, William Mayne . . . When I was in my early twenties and first seriously trying to write a book, it seemed natural to go that way. Especially since at that time a very open, adventurous, demanding sort of fiction was acceptable for the teenage market. Have you ever come across Alan Garner’s Red Shift? It is in part (there’s a very bleak sexual awakening theme too) an extraordinarily demanding piece of science fiction, yet it was written for teenagers. It came out about 1973, I think, the last of his series of really stellar teenage stories. That’s the kind of book that inspired me. Second reason was, I think all fiction is autobiography in disguise. There’s probably a rude Freudian word for it, but I’m thorough by nature, and I thought that if I was going to write ‘myself’ down, then I should start at the beginning. Or the beginning of my autonomous life. So I started on fiction that would be a reflection of my life as a teenager, planning to go on from there. I believed at the time (and I still do) you’re your memories are absorbed into the fabric of fiction, whether you’re conscious of it or not, and that what I was doing was really writing about my life, because I couldn’t do anything else . . . I wrote four teenage fiction novels before I wrote Divine Endurance which was my first adult SF novel. I only started writing as Ann Halam after that.

Does the way in which your teenage fiction is marketed differ greatly from your adult science fiction? Do you have a good working relationship with your publishers?

GJ: I’ve been very fortunate in my experience as a teenage fiction writer. Less so with the adult books. It was all down to chance, at least I think it was. In the mid-eighties, when I was writing my first big SF novel, I had a well-paid job — briefly, the first and only time in my life where I was making an executive salary — writing scripts for a TV cartoon called The Telebugs . . . I don’t suppose you remember it! This meant was that I was independent. When I was writing Divine Endurance, Escape Plans and Kairos I didn’t think twice about the market. My novels were essentially the hobby (incredibly absorbing, fanatical hobby) of someone who was making quite good money in the dayjob. It was great at the time, but a bad beginning for my career! If you want to succeed in a small market like British SF you have to be eager to please at all costs, or else naturally inclined to write what the marketing folks perceive as proper, commercial SF, and that was not me, not on either count . . . With the teenage fiction, I’ve had a very different experience. I was lucky enough to get onto a production line that I enjoyed, with people I trusted. Somebody called Judith Elliott, who is now the teenage children’s editor and a publishing director at Orion, bought a book of mine in 1985 called King Death’s Garden which was my first ghost story, and I’ve been with Judith and with my current editor Fiona Kennedy ever since. It’s been a working arrangement that — touch wood, because in publishing you never know — we all seem to be comfortable and satisfied with. The Ann Halam books are not best sellers but they do okay, they get on the short lists occasionally and I get invited to schools and stuff. So with Ann Halam it’s been (so far) something almost like a steady job. It won’t make me rich, but it’s my work, I do it for pay, I really enjoy it.

Is it hard when you have been writing something for a specific audience or a particular publication, and realise that it is changing into something far different than what was originally intended?

Divine EnduranceMaybe that happened with Divine Endurance, which started off as a fairy tale of a kind that I had done before, amateur writing for my friends: and it grew into a book, then it grew into a science/fantasy for adults. There’s this amorphous area which contains Oscar Wilde, Eleanor Farjeorn, Nicolas Stuart Grey, Barbara Leonie Picard, which I loved when I was a teenager. They’re not ‘about children’, but they’re about young people, sort of ordeals and initiations. Same kind of thing as Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. These are modern fairy tales, marketed for older children but not really not for any particular age group. Chimney-corner stories. That was what Divine Endurance started as, and it became a big, sprawling — well no, it didn’t sprawl after Rayner Unwin got hold of it — I tried to sprawl, but he wouldn’t let me! But really I’d say it was the Ann Halam stories that ‘became something different’, because typically an Ann Halam story isn’t a fairytale. It’s a novel with juvenile characters.

I get interviewed by fourteen year olds and they’re always very suspicious of my dual writing identity. They’re afraid that I’m writing down to them as Ann Halam, and that they are not getting the full deal. I tell them this really isn’t true. I do not write an Ann Halam story thinking “Well I can’t put this in”. I do not censor myself when I write my teenage fiction, I choose to write a particular story, about these particular characters and what happens to them, and that’s what decides the material. I think that’s the key to writing for a young audience, rather than thinking “I must write this for nine year olds”. Think of the particular people, try to remember what it was like to be nine? Or thirteen, in my case —

Speaking of teenage fiction and SF, if you’re interested you should have a look at Lesley Howarth’s work. Maphead, which is my favourite, is a brilliant little book, and it’s science fiction, some kind of science fiction, definitely. Very interesting, very unexpected and she doesn’t ‘write down’, so it’s completely accessible to an adult reader, though marketed specifically for children. All her books are like that.

