Sunday, March 20, 2016

Interview: Steph Swainston on The Wheel of Fortune

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's story Het Rad van Fortuin for the Dutch language book site Hebban. They asked me to do in interview with Steph as well. Het Rad van Fortuin, of The Wheel of Fortune as it is called in English, is the first work of hers to be translated into Dutch. The questions in the interview are meant to introduce her to this new audience. We didn't want to withhold the result from her English language readers however. Both Steph and Hebban kindly allowed me to run the interview on my blog as well. The review of Het Rad van Fortuin can be found here in Dutch and here in English.

Hi Steph, welcome to Hebban Random Comments. The Wheel of Fortune is the first of your stories to be translated into Dutch. How did your story end up with Quasis?

I was asked by the wonderful Jasper Polane to provide a story for his new Splinters Series.

The Dutch edition The Wheel of Fortune is an expansion of a short story published in 2013. I haven’t been able to find any English publications of this version of the story. Did we get a first?

Yes, you did.

Are there plans to publish it in English?

Eventually I’ll expand it into a full-length novel. I’ve shown flashes of Jant’s brutal past in Hacilith before, particularly in The Year of Our War. I’ve wanted to tell the full story for a long time and the day is getting nearer – maybe after my current novel is complete!

Although there are hints in the story that the wider world in The Wheel of Fortune is much more complex, the story is mainly set in an early industrial environment. It features exploitation of labourers, a lack of environmental standards and a range of social problems. What made you decide on such a grim setting?

The word ‘grim’ is over-used. I’m reflecting my reality and my own background. I come from Bradford in the north of England. It was a boomtown of the Industrial Revolution in the 1890s but is now very deprived. I grew up in the shadows of the huge, abandoned mills, where my ancestors used to work in what were often terrible conditions. At times life expectancy was as low as 12; people would migrate to the city where poverty and disease would kill them before long. The bleakness of industrial Hacilith is largely drawn from the actual circumstances in Bradford.

As a single example, the Galt Foundry in the story blasts soot out of the chimney, and it falls upon the surrounding houses. Lister’s Mill in Bradford used to do this regularly even as late as the 1950s and 1960s, when my father witnessed it. They sounded a siren before the fans started, which was followed by a thick smog of grit, soot and horrendous chemicals ‘like a pyroclastic flow’. The managers didn’t care that it fell on the workers’ houses all around. My father described having to hold onto the mill’s wall to navigate from school to home, the smog being so thick it was impossible to see your hand in front of your face.

Now, Jant lives in Hacilith in 1818, where its industrial revolution depends on water power rather than steam. Workers toil in factories, to clock time, with machinery driven by the flow of the Moren River turning huge waterwheels. Hacilith is also one of the centres of the Fourlands’ smelting industry, so even without steam power, there are still plenty of chimneys spewing out smog.

Hacilith is the capital of Morenzia, the human country. It has a north European climate, and the natural resources of Morenzia are somewhat basic compared to Awia. So Hacilith, which is on the Moren estuary, became a trading and merchant’s town much as Amsterdam did. It prospered and grew in population until, in the thirteenth century, the teeming city was much larger than the towns and villages of the rest of Morenzia. Then, from the 1600s to the 1800s, Awian refugees settled in the Old Town district, in the streets of ‘Little Awia’ and brought their silk weaving to Hacilith.
    The actions of the immortals have also shaped the city Jant knows. After Frost joined the Castle and became the immortal Architect, from 1740-1750 she built the enormous Awndyn-Moren canal which crosses the country and shapes its border. Ships no longer had to round Cape Brattice, and their cargos came to the city and fed it. Frost built an immense series of canal basins and docks in the Galt district, where Jant lives.
    The beautiful seventeenth-century merchants houses and warehouses along the East Bank were too small in scale, so they fell out of use and were incorporated into great factories built there instead, making arms, armour and military equipment for the war against the Insects.
    The people of Hacilith welcomed the canal as an extra line of protection against the Insects. The Governors of the city became more confident. They no longer built defences, they spent their money on luxuries, and on developing the rich central district of Fiennafor, where their palaces are.
    And they continued to build factories along East Bank, where the Moren River turns the waterwheels, and cools the furnaces and foundries. All the weaving – wool and cotton, and the Awians’ silk – were scaled-up and moved into the factories of Galt.
    One of them is a crossbow factory. That’s where the Bowyers’ gang is based. Peterglass, the gang leader, works there, and most of the members are factory boys – they’re very well-armed with crossbows!
    By 1818, the prosperous merchants had moved away from the smog and soot, to Fiennafor, or to Moren Wells. Moren Wells is a spa town in the east of the city, and urban sprawl linked it to Hacilith a hundred years before, when the city changed its official name to the City of Hacilith and Moren – Hacilith Moren – but still Hacilith for short.
    Galt is an area around the docks, a network of brick terraces built to house the millworkers and foundry smiths. It’s desperately poor. When Jant flew in from the mountains he spent a year on the streets, before Dotterel found him and rescued him. They live at 7 Cinder Street, in the apothecary’s shop.

