It’s great to have fellow Urbane author, Jo Ely, here today talking about her debut teen/YA novel, Stone Seeds. I loved it and devoured it in just a couple of days. It’s one of my favourite genres – speculative/dystopian – and I was completely transported to Barvarnica where the story takes place.
Jo, the world you’ve created in Stone Seeds is sinister and alien but also shines a light on the problems we have today in our own world with politicians and the media promoting hatred of other cultures. Can you tell us whether this was what you set out to explore with this book or did these themes just emerge in the writing?
I started writing Stone Seeds well before the exodus of refugees, people running from ISIS, started filling our screens. I think it’s maybe the greatest moral test of our times but it came after I’d finished writing the novel. Like a lot of people I’ve been pretty disgusted by the backlash of xenophobia and racism, from some quarters, toward human beings who are fleeing for their lives. Some of the language used about refugees has been dehumanising, and that should be a massive red flag for us. But then again, there are a lot of people out there who really do care, and who’ve put that care into action or resources, and that has to make you feel there is hope.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in issues around who gets to speak, who has no voice or isn’t being heard and why. You can’t boil down a novel to pat solutions or a political viewpoint or it’s just moralising and probably a pretty boring story, so the question for the writer becomes, who do you give a voice to? For instance, do you take the perspective of the adult holding the child’s hand or the child looking up at a world full of Giants? Does your novel look through the eyes of the corseted upper class woman or the servant girl tying her shoe? Are you taking the perspective of the bomber or of the person being bombed? Those kinds of choices will make an essential difference to the story you are going to tell.
Jean Rhys took a beloved story, Jane Eyre, and retold it through the eyes of the madwoman in the attic, in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Having seen Rochester’s first wife as the barrier to the real love story in Bronte’s work, we were now on the ‘madwoman’s’ side in Rhys’ novel, stalking the corridors and setting the curtains alight.
Rhys stretched our empathy until it could encompass the silenced woman in the attic, the one who was just out of sight.
Although hatred and division are strong themes in the book, what really shone through for me was love and empathy and that if we all just hold onto these then there is hope. Do you really believe this is true?
Well, maybe I have to believe it. Although of course some people simply need to be stopped and maybe we should reserve our love and empathy for their victims. I am glad that is what you took from Stone Seeds and that probably says a lot about you and who you are as a person and yes, I think the novel is capable of holding that interpretation.
You might see Mamma Zeina’s attempts to build a gathering, an underground resistance movement, as stemming from an innate desire for human connection, for friendship, trust. But then again another reader might view it as the pragmatism of a battle hardened general whose warriors have all been decimated. What can she do? What options are left?
It’s very hard to kill an idea. You can’t lock it up or make it a slave. And communication, human connections, are like the soil it can grow in. Maybe Mamma Zeina is just being strategic. But then there is Jengi, who is cynical and fuelled by anger. He’s certainly no pacifist anyway. So there are the competing viewpoints of the characters themselves.
I’m not telling anyone what to think.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
I think the setting for Bavarnica, the OneFolks’ village, the Killing Forest and the Edge Farms, was influenced by my travels. Firstly by flashes of memory from an early childhood spent in Botswana. I was still very young when the family left to come back to Britain for good, so it’s very possible, in fact likely, that these are not real memories at all, but images implanted by my parents’ bedtime stories.
We now know that ‘memories’ which come about in this way can feel extraordinarily real and they certainly do for me. A tree full of monkeys, silent and then bursting into chatter. Some kind of worm or baby snake wrapped around the end of a stick which my older brother seemed to pull out of the ground, that can’t possibly have been real. Can it? And yet I can see it in my mind’s eye, clear as day.
And then a loud and colourful market place. Baked earth. Black, flattened trees and red skies. Who knows what’s a real memory and what was my imagination, or perhaps a dream. As I said, I was very young in Botswana.
Travelling as an adult certainly helped me create my settings for Stone Seeds. I once found myself jet lagged and disoriented driving down street after street in Naples, Florida, where the super-rich keep their holiday homes, gardens with room for helipads and be-flagged balconies Mussolini would have been proud to own. But, like a classic horror movie trope, I couldn’t find my way out and there wasn’t a single person in sight. Not even a dog. I kept expecting something peculiar to happen, a lightning strike or an old woman to appear with a dire warning. The idea for the OneFolks’ village popped into my head pretty much fully formed.
On the same trip, days later, I travelled down a shaky wooden walkway into the heart of the everglades in wet season, when everything’s thrumming with life. Sound travels in a cypress forest, you hear every snap, crunch and slide for miles around. There were alligators under the rickety walkway, heaving and rolling in the dirty shallow water, just a few feet away from me. That experience provided the basis for the Killing Forest.
