It feels like forever ago that we made an episode on ageism. And, well, it kind of was… (*looks back at all of our episodes and freaks out that we’ve been doing this for six years*) Back in 2017, when we were still new to the podcasting game, we decided to tackle the subject of ageism in Maid, Mother, and Crone: Ageism in Genre Fiction.

When I came across Moths, the new novel from Angry Robot (published March 13!), I was immediately drawn to the idea of a protagonist of a dystopian story being in their 70s. Finally!

So, of course, I wanted to get author Jane Hennigan on the blog to tell you all about it!

It is unusual to have a narrative pov character in their 70s, especially in an action-packed dystopian novel. Why did you want to explore this perspective? What did this add to the typical dystopian story? Were there any unexpected challenges in using this perspective?

I’m 48, and when writing Moths, I wanted to offer a different representation of an older woman protagonist. In literature, genre fiction in particular, women over 45 can fall into one of two camps – wise and motherly or evil crone – both almost certainly nudged into a supporting role. At best, she can be a powerful antagonist, an ageing queen jealous of Snow White’s burgeoning beauty, for example. Often, we’re just absent.

I wanted Mary to be old enough to have a different view of men from the women she now works with in the facility, women who have been raised in a society run by women – I specifically characterised those men as meek, lacking confidence, undereducated so that Mary’s view of men and her younger co-workers differed. Mary feels as if the world has moved on. She senses her own awkwardness and her old-fashionedness but still knows that her perspective is an important one.

I really enjoyed having Mary navigate the action plot with the additional impediments of an older character – bad knees, tiredness, and the inability to sprint very far. There’s a scene where she’s hiding in a wardrobe clutching a knife, unsure whether her legs will still work if she’s discovered. As a writer, it is your job to make things as difficult as possible for your characters, and having an older protagonist made this job easier.

Your book features a matriarchal society that does not manage things well. Why did you feel it was important – and still feminist – to show women getting it wrong?

Good question. As a feminist, I believe women are oppressed – I do not believe they are all intrinsically good. The problem is nobody actually knows what a western society completely devoid of men would look like. The future society in Moths still retains a residue of the patriarchy. The male gaze has gone, but the women like Mary, who grew up in a world permeated by inequality – not just against women, but biased regarding class, race, culture, gender – must raise the next generation and so on. Their biases will be passed down – diluted perhaps, but still implicit in language, in unexamined attitudes.

However, it was my job to choose what to retain in the new world of women (gender inequality, narcissism, gossip), what to abandon (petty crime, widespread financial individualism, emphasis on beauty, religion), and what to add (many more women in STEM, small scale devolved socialism, homonormative attitudes, pro-environmental policy).

It’s also worth mentioning – only four decades earlier, the society was close to failing completely. No matter how organised, intelligent, strong and capable women are – losing over 50% of a country’s population (many women die in the infestation – murdered by those closest to them) would prove difficult to come back from. Add to this a complete lack of imports as the rest of the world faired much worse, and you can see that, as unfair as the future society is, it is still a testament to the strength of those who survived, that any society exists at all.

How does being in a post/mid/pandemic world change the experience of writing and reading pandemic-inspired dystopias? 

I began writing Moths in the summer of 2019 and finished the first rough draft in February 2020. Then I buried it for months as the horror of a real pandemic unfurled before my very eyes. The fantasy of an apocalyptic event and the reality of one are, of course, very different, and it felt ghoulish to be working on the fantasy whilst surrounded by the reality. As things normalised, I went back to the original manuscript and rewrote parts of the flashback sections, mentioning Covid as something the characters had experienced and incorporating how the UK government dealt with the initial reports of a danger to the population.

When it came to pitching my novel to agents in the spring of 2021, some agency websites had NO SUBMISSIONS FEATURING A PANDEMIC written in bold on the home page. So, I didn’t hold out much hope at the time of getting picked up.

Many aspiring writers consider the approach of self-publishing first, then finding a traditional publisher. What was this route like for you? Is there any advice you would give to new writers looking to self-publish?

I really enjoyed self-publishing. I liked the hustle, and the independence – many self-pubbed writers are making good money from their writing. If you’ve tried to go the traditional route without success, I recommend self-publishing unreservedly. My advice would be to look online for self-publishing communities – the good people on 20booksto50k on Facebook will answer your questions and offer support. One downside of self-publishing is you can get a bit obsessed, checking rankings every five minutes and crying over bad reviews – sometimes your loved ones have to stage an intervention and take you somewhere with no internet for the weekend.

Despite how much I enjoyed self-publishing, finding an agent and then having the backing of a traditional publisher, especially one like Angry Robot, is an absolute dream. The support I’ve been given, the publicity, the opportunities, not to mention access to bookstores for Moths – it’s all invaluable. I couldn’t have done it as a self-published author.

Why should we read Moths and the sequel Toxxic? Pitch us your books!

Moths is a chilling dystopian thriller similar to The Power, The Handmaid’s Tale and the recent TV show The Last of Us.

Forty-four years after the earth’s male population has been decimated by an air-born toxin, one which either kills men outright or renders them insane, the story is told by Mary, a carer in a sterile facility that shields those born into this world from exposure. Mary has flashbacks to when the world collapsed. Looking back on how things have changed, she finds solace in helping the young men in her care accept their limited situation.

But Mary has a secret about those dark days of the infestation – so when she is offered a way to help save the men in her care, she will have to confront not only powerful enemies but her own troubled past.

Toxxic builds on the world created in Moths, exploring the idea of men re-engaging with society after so many years. As the title suggests, the novel examines notions of masculine and feminine toxicity.

Both books will appeal to you if you enjoy fast-paced dystopian stories that raise interesting questions about society.

Jane Hennigan (Author Photo)

Jane Hennigan was born and raised in Aldershot in Hampshire. After a decade working in e-commerce, she gained a degree in English Literature and Philosophy from Royal Holloway, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey. She spent seven years teaching English literature undergraduates, before moving to the seaside to concentrate on writing.