The story is written in the first person.  Do you prefer to write in the first person or is it a demand of the story?

It’s a preference – resulting from how and why I write. I write to be immersed. It’s easier to be completely immersed if you see from the eyes of your characters.
    I’ve been writing Castle in various forms almost since I learned to hold a pen, so I’ve been visualising the characters and the surroundings for so long I can virtually ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them as if I’m watching a film.

I can write from the point of view of all my characters, and at the last count I had 106 characters. I always end up with a lot of extraneous material.

For a number of years, before I was published, I experimented with writing Castle in third person. It has some advantages, because then I could set up groups of characters in different parts of the country, and move the action between them more easily. On the other hand, it calls me to myself and I am more aware of myself as a storyteller, as an author writing a book. This makes writing much more a conscious act and then it becomes too easy to become over-concerned with who your audience is and whether they understand. You end up with over-explanation and the ponderous prose so characteristic of run-of-the-mill fantasy writing. I want readers to be swept along with my characters, not detachedly following a narrative.

The story is set in the same world as your novels. Can you tell us a bit about how this story fits in to the larger series?

Sure. This story is Jant before he joined the Castle and became Comet, the Messenger. It’s set during his last few days in Hacilith, where he lived for six years. Gang warfare, and his own ambition, destroy the Wheel gang which he is part of, and he is forced to flee the city with his girlfriend, Serin.
    The scenes mesh with Jant’s flashback to Hacilith in The Year of Our War. So it’s a sort of prequel.

Did the translator have many questions for you?

My translator was Eisso Post.  He didn’t need to check with me.  He’s an excellent translator and I trust him to do a good job.

You wrote full time at one point in your career and then made the decision to give that up and take a job as a chemistry teacher. Why that decision?

It was a very dark time for me. I was being overwhelmed by a number of problems; health, financial, personal, and the publishers weren’t very sympathetic. So it seemed like a way out, to change a shitty situation. It took years and a move to a new town to get on top of everything and begin writing full time again. Now I’m determined to finish the Castle sequence I had planned.

Do you feel part of a particular genre?

No. I think of it as Castle. It is all-encompassing within my life, so I don’t limit it.
I don’t like fantasy and SF’s obsession with categorising authors within neat subgenres. Most of these are invented as marketing tools. The ‘New Weird’ was conceived by China MiĆ©ville and M. John Harrison basically as a means to set fans talking.
    The obsession with genre often leads to the search for influences, usually within impossibly narrow frames of reference. Over the years I have been annoyed and amused in turn by reading what others consider my influences to be. I was sending the completed manuscript of The Year of Our War out before the publication of any of the so-called ‘New Weird’ novels, yet somehow I was apparently imitating them. I’ve not been a big reader of fantasy since my teens; you can perhaps find C.S. Lewis or Delaney in there if you really look but nobody notes the much stronger influences of Dumas, Dickens or William Burroughs. My writing has been part of my life for so long, it’s acquired influence from everything in my life, way beyond just reading. I’m not trying to shape it to fit any deterministic genre.

These subgenres are detrimental to the writer for another reason: they give readers a mental template against which works will be judged, works which may have nothing to do with the template whatsoever. Novels should be judged, and enjoyed, by their own merits. Perhaps some authors do write consciously – commercially – for a genre, but then as Quentin Crisp said, ‘Fashion’s what you adopt when you don’t know what you are.’ I have a very clear idea what I am and what the Castle mythos is, and it doesn’t follow current genre fashions.

Do you think boundaries will become even more fluid in the future?

Yes, but it won’t happen with the large publishers. Innovation is in the hands of the small publishers now.
    Large publishers have to turn a high and predictable profit, so they go for the safe market, which to them is largely the visible end of fandom, the convention-goers and bloggers. Or they’ll pursue books which are similar to movies, and commercial tie-ins, where there is guaranteed brand recognition. Small publishers are more willing to take chances and don’t have the same bloated cost structures to support.
    Thankfully there’s a number of small presses which are nimble, quick, intelligent and inventive. The web gives them publicity, and distribution to equal what a large press can do. So kudos to innovators like Jasper and Quasis, Salt, PS Publishing, Newcon Press, Snow, Unsung Stories.

One last question. Rumour has it you are working on a fifth novel. Is there anything you can say on that project yet?

It’s called Fair Rebel and it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon – go get it! It’s scheduled to be published in November but the manuscript is totally complete.

Following on from that, I’m already halfway through the next Castle book, so that’s book six. It carries straight on from Fair Rebel, but with new characters stepping to frontstage. Its working title is The Savant and the Snake. After that, there’s another planned in the sequence and The Wheel of Fortune expansion which I mentioned earlier. I’d better get back to work!

Steph's website can be found at Her new novel Fair Rebel is scheduled for release in November 2016 and can already be per-ordered at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and The Bookdepository among others. Het Rad van Fortuin is available though the publisher's website and wherever Dutch language books are sold.

1 comment:

  1. Really impressive. Her uncle Peter said Steph is a remarkable writer. Can't wait for this next novel...