Avian Flu and the ‘Quiet Days of Power’

It started with the destruction of the world via avian flu and ended with mind control and memory loss via music. My last few weeks have been filled with two books from my go-to genre, dystopian science fiction, and both were rip-snorters.

Cover of Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a classic post-apocalyptic tale. A deadly flu that kills within hours sweeps through the entire world population, laying waste to all but a few hardy souls. We follow a group of survivors, whose lives intersect at various stages throughout the book. The interesting decision by the author to switch between the time when the flu hit and then twenty years later to see how society survived, coped and altered gives the story movement and contrasts, and I loved seeing where and when the characters met and re-connected.

The main story centres around a band of actors and musicians who travel through mid-west USA performing Shakespeare and classical music to the few survivors in scattered outposts: people eking out an existence without any infrastructure, centralised government and dwindling resources. Holding onto history, art and culture in such a bleak landscape seems both foolhardy and wonderful in equal measures.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill is a very different animal. Yes, people are struggling, living in a London very different to the one we know, but things are very different from Station Eleven. There is a power in charge, a cloistered order that have developed a powerful weapon they use on their own people to keep control. The weapon? Music.

Cover of The ChimesThe Chimes are sent through the air and there is no escaping them; they wipe people’s memories and keep them subdued: you almost feel music has become an opiate that makes the populace feel safe. With no written word, people use music and song to remember things, such as how to travel from one place to another. They also keep objects that help them remember family, places and their history.

I love the use of musical terms in their language, many of which I had to look up, such as Lento, which means slow and Tacit, which means a sudden stop in a piece of music. I was fascinated by the way music was both their prison and their saviour, the way the protagonists in the story used music to keep themselves alive and to try to bring down those in power.

The run was tacit. Clare and I followed the first of the two strange, twisting melodies. Ours moved straight into the fourth chord and pushed on presto, skipping and meandering and returning almost completely on itself  before branching straight out in a modulation to the dominant.

Simon, our main character, is an orphaned young man who soon discovers he has a gift that could change all of this forever.

Both books fit my ideal of dystopia. People struggling in an alien world, even if it is our own in a different time or altered state. Heroes, villains and fascinating ideas to transport you and challenge you. Both books get the Purplerulz  purple seal of approval… read them now!

To learn more about the writing process and ideas behind The Chimes, read Masha’s great post about her interview with Anna Smaill.

The Art of the Novel

It’s 8:15 on Sunday morning and there’s already a queue of at least thirty people waiting to get into the free ‘Art of the Novel’ session. It’s not due to start till 9am and by the time I’m half way through my coffee the line stretches round the corner and out of sight. The room seated 350 people and it looked pretty full by the time everyone was sitting down!

I sat between a very serious aspiring novelist and a group of younger chattier aspiring novelists. The men behind me were also deep in a conversation about writing and almost everyone had note pads.

Enter our three novelists. Stephanie Johnson from New Zealand, Emily St John Mandel from Canada, and from England came David Mitchell, wearing a pair of bright pink stripey socks, so I was immediately taken with him. His work is amazing too, of course, but the socks!

Cover of Station Eleven Cover of The Writing Class Cover of The Bone Clocks

The session was roughly broken up in to three parts, the ‘pre-writing’ stage, the writing itself, and then the editing and publishing stage.

“Research is great procrastination,” Stephanie Johnson said, as the three of them talked about building up their knowledge before (or just as often, during) their writing. For her latest novel, Station Eleven, Emily spent a lot of time on survivalist forums, which was fascinating, but a little scary.

David Mitchell’s ideas for his next book circle around his head like planes in a holding pattern, waiting to come down. He seems to have a very organised mind, or at least his mental organisation system resembles a kind of organised chaos. Whenever he finds a second hand book he thinks might be useful for one circling plane or another he’ll buy it and store it away, with a bookshelf put aside for each potential novel.

David and Emily both agreed that they would get so sick of working on old novels that the thought of starting a new one was terribly exciting! The new ideas can get very flirty and pushy, so it’s a matter of keeping them under control while you slog through the final days of your current project.

Some great bits of writing advice came out of the session:

About letting ideas sit and stew:

“You do need composting time. It’s good to have at least a part time job that forces you out into the world to pretend to be a normal.” – Stephanie Johnson

“I have to write the novel itself to figure out where the novel is going… it’s an incredibly inefficient way to write a book really.” – Emily St John Mandel

About fear, and challenging yourself by stepping outside your comfort zone:

“I want to know that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this time.” – David Mitchell

“I try not to think about the audience when I’m writing. Which audience member would I pick anyway? I write the kind of thing I want to read.” – Emily St John Mandel

“When you’re really writing and it’s going well, the experience shouldn’t be too different to reading, or knitting.” – Stephanie Johnson

On editing:

“Sometimes I retype my entire draft, or read it all aloud. A ‘random page edit’ is a great way to pick up mistakes, print out and pick up page 3, 250, 180, whatever, and you’ll find all sorts of errors that you won’t notice if you read your story in order.” – Emily St John Mandel

“I don’t try to make it perfect the first time, that first draft is just about bringing a thing into existance.” – David Mitchell

On writing odious characters:

“When we’re being odious ourselves, remember, we self justify. Have your villains do the same.” – David Mitchell

“No one is one hundred percent odious all of the time, or if they are, they came by it honestly.” – Emily St John Mandel

By ten o’clock it was clear that the audience would have stayed much longer but it was time to move on, or rather, move out into the signing queues for some quick one-on-one writing advice.

