Science Fiction writer Anne Charnock - The Ada Lovelace Conversations #5

NASA supercomputer model of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Image: NASA / GSFC

In the latest of our ongoing series of conversations with women SF writers, I take a moment to talk to our own interviewer-in-residence, Anne Charnock. Happy reading!

TOM: I want to go back to the time we first met in (wow!) 2013. At the time you had a novel, A Calculated Life, ready to launch and had made the decision to professionally self-publish. A little later, 47North approaches you, publishes this novel and within weeks you are multi-award nominated. You’ve most recently released your third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, as well as a novella, The Enclave, set in the same universe as your debut. As an award director I take a huge interest and pleasure in people’s careers taking off, and I’m really interested to know some of your own personal highlights from the past few years?


ANNE: It’s difficult to grasp how much has happened over the past four years! Within a few months of self-publishing A Calculated Life, I received the email that changed my life. It came from David Pomerico at 47North offering me a contract for a new edition. Within an hour of that email dropping into my inbox, I’d had a phone conversation with David, and the legal team started drafting a contract. Over the next fortnight, I couldn’t sleep, pure excitement — I’ve never witnessed so many sunrises in succession.

Within a few weeks of the new edition being published, I received two incredible messages, both in January 2014. The first came from Gordon Van Gelder announcing the finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award; I was staggered to see, on a list of seven titles, my own novel, A Calculated Life. A few days later, Jared Shurin emailed to say my novel had reached the shortlist of The Kitschies Golden Tentacle. Unforgettable moments!

Attending the two award ceremonies — in Seattle and London — were wonderful high points. I gained a confidence boost that undoubtedly resulted in three productive years of writing. I consider myself very fortunate that my new 47North editor, Jason Kirk, has given me free rein with my second and third novels. I’ve taken more risks, mixed genres, played with complex, fragmented structures.

Many of the highlights of the past four years have been, quite simply, the people I’ve met in this remarkably active community of writers, editors, bloggers and readers. It’s been an honour to take part on panels with other writers. I’ve made new friendships, too. More recently, new commissions have come my way, and it’s a tremendous feeling when that happens. NewCon Press invited me to write a novella — The Enclave — and Unsung Stories asked me to contribute to the anthology 2084: Inspired by Orwell.

I admit that in 2013, I felt deeply reluctant about self-publishing. There seemed to be no other option since I couldn’t find a literary agent. I wish I’d known back then that everything would work out just fine.

TOM: At the time when you were making your decision to self-publish, even if reluctantly, I was also paying a huge amount of attention to the rise of indie authors in relation to Clarke Award eligibility, and your nominations were a big part of me pushing forward on the change to effectively consider UK indie authors as ‘publishers of one’ as it were and to open our submissions up.

As a follow up question, while I’m always wary of writer advice questions, in this particular case I do want to ask you about how you approached the process of going indie once you had made the decision. Is there anything you can offer as food for thought to new writers currently considering the same question?

ANNE: That’s amazing. I’d no idea my nominations influenced your decision, Tom.

Honestly, I’d advise writers to hold off self-publishing until they’re confident their manuscript is as good as it can be. Put it this way, even if a manuscript is 95% honed, an extra 3% will make all the difference. I paid for an independent development edit, but there are other alternatives such as joining a writers’ group to gain that all-important feedback — on structure, on matters of craft. You have to be fully committed to improving your manuscript, which means welcoming criticism. I expect I learned to value the comments of my peers during my earlier art practice.

In the year before I self-published A Calculated Life, I started a new website/writing blog as I knew I needed to gain visibility for my book. I concentrated on writing strong content such as reports on author events, reviews of shortlists. And I began blogging for The Huffington Post on book recommendations and exhibition reviews, particularly exhibitions with a science fiction angle. You’d be surprised how many there are! Blogging came easily to me because of my journalism background and I’d already had fun writing two other blogs — one for my art practice and exhibition reviews, and another for my travel photography.

I did all my own formatting for the self-published ebook and paperback, which I did enjoy despite the steep learning curve. All in all, preparing for self-publication was a massive amount of work. I’m not sure how much difference the blogging made — very little in terms of self-published sales — but I guess it helped with 47North’s decision to take me on.

