Author Jenny Davidson is an internet friend of mine - we have emailed back and forth on books on several occasions and our exchanges have brought us to the kind of friend level that when Jenny was recently in Antarctica she took a photograph of penguin feathers for my son. (He collects feathers and as she could not bring anything out physically of the continent, she did the next best thing which we thought was awesome.)
Jenny's recent YA alt history novel, The Explosionist, was one of the most unusual books I read last year.
Set in a world that saw Napoleon win at Waterloo, it combines political intrigue, terrorism, spiritualism and horrifying social experiments along with some wonderful boarding school moments and the beginnings of lovely romance (combined with adventure and mystery of course). As most readers of Chasing Ray know, if I did not like Jenny's book I would not have read the whole thing - and I certainly would not have recommended it as strongly as I did last summer in my column. But The Explosionist had so many elements that I enjoy (most especially the history and some awesome steampunkish technology) that I keep thinking about it again and again. This is a very uncommon book for teenagers - and with a female protagonist in Sophie it is aimed squarely at teenage girls who might be longing for adventure and technology (but not fairies and vamps). Jenny has just completed the sequel and hopes to write a third book rounding out Sophie's story. We exchanged some emails (while she was leaving to run a triathalon in FL) about her research and how the first two books came together. As always I remain deeply impressed by the work that Jenny puts into her writing and how dedicated she is to keeping her alt history as historically accurate as possible.
CM: I wanted to focus on the research for this go-round, just to see how your ideas come together and where you go to learn more about them. So, first off there is a great deal of spirituality in The Explosionist. What did you read to learn about the seance that sets a lot of Sophie's adventure in motion and about her experiences talking to the dead? And also was there any historic basis for using photography to attempt to capture messages from the spirit world?
JD: The spiritualism material is one of the things in the book that's most clearly drawn from historical reality. There was an interesting exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago about spirit photography â€“ most of it was deliberate fakery (part of mediums' elaborate â€˜publicity packages,' so to speak), but a new technology like photography seemed to promise to serious investigators at least the chance of some kind of glimpse into a spirit world. I saw the scholar Marina Warner give a very good talk about this some years ago (I think the material later became part of her book Phantasmagoria) â€“ that was where I first saw pictures of the lengths of cheesecloth that were used to simulate so-called ectoplasm, often stuffed into the female mediums' vaginal cavities (which led to those very humiliating scenes of full-body search like the one I describe in the book) and then retrieved once the lights had been dimmed to evoke a spirit presence. Of course, trickery aside, if the inadvertent exposure of a photographic plate could show you the invisible world of X-rays and other particles beyond human comprehension, might it not capture images of ghosts as well? If you were the kind of person who was curious and interested to learn new things about the world, this might well have seemed to you a highly persuasive idea circa 1900.
CM: More than an exploration of historic spiritualism though, The Explosionist has a lot of aspects of modern day political thrillers. Once you had the twist that Napoleon won at Waterloo (and the Hanseatic League found its second life as you detail in the author's note at the end) what did you put together next? The scientific advances? The suicide bombings? The conflict over Scotland's future? There are so many directions this book could have taken from your basic alternate world idea - what prompted you to go in the directions you did?
JD: Well, I guess that I am torn when I write between two different tendencies. On the one hand, I love research â€“ I suck up books and facts and that process is a big part of what stimulates my imagination. I always have huge piles of notes and xeroxes about real things in real history â€“ my imagination builds things on the chassis of reality. On the other hand, once Iâ€™m actually drafting pages, I prefer to proceed in a fairly strongly intuitive (and more than slightly chaotic!) manner rather than really planning or organizing in advance. I was reading a lot of books about science, so yes, my changes in the political history are often driven by a sense of what would happen if a certain set of scientific or technological developments (the invention of dynamite, the prominence of Alfred Nobel as a munitions manufacturer) loomed even larger in another world than in our own. Then I draw some striking details from random places â€“ the suicide machines that Mikael is so horrified by in The Explosionist, for instance, were a notional invention of Alfred Nobelâ€™s depressive father, who also fantasized about the possibility that seals could be trained to mine ships with explosive devices. But as I began to write, I really didnâ€™t have a lot of fixed points to work with. I had a fairly strong sense of the sequence of events leading up to the mediumâ€™s murder, but after that, it was pretty much all a blank, except for two things: Sophieâ€™s discovery of the zombiefied girls at IRYLNS and the showdown at the dynamite factory. So I had to just write it out and figure out what happened as I went along.
CM: Clearly you did a lot of research on Nobel to get to his dad's work. Did the notion of a dynamite factory just naturally lead to Nobel; in other words was he always going to be one of the key figures in the book from the onset or did he just become a bigger part of it the more you researched? (Sort of a writer's chicken and egg questions I guess.)
JD: I honestly can't remember now! I think I would have to look at my notes - but I guess I had Nobel first and the dynamite factory later, and that the cluster of Nobel biographies was one of the first things that I had. I find biography a particularly evocative genre - a well-written biography offers a whole slice of social and cultural history as well...
