She Blinded Me With Science Fiction #3: Anne Charnock interviewed by Tricia Sullivan

OCCUPY ME TPB (2)We are thrilled to welcome Tricia Sullivan back to the Gollancz Blog for the third in her series of  interviews featuring some incredible science fiction writers. Tricia’s stunning new book, Occupy Me, is out now in trade paperback, eBook and audio download

To celebrate the release of Occupy Me, I interviewed a few of the most interesting science fiction writers who have arrived on the UK scene since the last time I published a book. I wanted to learn more about their work and about the directions in which they are driving science fiction. This is the third in a four-part series.

anneAnne Charnock’s first novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick and Kitschies Golden Tentacle Awards 2013. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is her second novel. Anne is widely travelled as a journalist and her work has appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune and Geographical. She studied environmental science at the University of East Anglia, and later received a master’s in fine art from the Manchester School of Art.

I interviewed Anne in December 2015 by e-mail.

You have a background in (first) environmental science and, more recently, fine art. I’m really curious about this, because I’m in the process of moving in the other direction myself. How did this come about in your life?

I nearly chose astrophysics for my first degree, but decided on environmental science because it sounded more outdoorsy. I suppose that reveals my eighteen-year-old mindset. Environmental science turned out to be a brilliant and broad subject, well suited to my subsequent career in science journalism. I shot my own photographs on foreign assignments, and I soon discovered I loved the photography side of journalism as much as the interviewing and writing. So, in my spare time, I took art classes and studied art history. Then, some years later, when I decided to go back into full-time education, I opted for fine art. This new path led me, eventually, into writing fiction. Maybe if I’d studied art or literature as my first degree, I’d have changed direction later to study science!

Culturally, we dichotomize art and science something terrible. I noticed, though, that there’s a lot of crossover woven into the story. For example, Antonia not only thinks analytically about her paintings, but she engages in controlled experiments. At what level do you feel art and science diverge, and where are they comparable?

They seem surprisingly similar, to me. I suppose I approached art making myself with an analytical mind—seeing my studio as a laboratory for controlled experiments. Back in the Renaissance, of course, people didn’t operate in silos as we tend to do now. Antonia would have learned how to paint in a systematic way as well as by trial and error. She’d learn how much pigment to load on her brush, how much water, how much egg (for egg tempera), how thin to make the paint strokes. So many variables! In effect, any artist adopts a scientific approach to understanding their materials, understanding how they’ll perform.

There’s divergence, I’ve noticed, in the reception of art and science. I find this a great enigma. Society seems to accept that science should forge ahead, make discoveries, innovate. But there seems to be an element of popular resistance to innovation in the arts, a greater sense of conservatism.

In Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, artistic process figures heavily in two of the storylines. We see and feel the inner workings of the artist’s mind, the kinds of things she notices, the little decisions she makes. Detail. When I was reading the descriptions (especially of Shanghai) I thought, ‘Ah, you can tell the author has been a journalist. She’s really getting across the layers of the setting economically and effectively.’ But the exploration of each character’s mind almost had a journalistic feel, too—like readers are eavesdropping on someone’s interior monologue and that person takes very good notes. Are you always a journalist, even when you’re doing art? And when you’re working on a book, do you collect a lot of data about your own process?

Journalism was my first career and inevitably it shaped my outlook. It’s difficult for me to identify with any clarity how this influence has carried forward. Certainly, in the midst of interviewing someone for an article, I’d know when I’d found ‘the angle.’ Often, the first sentence of the article would jump out at me during our conversation. And everything followed from that opening sentence, which might have been a sensational quote. So, I think I’ve always wanted to nail the idea in my art making and in fiction writing. The idea and the themes come first.

For sure, I find it difficult to write long! I’m always cutting back. In my journalism days, the challenge was to deliver copy that couldn’t be shortened by the sub editors. You aimed to get your story published intact!

It’s an interesting point you make about the eavesdropping feel to the book. Recently, I’ve noticed that I tend to create my characters’ personalities and traits through their dialogue with other characters. Maybe I learned from journalism that conversation is the natural route to discovering what makes a person tick. I don’t define my characters’ personalities in advance. That’s probably breaking a cardinal rule.

It’s true. I do collect data during my writing process. For Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I used Scrivener to compile all my research. And I built multiple spreadsheets for my novel’s outline, and for a chapter-by-chapter listing of recurring motifs and themes, all colour-coded!

