In a fortnight Jo Fletcher Books is publishing Rook Song the second book in the Gaia Chronicles. Having had a complicated reaction to her debut Seoul Survivors, I got along far better with the first book in her current series called Astra. I enjoyed this world teetering between utopia and dystopia and Astra was a marvellous protagonist. I’m very much looking forward to Rook Song, which promises to be an exciting read after the conclusion of Astra. Today I get to bring you an interview with Naomi, in which I get to ask her about Astra, Rook Song, the potential pit falls of Gaia Play and what is next on her docket. I hope you enjoy this Author Query and don’t forget to check out Rook Song out on Thursday 5 February.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Naomi Foyle?
As I keep asking myself . . . It all depends on what side of my hexagonal bed I got up on – not that I’m a Queen Bee, more like a feminist WASP with a somewhat peculiar imagination.
How would you introduce people to Astra and her world?
I might try to tempt them by saying that Astra’s literary genes are Alice spliced with Raskolnikov. A curious yet quite conventional child dropped into a strange and difficult adventure, she’s forced to keep a big secret, and the pressure proves intolerable: the more she expresses her true feelings, the more profoundly she is punished – and the more violently she reacts. She lives in a thoroughly warped Eden, an eco-idyll run according to rules the Red Queen would be proud of and governed by an increasingly totalitarian biomedical and military regime – so perhaps her world is more like Soviet Russia seen through the looking glass in an LA geo-dome.
Is-Land seems as if it should be a utopian place, but Astra reveals it to be anything but. Did you set out to show how thin the line between utopia and dystopia really is?
I was thinking, yes, about how radical movements and organisations can exclude and demonise those who don’t share their values, and how the dream of a national haven can lead to the ethnic cleansing of those who happen to be inconveniently in the way. But though the book reveals the dark side of the Is-Land vision, I am not cynical about progressive politics, or human nature. Utopia is no-place – unless people are brainwashed, there will always be conflict – but that doesn’t mean xenophobia, violence and state repression are inevitable. Many excellent processes of conflict resolution have been developed over the years, from anarchist consensus building to restorative justice projects, from workplace mediation to Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s Forgiveness Challenge. A true utopia would be a time and place where such humane ways of dealing with conflict are the fully funded norm.
In Astra we followed your eponymous heroine from age seven to seventeen. Did you ever consider writing it as a YA novel?
No. Though my books tend to cross pollinate genres, and after it was published I wondered if it could also be marketed as YA. I’d be delighted if young people read it, and think older teens would probably relate to Astra’s intensity, but because the book deals so frankly with sexuality, I suggest parents of younger teens read it first, and perhaps be prepared to discuss it.
One of the more thought-provoking things in the first book – to me at least – was the way Is-Landers teach sexuality. The greater sexual freedom of the Is-Landers seemed a natural outflow of their religion, yet I found myself doing a double-take at how they teach it to their youngsters. Did you get more or less pushback from readers on that than you expected?
It wasn’t overly remarked on in reviews that I’ve seen, though I can understand if some readers found those chapters challenging. I hoped they might encourage discussion about sex education, and based them partly on the well-established Dutch model. In Great Britain schools are required only to teach the biological facts of sex and tend to focus on prevention, while in Holland personal and social sex education is also compulsory and sex is treated as a normal part of life. Teen pregnancy rates in the Netherlands are a tenth of those in Britain, attesting to the effectiveness of this approach. But Astra is not a YA book, as I said, and I was also using the chapters to reflect on adult sexuality and the assumptions about it that help sustain rape culture. I thought of the ‘Rules’ as a kind of gentle satire on dating etiquette – what if being considerate to our sexual partners was in fact the law? And I was interested in challenging conventional views of gender and, in particular, male sexuality – the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality that assumes an erection is somehow an emblem of entitlement, or an uncontrollable force a man can’t be blamed for succumbing to. But while in Vishnu I was hoping to create a teacher of integrity, of course Is-Land is a sinister world, and the way the Gaia Play Rules are enforced by the school and the larger society is intended to be disturbing.
At the end of the previous book, we left Astra moving away from everything she’d ever known. What can we expect for Astra in Rook Song? Will it cover as great a span of time as Astra did?
Rook Song is a longer book but it covers a far shorter span of time, just a few months. Astra encounters many new people, and their voices and stories form a large part of the book. I am calling it a ‘polyphonic hymn to human diversity’, but though it began as a novel of diplomacy, the threat of violence rapidly escalates and Astra finds herself having to take sides in a war against her homeland. She needs to learn who to trust, but she also has to overcome her depression, suspicion and anger to prove herself trustworthy too.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
The Rook Song launch is planned for Brighton on Feb 6th. It will be an Open Mic, giving all my finely feathered friends a chance to sing. On March 11th I’ll be reading at Chichester University, an event that’s open to the public, and after that I’ll have to start organising. I’ve had invites to read in Prague and at the Glasgow’s Women’s Library I’d like to take up, and I’d also like to attend a con I haven’t been to before – Nine Worlds or Bristol, perhaps. I’ve also had a couple of queries from Green festivals, which I’d be delighted to attend.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I am passionate about the cause of a just peace in the Middle East, though I’ve learned that political convictions need to be grounded in solid, patient work. I co-founded the organisation British Writers in Support of Palestine, and am a firm supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Travel thrills me, and wild swimming, and my heart always soars when I’m tromping along a coastal path. I wish I could also say ‘the tango’ – maybe one day.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
In February I’ll be ordering White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press). An award-winning Finnish novella, it’s a survival story, set during the winter of the country’s 1867-8 famine. Peirene is a marvellous boutique press, dedicated to European translations you can read in a couple of hours, and I might pick up some of their backlist while I’m at it. In March, like practically everyone, I’m looking forward to digging into The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber). The biomedical horror of Never Let Me Go nourished final drafts of Seoul Survivors, and The Buried Giant, a mythic tale set in a post-Roman England, sounds like it might feed my move into post-fossil fuel science fantasy. Before the election, I’ll also be getting my hands on Honourable Friends? by Caroline Lucas (Portobello), her manifesto for radical change in Westminster. If the Greens keep growing the way they are now, perhaps that isn’t just a rusty pipe dream. The spring also brings Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh (Quartet Books), the story of a war photographer trapped in a hotel under terrorist attack. Her many Twitter followers know Sunny as a highly astute political commentator, and on previous fictional form this will be a complex and riveting read.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Oh now there’s a splendid question! By genre, though within that an artful chaos reigns. SFF and poetry anthologies are now housed at my Chichester University office, and everything else is at home. Women’s Lives occupies a top shelf since my last stab at tidying revealed I have over twenty biogs and autobiogs of women – from Métis author Maria Campbell to Patti Smith, though that’s misleading, as within the genres only poetry is shelved alphabetically – I’d never find a title on those thin spines otherwise. The rest are arranged in flexible ‘family groupings’ (place, era, movement, authors who are friends of mine or each other) or according to size, shape and colour. I don’t judge books by their covers, but I do arrange them accordingly. This was never conscious, and variations are rampant, but looking around the room now it’s clear I favour taller books at both ends, with the dip just off centre. Somehow I need the hint of an abyss – make of that what you will!
Bio: Naomi Foyle was born in London, grew up in Hong Kong, Liverpool and Canada, and currently lives in Brighton. She spent three years in Korea, teaching English, writing travel journalism and acting in Korean educational television. She is a highly regarded poet and performer.