EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Katherine Langrish on After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia
Katherine Langrish is a British author of children’s and YA fantasy novels. She grew up in Yorkshire, graduated from London University, and worked in various jobs including six years as Information Officer for Lloyd’s Register of Ships in London where she dealt with a delightful assortment of the ship-crazed public, including a man who claimed he could see shipwrecks with his ‘magic eye.’ She has lived in France and the USA, but currently close to Oxford, England.
Titles include her highly acclaimed Viking trilogy, Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood (republished in one volume as West of the Moon, HarperCollins 2011), and a medieval fantasy, Dark Angels (US title The Shadow Hunt), HarperCollins: one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books for Children 2010, a Junior Library Guild Choice 2010, nominated for the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults 2011, and one of USBBY’s Outstanding International Books 2011. Her writing is strongly influenced by British, Celtic and Scandinavian folklore and legends.
She is currently working on a YA dystopian novel.
SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with several authors involved in the new anthology, After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and featuring stories asking: If the melt-down, flood, plague, the third World War, new Ice Age, Rapture, alien invasion, clamp-down, meteor, or something else entirely hit today, what would tomorrow look like? Some of the biggest names in YA and adult literature answer that very question in this short story anthology, each story exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake—whether set in the days after the change, or decades far in the future.
CHARLES TAN: How would you define Dyslit or what are its essential characteristics?
KATHERINE LANGRISH: Well, a utopia envisions a perfect, well-functioning society which we’re expected to contrast with the failures of our own. A dystopia does the opposite: it presents the reader with a society which is dysfunctional, which has gone badly wrong – but in which we see aspects of our own contemporary society taken to an extreme. This is what George Orwell does with Big Brother and New-Speak in 1984 or Scott Westerfield with the beauty cult, in Uglies. Utopias and dystopias have always been forms of social criticism, not simply ‘imaginary worlds’. Tolkien’s Mordor would be a nasty place to live, but it isn’t a dystopia, because we don’t recognise ourselves in it. It’s Pure Evil (mwah-ha-ha) and there’s nothing more to say about that. But a dystopia makes you think. A dystopia is about us: in a glass, darkly.
KL: Dyslit is a tremendously dramatic way of writing about society. And it’s important for YA readers because they are passionate and idealistic, and wherever they live, under whatever political system, they look at it with fresh, critical eyes, working out what’s good, what’s bad, what could be made better? They are the future: it’s theirs to mould and create, and they want to learn how – and we should want them to learn! Dyslit fiction takes elements of the world we actually live in, and holds them up to the light. What if everyone had to conform to a particular high standard of beauty? That’s obviously not happening around us, is it? (Oh – wait a minute…) Or what about reality shows and violence – what if the government ran TV shows in which people were actually killed? How far away are we from that? How much power should a government have to rule the lives of its people?
Most Dyslit protagonists are young, passionate people caught up in the mesh of their own problematic society and starting to ask those essential, awkward questions, to rebel against the bad status quo, to break free of the bonds their societies impose, and to find a better way of living. I think this resonates hugely not just with YA readers, but with all of us.
CT: In ‘Visiting Nelson’, what made you decide to use ‘Hairies’ as a consequence of society’s actions?
KL: Visiting Nelson is set in a future, flooded, ring-fenced London, divided into areas ruled by different gangs. Charlie, my hero, is a young gang-member who makes a living by selling a drug, nirv, which has the unfortunate eventual effect of destroying the addict’s mind, while stimulating his or her body into growing a pelt of thick coarse hair. So anywhere in the waste places of London you may encounter these frightening, irrational, but pathetic people wandering alone and mad before they succumb to the elements and die miserable deaths.
Where did the idea for Hairies come from? A number of places. One is the real-life army of disturbed beggars and bag-ladies who really do, sadly, roam the streets of London, mumbling to themselves or shouting angry gibberish. And they live and die on the streets: I’ve met some of them. A literary antecedent is the image of the hairy ‘wild man’ or ‘wodewose’ from the Middle Ages, the aspect of the untamed and uncivilised human. And another is Shakespeare’s Mad Tom, from King Lear, and the 16th century street ballad Loving Mad Tom, or Tom o’ Bedlam, in which a visionary mad tramp sees the spirits of the dead in St Paul’s Churchyard: “I repose in Paul’s with walking souls/ And never am affrighted”.
Hairy people in fiction are usually werewolves. Mine aren’t. They’re not even aggressive – just horrifying casualties of a broken-down society in which Charlie is implicated, selling this dreadful drug because he too needs to survive. Does that happen in real life? We know it does.
CT: What were the challenges in writing ‘Visiting Nelson’?
KL: I’m still wrestling with them, since I’m currently writing a novel about Charlie and his brother Billy, and the ruined London they live in. One of the biggest challenges has been to visualize London, 160 years or so in the future, after sea levels have risen by fifty feet – which would make the Thames nearly three miles wide near the city centre – and figure out what might survive, what would be destroyed, what would be new and different, and what would be old and familiar. London is very ancient, with almost 2000 years of history behind it. I’m adding a century and a half to that, but I still want it to feel authentic, to be a credible version of this wonderful city. I’ve spent days walking the streets, looking at buildings, riding on the river. Most of Visiting Nelson takes place inside iconic St Paul’s Cathedral, built after the Great Fire of London in 1666. And there it is in my story, still towering over the river, but derelict, stained by water and fire, a creepy but still significant place. I went to St Paul’s several times to make notes and get impressions, and the last time I went I found myself thinking, “Wow – they’ve restored it!” before I realised that of course nothing had needed to be ‘restored’. It was just that the picture I’d made of it in my imagination was so strong, I’d unconsciously expected the cathedral to look as derelict and abandoned as I’ve described it in the story.
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi).
Filed under: Interviews
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