A Calculated Life was received as science fiction, yet when I read the write-up for Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I really had the impression it was historical fiction. Some of that is marketing, of course, but having read the book I can now see how it uses history as a lens to look at society, at how we construct our relationships with others, and how we construct them with ourselves. The book is most definitely science-fictional in approach, and you’ve got some parthenogenesis and some future social history thrown in, too. So: what does science fiction mean to you?

I hate the idea that I won’t witness the future! As a writer, science fiction offers me an irresistible opportunity to speculate, to imagine what lies ahead in a detailed, intimate way. But being a grounded, journo-type, I’m more interested in the plausible, political and societal changes that might occur, rather than the race to space. Having said that, I’d seriously consider a one-way ticket to Mars.

The structure of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is unusual. It’s kind of a triptych. All three stories lie adjacent to one another, they resonate with one another sometimes powerfully, but they never converge the conventional way that multiple-strand genre novels usually do—and we’ve been trained to expect this convergence, so the effect when the writer declines to spell everything out is a feeling of being off-balanced, followed by a tendency to recursively comb through the stories looking for glints of understanding. I really love this about the book. Did you feel free to create an open-ended framework, or was there pressure to conform to a more traditional ‘tie-everything-up-with-a-bow’ narrative?

I’m so pleased you liked this open-ended aspect. Yes, I felt free to do this, though I knew I needed strong themes and recurring motifs in the three strands. My editor at 47North, Jason Kirk, has been totally supportive, and I’m very fortunate in that respect. We worked closely in fine-tuning the manuscript.

Some reviewers have described this novel as ‘reflective’ and ‘meditative,’ and I feel that’s apt. At the conclusion of the three storylines, I hope readers will reflect on the themes I’ve raised—about women’s lives in different eras, about loss, the nature of success and different family structures. My friend, Steve, wrote to me when he’d finished the novel. He said he was still pondering on the book’s three storylines. When readers have these afterthoughts, he commented, “we kind of get an extra paperless part of the book.” I like that!

The mantra in the visual arts is this: “The viewer completes the work.” That might sound a bit artsy but it’s meant as a compliment and invitation to the viewer—or the reader in the case of a novel. I believe there are plenty of readers who don’t want to be spoon-fed, who don’t want to be told what to think, who are happy to draw their own conclusions when presented with a window on fictional, and fictionalised, lives. The open-ended framework is an unconventional approach, but far from groundbreaking. I think of Frank Herbert’s famous quote: “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”

By the way, my first novel, A Calculated Life, has a straightforward linear narrative. It’s more conventional, but the ending is open to interpretation. I like the idea that a story lives on in a reader’s imagination.

In the future storyline, Toniah works for an academic department that gives Posthumous Awards to women artists and at the same time basically kicks some of the famous dudes to the kerb. I think Gauguin is threatened with being demoted to obscurity. I found this whole strand to be a sly commentary on the question of Who Gets Noticed. It was both amusing and disturbing. What got you going in this direction?

I think, Trish, you were experiencing Toniah’s own misgivings about the Academy of Restitution’s mission!

I think we all know that ‘Who Gets Noticed’—which is a good way of putting it—is the result of a complex amalgam rather than being based on talent alone. It’s partly political (in this instance, I’m talking particularly of gender politics), partly mathematical, partly a matter of luck. During my research for A Calculated Life, I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb offers insights into how success can be inevitable once a clustering begins to form, based on minor successes and occasional validation, sometime serendipitous. He talks in terms of cumulative advantage, the herding of opinion and the subsequent contagion of that opinion. And, he comments that the internet and search engines can result in a ‘winner-takes-all’ competition.

I was struck by the fact that although one of the families is parthenogenetic, father-daughter relationships are nevertheless central to this novel. Antonia and Toni are both nurtured and encouraged by their fathers. The fathers are almost co-conspirators with their daughters. Can you talk about this?

When I sketched my outline for this novel, I debated with myself whether, in the backstory, Toni’s mother or father had died. In other words, would this storyline begin with Toni visiting China with her father or mother? I decided that as a key theme in the novel is the absence of women in the historical record, it would be an interesting parallel for Toni’s mother to be absent too.
I wanted the close father-daughter relationships to act almost as a foil to the overall feminist theme. Also, despite their fathers’ collaboration, as you neatly describe it, these girls still have to live within an unfair society. Love does not conquer all! Even Toni, in the present day, sees gender bias in her father’s work.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?

I’m working on a novel titled Dreams Before the Start of Time, which spans from the very near future to the twenty-second century. Toni is an important character in this novel, though the novel isn’t a sequel as such. It’s due for release in the first half of 2017.

Anne, it’s been a delight to read your work and find out more about you. Readers, I hope you’ll check out A Calculated Life and Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and find Anne on Twitter @annecharnock