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Author interview with Stephanie Saulter

Author interview with Stephanie Saulter

Gemsigns had escaped my attention but luckily Jo Flecther kindly provided me with a review copy and well Gemsigns proved to be quite a read and something that I hadn't thought of turning out that way. Its a story set in the future where Earth is divided between the norms and the gems. Even though the story had a heavy science fiction influence, Stephanie Saulter goes into a for me unexplored territory, lying a heavy focus on the moral of several idea's that she tackles and how society manages to cope with these problems. Creating an engaging and thought provoking book, one of a kind! If you haven' t picked your copy up I would advice to do so asap.

Read my full review here

Author Bio: 
Stephanie Saulter has been a real estate developer, restaurant manager, corporate executive, public policy wonk, management consultant and founder of the Scriptopus interactive website for writing short fiction. She doesn’t have a poor attention span; on the contrary she finds lots of things interesting, and figures you learn more by doing. Few of her jobs would appear to have any relationship to her combined degree in literature and anthropology from MIT, but she would disagree. She’s finally settled down to writing more-or-less full time, which lets her continue to explore lots of different lives without actually having to leave the house. Born in the Caribbean, she now lives in Devon. 


Hi Stephanie, welcome to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions.

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction about yourself. What are your hobbies, likes and dislikes? 
SS: I’m female, forties, Jamaican by birth though I’ve lived in England for a decade now and was in America for even longer before I came here. I’ve just moved back to London after living in the Devonshire countryside for nearly three years – that’s where I found the time and space to become a serious writer. I don’t really have time for hobbies as such, but I fit in as much cultural and intellectual nourishment as I can – museums, galleries, lectures, the theatre, and of course books, although the irony of being a writer is that I now have less time to read! I love to learn. I hate to be bored. Unlike politicians and the tabloid press, I think a willingness to change your mind in the face of better evidence is a virtue, not a fault.

BP: Gemsigns is your debut book, when did you decide that you wanted to start writing and how did you tackle the daunting task to write your debut? 
SS: Well, it wasn’t daunting in that sense when I tackled it, because I didn’t know it was going to be my debut novel – I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms. It was just a story that I needed to tell. I had no idea at that point whether anyone but me would be interested in the result, much less want to publish it. My anxieties were entirely around whether I could do justice to the story in my head, whether I could make the characters and the situation as alive and dynamic to a reader as they already were to me. I did quite a lot of thinking and planning around the technical challenges of that – how to tell a character’s story in a way that would be emotive and not just descriptive, how to reveal their world to the reader so that they would not just know facts about it, but feel what it would be like to live in it. And I suppose that ties back to the first part of your question – I’ve known I had stories to tell for a long time, but it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve felt really skilled enough at the craft of writing to take them out of my head and put them down on the page.

BP: Have you gained valuable experience from writing Gemsigns that you will be using in your future books? 
SS: Absolutely. Having said that, the first thing I discovered when I started work on the sequel, Binary, is that every book really is different, and throws up different challenges. Getting the rhythm of the prose right in Binary, and ensuring each character has a distinctive voice, was easier than in Gemsigns, no doubt because of what I had learned from writing Gemsigns. But constructing the plot, ensuring that all the elements remained plausible and that the right things were revealed at the right time, was harder in Binary – partly because I hadn’t had six years of thinking about what the story was, but also because Binary has two parallel narratives; one that picks up around three years after the events of Gemsigns and one that takes place around twenty years earlier. And that was a big challenge, making sure that the historical narrative unfolds at just the right pace so that it and the contemporary narrative reflect and reveal each other in just the right way. Nothing in Gemsigns had prepared me for that.  

BP: In writing Gemsigns, did you encounter any specific problems? 
SS: I wouldn’t characterise them as problems, probably because they’ve been solved! But that early planning stage I mentioned did involve a lot of “How’m I going to do that, then?” and head-scratching. How do you construct an academic’s attempt to inform a public policy debate, so that it emerges as a thriller? How do you portray a society’s ambivalence about its its own history of racism and elitism so that it doesn’t read like an article in the Guardian? How do you relate the events that have brought these people to this point without falling into all the usual infodump clichés? How do you express the reality of a media environment that’s so saturated the populace doesn’t even realise the ways in which it’s being used to manipulate them? Those were all things I had to work out how to do.

BP: What was your biggest challenge in writing Gemsigns? 
SS: Giving myself permission to do it. I was freelancing, and I started writing it during some slack time after a job. I’d only meant to work on it for a few weeks, do an outline, that sort of thing. Once it started rolling along I had to make the decision to actually not go looking for work, to be the person who lives off of their savings account in order to write a novel. It felt daft, and irresponsible, and if two of my best friends hadn’t read the first draft of the first few chapters and told me I had to hurry up and write the rest of it I’m not sure I would have.

BP: Now that Gemsigns has been published, would you, if given the chance rewrite any chapter or scene? And if yes, which one would it be? 
SS: That’s an easy answer – no. I’m a ferocious editor of my own work, and my actual editor, along with my agent and alpha readers, catch anything that I don’t. I rewrote the entire final chapter of Gemsigns between my publisher buying the manuscript and it actually being published, because the earlier version just wasn’t up to the standard I’d set myself. I wouldn’t have let it go to publication unless I was satisfied that it was as good as I could make it. 

