We love this novel’s premise – two women separated by 8000 years, united in the fight to protect their families – so we invited Rym onto the blog to tell us all about Dark River!
Dark River is your debut novel. Was it also the first full length fiction you wrote, and if so, how did you find yourself embarking on a journey to tell this particular story?
I was working on a full length fiction manuscript when the ideas for Dark River started to tug at my imagination and I abandoned that other project to follow these tendrils of daydreams about forests and floods and the drowned prehistoric world at the bottom of the North Sea we now call Doggerland. I was reading about flood myths that maybe originated at the end of the last ice age when the sea levels rose, thinking about how we respond to crises in our lives, and of course, watching the daily news about climate chaos around the world.
I’m quite a plotter, so I had a lot of the story in my head before I began writing and when I started to gather pace on it I found that something about the characters and the structure of the story seemed to work and captured me much more than the first project, so I kept going. Although I would like to return to those ideas one day and see what my brain’s been doing with them while I was looking the other way! I’m sure lots of people say that. I’d love to see inside a kind of nursery or warehouse where writers and artists keep the ideas that aren’t quite finished cooking yet.
The two story strands in Dark River are set 8,000 years apart. How did you go about researching and bringing to life both Shaye’s Doggerland of 6200 BC and Shante’s London of 2156?
To write the story set in Doggerland I made a decision quite early on that I would do lots of reading around the topic, seek out interesting things about what archaeologists think life was like in the prehistoric era and then try not to cling too closely to what I had found so I could go my own way. The most research I did was on plants and animals and still I’m sure I got some details wrong. I wrote a scene with my characters eating chestnuts, only to find that sweet chestnut trees only came to this part of Europe in the seventeenth century! The landscape and the natural world has changed so much that it’s almost impossible for a modern person to imagine the abundance and the sensory experience of living in primeval forest.
Creating Shante’s London was similar in some ways because I was again researching possibilities. After a lot of deliberation, I decided that the world I would make for her wouldn’t be a scary dystopia, it’d be my imagining of a place where resources are limited, life is hard and the situation isn’t looking like it’ll get better anytime soon. The nation states of the nineteenth and twentieth century have mainly split up into politically independent but cooperative city states and the land in between has mainly been left to nature or reclaimed by the sea.
I have no idea how the next year will turn out, let alone the next hundred, but it felt appropriate to write into that not-knowing in both strands of the book.
Both lead characters in Dark River are mothers trying to protect their children in the face of ecological disaster. Did the subject matter ever become too close to home, or was there something hopeful in focusing on the shared humanity and experiences of two women from very different worlds?
I gave birth to my first baby in January 2020 but I had no idea that was going to happen as I was writing this novel! Re-reading the book for copy edits early on in my pregnancy made me realise what an optimistic act it is at any time in history to create a being and love it fiercely, or to join a family of any kind and tie yourself into those complicated bonds when you have no idea what will happen to any of you. There’s a popular idea of disasters being times when humans descend to their worst and it’s each person for themselves but the evidence doesn’t really show that; time and time again when things are awful, people look after their families and their communities and they find solace in doing so, no matter how hard it is.
I think there is an optimism that transcends time and space in my main characters’ love for their children and their families and their communities, and I don’t think that’s unrealistic because what Shaye and Shante endure in this novel is not so different to what millions of people in the world have to face right now. I hope in this novel I’ve tapped into the way that speculative fiction of all kinds uses the preoccupations and anxieties of our own world and looks at them through a ‘what if’ lens so we can see and understand ourselves and our societies all the better for it.
What common tropes and stereotypes of women would you like to see retired from genre fiction?
I’m a dedicated listener of the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast, so there are lots of tropes and stereotypes you and your guests have effectively dismantled! But I think one thing I would like to see a lot less of is the idea that pursuits traditionally coded as female – textile work, cooking or healing, to name a few – aren’t exciting or worthwhile things for our dynamic heroine to be doing. I love that we don’t bat an eyelid any more when we read about hardbitten female spies, assassins or monomaniacal rulers but we don’t have a lot of heroes (or non-binary main characters) discovering their talent for thread magic, or saving their civilisation from starvation in an alien siege by synthesising a new carbohydrate in their kitchen. I think a reclamation of these skills as potentially powerful and dangerous – for both heroes and heroines – is overdue and their relegation to a symbol of drudgery and chaining to the boring, adventure-less arena of hearth and home could be rethought.
Pitch us Dark River! Why should we be reading it?
Dark River is about motherhood, love and the wild power of the earth. It moves through deep time to show two women living 8000 years apart who have to make heartbreaking decisions and find a way to live in a world that is changing too quickly for their families to stay whole.
Rym Kechacha is a writer and teacher from London. Her debut novel Dark River is released by Unsung Stories in February 2020. She currently lives in Norwich with her husband, too many books and a tiny baby. You can find her on Twitter @RymKechacha or right here.