For the writers among us, do you have any writing advice to share?

History’s Shadow and the Life Beyond

How do you make the past come alive? How do you make the future real? Two reading sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival brought authors together to see how they answered these questions.

History shapes our behaviour, our culture, our landscape and stories. Four authors took the stage to showcase work that uses recent history as a backdrop for their novels and poetry.

Airini Beautrais, from New Zealand, was up first with a collection of poems from her unique Cover of 'Dear Neil Roberts' by Airini Beautraisperspective on life. She is interested in what parts of history we (as a culture, as individuals) remember, and why we remember events the way that we do, and the difference in remembering events that support the state and those that go against it. She wrote about Neil Roberts, a ‘punk rock anarchist’ and suicide bomber who detonated a bomb at the Wanganui Police Computer Centre in 1982. She was deeply discomforted by this story which led her to keep examining it through her poetry book Dear Neil Roberts.

Cover of The Impossible Knife of MemoryLaurie Halse Anderson, highly acclaimed young adult author from the United States, read from her latest book The Impossible Knife of Memory. Laurie had been speaking at the schools programme earlier in the week and praised the high quality and thoughtful questions that she’d received from New Zealand teenagers.

“We stumbled through those years badly,” she said, speaking about her father’s post traumatic stress and alcoholism after he returned from World War II, specifically the horrors of Dachau. She drew on these experiences when she found out that there were over 22 million living veterans in the United States, and The Impossible Knife of Memory explores what effects war and trauma can have on a family. She also drew inspiration from the Odyssey, saying that “the story of veterans coming home has been part of our culture as long as we have been making love or war.”

She read three sections, two from the point of view of a veteran and one from his teenage daughter, Hayley. “There is a bit of a love story for Hayley,” she explained, before reading. “Hope is the only thing that balances life out for anybody.”

Cover of 'In the light of what we know'Next up was Zia Haider Rahman, from Bangladesh, reading from his debut book In the Light of What We Know which is a fantastic title. He began by reading quotes from the beginning that set the tone for a story of exile and loss, then carried on with readings from his complex, glorious novel. It’s a story that sets out of explore the past decade, including the war in Afghanistan, and pulls together stories from all over the world: Kabul, London, New York, Islamabad, Oxford, Princeton, and Sylhet, covering such a broad range of subjects from love, philosophy, identity, finance, mathematics, cognitive science, to literature, and war.

Cover of 'Shifting Colours'Finally we had Fiona Sussman from South Africa, reading from her debut novel Shifting Colours. Fiona trained as a doctor, and helped set up the Auckland Charity Hospital. Shifting Colours is set in South Africa during apartheid and late twentieth century Britain, and the section she read sets up the scene for a heart-rending decision that a mother has to make about the life of her daughter.

Later on in the festival, we took a sharp step forward in time as another four great writers stepped up to talk about their visions of the future. They’re not easy futures, many of them are disquieting, but all show fantastic imagination.

Cover of 'MiStory'Philip Temple, another Kiwi author, got things started. Phillip has won a range of awards and writes extensively over fiction and non fiction. He read from his new book MiStory, his tenth novel. Set in Dunedin in the near future, it’s bleak, and it presses how important it is that we do something to save ourselves now. The book tackles climate change, dire economic circumstances, pandemics, government surveillance and more. It sounds like a great story, told in diary form, of an ordinary Kiwi bloke trying to make sense of his damaged world.

Cover of 'The Chimes'Anna Smaill published her first novel The Chimes to great acclaim and excellent reviews. Set in future London, in a time where people have lost language and memory, this novel tells the story of the main character Simon piecing his life together.

Anna had studied music and is a skilled violinist, and her familiarity with music came through in the lyrical way her story is put together. It’s also one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen this festival!

Cover of 'The Disestablishment of Paradise'Next we took a journey through time and into space, with sci-fi star Phillip Mann as he read from his first book since 1996, The Disestablishment of Paradise (with the charming subtitle ‘A novel in five parts plus documents‘.) It’s described as an ecological sci-fi thriller, set on Paradise, which is a “very nice planet… but visitors are very disturbed by it.”

“Paradise,” Phillip said, as he set the scene for his reading “is going rogue.”

