Not so much a trigger, as a natural progression from Best. Whenever you are world-building, you are always throwing up questions in your mind. “Here is the stimulus – what are the consequences?” So what you have to do as a writer is make some choices, because stories that are easy to take in really do have to be streamlined, slimmed down. It’s not that you’re writing a history or a biography where there can be all these random scattered events, and then you find a thin narrative to hold them together. You really to have to just focus, focus, focus. But at the same time, for the world to be realistic, there have to be things that do happen in the background, things that are going to arise as a result of what you’ve put in place. That was the question in my mind – what does this do to the galaxy?
You have grand scope epic space operas, which immediately go to the rulers of the galaxy and how they’re handling things, but I like to look at the ordinary people, and how they’re affected. I did ask myself – I did mention all these other worlds on the periphery, as it was, of the Cygnian imagination, but because they have enough [representatives] of those worlds on Cygnus Beta, in some ways they can stay insular, parochial. I’d like to go out and explore those worlds, go out and see what’s actually happening in the galaxy, for those who are thinking of galactic structure, galactic power, and not just their backyard, or their homestead. How can I do that in a way that doesn’t become unwieldy, but still remains a quasi-personal tale where you can identify what is happening but still be aware of the grander events? That was my challenge. We’ll see if I’ve succeeded or not!
I also found it hugely fascinating because, don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely to read a book where you can insert yourself into a character who’s clearly almost the most important person in that universe, but the reality for us is that we are born just particles of Brownian motion. Huge events are buffeting us about, and it’s really about how we navigate those currents. To me, the stronger story about navigating the currents is about things that have nothing to do with you, and don’t really care if you live or die – that’s a bit extreme, but you know what I’m talking about.
Your point of view character is still going to be the hero – or the anti-hero – of their own story, so they’re still going to see events in how they affect them… which is not necessarily on the same scale that they will affect someone on the next planet…
Exactly. And you’ve just raised an important point. I once did a workshop where we examined how different countries of the world have more of an individual focus or a community focus.
So to give a rough example, you can have a country where going off and doing your own thing is terribly self-indulgent, and making sure you’re around for your family is the dutiful thing to do. The flipside are the countries where if you’re in your parents’ home after the age of 18, you’re dysfunctional. Striking out on your own is supposed to be the pioneering and correct thing to do.
You have those extremes and in many respects, a lot of our science fiction comes out of the individual tradition, not so much the collective one, the community one. So what I’ve done in The Galaxy Game is written a story that’s actually told more from a community point of view, where yes, you have a protagonist, or a core of protagonists, who are concerned about their individual journey, but they are very conscious that their individual journey has some responsibilities to the collective journey, and how they manage to balance that.
It is difficult to write, and maybe the reason that I can get away with it a bit is I do think that it is a tradition that we have in Caribbean literature. The minor characters can come more to the fore. You are more concerned with the social, not just for yourself, because by yourself you might be sinking rather than swimming. Your success is dependent on team and who can help you, and how you can help each other.
It took me a while to figure this out. I’ve been very fortunate that I have a very supportive literary community in Barbados and in the West Indies, and I have been very lucky to have occasions to just sit down and talk with people. When you think you know your own literature, it’s like fish swimming in the sea – “yeah, it’s water, it’s wet, so what” – but then I had to sit down and figure how is this different? How can I describe the differences? How can I analyse this and say “these are the areas which are different, this is why we write it that way”? As I was in conversation with these people, I began to realise, “Okay, this is why I am doing it like this, this is why it feels natural to do it this way. It’s not me going off on a tangent, it’s actually me very much expressing the literary tradition I’ve been raised in and the society I’ve been raised in.” That just got so refreshing and empowering because it is a different kind of story.
That’s why we want works in translation; it’s why we want stories from all these different countries, because we don’t all have the same approach to telling a story. We don’t all have the same approach to heroism.
I am, and it’s a challenge to do that. The reception that Redemption in Indigo got from critics and reviewers and so on was quite interesting, because they had a recognisably foreign book in their hands. It was interesting to read some reviews and recognise that some people – and I say this with all respect – clearly didn’t fully understand what it was about, all the layers, but just recognised that there was something in there that was maybe worthwhile, and that was how they viewed it.
When I wrote The Best of All Possible Worlds, the filter that I used was some very common SF tropes, some very common genre tropes, so people looked at it, and said, “Oh yes, this is familiar”… and didn’t look any further. I can’t blame them because I did it like that on purpose: I wrote a dual-layered book where you could either access it on one very familiar level if you were a sci-fi geek, but then there was that post-colonial aspect for those who are accustomed perhaps to a different kind of literature. To tell the truth, I didn’t know if it would work.
When I first submitted it as a manuscript to the Collymore Awards, I was like, “They’re probably going to look at this and say, ‘Why has she given us this sort of flat space opera, superficial stuff?’ – and then I won. When they give out the prizes, they give a little synopsis speech of what was in the books. I was listening to them describe what they found in it and I was like, “Oh my goodness, I underestimated you.” They really understood the layers I was trying to achieve in terms of dealing with questions of culture preservation and assimilation. That was all there.