BP: The whole idea behind Gemsigns is just amazing. It’s a story that I hadn’t thought to be so rich and amazing. Using technology like genetic modification is heavy stuff, did you have to carry out research into specific fields while you were writing?
SS: I did have to do a bit of research, just to make sure I wasn’t straining the bounds of plausibility too much. But it’s a field that I’ve always been interested in and tried to stay somewhat on top of. An age ago when I was an undergraduate at MIT, I actually started off in the Biology department with a firm plan to become a geneticist. Then I got a job as a lab assistant to a graduate student who was doing research towards his PhD, and I decided that life as a research scientist wasn’t what I wanted after all. So I moved over to the Humanities department and the rest, as they say, is history. But even though it’s been many many years, I’ve still probably got a slightly better grounding in genetic science than most lay people.

BP: With the idea behind Gemsigns, the story could have gone different ways. From all those paths you choose to focus on the human and ethical side and ask moral questions. How did you come by with putting the focus on the book in this way? 
SS: That was always what the story was about to me. I’ve always been interested in how people explain their own actions to themselves, how they justify their beliefs and prejudices. It’s like that line from The Talented Mr Ripley – ‘No one thinks they’re a bad person.’ So it’s interesting to me to hear you put it like that; of course from the perspective of the reader it must look like I chose to ground the story in these big questions about ethics and morality and otherness, instead of choosing to focus on the technology or something else. But for me, it wasn’t a choice. That’s the only story I could have told.

BP: The future that you envision in Gemsigns with the Syndrome is a scary representation of what might be possible even to us (maybe), what is your personal take on the reasons that caused the fall of society in Gemsigns, is being constantly connected a wise decision? 
SS: I don’t know if it’s wise, and I definitely don’t think it’s a decision; at least not a conscious one. This is social evolution in action. We tend to drift into these huge changes in the way we live our lives, and not realise the enormity of the transformation until later, when we look back. I think that’s just how human society works and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I am not anti-science or anti-technology, far from it. But I do think we should try and be a bit more aware of what’s happening, be conscious of the fact that we are evolved creatures and that our technology advances a lot faster than our biology could ever keep pace. That doesn’t mean we should abandon or slow down our technology, but it does mean we should keep a better eye on the physiological and psychological impact it has on us.

BP: Maybe an unavoidable question, but of current and ongoing debate. You mentioned the genetic engineering of humans. This is a great ethical debate whether it should be possible, similarly to cloning. What is you view on this? Should it be made possible? 
SS: I think the question is, to what end? In Gemsigns I present a scenario in which the alternative to the genetic engineering of humans is the extinction of humans. In that kind of extremis I think it’s a no-brainer – of course you’d do it. And if you can engineer out diseases and susceptibilities, or at least select against them as couples are able to do now using IVF, I’m all for it. But in Gemsigns you also have the other extreme, people being radically altered for the profit of others. Clearly I think that’s wrong. It’s something we should never allow. But the point the book tries to make is what a difficult line that is to monitor, and how vigilant you’d have to be to ensure you didn’t cross it. It’s not one big, earth-shaking decision that leads to the gems, it’s a lot of small, incremental ones.

BP: Gemsigns in the first book in the Revolution series, Book two Binary will out next year. Have you already plotted out how many books the series will run? 
SS: I didn’t start out with a plan for a series at all, it was just Gemsigns, which was originally called ®Evolution – that’s how the series name originated. But my agent told me straight off that there was a good chance that publishers would be interested in more than one book, so I started thinking about that and sketched out ideas for two more. And that’s what Jo Fletcher Books purchased – that’s the point at which it became a trilogy. I don’t think there’ll be more than three. These stories are great, but there are other worlds I want to build and other stories I want to tell. 

BP: Gemsigns is on some level a self contained story. Can you give us a teaser of what is in store for us in Binary? 
SS: Another self contained story; one that brings us back into the lives of some of the characters we met in Gemsigns, introduces us to some more, and raises the spectre of the past and its horrors. Even though on the surface people appear to be forging ahead into a bright new future, there’s a lot of unease about how the world is shaping up, and a number of ways in which it could all go horribly wrong. Aryel Morningstar and Zavcka Klist are back, and we learn a lot more about who they are, what they want and where they came from. As with Gemsigns there’s a large cast and several very twisty plotlines that gradually weave together; and as in life, it’s the relationships people have with each other and the connections they make that drive the story. There are friendships, parent-child and sibling relationships, rivalries, and several couples at various stages of getting together, being together, and breaking up. There’s a love story that threads through the whole thing; it’s just one element among many, but I’m very proud of it. I didn’t know if I could write a good love story.

Of course the cover blurb is a much punchier teaser than that! You can find it here.

BP: And just lastly, if you would have to recommend your top 5 favourite books, which would they be? 
SS: That’s such an unfair question! I don’t know what my 5 favourites are. I suppose if I were about to be dragged away to a desert island and I had to choose which books to take, then right this minute they’d be JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, Richard Morgan’s Black Man and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. But ask me again in five minutes and I might give you five different ones.

BP: thank you for your time Stephanie and good luck with your future writing!

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