You made it very clear about the dates throughout the book and there are many years in which the war continues. Are there plans to continue Sarah’s story beyond the two novels?
Sarah certainly has more missions ahead of her, and you’re right, there are five more years of the war to go…assuming she can survive that long. I have many ideas and some clear thoughts about where she might end up. Also, finding something she can realistically influence is important…but there’s a very stark delineation between things that live in my head and what publishing may or may not share with the world. Sarah may find herself kicking her heels for a while.
Are there any difficulties to rooting a story in history? On the flip side, what are the rewards?
It is certainly swings and roundabouts. I always say that “history delivers”. Almost every piece of research provides something astounding that I can use to further the narrative. I imagined a Nazi boarding school, and lo, there they were the Napola Schools. I also like the framework that real events provide and the craft of winding your narrative between the real bits, so you can tell several stories at once. But assuming that you’re writing fiction, you are on some level simultaneously proposing an alternative history – even narrative non-fiction works demand a little guesswork and elaboration. That’s a responsibility too. What’s hard is that these events – including the death, atrocity and horror – happened to real people. You owe them, to tell their story, or the story of which they were a part, with some authenticity – either by fact or emotional truth. That’s an abstract concept if you’re talking about Ancient Rome, but WW2 is well-documented. There’s a lot of faces looking back at you. I’d argue for the necessity of forging a compelling narrative as a vehicle to discuss and highlight important issues – “history must be burned into the imagination before it can accepted by the reason” Lord Macaulay said, I think – but there’s a line, somewhere along the way, where you pass into exploitation, prurience and tastelessness. That moment isn’t always clear and obvious. This is particularly apparent when you talk about the Holocaust. Writing Devil Darling Spy, I’m dealing with colonialism and imperialism – that exploitation continues in one form or another and real responsibility for the horror has not been taken by the perpetrators. This is raw and ongoing. That makes all this harder to do right and there’s a reasonable argument that I shouldn’t even be trying. But I couldn’t walk away from the chance to put these events front and centre of people’s minds.
Both Orphan Monster Spy and Devil Darling Spy are empowering to readers today. What other books have you discovered since the release of Orphan Monster Spy that you feel demonstrate the same empowering theme?
Well I’m glad to hear people find them empowering…certainly that would be my hope, but Sarah kind of does her own thing. As my editor once put it, “Sarah does not always model good behaviour.” I was just thinking about the moment she saves the Captain on the dock in Friedrichshafen in Orphan Monster Spy. That was Sarah’s decision. She wasn’t going to be saved, or even save herself. That’s the moment I understood her, when I really knew who she was. I know some writers hate this idea, that characters could or should make decisions, but that’s how it is for me.
There have been some excellent, nuanced female characters of late – well-written women and girls rather than the “kick-ass” archetype – like Wing Jones, Tulip Taylor, Izzy O’Neill, and I’m a sucker for the profoundly flawed, like Bevan from Other Words for Smoke. Then there’s Amani from Alwyn’s Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands Trilogy which I finished since Orphan was released…they feel related, which shouldn’t surprise as many of the people who chose Amani’s story for publication, also chose Sarah’s.
I make no apologies for the graphic novel reference – because comics are reading – but of everything I’ve read lately, I’m finding the Lumberjanes comics to be the most invigorating, joyful fiction. All female and diverse ensemble cast of wonderful characters having funny, smart and rollicking adventures at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. I feel empowered, I can only imagine the power of these characters for young teenagers. One of its creators is the showrunner on the new She-Ra series, which is happily consuming me right now. In fact, I’m wearing a She-Ra t-shirt as I’m typing this…and I hated the old show for the exploitative, unreconstructed toy commercial it was.
Do you listen to any particular music while writing?
Music is very important to me, but I need a very specific kind of music to write to. It usually can’t have words or be too up-tempo, and guitar-based stuff is too intrusive. It has to allow a certain detachment, but can’t be drivel either – something that I can lost in, but doesn’t dominate my brain. Soundtracks don’t always do this and not all classical music hits the spot, but I think what works best is called New Classical or Neo-classical or something equally dismal. A Winged Victory for the Sullen is the best example. There are certain pieces or albums that are absolutely tied into my work, both as inspiration and as soundtrack to the action. Agnes Obel and Kathryn Joseph are rare examples of vocalists that I work to, as they’re all quiet pianos, pain and anguish. So I have an evolving and ever-growing playlist of this stuff, and when it goes on, I’m ready.
For more general, around the writing work, I listen to BBC 6Music but I really don’t like the schedule changes they made about a year ago. After nearly 10 years of working at home and hearing the same voices every day, losing them for something less than was a bit heartbreaking. I’m still grieving. I’ve found Spotify really good, it came with my new phone, but I have severe reservations about its morality. They don’t pay their artists much of anything.
Devil Darling Spy is out 5th March
Check out my next post for my review x