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INTERVIEW: Anne Charnock, Author of PKD Award-Nominated A CALCULATED LIFE

Anne Charnock’s first novel A Calculated Life (47North) is one of seven nominated works for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award. It’s also a 2013 Kitschie finalist. It was originally self-published. Anne’s journalism has appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune, and Geographical. She was educated at the University of East Anglia, where she studied environmental sciences, and at the Manchester School of Art. She travelled widely as a freelance foreign correspondent and spent a year overlanding through Egypt, Sudan and Kenya.

In her fine art practice, she tried to answer the questions, What is it to be human? What is it to be a machine?

Ultimately she decided to write fiction as another route to finding answers.

Anne and her husband met as students at UEA. They live in Chester and London where both their sons live. They are active in the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project and, as often as possible, they take to the road in their little campervan.

Kristin Centorcelli: You have a rich background in journalism but have you always wanted to write fiction?

Anne Charnock: No, it didn’t occur to me to write fiction for many years. Or at least, I thought it was beyond me to write anything longer than a 2000-word article. I knew from childhood I wanted adventures (I desperately wanted to be girl-Tin Tin) and journalism provided that opportunity, to travel overseas and visit remote places. I only hooked up with the creative side of writing when I digressed into studying fine art. I gained the confidence to ‘make things up’ and write at length.

KC: Will you tell us a little about how your new book (and Philip K. Dick Award nominee) A Calculated Life, came about?

AC: In my art practice I considered questions such as: What is it to be human? What is it to be a machine? Is there a sliding scale between the two? I met up with neuroscientist Prof Kevin Warwick to talk this over, studied Freud’s essay on The Uncanny and started reading dystopian literature. Having at last engaged the creative gear, I turned to fiction as another means of exploring the subject. A Calculated Life started out as a short story but I abandoned that – I needed a bigger canvas, more characters. But it took me over eight years to complete the novel because it was difficult to carve out the time. I failed to find a literary agent or publisher, so I self published. A few months later, David Pomerico at 47North offered me a contract and within weeks my novel was re-released!

KC: A Calculated Life takes place in the late 21st century. What are some of the biggest differences in society in the book?

AC: Addictive tendencies have been eradicated through genetic engineering. So, there’s no excessive drinking, gambling, drug taking. It’s a safer society. And people are augmenting their intelligence through implants – but only if they pass genetic screening at the age of eighteen. Society has become even more stratified than today – an intelligent, compliant professional class lives in the inner city, and non-implanted lower-grade workers live in subsidized enclaves. There are upsides and downsides for everyone in society.

KC: Will you tell us more about Jayna, and why you think readers will root for her?

AC: Jayna is a brilliant mathematical modeller hired by a corporation to analyze global trends. She’s far more intelligent than any of her colleagues and she often corrects their work on the quiet. But for all her brains she has an unquestioning, innocent outlook on life — until a string of events contradict her forecasts. She suspects she needs better intuition, needs to understand what it means to be ‘normal’. So she disrupts her strict daily routine in the hope of encountering the unexpected. Unwittingly she sets out on a dangerous path. I hope readers will root for her as she takes increasingly greater risks and breaks social conventions. You see, it slowly dawns on Jayna that she’s in a bad situation – I think most people can empathize with how that feels – and I think readers will want to know if she can forge a better life for herself.

KC: What is your writing process like, and what was one of the biggest challenges in writing the book?

AC: Only one word can describe my process when I was writing A Calculated Life: erratic. There were long spells lasting several months when I couldn’t return to the manuscript. Maybe this allowed me to look at my writing with fresh eyes. I edited as I went along so it took a long time to reach ‘The End’. And then the revising began! I suppose the biggest challenge came part way through the first draft when I tried to describe the enclaves. I couldn’t visualize them. After several weeks, months, I realized they’d be similar to many of the new housing areas I’d seen during my days as a journalist, in countries struggling to develop at that time. Once I had that image, I was off again! Today, however, my writing life is more structured. I write most days and if it’s a proper writing day I’m 9 to 5 with plenty of breaks for tea and coffee.

KC: What kind of research did you do for the novel?

AC: I love research. I drew on the research I’d carried out during my art studies but I added to this by reading Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem. The best research is the kind I do when I’m in the process of writing and I come across something that’s perfect to build into the evolving story. I love those eureka moments. A Calculated Life opens with Jayna tending her stick insects. I can tell you, I’ve trawled countless online forums on stick insects!

KC: What are a few authors, or novels, that have influenced you in your writing, and in life?

AC: Ooh, big question! I’m always drawn to dystopian science fiction and I’ve just written a guest post on that subject for SF Signal so please take a look. More generally, I love novels with well-crafted, fragmented storylines because they conjure the complexity and messiness of lived lives. So I’m talking about, for example, Jennifer Egan’s brilliant A Visit From the Goon Squad, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – all of which eventually take readers into a science fiction world. This year I adored Kate Atkinson’s time-jumping Life After Life and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for The Time Being. Short stories and short novels work so well for many SFF writers – Philip K Dick, J G Ballard, Angela Carter. And outside SF, I’m keen on the short fiction of Ha Jin, Annie Proulx… well I could go on and on…

KC: When you’re not working on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?

AC: It’s been all or nothing for me in recent years. So I’m either working without much of a break or I take off with my husband in our VW camper. These can be long breaks. We drove from the UK through Europe to Morocco, over the Atlas and High Atlas Mountains, reaching the desert border with Algeria. I kept a photographic blog for that trip. And I plan to do the same in March when we visit China (not in the camper!) So it’s work, with some socializing,or adventures!

KC: I have to ask…how did you celebrate when you found out about your PKD nomination?

AC: You mean…after I’d picked myself up off the floor, and sent many hurried, atrociously spelled emails and texts to friends and family? The big news coincided with the annual party for our local book group – I’ve been a member from the beginning, for 10 years plus. So I ordered in the champagne (real champagne!) and we had a wild and noisy night. It was great to celebrate with a bunch of women who I know so well, and who read and discussed my novel when it was still self-published. At the end of the party, my husband arrived from a foreign trip with more champagne! And then I hardly slept for a week with all the excitement.

KC: What’s next for you in 2014?

AC: Recovering from the excitement. A trip to China and Norwescon 37 – I’d registered long before my book was submitted for the PKD.

I’m working on a set of themed short stories, which I’m excited about right now. And I’m developing ideas for the next novel and although I’m circling around the decision, I’m on the verge of saying to myself: “Right, the novel is going to be precisely this.” And then I’ll write it, hopefully quicker than the first one.

About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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