What you sometimes can have, if you’re recognisably foreign, if you’re coming from a different language or a completely different kind of literature – like the five-scene novel that’s not based in any kind of fantasy trope that you recognise – people’s brains switch into a kind of gear where they’re braced to look at it a certain way. When you come at something where the language is recognisable, the tropes are recognisable, you’re not a “work in translation” any more – you’re maybe too familiar, and it becomes almost twice as hard to make an impact that way.
Is that what you’ve done with The Galaxy Game?
[long pause] I’ve done it less obviously. Best was a lot of tongue in cheek, a lot of “let’s take this very traditional trope and do some amusing things with it”. There’s a little less overt humour in The Galaxy Game because the stakes are higher and there are some aspects which are treated with more seriousness. What I would say is that I’ve tried not to create a situation where the reader is going to feel completely adrift, but the reality is that there are fewer familiar tropes.
If you’re coming from Best, which is chock full of the tropes that make you comfortable and expect to slide into The Galaxy Game in the same way, you may feel a little adrift for a while. Yes, there are familiar characters to latch on to, but the way it’s playing out, the progressions you’re looking for may not be there. It’s still not as different as Redemption, but all three of them are different books in some respects.
And that’s something that gives you the challenge when you’re writing it?
It would presumably be easier to follow in the same mould…
Do you know what? It would be both easier and harder because I first wrote the draft for Redemption in 2003/4, and by the time I sat down to write Best I had written almost 50,000 word M.Phil and an 80,000 word Ph.D and I was just not the same person. The same thing with The Galaxy Game: coming to that I have a deeper appreciation of several things, things I want to test out, things I want to push myself with. Every time it’s going to be me being a little bit different. I’m beginning to find that for me it would be difficult, another type of challenge to write in the same tone and vein as previously.
Do you have that feeling that you’ve told a story in a certain way; now it’s time to tell it differently?
One thing that I do fall back on every time, and maybe I need to shake this off at some point, is that my stories are always told in somebody’s voice. Whether it’s a supernatural omniscient narrator, or someone actually embedded in the story, whether they’re telling it in the first person or as a third person, but over their shoulder… it’s always from somebody’s perspective. When you read The Galaxy Game, there are bits that are clearly stitched together from what the protagonists are observing. Sometimes you’re going to have a character who has very much taken over the story because we’re seeing the scene through his eyes; then you’re going to see another part of the book where that character is there but he’s being viewed in third person by somebody else, and there are parts where Delarue pops up, and you’re going to completely recognise her voice because it will feel like you’re back in The Best of all Possible Worlds. That, in a way, is my way of being able to say, I’m changing the way I’m telling the story but I’m changing it by having a different kind of narrator – or even if I have the same person, it’s a person who like me has grown. There’s a familiarity in their voice but there’s also a maturity because four years have passed, they’ve had more experiences and there’s a change in that.
One of my favourite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. I will never forget the very meta-ish Gaudy Night which was a marvel for me on several levels. I have to admit I love reading literature that is set in Oxford, or any place where I’ve been so you can almost feel yourself walking over the streets, so you have a great sense of place already. Harriet Vane is so much a self-insert. It’s the sort of thing that people say, “don’t do it”, but when it’s done really well they’re like, “you could not have not done this”. There’s a part where she’s talking about, as a writer, changing from writing her characters very much in the stock familiar way, to challenging herself to raising them to a different level – in a way transitioning from a purely genre trope to a very literary approach. And she’s happily taking up the challenge.
I read that bit with such delight because I do think that there is a point where, whatever kind of writer you are, you do say to yourself, especially if you are returning to a particular character, “What more can I explore with this individual, because they’re almost real to me now?” It’s almost like – without sounding too creepy or horribly blasphemous – you’re a benevolent god looking down on your creations. You’re on a journey as a person, but they’re on a journey as well.
When people ask about top tips for writers, I always say the first tip is take a scalpel, open up your sternum, examine your own heart, and be prepared to pull it out onto the table and do some dissecting. This is a painful thing that you do if you want to do it well. If you’re looking for the kind of honesty which is so rare in so many different types of jobs, you hurt yourself and put yourself through a kind of trauma when you produce those things, even if you’re producing something which looks quite light-hearted on the surface.
And to where they need to go. One of the reasons why the benevolent god description is a very apt description is sometimes characters will go off and do the most ridiculous things, and you think, no, the plot’s here, what are you doing? Writers’ block for me very often is a character letting you know that you’re barking up the wrong tree. They’re teaching you something. Every book teaches me something, especially about what I thought I knew.
Every interview I do, every review I read, I learn more about the writing process. The happy alchemy of actual skill, happy mistakes, interpretations that the writer didn’t intend but the reader puts in – you see how all that comes together and it’s like, wow, literature is beautiful. It’s constantly teaching me things – and that’s all I require, to be kept interesting and fresh.
Thanks to Andrew Turner for his assistance in arranging this interview.