What makes you write stories? Was it the nurturing environment or a genetic predisposition?

GJ: Both, of course! I don’t know why I’m a writer. Certainly my father told stories and my older sister told stories and I told stories. I was a storyteller long before I was a writer. Maybe what’s more interesting is to ask what kind of writer I am, and there you can definitely see both nature and nurture . . . My mother was a teacher, I’m married to a teacher, I even did a PGCE — and decided that I was definitely not the right stuff! Now I go into schools three or four times a term. (I don’t do this on a planned schedule: I say yes to the people who invite me unless I’m really, really stuck for time.) I do workshop sessions with thirteen and fourteen year olds and I talk about creative writing up to A level and beyond. There’s obviously a natural inclination to be a teacher in me somewhere, which shapes my whole approach to my audience, and possibly also to my writing. I genuinely enjoy going into schools . . . It is hard work and I have immense respect for the teaching profession. I know I couldn’t survive more than a day at a time. For one day it’s reasonably easy, especially if you have a couple of teachers at the back of the class, riding shotgun!

Do you think the National Curriculum allows much scope for creativity?

GJ: The National Curriculum is prescriptive, and of course this can be a bad thing. But isn’t it always the way, in education? My mother was very much at the forefront of innovation in the 1960s with Primary School teaching. Integrated day, team-teaching, she did these things and made them work, because she was organised and had a great team of teachers. But in other schools that modernism foundered, and children suffered. So now we have the National Curriculum, and what’s the difference? A new game, some people can play it well, some can’t. My own feeling is that these prescriptions from on high can usually be adapted and be good — so long as you are not being ordered to teach your children the “sun goes round the earth”; or any other kind of Nazi misinformation. You can find a way to use the prescription; and the good teachers will teach well. What seems to me unrelievedly horrible is the burden of the administration that’s been put on teachers now, the paper work, the so-called quality management. Ghastly. I think that it is evil. If there’s any good in it, I can’t see it.

Scope for creativity? Hmm. Well, when I go into schools and talk to years 7, 8 and 9, what I find is that the whole class can appreciate what I tell them about my craft. They can appreciate the nuts-and-bolts, they love hearing how many words go into an Ann Halam book (it’s about 40-50k) and why we talk about ‘words’, not ‘pages’; what an editor does, how I get along with the people who design the cover. It is as if I come from any other trade. What I tell them is new information and that’s interesting. Of course for some children nothing is interesting and you may as well forget about them, let the teachers at the back of the class deal with them — I think I feel that ‘creativity’ is something a prescriptive approach is bound to destroy, and I believe the nuts-and-bolts part of my sessions is probably the more valuable than the ‘creative writing’. I ‘teach’ writing because that’s what feels right to the school, that’s what they expect, but sometimes they see value in the sheets of paper covered with words, where I do not. Once you’ve got the literacy skills the ability to write freely is innate. Some people can do it, some people can’t, and it means nothing about the quality of what’s produced. Maybe I say that because I’m definitely in the can’t category. Give me forty-five minutes and tell me to write a story, I would blank out completely. So I try never to put the pressure on, I try to talk about what stories are and where they come from: and I try NOT to give the impression that ‘being creative’ is something you can learn by rote.

Bold As LoveFrom your shorter fiction it is apparent that you like to travel. Do you think there are aspects of these different cultures that influence and effect your writing?

GJ: Hmm. I travel less these days, long-haul, anyway. The last adventurous long trip I did was in Christmas of 1996 when we went to West Africa and climbed Mount Cameroon. The only time I’ve been to Africa apart from Egypt. I liked it a lot, but West Africa is a grim place in many ways, even in the Cameroon, which is a relatively peaceful, easy-going sort of country. But travelling in a minor way is still something I enjoy. I just like being on the move, between worlds, seeing the varied scene go by. I even enjoyed coming to Exeter on the train — it’s ridiculous! Yes, to get back to the short stories, I often ‘get’ a short story out of a trip abroad, an addition to the scrapbook. The Poland story came about because my brother and sister-in-law were in Warsaw then, working for the British Consul. There’s another couple of stories which are for me very much souvenirs of travels around France and Spain — Balinese Dancer and La Cenerentola. It not so much the culture of the place that comes out in these stories though, it’s the culture of being a tourist!

