We’re delighted to be joined this week by Vicki Jarrett, author of the eerie and imaginative Always North, out now from Unsung Stories, which has just won its second consecutive British Fantasy Award for Best Independent Press! Read on for a fascinating mini-interview that touches on climate change, human memory and a time travelling polar bear…
Unless we’re mistaken, Always North is your first foray into novel-length speculative fiction, although there are elements of the bizarre, the coincidental and the strange in your previous work. What draws you to the outlandish, especially when juxtaposed with the more mundane aspects of life?
That’s a really interesting question. I’ve always been drawn to that juxtaposition but never really considered why. I mean, isn’t everyone? For me, I think there are several elements at play here. Firstly there’s a, possibly childish, wish to believe that there’s something more to the world than meets the eye, some other reality we could inhabit beyond what we’re told is real. On the more adult flip side of that impulse is the thought that what we find ‘outlandish’ now is only what’s just past the boundaries of our current understanding. There’s so much we nowadays accept as perfectly rational that would’ve seemed crazy to previous generations. I’m also fascinated by the tension between intellect and emotion in human consciousness, in how we use them to try to understand the world and ourselves. After all, new discoveries can only be made by trusting a feeling to dictate the point at which to jump the barriers of current knowledge. Bringing together the mundane and the weird is my way of tracing the edges between what I think I know and what I ‘only’ feel, of trying to figure out how things fit together. I’m becoming increasingly sure this is not actually possible, but that’s no reason to stop trying.
Climate change is obviously a major theme in Always North. Was the process of addressing the very real possibilities of climate change cathartic or frightening (or both)?
Strangely enough, I didn’t set out on this novel with the conscious intention of writing about climate change. Initially I was interested in time and memory and with how humans are connected to the natural world, the landscape, and other animals. Given these concerns, as the writing started to take shape, it’s hardly surprising that climate change made itself unavoidable, much like our current reality. There’s no getting around it. I did a fair amount of research into how exactly the world will be affected by rising sea levels and that certainly was frightening. There is so much we take for granted, we’ve cocooned ourselves in modern civilisation but it’s a terribly fragile thing, an illusion really, that could all unravel alarmingly fast. I don’t believe catharsis is possible yet with something as huge and unresolved as climate change. We’ve a long way to go before we can hope for that. However, it did feel worthwhile to be putting something out there that could be even a tiny, odd, tangential part of the conversation we need to have about our relationship with the environment.
The level of research in Always North (especially details of seafaring in the Arctic and seismic measuring systems) is impressive. Can you tell us a little about your research process?
Ah now I could lie here and take credit for all that research but I’ll fess up. Some years back, I worked as a technical author for a company that made software for the marine seismic exploration sector. I wrote the manuals and online help systems. I really hated that job, but it meant that when I found myself using a seismic survey vessel as a setting for a novel, I didn’t need to do a lot of research on the technological detail since I literally already wrote the book on it. Cheating? Yeah, kind of I guess. I’ve done a lot of different day jobs over the years and many of them end up getting recycled into fiction in some form or other. Everything’s raw material. I did read a lot of books (everything from natural history to poetry) about the Arctic as there was no way I could afford a research trip to physically go there. I also watched lots of films and documentaries, anything I could get my hands on to immerse my imagination in that environment. I managed to find online a soundtrack of 10 hours of ambient noise from an ice-breaker in the arctic, all cracking ice and howling wind, so I’d sometimes play that in the background as I wrote.
What common tropes and stereotypes of women would you like to see retired from genre fiction? Did you set out to turn any negative tropes on their heads?
I’d like to see the self-consciously ‘feisty’ female lead retired. Perhaps it’s a process we had to go through to get from wilting princesses to real women, but I think we’re done with it now. Specifically drawing assertive women as unusual in some regard, deviant, thereby implies the ‘norm’ is submissiveness. I didn’t set out to do anything with tropes. That’s not how I write, I mostly just follow wherever the ideas and characters lead me. That said I did want Isobel to be real and not especially good or moral. She’s flawed, emotionally damaged, morally compromised by the society she lives in. She can be cruel, lazy, selfish, and reckless as well as display more positive traits. She’s not a hero or an anti-hero, she’s stuck somewhere between the two, at odds with herself as much as the world around her. I wanted it to be impossible to put her in a box or have her represent any kind of trope, negative or positive. So, in a way I guess I wanted to turn them all on their heads, although I never thought of it consciously that way at the time. This is probably because I didn’t think I was writing genre fiction as such. This might sound disingenuous, but I write what I need to write, I don’t think about whether it’s literary or genre or what specific variety. That’s for readers to decide, if they want to, or not if they don’t. As a reader, I like unruly books that don’t behave as expected, and that’s probably reflected in the way I write.
Pitch us Always North! Why should we be reading it?
Argh! I’m better at writing books than promoting them, but all right, here goes… Always North is about complicity, accountability and our messed-up environment, about what constitutes mind and memory, and how wrong we might be about the way time works. It also has some sex, violence, and dark humour, to keep things jogging along. Oh, and a bear, a time-travelling polar bear. It’s been called ‘psychological sci-fi’ but honestly I have no idea what it is. If you like books that don’t fit neatly into genre categories, that will surprise you and keep you guessing even after you’ve finished it, then Always North is for you.
Vicki Jarrett is a novelist and short story writer from Edinburgh. Her first novel Nothing is Heavy was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year 2013. Her collection of short stories, The Way Out, published in 2015 and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and shortlisted for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.