And then there are the images I’ve tried to get out of my head, but can’t. I travelled a lot in South America in my early twenties, I can still recall looking out of a chipped bus window in Peru and seeing a boy of about three years old cleaning a grown man’s shoe for pennies.
Or the street child in Brazil who I didn’t realise had been hiding behind me from the police until the coast was clear and he shot out, he ran for it. He can’t have been more than seven, eight years old. If I close my eyes twenty years later I can still see that child fleeing.
Brazilian street children had good reason to fear the police in that place at that time. I also remember crouching in the ruins of an ancient home at the top of Macchu Picchu in Peru, watching the light filter in through the slotted window, making patterns on the floor. Wondering who’d sat there before me. What they’d felt. And later on the local children racing helter skelter down the side of the mountain, terrifying to watch them but brilliantly, expertly, never losing their footing. Following our rusty old bus as it dipped in the holes and clattered along. These children are all wrapped up in Zettie, the youngest character in Stone Seeds.
I found the inspiration for other characters on my travels too. Mamma Zeina appeared a few times. Once I saw her in a square, a Romanian gypsy woman in traditional dress, full skirts and headscarf. She was selling balloons. I was wondering what her life must be like, without the possibility of citizenship, unable to put her children in school or secure a regular job because of the stigma attached to her people, and I must have been staring because at that moment she turned and gave me a shrewd and very direct stare. Eye to eye. At that moment my daughter let go of her balloon and burst into tears, ensuring the moment was permanently scored in my mind.
I met Mamma Zeina again in Florence. My husband’s mother is a Florentine and I’ve spent some time there. Piazza Signoria was uncharacteristically empty, the shutters of all the cafes were pulled down. We soon saw why: a large group of young, male German football fans came around the corner. They were chanting and acting in an arrogant, entitled way.
Not dangerous exactly but the atmosphere was a bit rough, they’d been drinking. Taking over the street with their sheer size and sound. I hurried away with my two small children, bumping the pram over the cobbles, but then I turned and saw this old woman in an ancient fur coat and wobbly lipstick. She just sat down on a bench and pulled out a cigarette. Sat there smoking, watching. I caught her husband’s eye but it seems he couldn’t convince her to move. I remember her unnerving gaze at the young men. Flash of steel.
It was only when I got home that it occurred to me that this elegant elderly lady would have been a young woman last time such a large group of German men were occupying that square. I wondered what the old woman had felt when she saw them. What she remembered. It was deeply satisfying to me that she’d refused to move. She wasn’t going to scuttle away from her own square, in her own town. Not today.
After that I read a lot about the role of women in the Italian resistance. Anything I could get my hands on. I had coffee with a really lovely, fiercely intelligent, older Jewish-Italian woman who’d been a small child during the Nazi era. She’d been spirited across the border by nuns and was brought home to Florence when the war was over. Everyone in her nuclear family had made it. That small girl had passed through so many safe pairs of hands on her way out of the country, one false move and … But nobody had dropped that child. And here she was, talking to me.
That realisation, that penny dropping, electrified me. The idea for Mamma Zeina’s underground Sinta network percolated in my mind for more than ten years after that meeting. Long before I ever put pen to paper to write Stone Seeds.
Is there going to be a follow up to Stone Seeds? It definitely left me wanting more and felt like it wasn’t the end of these characters’ stories.
Well you’ll know what it’s like, having just finished your own novel. It is very hard to get your characters out of your head, you’ve spent so long in their company. I must have come up with about ten different scenarios for Bavarnica and for my characters. There’s another equally strong part of me, though, that would quite like to leave the reader with a conundrum and let their own imagination go to work on the story. I like reading books which finish with a question, or end with a new beginning.
What are you working on now?
Well my plan was never to write exclusively speculative fiction. But plans are one thing and the imagination doesn’t necessarily do what it’s told. Since finishing Stone Seeds I’ve been experimenting and trying different things out. I love reading short stories in contemporary settings but one thing I’ve found when I try to write them now, something strange always seems to happen.
A person will turn into a lamp post and then have to deal with the emotional fallout from that. The scenery will shift and alter unaccountably. I probably have to accept at this point that writing speculative fiction has done something unalterable to my brain. There’s no going back now.
Thanks so much for your time, Jo. I enjoyed the interview almost as much as the book!
If you’d like to win a free copy Stone Seeds then leave a comment below telling us why before 10pm (BST) on 7th April 2016. The random number generator will pick a winner and I’ll announce it here shortly after that.