CM: Where did you come up with the description of the cars (detailed so well in chap 12)? This is some great world building here - it really gives readers a good look at some of the more mundane ways in which this world and our own are different. It's also technical in a way that is not common for a book with a female protagonist. Is this something that interested you personally and so you wanted to include it or did something else spark its inclusion?
JD: It interested me personally! Ironically I do not even having a driving license myself, though that may have been part of why I was interested in describing Sophieâ€™s trepidation at learning to drive. I would describe myself as a non-mechanical (female) person from a family of (male) people with strong mechanical interests. I do slightly feel that I let down the female sex in this case by not actually learning about how to fix cars, use power tools, etc., which I easily could have done; but from a pretty young age, though I found myself with an abstract interest in those things, my love was more for the technical vocabulary associated with that sort of expert knowledge than for real mechanical tinkering â€“ I just donâ€™t have the impulse to take things apart and put them back together. But I enjoyed reading about the history of automobile manufacture and energy supply etc. â€“ there are few things I like more than a good book about, say, the history of the bicycle, or of the electric telegraph, or what have you. (And my father, who is Scottish and has an engineering degree and is altogether a mine of information about the kind of things I write about in The Explosionist, read the manuscript and â€œfact-checkedâ€ it for me, including explaining why a car powered in the way I described would not need a clutch!)
CM: IRYLNS pretty much scared the crap out of me. Were there some real psychological experiments or reports that you referenced in developing that whole idea? In some ways it seemed like a 1950s social experiment gone hideously awry - teaching women to support great men at a total cost to themselves which in The Explosionist world is a far greater cost than anyone can imagine. Was there a period aesthetic you were reaching for here, or more of the Gothic horror notion (like Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper but way way worse!)?
JD: I honestly donâ€™t know where that stuff came from â€“ lots of places, I guess. You yourself asked me before about the Star Trek New Generation episode where Deanna Troi ends up as the repository for the negative emotions of a genius diplomat who just dumps all his bad stuff into her, with dramatically awful results â€“ I know that was one of the things at the back of my head! But I also read a lot a long time ago (my first year of college, maybe?) about the use of electroshock therapy in the 1950s â€“ I guess I was interested in Sylvia Plath, and madness and women and creativity, and I was very struck by a detail one of the books I read mentioned, about the fact that memory loss was actually just an unfortunate side effect of the version of electroshock therapy that was used at that time, but the doctors and their female patients had such poor communication that many of the patients afterwards thought that their memory loss was actually the treatment itself â€“ that they were being purposefully brainwashed to forget the depression and tedium of their suburban middle-class 1950s-style housewifedom.
CM: Now that you have added Sylvia Plath and the whole 1950s aesthetic to IRYLNS, it becomes an even more compelling idea. I especially was intrigued by how in the book women were so involved in the corruption of young girls. The easy way out would have been to make it a big patriarchy deal (so Sophie would have lived with a great uncle for example). Did you have a conscious design in placing a woman in charge of the program - and having women so complicit in the destruction of the "best and brightest" for the sake of so-called great men?
JD: No, it just seemed to make sense - and I guess I was thinking, too, of one of my favorite novels, set in a milieu fairly similar to The Explosionist: Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Great-aunt Tabitha, in my novel, is certainly nothing like Miss Jean Brodie; but I suppose I do have a sense that you often see women in a position to destroy each other.
CM: Jo Walton tackled the idea of combining fantasy and SF in her review of your book at Tor.com. Here's a bit: â€œThis isnâ€™t to say you canâ€™t take it seriously in fiction, and even have it work just as the gullible people in our world believed it did. Itâ€™s just that if you do, youâ€™ve moved from science fiction to fantasy. A world in which you can fairly reliably talk to dead people with crystal radios, where licensed spirit photographers can produce evidence admissible in court, and where mediums are not fakes would be a world far more different than one where Napoleon won. Davidson has thought through the consequences of her science fictional changes remarkably well, but of her fantasy ones far less so. Itâ€™s unlikely that a world with that kind of relationship with the dead would have been sufficiently like ours through any of its history to ever have got to Waterloo in the first place. . . .â€
Is including spiritualism really a move from science fiction (as an alt history) to fantasy? And how can anyone know that one could not be present in a world where Napoleon won. It's a made-up world after all so it seems like all bets are off as to what would develop there. Honestly I kept thinking of how many very intelligent people tried to prove the spiritualist movement of the late 19th century as true - how desperately they needed it to be true at the same time that we were leaping forward into the Industrial Revolution. We are both big fans of Walton's so I take her criticism seriously but I wonder if she just has that certain type of mind that rejects spiritualism to a certain
degree. I come from a family that still casually prays to the saints so I took this aspect of your story as a grain of salt - it made perfect sense to me. What do you think of blending SF and Fantasy and is spiritualism really strictly fantasy in the same way that say elves and unicorns (for example) are?
