viernes, 9 de agosto de 2013

Yolanda Espiñeira interviews Nina Allan

Nina Allan was one of the more interesting writers to attend this year's Celsius 232 Festival in Avilés (Spain). Thus, it is really an honor and a pleasure that El almohadón de plumas (a blog that you should not miss if you read Spanish) has allowed me to reproduce here their interview with the author, made by Yolanda Espiñeira (disclaimer: I transcribed the interview from the recorded audio myself, so there might be some mistakes here and there. I apologize in advance).

Yolanda EspiñeiraFirst of all, thank you, Nina, for this interview. You said in your talk that you have always written, since you were young. How did your start publishing professionally?

Nina Allan: It’s as you say, in the talk yesterday I was saying about how I have always written. I started writing stories for myself when I was a young child and I carried on doing that until my teen ages. I wrote a lot of diaries and journals. I saw writing as something I’ve always found necessary to do. But towards the end of my teen ages and when I went to university I began to get involved in more academic work. I was good at school and I was encouraged to study Literature rather than producing my own.

And it took a long time, really, almost ten years. The whole of my twenties passed by without me doing any creative writing of my own because I had been almost entirely preoccupied with writing about other people’s work. And it was only in my early thirties that I really begun to realize what had happened and missed the idea of creating my own stories. And it was a very nerve wrecking thing to actually write creatively again after such a long gap. I would genuinely not know whether I could do it because the last time I had attempted anything like that I was fifteen, sixteen years old - I did it completely naturally, unselfconsciously. And I suddenly sit down and said “well, now my knowledge of Literature is much greater”, I’d written a thesis, a post-graduate thesis on Nabokov by then and I spent a lot of time - many years - studying other people’s work so there was this fear. Could I actually do it? Did I have anything to say? But I was determined that I wanted to try. I felt real in a need to try. I felt that something was badly missing from my life and that I had taken a bad turning in abandoning my own creative writing. So I wrote a story set in the town where my grandmother lived by the sea - it’s very personal landscape to me. It was only a short story - less than five thousand words - but I wrote it, and I wrote it to the end, I completed it.

And it felt like a really momentous event. It felt as I had recaptured what I’d lost. And from that moment - which I think was 1999 - I was determined from that point that I was going to do it seriously. And from that moment all I’ve done is work and work, improve my writing to gain a greater mastery over what I do. And I began quite soon after completing that first story; I started sending my work out to little magazines that published science fiction and fantasy. First of all just to very small magazines. And as I became accepted by them, I’d try the more important magazines like Interzone. And it’s just gradually grown. It’s just work, and reading, and concentration. And it’s really taken me those sort of ten years to get to a stage where I’m beginning to feel happy with what I’m doing.   

YEYour first adult published works are clearly science fiction. Did you mean them to be science fiction?

NA: Absolutely, I don’t even think I question that. I’ve always loved the fantastic in Literature - science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy; these ways of exploring reality through heightened emotion, heightened states - what you’d call hyper-reality almost, a state of heightened awareness of things. And science fiction and fantasy seemed like the most natural way of exploring these kinds of psychologies. And it’s something I’ve always loved. I’ve never questioned my commitment to that form of Literature.

YEWe like to label things: slipstream, speculative fiction, and hyper-reality. How would you classify your work and why?

NA: My work has often been described as slipstream, which is sort of a new genre, it’s sort of work at the edges of science fiction and the mainstream. I personally prefer the term speculative fiction – it fits with the letters SF, so people sort of know what you’re talking about – and I think it’s a truer description of what I do. My works speculates: speculates about what psychology is, speculates about alternate realities, speculates about the future. It’s speculative fiction. 

YEI have the impression that science fiction being is charged with technology, science and you don’t really do that. 

