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Fun with Friends—Helen Lowe Talks with Fellow Authors from Australia and New Zealand: Today’s Guest Is Jane Higgins

About the Series:

“Fun with Friends” is an SF Signal interview series in which I feature fellow SFF authors from Australia and New Zealand. The format is one interview per month, with no more than five questions per interview, focusing on “who the author is” and “what she/he does” in writing terms.

This month’s guest is Jane Higgins, a New Zealand YA author whose first novel, the future dystopia The Bridge was published in 2011 to critical and popular acclaim.

Allow me to introduce Jane Higgins:

Jane was born, raised, and still resides in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she works as a social science academic, primarily researching on how young people craft identities and create pathways from school to their post-school lives. Growing up in Canterbury, the big skies inspired her love of astronomy and space travel, and she was drawn to the strange worlds of myth, science fiction and fantasy, especially stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin.  A few years ago she decided to try writing fiction and wrote a futuristic war story in which the central characters are young people crossing borders and working out where they belong. This initial story, which became The Bridge went on to win the 2010 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing and was both a New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards’ Honor Book, and also “Children’s Choice” book in the YA category, in 2012.  Jane still works as a researcher with young people, still reads, still writes (and still watches Dr. Who.)  She is currently working on a sequel to The Bridge.

To find about more about Jane, see her website, here.

An Interview With Jane Higgins

Helen: The Bridge is future dystopian SF, currently a very popular genre for YA readers, although I suspect that’s not why you wrote it. So why, then: why future dystopia and why YA?

Jane: Why YA? They say you write the books you love to read. I’ve always loved reading, but I think the time in my life when reading was most magical, and when I was most able to get completely lost in a book, was when I was a teenager. I can still remember vividly how I felt reading some of my favourite books back then. I can remember where I was when I read the first page of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (in my school library) and when I read the last page of The Lord of the Rings (by gaslight in my parents’ cabin in the mountains of Canterbury). So when I decided to try writing fiction, I gravitated towards the type of story that I loved most when I was growing up.

Why future dystopia? I wanted to write about some young people caught up in a war, as so many are around the world at present. But I didn’t want to import into the story all the current context of a particular war. So I made one up. To do that I took some current trends and pushed them a couple of hundred years into the future. I didn’t sit down and think: “ok, I’m going to write a dystopia,” but it’s not too surprising that when you project trends like global conflict and climate change into the future, things do look fairly grim. But it’s not all grim! I hope that readers find that the book is also about the way friendship and simple human decency make it possible to navigate those challenges.

Helen: I also feel The Bridge has superb opening sentence: “We rode to war in a taxi cab.” Is this where the story sparked for you, or did it begin with another image or idea?

Jane: For quite some time I’d had an idea knocking around in my head about some young people in a war. I tried to write a short story about this, but it kept wanting to break out of short-storydom and become something longer. I put it aside for a while, then one day, when I was standing in a bookshop (a local indie) leafing through a collection of short stories, my eye ran over a sentence that said, “We rode to the flat in a taxi cab” but because my subconscious was still busy with that idea of young people in a war, what I read was, ‘We rode to war in a taxi cab.’ It’s weird the way your subconscious plays tricks like that. Once I had that sentence I had to find out who was in the taxi and what they thought they were doing going to war.

Helen: You cite a number of classic authors as influences on your own reading, including Asimov, Bradbury and Le Guin. To what extent do you feel your writing sits in their tradition, and how does it step away from it?

Jane: Speculative fiction has always been interested in dark and dangerous futures. I’m interested in writing in that tradition, but not so much in terms of developments in technology, which great science fiction often explores brilliantly.  Rather I’m drawn to exploring current trends in society and speculating, “‘What if…’ these were to develop in a certain way?” Le Guin terms this kind of writing “social science” fiction, which (as a social scientist) I really like.  The thought experiments that she has written in stories like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are first and foremost great stories with memorable characters, but they are also wonderful explorations of gender, politics and culture.

Helen: The unpublished manuscript for The Bridge won Australia’s Text Prize—how did that moment feel? And what doors has it opened for you?

Jane: It was one of THE extraordinary moments of my life. I knew I was on the short list, and I was sitting in my study at home on a wintry late Friday afternoon the week it was going to be announced, thinking to myself that I hadn’t heard from Text and so “better luck next time,” when the phone rang and it was Michael Heyward, the head of Text Publishing, saying “I have good news!” Suddenly I was whisked into an amazing world of editors and publicists and the whole process of book publishing, which was completely new to me, and I’ve had a fantastic time with the wonderful people at Text ever since.

Helen: How do you feel being a New Zealander informs your writing? Are there any influences or themes you feel are distinctive?

Jane:   Over the last couple of years being a resident of Christchurch has certainly informed my writing: we are living in a city that is slowly being demolished around us as a result of a several serious earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks. Although we certainly don’t live with the fear that a war would inspire, we are living with a lot of physical destruction. That’s quite instructive for writing about a city in a war.

As for New Zealand, well, I wonder if our landscape and geography are influential. We are a tiny group of islands on the edge of the world. We have a stunning but wild countryside: it’s a wilderness that can (and does) kill people who go into it ill prepared and over-confident. We’re not at the centre of things, and we’re not in control of very much (or, indeed, anything) globally. So perhaps I’m drawn to characters who find themselves in situations over which they have no control but who discover ways to navigate those situations using what they have, including (and especially) their friends and their ‘smarts.’

About the Interviewer:

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and a 2012 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in her The Wall of Night series, was published in April, and she has recently won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally here on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we

List of Links used (in the order they appear in the text):

4 Comments on Fun with Friends—Helen Lowe Talks with Fellow Authors from Australia and New Zealand: Today’s Guest Is Jane Higgins

  1. Paul Weimer // September 27, 2012 at 2:04 pm //

    Hi Jane, Hi Helen.

    I don’t understand this Text Prize. How does an unpublished manuscript win? Is that particularly common?

  2. Paul,

    The competition is specifically for unpublished ms, with publication part of the prize for the winner. I think there may be similar prizes in other parts of the world, particularly for poetry, eg the UK Templar Prize and NZ’s Kathleen Grattan Award, but NZ also has a range of similar award for Kids/YA lit, all aimed at emerging writers: the Joy Cowley and Tessa Duder Awards for example.

  3. Love how your subconscious played a part in coming up with the opening sentence!
    It’s amazing how often it happens, your mind expects to see something and fills in the blanks.

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