TOM: Given this is part of the Ada Lovelace conversations, I feel we really need to discuss the visibility of women SF writers in the industry. I wouldn’t like to claim that things are great there, but I do have a sense that things have changed since 2013, the year the Clarke Award fielded an all male shortlist for only the second time in its history.

ANNE: I recall hearing at the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony — the year that Chris Beckett won with Dark Eden — that no British woman science fiction writer had a current publishing contract with a UK publisher. That’s when I grasped the true scale of the challenge. Did this explain, at least in part, why I couldn’t secure agency representation? The all-male shortlist that year was, to put it mildly, dispiriting. I was new to the SF community at the time and I came away from the awards ceremony wondering if I’d ever secure a publishing deal.

So, agency representation is the first hurdle for women writers of science fiction. I’ve still to clear that hurdle myself, but I’m totally focused at present on writing, to prove that I’ve more to offer.

For women science fiction writers there’s the significant issue of media visibility. In this context, I often think of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan, in which he explains that in a connected, online world more and more attention is directed to fewer and fewer people/products/books (I hope he’ll forgive my précis). This accretion of attention is going to support the status quo, one in which male reviewers outnumber female reviewers, and tend to review more books with male protagonists written by male authors. We need to take account of the lesser-known, the outliers.

Having said that, I’m delighted that I’m now published. And it’s encouraging that some reviewers are attempting to create a more level playing field — reviewing as many books by women as by men. In our corner of the book world we have Strange Horizon’s annual “SF Count”. In addition, Breaking the Glass Slipper has recently drawn attention to the apparent bias by some publishers over which authors they promote in marketing campaigns — “Gender Parity in Publisher PR”.

TOM: I heard similar things about the number of women under contract in 2013, although I had heard a few different variants. I think in terms of UK authors though it was pretty much on the nose.

For our part, we had a big decision on our hands when that shortlist came together. In theory I guess we could have sent the judges back into their debating room and locked them in until they came up with a different result (a shortlist isn’t made public the moment it’s decided after all) but that’s not how an award should work.

In the end, while we knew that there was the certainty of a backlash in the short term, it’s not uncommon for the Clarke Award to generate that kind of controversy and I suspected that the award was tough enough to take it on the chin and help highlight the bigger issues at play that you’ve mentioned. It helped that we had four women and one male juror that year, and I have to say they were all very aware of the issues their shortlist would raise, so at least we weren’t open to ‘jury of male SF fans picks all male shortlist’ type accusations and I do like to think in a small way our decision to tackle the issue head on did help to change things for the better.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but I do think things are changing for the better, with Ann Leckie’s multi-award smash with Ancillary Justice and Becky Chambers’ hugely popular Wayfarers sequence inspiring a whole new generation of fans — just to pick two examples directly out of recent Clarke lists. And both books sit right in the centre of science fiction. The conversation definitely seems to be evolving.

From our own promotional activity, what I’ve definitely seen in the last few years is that if you take a book like, say, A Calculated Life or Ancillary Justice, and simply tell people ‘this book is awesome, read it now’ we can generate some great sales, whereas if we take the line of telling people they should read more women SF writers the reverse is actually true and we see attention drop across the board, so I definitely take your Black Swan point that we need to actively redirect attention but that the message is definitely more powerful when couched as a recommendation of ‘you’ll love this’ rather than a ‘you need to read this because’ type message.

ANNE: Let’s face it, no one is obliged to read anything, so it would be pointless to be high handed! No one would welcome that.

What is crucial though is to identify the structural reasons why some writers have a tougher experience in gaining visibility for their work. Once those structural reasons are identified, then we can work towards change. Of course I’m not talking only about women writers.

As an afterthought, what about the women writers whose fiction does not sit right at the centre of science fiction? The periphery is where some of the most exciting, innovative fiction is written. But that’s another discussion entirely, Tom, and one that’s received attention from the Shadow Clarke Jury, whose wide-ranging discussions have offered a fascinating backdrop to this year’s Award.

TOM: And finally, I really wanted to ask about the green village project you and your husband were involved with. Maybe not directly related to your fiction, but certainly you haven’t shied away from centering climate change in your work.