Cover of 'Station Eleven'And finally one of my favourite new discoveries from this festival, Emily St John Mandel read from Station Eleven, her literary, post-apocalyptic, Shakespeare-studded, not-quite-horror. Not-quite-anything, really, as the novel refuses to fall neatly into any one genre. Twenty years after a strain of the flu wipes out most of the human population, we join a band of travelling Shakespearian actors and musicians as they tour from one pocket of humanity to the next.

Read:

Survival is insufficient – Emily St John Mandel at the Auckland Writers Festival

Cover of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John MandelTalk to me about the future!

Talk to me about the end of the world; about plagues and the collapse of civilisation. Talk to me about fame and dead ends and the different ways people find themselves stranded; talk to me about the art people make in order to stay alive, stay human, because survival is insufficient.

This is Emily St John Mandel’s latest book, Station Eleven. Full disclosure, I had not heard of Emily St John Mandel before I opened the programme for the Auckland Writers Festival, but the synopsis of her book grabbed me. Set in part twenty years after the end of the ‘era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth’ and in partly in the time before, Station Eleven is almost definitely going to make it into my Best Books of 2015 list.

This has to be one of my favourite images out of everything I’ve read this year: Because survival is insufficient, painted on the side of a caravan twenty years after a strain of the flu wiped out most of human life on earth. A Star Trek quote (Seven Of Nine), painted on the side of a old, stripped down pick up truck, the dead weight of its mechanical guts torn out, now pulled by horses, transporting a young woman in a cotton dress with knives on her belt. She’s part of the Travelling Symphony, who are rehearsing lines from Shakespeare for their next performance which may or may not be for a doomsday cult that has (naturally) sprung out of this dire and beautiful landscape.

Art is a lot of things, but sometimes I think the art (literature, music) that gets the best reaction out of me is art that is fiercely about survival. The landscape of Station Eleven reminds me of the abandoned and terrifying landscape The Walking Dead (minus the zombies) and the people; the wonderful, surprising and sometimes equally terrifying people. That’s a lie – the people are always more terrifying than the landscape. Creepy children as sentries for doomsday cults? Sign me up!

Yet there are stories woven in about little things – comparatively little things when you hold them up against a story about the end of the world. Stories about actors struggling with fame and relationships breaking up, and yet not once did I find myself thinking get back to the post-apocalyptic acting troupe because Emily St John Mandel’s writing is so captivating. These little, apocalyptic moments echo the greater apocalypse to come, yet are by no means overshadowed by it.

Emily St John Mandel (St John is her middle name, says her website: you can find her books shelved under M) spoke at the Auckland Writers Festival today. She talked about the inspiration for Station Eleven; how she wanted to write about this incredible world we live in, the global scope of our lives, all the technology that connects us across oceans and borders and huge distances. A very powerful way to write about this, though, was to write about  its absence.

What would the world be like without any of this technology? How stranded our lives might become. How local.

Unlike a lot of other post apocalyptic fiction, Station Eleven is set when the world has had a little time to settle down. Mayhem, Emily says, isn’t a sustainable way of life. She didn’t feel the need to detail every horror, as she believed that what the audience could imagine is as dark as anything she could write.

This absence of the gritty details, and the hints she drops about what those details are, makes for some perfectly unsettling images, some of which are going to haunt me for a very long time.

It’s not all dark though. Despite having killed more than 99% of the human population, the book is scattered with lighter, funny moments. Despite being haunted, I laughed. The darkness and the humour complement each other wonderfully.

At the end of her session, she answered some questions. One from the audience was: Why is post apocalyptic fiction so popular these days? There are lots of theories Emily has heard over the years. Part of it might be the dire times we find ourselves in, with the ever growing reality of climate change, with debts that will take a lifetime to pay off, with technology bringing every detail of distant disasters directly into our daily lives. Part of it might be because humans have believed that the world is ending for as long as we have been aware of ourselves; it’s a little narcissistic, yes, but very human to think that we are living in the most important age of history.

Another part of it, though, might come from a kind of human restlessness. We have mapped out the globe, and there are very, very few places where we can move to make an entirely fresh start. Post apocalyptic fiction gives us an entirely new beginning, with none of the hangovers from the old world.

It was an excellent talk. Emily St John Mandel speaks beautifully, she is warm and gracious, drawn to dark subjects and the sparks of human light that can be found within them. She’s the winner of the 2015 Arthur C Clarke award, author of four books, and writes for The Millions (I can particularly recommend her essay on book titles “The ___’s Daughter“, because things like trends in book titles excite me. Also there are graphs!)

Cover of The Dog Stars by Peter HellerAs if it wasn’t obvious already, I highly recommend Station Eleven, but if you are looking for more, Emily herself recommends Dog Stars by Peter Heller, a book to which she owes a great amount of inspiration.

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