Anne Charnock’s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick and Kitschies Golden Tentacle Awards. Her writing career began in journalism and her articles appeared in the Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune, and Geographical. She travelled widely as a foreign correspondent and spent a year overlanding through Egypt, Sudan, and Kenya.
Although Anne’s education initially focused on science–she studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia–she later attended the Manchester School of Art, where she gained a master’s degree in fine art. At the end of her art studies, she began exhibiting her work internationally, and on the quiet, she started writing fiction.
I admit it. I’m a natural risk taker, though I’ve never been tempted by heli-skiing, free climbing or any other extreme sport. I’m talking about a different kind of risk taking. I’m a stay-at-home writer who taps away in a cosy lair, inventing daredevil strategies for writing projects. My new novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, is a case in point.
Readers of my first novel, A Calculated Life, were probably expecting me to stay comfortably within the category of science fiction for my second novel. Science fiction offers a huge canvas, one that’s proven irresistible to many mainstream writers. But for my latest novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I wanted to crash through the centuries. The story spans over 600 years—from the Renaissance to the twenty-second century. It’s an equal mix of speculative, contemporary, and historical fiction.
It’s the story of a woman and two girls with different expectations of life, living in very different family structures, affected by particular societal pressures. The science fiction element within Toniah’s world in 2113 offers a lens through which the reader can reflect on the lives of Toni in 2015 and Antonia in 1469. Toniah, an academic, lives in an all-female household and as the story evolves the reader learns how new technologies are allowing men and women to create families in new ways.
I’ve mulled over the ideas for this novel for a number of years. This doesn’t imply prevarication on my part. Far from it. I knew I would start this novel one day, but instinct told me that part of the story should be set in China. At the beginning of 2014, I spent a month in Shanghai and the so-called Venice of the East, Suzhou. I started writing Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind the day after I returned home.
So I’ve mixed the genres and I’ve also moved away from linear narrative, a structure that worked for A Calculated Life. The three storylines in the new novel run in parallel, with the book’s opening chapter set in London in 2113, progressing to present-day China in the next chapter, and Renaissance Florence in the next. This cycle repeats through the novel. It was immense fun to write, a challenge to control, and I was sad to finish the manuscript. It did occur to me from time to time that this novel might not find an audience. But it was the book I wanted to write—one with recurring themes touching on feminism, the art world, the nature of success, and the different forms that a family can take.
I’ve always been a fan of fragmented novels. Some of my favourites are Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham, A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan, and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell—three novels that contain some speculative or fantastical element of storytelling. I enjoy recognising the thematic links, and spotting the recurring motifs, which transform the many fragments into a satisfying whole. It’s a similar form of puzzle-solving to the experience of reading a thrilling murder mystery when we’re eagle-eyed for clues, suspicious of any seemingly throwaway remark.
My next daredevil writing project—Dreams Before the Start of Time—is a novel that’s more fragmented than Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Believe me, I’m filled with the same nervous apprehension as anyone readying for a first parachute jump.
It’s the thrill of experimentation, as much as the characters and storyline, that keeps me in the lair.