When I lived in Singapore, long ago, when I was writing Divine Endurance, we took the business more seriously. We took the time and trouble to acclimatise, for instance. We avoided air conditioning, we managed with fans at home — which was possible because we were in British Army NCO accommodation that had been converted into flats: old-fashioned tropical planning, with big rooms and high ceilings, so we were comfortable. The average housing in modern Singapore is not built for the tropics! God help them if they ever run out of power, it’ll be a swift descent . . . Practically speaking it’s vital to acclimatise if you really want to get to know the tropics, otherwise you’re just scurrying from one air-conditioned building to another, but er, metaphorically speaking acclimatising means taking the trouble to find out about the cultures, to immerse yourself. It was from that kind of immersion that Divine Endurance grew —

I remember going to the Mekong River once (NB: this reference comes about because at MicroCon 2001 there was a fascinating talk by a cryptozoologist (Richard Freeman) featuring catfish the size of cars, and tasting of parma violets). We went to Thailand and went for a guided walking through the Golden Triangle — it’s the obligatory thing to do, the tourists go and look at all the people growing their opium. We then went on further on our own account up, to the Laos border and looked at this big river, the Mekon. At that time, in 1980, it was possible to travel in Laos, but it was difficult, and sadly we just stopped at the river. Didn’t do much there, except I bought a couple of baskets and I’ve still got them . . . Of course it’s all different now. We’ve been talking about going to Vietnam — if we can get a big chunk of time, acclimatise and do it the natural way. But I don’t know if we ever will. So much has changed, in twenty years. Long-haul travel is not what it was.

I have been told that in Laos’ capital city you can still see these old French colonial houses, completely gutted on the inside with beaten earth floors and that as you walk along these boulevards, the people start baking baguettes — an incredible legacy of French culture . . .

GJ: When you go to West Africa — though we were actually in the former British part of Cameroon — you find that, too. It was startling when we first arrived, here we were in this hot, crowded, dilapidated and scummy African city, trying to find the bus to Buea (which is the base for climbing Mount Cameroon) and there were people cycling around with beautiful stacks of crispy, delicious smelling baguettes, selling them to you on street corners. That’s what everyone eats. Baguettes and croissants! It’s not very practical, maybe, but it is very nice!

Do you agree with the argument that SF concepts and technologies are — for good or for ill — a template for the future?

GJ: You mean, will we colonise Mars? Will we choke on our own pollution? On the face of it, my writing may seem biased towards the view that ‘technology is the dark side of the force’. Really, I regard the technology as morally neutral. The fact is, the evil capitalist machine and its programme of wealth creation has made a very large number of human lives longer, more comfortable and more interesting, in the last century or so. I know that if I’d have been born 100 years ago, and in rural Ireland (which is, er, genetically, where ‘I’ would have been) quite likely I would never have been taught to read or write, and most probably I’d have ended up a between-stairs maid or a factory hand. I’d never have been a candidate for a university education. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have lasted long enough to be anything much. I was a sickly child: I’d quite likely have died of bronchitis or pleurisy or TB if I hadn’t had free access to antibiotics. I’m a socialist, I’m a Green Party voter, but I’m aware of this ambivalence, about “progress” and all its works, and I hope it’s reflected in my writing.

Technological “progress”, which mainstream SF celebrates, has made it possible for six billion plus people (whether this is a good thing or a bad thing) to live on earth, in more comfort by and large than ever before. But this machine is not working for the people. The engine is there to make profit and any good that it does for people is incidental. There’s a really good James Tiptree phrase about “living in the chinks of the world machine”. I think to an extent that at any time, all of us are getting our personal satisfactions out of life, in the chinks of the world machine. In our present day we’re living off the scraps that fall from the table of the profit-making drive and they are pretty fat scraps. But if you expect the machine that drives wealth creation, and funds and initiates so much incredible technology…If you say it is working for the benefit of the poor, the needy, the sick and the old, of its own accord, — well either you are lying or you are fooling yourself in a major way. There’s no trickle-down effect. The ‘trickle-down effect’ consists of the people who are not besotted by making profit, hauling the machine onto a more humane track, much against its natural inclination. But what was the question? Do SF technologies provide a template of the future? I’m not sure. On the one hand, a lot of bizarre cyberpunk inventions now seem to be becoming fact. On the other hand, we have the classic example of space-exploration. Science fiction said it would happen, and it didn’t. You could say, those galactic empire scenarios of the fifties were really technophile advertising, rather than prediction — and the point is that there are endless new worlds to conquer! But if you look that stuff as ‘prediction’, the parallel I’d draw now is with the genetic-engineering, post-human SF that people are writing. Will there be catalogues where you can order a clone of a celebrity as your baby of choice? Will we be able to buy add-ons that enable us to breathe underwater? The gap between imagination and technical possibility may be a lot wider than it looks.

Isn’t that strange that despite the fact that we now live in a huge global society, there seems to be an underlying sense of almost tribal identity uniting people in smaller defined communities. Is this merely zeitgeist, or something far deeper and fundamental?