NA: Yeah, I don’t really do that. I sometimes use ideas that edge onto that, for example I’ve recently written a story that will come out in a magazine later this year about the idea of travel to Mars. Typically for one of my stories, no one actually gets to Mars. There’s a lot of talking about going to Mars and what it might mean psychologically the idea of travelling to Mars and never returning to Earth. There are many very adept and expert science fiction writers that love the sciences and the working of the sciences - people like Alastair Reynolds or Paul McAuley - which had been scientists, they know this stuff back to front. I don’t feel that I could ever adequately compete on that basis but I do know other things, I have my own areas of expertise and things that particularly interest me: psychology, memory, feelings about place and time. So I prefer these softer, these sorts of slightly more human angles of science. This is what I use in my work more. 

YECould we say that the theme of The Silver Wind is that science and technology fail to dominate time, that humanity cannot dominate time? 

NA: That’s right. There’s a passage in the longest story in the collection, which is actually called “The Silver Wind” - you have the watchmaker trying to explain to Martin precisely: “you think you can turn back time”. In the story a technology has been developed that soldiers think they can use to change the course of events. And the watchmaker is explaining: “No, you can’t. You can never do these things, will never repeat themselves exactly, things will never be contained or controlled by human beings”. We’re at the mercy, in a sense, of Nature and of Fate and of the passage itself of time. No matter what scientific inventions we create, we’re never going to be in control in a way that perhaps some people would like to be.

YEI think that old science fiction was quite kin of that idea that technology would make us travel to Mars and masters of the universe.

NA: Yes, especially in American science fiction you get a lot of this sort of soldiers filling up spaceships and going out to conquer the universe and, you know, all we need to do is make the right scientific discovery and we will have the key to becoming masters. I just don’t think - certainly not at the moment - we understand so little really of how we are here, where we are going, we’re making very small… Each person makes their own journey of discovery and we’re not masters of that journey, we can only observe and record what we discover along the way, maybe to pass onto the people that come after us. So we learn, we gradually expand the borders of the known universe but we are no closer really to understand even how our own brains - we only use I think it is one sixth of our brain area - we still don’t know our bodies precisely. So how we’re going to dominate the universe at this stage of evolution, I don’t know.       

YEIt seems that you feel more comfortable writing short stories, short stories and open ends, because I think in The Silver Wind each story denies each other, you cannot conclude who is the real Martin (I’d bet it is the one in the story “The Silver Wind”, though)

NA: Yeah, in a sense they’re all the real Martin but all the aspects of Martin, the core personality of Martin actually retains common features, so although different things happen to each Martin you can state that for me he still is the core person. It’s quite cohesive really, but I definitely love open-ended stories. I said in an interview recently that what I really love most about a story is that idea that when your turn the last page of the story you get the idea that somewhere the story is continuing, so what you’ve been allowed is a glimpse, into a particular set of characters and events and you may know this one part of what the story is but somewhere Martin he’s still, you know, we could pick up his story again maybe, it’s not over. And I do love that kind of narrative, I like to read it as well as to write it, I don’t like all the ends being tied up neatly, I don’t like that kind of story. I like ambiguity.     

YEI think we could relate it to not doing a novel. I think it is a more closed universe with a beginning to an end, it’s a travel in which a character goes from a beginning to an end. But your stories, though they are not circles, open a lot of possibilities. I thought you maybe write short stories because you didn’t like to make a strong statement about the themes you’re exploring more than making a thesis about time, love or loss.

NA: I definitely had problems with… I want to write novels because the thing that attracts me about novels is that you have a much bigger canvas and you can spend a lot of time with characters and I really like that. But you’re very right in that I have a problem with the idea of a linear narrative where, as you say, one character starts at point A and journeys through to point Z. I naturally resist that kind of narrative so I’ve been working towards creating my own version of a novel which is satisfactory to me. I have just finished writing one, but again it is a complete story but it comes in four parts and part of it is set in an alternate future, part of it is set in the recent present day, the recent real world past, and there are two different sets of characters and it’s only by the end of the book that you see how they relate and even then it’s ambiguous, you can’t be absolutely certain who are the real characters and who are the imagined characters - they relate to each other. And that novel will be published in England next year. And I am currently starting work on a new novel which is a bit of a mystery; it’s a murder mystery but again is not a straightforward crime novel. I don’t like straightforward thrillers where everything is about who’s the murderer or what’s the murderer, end of the story. It’s very much exploring the characters and how they arrived at that point in their lives so I think I do want to write novels but I wanted to do it my way.   