ANNE: Garry and I studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, the home of the Climatic Research Unit, and we both became journalists. We’ve always followed news stories about climate change and reported on renewable energy technologies ourselves. Then, in 2005, we began to consider seriously what we could do in practical terms. In September of that year, during a very bracing walking holiday in the Shetlands, we talked about the handful of companies that were attempting to go carbon neutral, and that’s when Garry came up with the question — could a village set out to become carbon neutral?

Over the following weeks we talked with friends at the local pub, spoke with local farmers, and then Garry presented the idea to our parish council together with Roy Alexander who lives in the village and is professor of geography at The University of Chester. The Parish Council took a vote and by a majority decided to back the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project.

At that point, I’d substantially drafted A Calculated Life, a dystopia set in a future Manchester and its environs, where climate change has transformed the North West of England into a new Tuscany, with the agricultural landscape shifting to vineyards, olive and citrus farming. And last year I wrote a novella, The Enclave, set in the world of ACL, which foregrounds the issue of climate change. My main character, Caleb, is a young, unaccompanied climate refugee from southern Spain.

Our village project gained international media attention from the outset. It took over our lives! I spent a great deal of time shepherding visiting journalists and film crews as they interviewed villagers who, by behavioural change, were reducing their carbon emissions. The University of Chester collected data each year via face-to-face interviews with residents, and calculated each household’s carbon footprint. Individual households over the past 10 years have cut their emissions by between 25% and 40%. In addition, the village has set up a Community Energy Company to generate solar power, which is an important next step towards achieving carbon neutrality. Our project has won grants for a playing field pavilion with solar panels, and for additional panels for our local primary school. The school now has free electricity, and the additional feed-in tariffs are funding the maintenance of our playing field.

Mostly recently, our project is featured in a wonderful one-hour documentary, Chasing Tomorrow, by Maxime Carmas and Jérémy Strobrec who have travelled across the UK to film inspiring community action on sustainability.

TOM: I saw your tweets about your recent visit to Telluride Mountainfilm in Colorado. Why did you go there and how did it connect with your village project?

ANNE: The organiser of Mountainfilm, David Holbrooke, has chased our Ashton Hayes project for several years, wanting a representative to attend and share our experience of community action on climate change. We finally relented. Garry and I offset our air flights and went to Telluride to compare notes with their approach to reducing carbon emissions. “The New Normal” was the catch-phrase of this year’s documentary film festival, setting out five New Normal actions: educate, reduce, offset, advocate and celebrate!

Garry gave an upbeat talk at the festival’s Symposium and during the week we spoke with local residents, non-profit organisations, energy providers and media. The two points about the Ashton Hayes project that impressed, even shocked, everyone at Mountainfilm were these: One, we don’t ever invite politicians to address our meetings. Two, we don’t argue with sceptics, we go around them.

For me, the stand-out moment at Mountainfilm was meeting eleven-year-old Avery McRae who is the second youngest of 21 plaintiffs (all under the age of 20) suing the federal government for ignoring early warnings over climate change and endangering their health by continuing to burn fossil fuels. Avery was accompanied by her dad, a climate scientist, and lead attorney in the case, Julia Olson. Juliana et al v. United States et al is currently working its way through the courts!

Garry and I came away feeling that Telluride could become a beacon in the US for renewable energy initiatives and more sustainable lifestyles.

As an aside, I was blown away at Telluride to meet a lecturer in literature from a Minnesota university, who had read my latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time. She’s including my book in her science fiction module to discuss it alongside Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It was so unexpected, having this brief encounter when I was waxing lyrical about grassroots climate action!

Anne Charnock’s writing career began in journalism (The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune). Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. This year sees the publication of The Enclave, set within the world of A Calculated Life (NewCon Press). In addition, her third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time is published by 47North, and her short story “A Good Citizen” is included in the anthology 2084 (Unsung Stories).


Ada Lovelace Conversations Links

The Ada Lovelace Conversations are a collaborative project between the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature and Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), profiling women writers of Science Fiction and beyond.

The Ada Lovelace Conversations links:

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Stories, interviews and news from the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature.

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