Gwyneth JonesGJ: I think it is about populations, not genetics. We’re social animals, we are and we always were social animals. There’s a deep need, an innate need for people to look after each other and trade information about each other. You need the people who are immediately around you, you need their approval and their support, so you become like them. That’s a homogenising force, which can work for good or ill, and maybe it works more strongly, not less, in the midst of a huge global society. There’s something that says the only place we ever live in is a small community, and we can’t ‘live’, in the sense of mutual comfort and support, with more than about fifty other people? (I’ve seen a number quoted somewhere, but can’t remember) — But living in small communities can also be hell!

That’s interesting, especially when you realise that the ideals of a ‘good’ state or literary utopia couldn’t work because human beings are unpredictable. So is the workable solution something like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars where you try and mesh the ideas of anthropology and social theory together? Do you think it is plausible?

GJ: Ah, Red Mars! That’s a brilliant book. I more than admired that book. I thought it was wonderful. I also like Green Mars and Blue Mars, but for me after Red Mars there’s a falling away, because — and this sort of answers your question — Red Mars is the one with the strong plot. There’s a political thriller underpinning the social theory and the bravura extrapolation of technology, and the parliamentarian meetings, and that makes the first book more vital for me than the other two. I don’t know if the idea of humans colonising Mars is plausible. I think — plausible but a lot further off than it looked, maybe. But the building of a new human society? You can’t say that’s implausible, because people keep trying. Obviously, historically, these things happen, and if the Mars trilogy ends with the New World being a terrific, though qualified, success — well, let’s face it, Stan is a Californian. He’s steeped in the history and the zeitgeist of the USA and he knows whereof he speaks.

You start with a small number of the brightest and the best though, and maybe for the Mars trilogy that’s a very necessary underlying assumption. The people who go to Mars, even later when the colonist-class settling starts, are those who have the get up and go to leave the Old World and start again. They are different from us.

Are you aware of the work of Naomi Mitcheson? Amazing person. She had an extraordinarily long, varied and powerful life — she was a Scottish aristocrat who was involved in the socialist movement in the 1920s and 1930s — and she wrote big, political fantasies; and feminist SF. There’s a big book of hers called The Corn King and the Spring Queen, set at the time of the Spartan republic. The story is basically about two Romanians — two tough young people, privileged celebrities by birth. They come from a magical, materially prosperous but unsophisticated culture away out in the boondocks of the Europe of those days, but they meet some Spartans and become involved in an endeavour to create the perfect state; and they are fascinated. It’s a great read — a strange mixture (it now seems) of rich pre-historical décor, and characters who are clearly acting out the preoccupations of the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century. But the point, when I get there, is that Naomi Mitcheson’s Utopia doesn’t end on a note of terrific success. I think what she’s trying to say is that every attempt to ‘build the good state’ is doomed. If you DO manage to ‘succeed’, what you’ll get is Nazi Germany or Joe Stalin’s Russia. So, in the Utopia-building line, material failure is actually the good outcome. She has an image about building sandcastles. Of course you know it’s not going to work: you build a sandcastle, you love doing it, you learn something about how sand behaves, you find solutions for some problems, and then the sea comes and washes it away. But that’s okay, then you build another sandcastle. I think that’s a good image for what’s valuable about utopian thinking — in literary form and in real life. It’s the attempt that matters, the result will not last, but it’s always worth trying again. It’s something like Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again, fail better each striving”.

Beckett and SF utopias?

GJ: Yes, why not? It works for me, anyway. I’ve used that Beckett quote in White Queen. That’s an attitude I can believe in, and write about. It may sound really marginal — but it is the bottom line. You’ve achieved something, something small and real, it’s a believable good. When people try to create the good state in my SF that’s what they’re doing. Building sandcastles, and hoping the tide won’t take everything; but if it does, never mind. It lasted for a while.

Going back to fairy tales, your Interzone story La Cenerentola proved interesting reading. That was one of the first times I had encountered the concept of wetware as a means of gene manipulation. It was an incredibly fascinating, unnerving story — in the sense that people were being created and then disposed of, regarded as commodity.

GJ: It’s no accident that one of the couple in that story is a philosopher. I don’t usually write stories where the invented characters are so clearly a metaphor for something else, but when the girls, the twins, merge back with their progenitor — it’s about market forces. It is a fairy tale, but I was trying to think about what happens to market forces when they’re working on immaterial things. Strange things happen to capitalism when the product is not there and there is no cost in reproducing it, and um, magic is a strange thing, and genetic engineering is a strange thing . . . well, I don’t know. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But this is the beauty of writing science fiction, which I suppose means fairytales with technology in them. Whether or not the technology is plausible, or the political-sociological-philosophical ideas are interesting, you have the story to fall back on . . . and maybe the story is what lasts.


Gwyneth’s latest novel, Bold As Love, is currently available in paperback priced at £10.99 from Gollancz

Visit the Bold As Love website

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