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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sarah Rees Brennan on After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia

Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, the first book of which was an ALA Top Ten Best Book of 2009, and the co-author of Team Human with Justine Larbalestier. Her new book is Unspoken, a romantic Gothic mystery about a girl who discovers her imaginary friend is a real boy. Unspoken was just nominated for Best Fiction For Young Adults 2013 by ALA/YALSA. Sarah writes from her homeland of Ireland but likes to travel the world collecting inspiration…

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: Hi Sarah! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. For you, how would you define Dyslit or what are its essential characteristics?

SARAH REES BRENNAN: Thank you for having me!

Dystopian literature: it’s the end of the world as we know it, and everyone’s feeling absolutely terrible.

Society has collapsed and either humanity lives in the depressing ruins being murdered on the regular, or a different and much more oppressive society has been built up (and secretly, people are murdered on the regular). Anyone who thinks they feel fine is wrong and will quickly discover their mistake! And while everyone is suffering incredible amounts of torment, there arises a thematic point which highlights something troubling in our current society. The whole thing seems generally very hard luck on the characters.

CT: What’s the appeal of Dyslit for you? Why is it important, especially for YA readers?

SRB: Well, genre generally is good for YA readers, I think. It’s a time in your life when everything cuts deep, when so many experiences are your first experiences, shocking and new. ‘My life is over’ you could say then, and really mean it. Also your parents occasionally seemed like cruel dictators who only wanted you to suffer, and you felt utterly powerless in your pain: teenagehood has flashes of dystopia, and that makes teens perhaps more than anyone else able to empathise and engage with dystopian literature.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that dystopian literature boomed, that the Hunger Games hit it big and following that, books like Matched, Legend and Divergent (all YA but big crossover sellers) in a time of recession, when our view of the coming future was sometimes not like that of people admiring a vista but fearing an avalanche. Literature’s often used to express how we are feeling and what we are fearing.

CT: In “Faint Heart”, what made you decide to tell the narrative from three point-of-view characters?

SRB: I am a terrible freak who fiends for complicated point-of-view stuff. I cannot stop torturing my readers with it: I cannot just put the point of view down and back away slowly. I blame reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd at an impressionable age.

I did think I needed the three points of view, to show, well, how ridiculous the idealisation of an image of womanhood is. The central conceit of Faint Heart is that the perfect woman has been engineered and all must compete to win the hand of the queen: a single woman has been constructed as the pinnacle of all womanhood, the quintessence of beauty. And I wanted to look at that from both ends of the spectrum of seeing a woman as a construct of womanhood, not a person–a guy who ‘loves’ her, who believes in the image of her and makes a flawless idol and a religion out of her, and a guy who resents her, hates and blames her because he sees her as a manifestation of the world’s unfairness.

These two contradictory points of view needed the third point of view–that of the queen herself. She’s not an icon, but a girl bowed under the weight of expectations and from a line of girls like her, who she knows were not what the world thinks: were not all emotionally healthy, or all happy, or all willing, or all straight, who were all not suited to the role in which they were placed. She’s called a queen, but she has no power and no experience of the world. You cannot invest a woman with meaning, because she is not an empty vessel: she is already full of her own meaning.

In summary: turns out girls are people, everybody’s surprised. 😉

CT: What were the challenges in writing “Faint Heart”?

SRB: The whole three points of view in a reasonably sized short story (oh reasonable sizes, ever my downfall) thing was a bit challenging. 😉 So was writing a futuristic dystopia, and having to make sure all the rules worked–I have a printed-out copy somewhere which has notes like ‘DEAD TREES? DEAD BIRDS? FUEL SOURCES? WHY SO DEAD’ written on the pages–we’ve all read books where the world falls apart like soggy tissue paper at a touch, and so though rule-making and world-building isn’t my strongest suit–is something I do in service of a story rather than as a joy in itself–I always make every effort to get it right.

Even more so was trying to mix up a futuristic dystopia and a callback to Queen Eleanor of Aquitane’s Court of Love, with shades of the king’s murdered mistress Fair Rosamond, the ideas of chivalry and celebration of womanhood and chaste love which hid a terrifying lack of power. Historitopia: make sure you get neither the past or the future wrong, at your peril!


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).

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