Nina Allan’s debut The Race was met with critical acclaim when it was published in 2014. Her next novel, The Rift, has been highly anticipated. It was published earlier this week by Titan Books and features the tale of two sisters, a separation, a reunion, and all of the complicated emotions that accompany them. All of this combined with some incredibly SF elements. I’m really happy to be able to share an interview with Nina today, in which she shares more about the themes of the novel, answers whether she’d want to visit space and more. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Nina Allan?
I’m a British writer. I’ve published more than fifty short stories and a couple of collections. My first novel The Race was nominated for the Kitschies Red Tentacle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The core themes of my writing relate to character, memory, and sense of place. Favourite authors include M. John Harrison, Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Bruno Schulz, Helen Oyeyemi. I live and work on the Isle of Bute, which lies off the west coast of Scotland and about ninety minutes from the city of Glasgow. The Rift is my second novel.
How would you introduce people to Julie and Selena?
For me, Selena and Julie represent the process of growing up and growing away, the sadness and regret that inevitably occur as we begin to question the assumptions of our formative years. The early bond that exists between siblings – that mutual knowing – is irreplaceable, and moulds much of how we approach the world and the other people in it. It is also an attachment that many or even most of us will give up, or shun, or lose as the years progress, as we discover how we are different, and have different interests. As the younger sister, Selena feels the pain of that separation more keenly, and her pain is further compounded when her sister disappears, leaving the questions and conflict between them unresolved. Julie is independent-minded to the point of isolation, to the point – as we shall see – of putting herself in danger. What she wants most, in the end, is to forge a connection with someone. Julie is the more creative, the more brilliant sister, if you like, but Selena is the stronger. They need each other.
The Rift is an SF novel, but is it an SF story with themes related to sisterhood, or is it a story about sisterly bonds with SFnal elements?
If you pick up The Rift expecting Greg Egan-type hard science or Kim Stanley Robinson-style widescreen commentary, you might find yourself a little perplexed, let’s put it that way! The Rift will present you with a fully imagined, other-worldly society and landscape and even adventure (and let’s not forget the giant personality-eroding creepy crawlies). I take the science fictional elements of my writing very seriously indeed – I’ve loved SF since I first started watching Doctor Who at the age of six. But the heart of my work is always to be found in its characters and in the way they relate to one another, in the landscapes and realities they inhabit. I hope anyone who enjoys reading about human relationships and family secrets will love this book. I hope those who gravitate towards ghost stories, towards mysteries, towards weirdness generally will love it just as much.
As with your Hugo-nominated story ‘The Art of Space Travel’, in The Rift family — and the sense of connection family brings and the distress that can accompany any disruption or absence of that feeling — seems to play a large role. What draws you to these themes?
Maybe because family represents a microcosm of society and is the first we know of politics? Most of us are born into a family, just as we are born into a particular society. We begin by taking it for granted, as the accepted reality, regardless of whether that reality is a pleasant one or not. It is only as we acquire experience and amass knowledge that we begin to question not only the society and family we are born into, but our place within it. This makes for perennially fascinating reading, and writing. Take any random selection of famous novels about family – Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – and you’ll immediately see how malleable, how diverse, how exciting the family story always is, and always has been. I only have to see the words ‘family feud’ and I want to keep reading! The thing about families is that we all have one, whether by birth, by adoption, by acquisition. The family is a mirror to just about everything and as a subject for fiction it can never go out of style.
On a more light-hearted note, if given the choice, would you want to visit space and different planets?
I first became aware of the concept of space flight when I was about seven years old – and promptly began having recurring nightmares about being blasted into orbit! I have boundless admiration for those who have made that journey into space – reading about Helen Sharman’s training alongside top cosmonauts in Seize the Moment was a revelation, and a large part of the inspiration behind ‘The Art of Space Travel’ came out of reading and listening to the accounts of individuals who have registered as volunteers for a possible first manned mission to Mars. But speaking for myself, Planet Earth is plenty big enough for the time being, thanks!
What do you consider to be the most science-fictional element of our current day?
A boring answer, but it has to be the evolving power and possibilities of the internet. I consider myself lucky to be a part of the final generation of people who grew up in an analogue world. Computer science was just beginning to be taught – to a very few people – in my final year of school. None of my friends at university owned a personal computer or even used one. Growing up without a particular strand of technology makes one particularly perceptive of and sensitive to the changes that occur in the wake of that technology, and I am constantly aware of being part of what is effectively a revolution. The technology itself – like all technology – is neutral. It is the uses – and abuses – we design for it as human beings that will govern its future development as a cultural, political and practical tool. There’s no point in being ‘terrified by the internet’ – it’s here. What we can and must be though is alert. We have come to believe in the internet as a people’s technology, the great democratisor, but it could equally be used against us. Indeed, that is something that is already happening. Complacency in any arena is always dangerous.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
I’ll be signing copies of The Rift at Waterstones Argyle Street in Glasgow on July 13th, and Forbidden Planet, London on July 28th. I’m a Guest of Honor at Fantasticon in Copenhagen this September, and I’ll also be at Fantasycon in Peterborough, UK. Following on from that, I’ll be in Paris on a writing residency throughout the month of October, where I’ll be talking about my first novel The Race, which is about to be published in French translation. I shall also be making use of the opportunity to get to know this marvelous city a little better, as well as starting work on a new writing project, which is little more than a bundle of notes at the moment but all the more exciting because of that.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I’ve always been passionate about music, which is a major part of my life and never far from my thoughts. Landscape and sense of place forms a major component of my writing and thinking, and I’m equally passionate about ecology, natural history and protecting the health and wellbeing of the planet we live on. For relaxation, I enjoy running and hiking. And TV cop shows. Never underestimate the importance of TV cop shows.
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?
I’ve just finished reading J. Robert Lennon’s new novel Broken River, which might best be described as a postmodern murder mystery. I fell in love with it on page one and cannot recommend it highly enough. I’m also looking forward to getting stuck into Joyce Carol Oates’s latest, A Book of American Martyrs. No one writes about family the way Oates does, and this new book – the story of what happens to two very different families in the wake of a shooting – looks to be as brilliant as anything she’s yet produced, Looking further ahead, I adored Celeste Ng’s debut Everything You Never Told Me, a sort-of crime story with exceptional poise and depth, and can’t wait to read her upcoming second novel Little Fires Everywhere. We have to wait until next spring before we can get our hands on Catriona Ward’s second novel, Little Eve, but judging by her debut The Girl from Rawblood, the wait will be worth it. Little Eve promises to do for classic detective fiction what Rawblood did for the gothic novel and this new book’s island setting makes it especially enticing for me. Currently on my bedside table I have Void Star, by Zachary Mason, a hallucinogenic, weird tale of the near future with just a touch of William Gibson, Mason’s prose is stunning and I’m lost in awe of this book, which would win all the awards next year if I had my way. Finally, I can’t not mention Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, newly published in English translation and one of the most original works of science fiction I’ve read in recent years, bar none. Put simply, it’s brilliant. Read it.
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?
Strictly alphabetically, with fiction and non-fiction separated on to different shelves!
Bio: Nina Allan’s debut novel The Race was shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the BSFA Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. She has won the BSFA Award for Short Fiction, the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, and the Aeon Award. She has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award four times and was a finalist for the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award.
You can find Nina online at her website.