JD: Yes, I literally had never thought of it in the way Walton describes. Curiously, I am more strongly drawn to and widely read in fantasy than to science fiction â€“ but itâ€™s her phrase â€œgullible peopleâ€ that clues me in to where she and I differ. I am interested in the kind of history and the kind of historical fiction where you really try and think yourself into the time and place and the personâ€™s head â€“ and as your question suggests, it was not just some small subset of the very naive, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the opening ones of the twentieth, who believed (or at least strove to believe) in the existence of a spirit world. Arthur Conan Doyle might be the best-known exemplar, but you might think also of people like the philosopher Henry Sidgwick â€“ there was an intellectual elite interested in investigating these matters, and finding a belief in spiritualism thoroughly compatible with the other things they knew and believed about the world they lived in, and really in many respects not so much different from ourselves in what they understood about the world. So it seems to me that Walton has it much too black-and-white in this case â€“ the world of The Explosionist is alternate to the world we live in, and yet it is rationally consistent with our own world â€“ there are people in Sophieâ€™s world, too, who do not really believe in the possibility of communicating with the dead, for instance, and her own ability to believe thatâ€™s what happening to her is partly conditioned by the peculiar facts of her upbringing in a spiritualist home. The relationship between rationalism and a belief in the existence of some kind of religious or spiritual truth seems to me one of the great underexamined topics of the modern world in any case...
CM: And now to The Snow Queen - I know from your blog youâ€™ve done lots of reading on Laplanders and also Nils Bohr. Can you tell me anything about specific subjects you have researched and surprises you have found along the way?
JD: I can give you a sneak peek into the research I am doing for the revision (Iâ€™ve got a draft, but I need to do a really thorough rewrite to complete the book to my own and the editorâ€™s satisfaction â€“ thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll be working on for the next two months, with a due date of August 1 that I am hoping to beat by a couple weeks) by naming the two books I brought with me to read on vacation for novel-related purposes: Carl Zimmerâ€™s Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Natureâ€™s Most Dangerous Creatures and Dominic Streatfeildâ€™s Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control.
CM: I can't believe you dropped Carl Zimmerâ€™s Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Natureâ€™s Most Dangerous Creatures onto me like that! Now I've got the whole Wrath of Kahn/ parasite in the ear thing in my head. I can't wait to read it!When is the book due out and any thoughts on the third title (you hinted at a trilogy in the past).
JD: The Snow Queen is scheduled for fall 2010. The third title is a bit of a conundrum for now â€“ the project was indeed conceived as a trilogy, and Sophieâ€™s story does not reach resolution in The Snow Queen, but the fact of the matter is that my contract from HarperCollins is for two books rather than three! I know a lot of what happens in the third volume (tentatively titled Dangerous Trades), including the big resolution to the main story arc about what happened to Sophieâ€™s parents and why Alfred Nobel takes such an interest in her, but before I know that I am going to write it I need to know that someoneâ€™s going to give me a certain number of dollars for it! If I am not able to get a suitable contract, Iâ€™ll probably just write up some kind of plot synopsis and make it available to readers who want to know what happened â€“ this falls under the category of indiscreet things I am probably not supposed to say on the internet, but it is the truth of the matter...
CM: Back to The Explosionist - you told me it is not going to be issued in pb. How will that affect The Snow Queen? Was the decision based solely on sales and what are your concerns about that decision? The Explosionist is a very unusual book - especially for teen readers. Did you run up against some pushback over the science/tech/political aspects of the story? Do you think the book was marketed the best way for the type of story you wrote? (I think you should have gotten interviewed in Wired magazine or something...seems like the Geek Dads would love this one!)
JD: Well, it is not perhaps the ideal approach, but I consider that as a writer my main job is to write the books rather than to figure out how the book should be marketed and put the plan into practice! I didnâ€™t run up against any pushback â€“ I just think these are hard times in publishing right now. There are currently no plans for a paperback edition of The Explosionist, which of course I think is a great pity â€“ I think itâ€™s too much to expect readers to buy a hardcover from a little-known author, though I do think that YA hardcovers are priced more reasonably than adult ones and I hope the book might continue to pick up some sales by word of mouth. I guess it is possible that there will be a PB edition in the end â€“ I would certainly imagine that The Snow Queen would have a better chance in the marketplace if it were accompanied by a paperback Explosionist. As a reader, I am almost oblivious to genre distinctions â€“ I read indiscriminately across categories that include literary fiction, crime, fantasy, science fiction, young-adult and so forth. I do think that the book has reached many of the readers I would have dreamed of, though, so in that sense the publisher must have gotten the word out pretty effectively â€“ Jo Walton writing about it for Tor.com, for instance, was great, and I was absolutely delighted to see it on the end-of-year recommended list of Tamora Pierce, whose books I love! So you might have to check back in with me in another year or two to hear about the next chapter in the publication story â€“ it is a great unacknowledged truth of writing books that the total start-to-finish time (from when you first think of the book to when it actually appears in the world) is HORRENDOUSLY LONGER AND MORE COMPLICATED AND MORE FRAUGHT than one would have thought imaginable as a optimistic young person...
Find out more about Jenny at her blog, which is just as delightful as this wonderful interview!
[Post pic at top of Alfred Nobel; spirit photography from the Met; Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes; Arthur Conan Doyle and Nils Bohr.]