This is an interesting take on the classic trope of outwitting the devil, cleverly set in a captivating secondary world. At first glance, it reads as a straightforward updated folk tale. But I feel like there are layers here. For example, there’s a metaphor for the growth of industrialization and the struggle to survive, with Mr. Black as an anthropomorphic expression of the shift in technology and economic structure. Are these deliberate notions—are they important themes to your work in general?
These have been themes throughout my work, although I think to be an SF writer in the twenty-first century you either have to acknowledge and embrace these themes or deliberately ignore them. It’s only in the past few years, however, these themes have encroached on my fantasy writing, (in fact they were the stimulus for Dream London.)
There’s also the choice of protagonist. These stories often portray a man defeating the devil (or demon), whether it be through wits or a performance of some kind. Having a female protagonist who went to war and came back the only survivor, in defiance of the odds and societal laws, sets up Miss Scales as an amazing sort of hero. Was there purpose behind casting Miss Scales as the star, rather than a Mr. Scales?
I’m not sure that I had any choice in the protagonist. I had an image of a woman working a shop, I had the name Miss Scales, and that was it. Miss Scales wrote herself into the story. I think a big part of being a writer is listening to your characters and letting them be themselves. I had the background to the war from another story, I knew that Miss Scales’s brothers would have fought there; after that, it seemed obvious that someone with her temperament would have gone off and fought with them. I think writers should follow their characters, not direct them. I’ve written more about that here: bit.ly/2uHC4qg
I feel like this piece is really about redemption. Scales, who has survived her fair share of horrors, stands up to Mr. Black and his bullying, rallies against attempts to toy with her ego, and resists the more subtle seductions of power. She has fought for the idea of her town and its specific kind of peace, and despite the terror facing her, she rises to this latest fight. Moreover, Mr. Black demonstrates the possibility of even greater redemption, brought about in the shift at the story’s resolve. Did you consider taking the narrative in other directions, or was a message of hopefulness an important element all along? Especially against the glances of a very gritty backdrop. Are positive endings lacking (and sorely needed) in contemporary genre stories?
I think positive endings are harder to write. Thinking of a way for your hero to outwit the villain is a lot harder than just letting them be killed. There seems to be something in literary criticism that prefers the downbeat ending—the same exists in music, too, a preference for pieces in minor keys. People mistakenly believe that positive or light-hearted fiction is easier to write, it’s somehow inferior to expressions of existential angst. I’ve read many comedy writers bemoaning the fact that their work is always taken less seriously than “straight” fiction, and I think they have a point. I’m usually more impressed by a writer who can pull off a positive ending . . .
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this story?
It was partly inspired by The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett. Miss Scales quotes Bennett in the story. Bridleworth is loosely based on the area in which I live.
Obviously your work covers a lot of ground, from strange to surreal, fantasy to hard science fiction. While rooted in the fantastic, aspects of this piece feel reminiscent, almost like it’s an alternate vision of the Great War. Are there certain settings, places or times, that you are especially drawn to?
I’m drawn to people more than places. I don’t have a story until I have the characters. Saying that, I’m drawn to back alleys rather than grand façades, I’m more at home in the engine room than on the bridge. I’m interested in everyday settings far more than worlds of rainbows and unicorns. I don’t like heroes or visionary leaders; I prefer stories about ordinary people who rise to the occasion. Evil villains don’t interest me as much as accountants: Outwardly pleasant and polite, they destroy lives in such a boring way nobody is interested in them. But they should be.
When I was travelling into a library in Manchester researching the Napoleonic Wars for Dream Paris, it occurred to me that I was living on the edge of a city that had gone through these changes in the nineteenth century and I’d not been writing about it. Since then, it seems like I’ve walked the length and breadth of the city’s streets thinking about fantasy stories. I’ve filled Evernote with notes and pictures. Now I just need the characters to populate those backdrops . . .
Your novel Dream Paris, the sequel to Dream London, came out from Solaris in 2015. What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
I’ve recently completed a space opera: Fans of my Penrose series of books may be interested in this. As I mentioned earlier, I’m also working on a series of fantasy stories based in and around nineteenth-century Manchester.
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