Tell me about SLOW RIVER, about what it was like to write.
a novel I have been waiting to write since I was twenty years
old but didn't have the skill. To be honest, I'm not sure
if I will ever have the skill to do the themes and characters
justice. But two years ago I reached the point where I had
to write it down, ready or not. I'm not sure which aspect
was the most demanding: the technical, or emotional.
wrote the first ten thousand words twice and threw them away.
Then wrote the first thirty-five thousand and tossed those,
and then I despaired. And then the triple-Lore viewpoint occurred
to me, and the cyclical structure, and the different tenses,
and then I had a framework to hang everything on. Once all
that clicked, the actual writing didn't take long at all:
I wrote each viewpoint chronologically. Chopping everything
up (literally), spreading it out all over the living room,
dining room and office floors, then splicing it all back together
took two solid weeks of twelve hour days and curses at playful
cats and petulant glares at my partner when she told me it
was time to eat. It was important that the emotional threads
followed the plot threads, character development and simple
reader movement through the book.
themes of emotional development and growth--physical, sexual,
personal--and of self recognition, and responsibility were
the most important facets of the novel. Get right how the
characters feel, and the rest will follow.
told me recently that SLOW RIVER could be the love child of
William Boyd's BRAZZAVILLE BEACH and Margaret Atwood's CATS
With the concomitant hybrid vigor, I hope. Technically, yes,
RIVER owes a great deal to Boyd, and I have always admired
Atwood's work. Emotionally and texturally, though, my work
is different. The texture is to do with description--something
I learned from those authors to whom I tend to refer as the
English Landscape Writers. I want a reader to be able to pick
up my work, open it at any page, and know immediately the
smells and sounds of a character's surroundings; the taste
of the wind, if there is any wind; the ambient air temperature.
More to the point, I want the milieu to say something of the
character surrounded by it. Emotionally, I want SLOW RIVER
to feel...well, like a river. A river in its many phases:
cold and thin and bitter; smooth and deep and dangerous; big
and glad and energetic.
aim with SLOW RIVER was to create something whole.
So who did you write it for?
But if you mean, who do I expect to read it, I have two different
answers, one rather cynical, one hopeful. I *hope* that a
lot of different people--men and women, gay and straight,
those in search of serious literature and those wanting a
beach book--will pick up SLOW RIVER and give it a try. I think
there is much there to please many...if they approach it without
the artificial barriers and prejudices in place which result
from the old "divide and conquer" strategy employed by many
critics. So I *suspect* that what will really happen is that
some readers will be put off by the fact that it is being
published by an imprint that has specialized in fantasy and
science fiction, and still others by the fact that both the
author and main character are women.
do you mean by "divide and conquer?"
and men who are confident of themselves and their place in
the world see people first, gender second. Readers who have
no worries about their own taste, discrimination or fashion
sense see fiction first, genre second. It's the insecure,
those who *need* to feel superior ("Someone--at least--is
less hip than I am!") who sneer at, say, women or Jews or
science fiction, at gays or crime fiction or people in wheelchairs.
"Not us," they say, "not *our* sort of thing. Not top drawer."
Those who love fiction--who love the discovery of fine writing,
characters who will suck you into their worlds with their
dilemmas and attempted solutions--approach the work without
artificially constructed preconceptions.
Have you really been sneered at?
Countless times! But rarely by anyone who has actually read
my work. You wouldn't believe the number of people who pick
up AMMONITE or one of my novellas and say, "Well, I've always
thought science fiction was rubbish, but I *liked* this..."
And the surprise is so naked in their voices that I have to
bite my tongue to not say, "It's not polite to be too surprised,"
because what they really mean is: I've been told sci-fi is
pulp rubbish, so I've never read any. Even after reading my
work, and realizing it's good, they can't take the next step,
which is to consider the fact that, despite what they may
have been told, perhaps not all science fiction is rubbish
simply because it is science fiction. No, they say (even those
who may have gone to good schools, and learned logic): I *liked*
this, it's good, therefore it's not really science fiction,
you would definitely say your second novel, SLOW RIVER, is
Particularly if you use Darko Suvin's definition, that science
fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement. But,
to be honest, I really don't care how it gets defined: a novel
about sex and industrial sabotage (which is what HarperCollins
UK are calling it), lesbian science fiction, or a page-turner
about corruption and corporate dynasties (which how Ballantine
Del Rey have described it)...as long as it gets read with
an open mind.
how do *you* think of the novel?
an exploration of the Essential Self, and of personal responsibility.
[Smiles.] But that description won't sell books.
do you think it will be reviewed?
guess. I was at OutWrite, the lesbian and gay writers' conference
in Boston, in March. I was, frankly, shocked at the ignorance
and prejudice casually displayed. At the end of the conference
I was in the exhibitors room; I had two advance reading copies
of SLOW RIVER left; I didn't want to lug them with me on the
plane. I approached a woman at one of the booths. She will
remain nameless, but let's just say she represented a review
journal. I said hello and asked her if she wanted a galley
of my new book. She reached out a rather disdainful hand.
"Well, I'm sure there's someone in our office who likes this
kind of thing."
kind of thing, exactly," I wanted to know.
know, rockets and ray guns and computers."
try it," I said politely (displaying great restraint), "you
might like it."
are many editors and reviewers and critics like this woman.
They will condemn the book without reading it. "Oh," they
will sniff, "science fiction", the same way those who compile
the Canon have previously sniffed, "Oh, women's fiction. Minority
fiction. Regional fiction." What, I wonder, are they afraid
you think these reviewers are missing out?
They probably have never read anything by Mary Renault because
it's historical fiction. Nothing by Audre Lourde because it's
Black fiction and poetry. Nothing by Willa Cather--after all,
she only wrote about the prairie.... Perhaps they have never
realized that Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN is science fiction. And
Aldous Huxley's work, and that of Geoff Ryman, Joanna Russ,
Ursula Le Guin. So, for that matter is THE ROBBER BRIDE, by
Margaret Atwood, and THE HANDMAID'S TALE. Then there are the
magic realists like Marquez. And Doris Lessing, William Golding,
Toni Morrison.... The list is practically endless.
all fantastic, in many senses of the word.
people like their cliques, their sense of power and belonging
while they condemn others to shiver out in the cold.
SLOW RIVER suffer because of this attitude?
It has a lot that canon-makers can use against it: it's set
in the near future. It has some actual, gasp, science in it.
(I must admit here to not understanding why it has become
so acceptable to profess ignorance of anything resembling
a basic understanding of *any* scientific principle.)
main character is a lesbian. Those who like to read about
bitter young men in New York will hate this book. [Grins.]
At least I hope so.
in the end, no, I don't think it will suffer. After all, there
are always mavericks out there who will pick up a book, intrigued
by the title or cover art; who read the first paragraph and
are hooked. There will always be the kind of people who live
their lives with gusto and vibrancy and genuine pleasure and
will enjoy this book.
my hope that smart people and thoughtful people and wise people
pick up SLOW RIVER and nod and say to themselves, "Yes, life
can be like this. How interesting. How true." I want my characters
and places and themes to live on the minds of those who read
my work, and to change them, just a little.