Stephanie Saulter is the author of the ®Evolution series, starting with Gemsigns and continuing with Binary (published in the UK in 2014, published in the US in May 2015.)
Today, Stephanie answered a few of my questions about Binary, her writing and more.
Paul Weimer: For those unfamiliar with you, who is Stephanie Saulter?
Stephanie Saulter: I’m a crosser of borders, questioner of orthodoxies, holder of strong opinions, reader and writer of books. The order there is important; I’ve been an avid reader since I was five, but I didn’t become a writer until I was in my forties. I’m from Jamaica, where I was brought up; then I went to university in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts); and after years of living and working first in Los Angeles and then in Miami, I moved to London. I consider myself a Londoner now, but every place I’ve ever lived is part of me too.
PW: For readers new to the ®Evolution series, can you give them a brief overview of Gemsigns and how it feeds into Binary?
SS: I’ve been trying for ages to come up with a ‘brief overview’ of Gemsigns! It’s set in the aftermath of the emancipation of genetically modified humans, known as ‘gems’, from the biotech companies that engineered them. The gemtechs are trying to overturn that decision and return things to the way they were, while the gems are struggling to adjust to freedom – not only are they physically and sometimes mentally altered, they’re often also disabled and psychologically damaged. The norm majority mostly doesn’t see them as equals, or even as entirely human. One of the central characters is a scientist, Eli Walker, who is supposed to determine how – or whether – gems should be accepted and integrated into norm society. That puts him in the eye of the storm: he’s got the gemtechs’ powerful fixer, Zavcka Klist, on one side, and the charismatic gem leader, Aryel Morningstar, on the other and he has to decide who to believe. On the fringes are the godgangs, religious zealots to whom gems are abominations to be destroyed. And hidden in the heart of the gem community is Gabriel, a little boy with an ability that could change everything.
Binary takes place a few years later. A new equilibrium has developed between gems and norms, but there’s still a lot of unease and latent prejudice. Zavcka Klist has come up with a scheme to return her corporation to its former prominence – and this time she’s got a way of forcing Aryel and the gems to help her do it. Quarantined genestock has been stolen, suggesting that someone might be trying to start up human gemtech again. And Aryel’s foster siblings, Rhys and Gwen, are now in the mix; one of them has a big plan and the other has a big problem, and between them they end up turning everyone else’s lives upside down.
PW: The stories of Zavcka and Aryel intertwine between the two books, Gemsigns and Binary. Did you plan it that way from the beginning?
SS: No, because I didn’t plan a series; I didn’t know, when I wrote Gemsigns, that there were going to be more books. But I did have that Tolkienesque notion that the story one is telling is merely an excerpt from an ongoing narrative, and that what happened before and what will happen after are no less deep and rich and significant. So I had a strong sense of how Zavcka and Aryel had come to be the people we meet in Gemsigns, and of how they would go forward after the events of Gemsigns. When the opportunity came to write Binary it was a matter of working out how to tell the reader some of the things I already knew.
SS: Gemsigns should have been harder because I’d never written a novel (or even short stories) before; I had to really think about how to structure the narrative, what devices to employ and what to avoid, and so on. But the story had been developing in my head for years, so once I worked out the structure it turned out to not be that difficult to get it down. I don’t write multiple drafts; the first draft, which is what sold the book and was only lightly edited afterwards, was done in seven months. With Binary I felt much more confident about my craft, but I didn’t have nearly as strong a sense at the beginning of what the story arc was going to be. There was a lot more meandering and false trails, and it took closer to thirteen months to write. I also stretched myself in different ways with Binary; the flashback sequences utilise a markedly different narrative voice to the rest of the text, I invented a cryptophasic language for two characters and a very limited, structured syntax for another, and there’s a greater degree of psychological depth and emotional intimacy than I attempted in Gemsigns.
PW: The character mix is different, with different voices taking prominence. Which characters are you still looking to tell deeper stories for?
SS: The Zavcka-and-Aryel dynamic isn’t over; there are a few more twists in that tale. I’ve also taken myself by surprise with the characters of Mikal and Sharon; I invented them on the fly in Gemsigns but they have become far more significant, far more central, than I expected. They have starring roles in Binary, and again in the final book, Regeneration, which also sees the return of Gabriel. And there are a number of minor characters whose stories are only hinted at in the trilogy: one of them is the young musician, Lyriam, about whom I’ve just written a short story set about a year before Gemsigns.
PW: I think of your SF as being on the literary side of the genre. Who are your genre writing heroes and models?
SS: One of the things that makes a writer someone I want to emulate – and this is regardless of genre – is their originality, the sense of style and intelligence and focus that makes a work unique. Tolkien was my entry point into fantasy as a fully realised literary experience, as was Frank Herbert for science fiction; they’re both still touchstone authors. So is Neil Gaiman, who makes it all look so easy though he compromises nothing. I love the delicacy and creative rigour of Susanna Clarke’s work. Every Ursula Le Guin story is a lesson in imagination, intellectual courage and precision of language; every Iain Banks novel is a masterclass in technique. And I think that JK Rowling’s work is far deeper, more layered and more complex than she’s generally given credit for.
PW: With Binary done, tell us what lies on the horizon for you?
SS: The third and final book of the ®Evolution, Regeneration, will be out in the UK this summer and in the US in 2016. It has been even harder and taken even longer than Binary; I suspect because the series and the characters are hugely important to me and I wanted to end it well, with a sense both of resolution and of continuity. I’ve just completed the copy edits on it, and I’m finally satisfied that I’ve got it right. The releases in different territories will keep me busy for a while, and I haven’t really had the time or head-space yet to grapple with my next, post-®Evolution project, though I have some ideas. I’m going to give myself a few months to read and think, and see which one pushes itself to the front. I think it will be a departure, maybe something a bit more experimental, but that’s all I can say at the moment.
PW: Your internet name is Scriptopus, which is also the name of a piece of software you created. Tell us about that.
SS: Scriptopus was an online creative writing app I came up with about six years ago, although I should stress that I’m not a programmer myself; I hired a firm to write the code and create the site, based on my description of what I wanted it to do. It was an interactive writing game; users could choose from a variety of short passages of fiction, and had 15 minutes and 1000 characters in which to write the next section. That would be all that the next person to come along would see, and after 10 entries the thread would close and the contributors would receive an email with a link to the completed ‘story’.
My idea was to create a stress-free way of having a daily 15-minute writing exercise. It was completely self-funded and therefore very simple, although it did have some sharing and social media functionality. I kept it going for a few years; there’s a page on my website that explains what eventually happened to it. It lives on now only as my Twitter handle, but I doubt I’d have made the transition to being a writer if I hadn’t done that first.
PW: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
SS: On my website, stephaniesaulter.com. I’m a woefully irregular blogger but I do manage to keep the site fairly up to date, so you can find news on appearances, current projects and links to reviews, interviews, articles and so on. I’m on Twitter as @scriptopus, on Facebook as Stephanie Saulter (writer) and on Goodreads. I like interacting with readers, by the way, so if anyone’s got questions or comments about my books do feel free to post them up on any of those platforms.