YEYou’re a woman writing science fiction. But what books do you like to read?

NA: I read very widely. Mostly contemporary and 20th century fiction. I read a lot when I was at the university. I read vast amounts of especially Russian Literature, all the 19th century Russians classics, - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov – they made a massive impression on me because of the way they explored the psychology of the character. It seemed to me that the Russian writers did that much more intensely than English authors of the same period. I didn’t read much Dickens; I didn’t read much George Elliot. They were sort of more social novels to me and I really liked this idea of struggling good and evil and whether or not God existed, things that Russian writers explored and that’s what I read when I was in my sort of formative years. 

Now I love reading 20th and 21st century fiction. I love slipstream fiction. I love M. John Harrison; I like Christopher Priest, my partner. I loved his works since many years before we met - I read him. I love interesting peculiar stories by writers like Kelly Link - I don’t know if you know her - she’s an absolutely marvelous writer and again slipstream work. I suppose I like the psychological crime fiction of writers like Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith who explore again far more character that crime. I suppose some writers really shy away from reading the fiction of other writers, they don’t like that, they don’t like to be distracted with… Chris is a typical example. He likes to read a lot of non-fiction and historical writing because it doesn’t interfere with his thought processes. I really enjoy reading other writers and their own fictional accounts of the world. I get a lot of inspiration from that and even when you disagree with how another writer is portraying a world, that can be inspirational as well in its own way of showing you what you don’t want to do. There are many writers I love. I’ve always loved Iris Murdoch. She was a great sort of post-mod.. She sort of wrote all way through the 70’s and 80’s, very strange novels about very odd characters. It would seem very ordinary on the surface - a sort of conventional London novel - but very odd things, people entering strange houses where odd things where going on, philosophical discussions, good and evil. I like to seek out work that speaks to me of the same subjects. I seek out writers like myself, I think. I really like that.  
YETo conclude, you write science fiction as a woman: do you find it difficult to publish? I have heard that in England if you’re a woman publishers don’t want to publish your work in a Science Fiction imprint. 

NA: Yeah, there’s been a massive amount of discussion about this recently - sort of the last 12 months - huge amount of discussion. I don’t know. I personally have had a lot of really good press from both men and women. A lot of my fans are men, people who’ve written about my work are men and they don’t seem to find any problem in talking about me as a writer at all. I’ve been published in a lot of anthologies edited by men. I think any problems that I’ve had placing my longer work - it’s taken me eight or nine months to find a publisher for my novel – I think in a way it’s been far more to do with the kind of work it is – it’s not straightforward science fiction, it’s not straightforward mainstream fiction, it’s (at the) edge of  genre – I think that’s been more the problem than the fact that I’m a woman. I have never personally encountered any prejudice but I know women who have. I know women in the industry who have been encouraged, for example, to make their name ambiguous, to let themselves just be known by their initials so the readers won’t know whether they’re a man or a woman. I feel very strongly that women shouldn’t do this. I should be… you know, they should appear as they are. It’s only by doing that the barriers will be broken down. We shouldn’t be hiding – I feel very, very strongly about that. I’ve always been proud to be a woman, proud to be a writer, proud to be a science fiction writer. I think there are still barriers to be overcome, but I think that talking about this the way that it’s been talked about in the last six months to a year… this is the way forward to actually bring the problems out in the open and get rid of them. 

YESo, these were all my questions. I would only like to ask you about the translations of your work – I think you have been translated into French. 

NA: Yes, The Silver Wind has been translated into French as “Complications” and that book will be published in France by the end of August. The book already exists. I’ve been to Paris and I’ve done some interviews about it and the book actually comes out I think it’s August the 22nd. I have had three short stories published in German magazines. And I have recently had an enquiry from a Greek publisher. They also asked about The Silver Wind so that may be happening. I’m delighted, being here in Spain, to see people holding copies of my books in English and they’re going to be reading them so I’m really hoping that some Spanish readers might be up to read my work in translation before too long. 

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