An interview with Alison Sinclair by Derek Newman-Stille
I consider myself very fortunate to have both done research on Alison Sinclair’s work, publishing a paper on the representation of disability in her Darkborn series and now to have had a chance to speak with her directly about her work and share her insights here on Speculating Canada. I hope that you enjoy this opportunity to delve into her creative process and to explore the power that good SF has to question the status quo.
Spec Can: Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself to begin this interview?
Alison Sinclair: I was born in the UK, but after that if you ask me where I come from you get an itinerary. Went pretty much from the cradle to science, was a bench scientist for a number of years, gave up the bench for medicine, then medicine for clinical research. Currently I work in health technology assessment. Wrote almost from the time I could put sentences together – got my first rejection when I was nine, having sent my first ‘novel’ to a New York publisher. I wish I still had that letter, or the opus itself, for that matter, but it got lost in one of our moves (there’s always that one box). It only took me twenty-five years to get published, which was Legacies, followed by Blueheart and Cavalcade. Followed by moves and market shifts, which led to a publishing gap until Darkborn, though two of the novels I wrote during the gap are now coming out from Bundoran Press.
Spec Can: What are some of the questions you hope that your speculative fiction writing will evoke?
Alison Sinclair: I have to admit I don’t think about audience while I’m writing. Part of it is that it’s such a challenge to make coherent such a complex structure as a story to myself, never mind anyone else. I’ve made people laugh by complaining that I’m not a verbal writer, but it’s true: once a piece of writing is advanced, I get characters speaking in my head – sometimes they won’t be quiet – but what I’m trying to capture in words is something best described as a shape and a tone, a set of tensions and balances, something entirely non verbal.
And to be honest, thinking about audience means that I run the risk of the inner censor being activated, and my inner censor is scary.
Spec Can: In what ways does your interest in science and medicine complement your interest in writing Speculative Fiction?
Alison Sinclair: The two of them grew up together, side by side. Science fiction gave me ideas (realistic or otherwise) of what being a scientist was and was like, long before I met my first working scientist, never mind set foot in a lab. (I’m afraid my CV might be best explained by my having seen the job I wanted at the age of nine and refusing to accept I’d been born 300 years too soon to become the science officer on a starship.) Fantasy – particularly portal fantasy – appealed to the explorer in me. Once I started writing science fiction, I could start building the science I knew into the stories. At the time I wanted to be a geologist, so I built from the geology up.
Spec Can: One of the things I really enjoy about your Darkborn Trilogy is that you illustrate the fact that if half of our society were blind, we would have to accommodate blindness. It is only because the blind population is smaller that we are able to ignore them. In what ways do you hope that your work will question the social construction of disability and help readers to ask why we aren’t accommodating blindness and other disabilities?
Alison Sinclair: One of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me is trying to shift reference frames, whether it’s an individual character or a whole society. I want, as much I can, to capture the sense that people have that their way of living is the normal way to do it. I want the alternate frame to be completely convincing: of course that’s the way it is. The influence of too much physics, I suspect, when one way of simplifying the equation to the point you could get on with solving it is find a suitable reference frame!
Spec Can: What inspired you to examine the topic of blindness and disability in the Darkborn Trilogy?
Alison Sinclair: I got the seeds for the Darkborn/Lightborn division while I was reading a fantasy novel where the whole light/dark imagery and good/evil division was overt. So the two seeds were making the division literal, and making the ‘dark’ side the heroes. Since the Darkborn were nocturnal, vision didn’t seem useful to them – although having grown up in the UK, I did allow them fire. (Barbara Hambly can have her characters shiver through entire novels, but I’ve shivered through enough winters without wanting to relive it.) Then I tried to work myself into Darkborn perspective where blindness was their norm. However, I knew that many successful nocturnal species had specific adaptations to let them function in poor light or darkness – exceptional low light vision, sonar (bats), electroreception (fish in murky waters). Hence, the Darkborn got sonn, although I took considerable liberties with its original model.
Spec Can: What were some of the challenges that came up when you were creating a world where half of the population was blind? How were you able to explore this notion? What sort of world-building techniques did you use?
Alison Sinclair: To the Darkborn, their limits are problems to be solved by technology and social organization. I wrote them as highly inventive and willing to take considerable risks to extend their reach. Hence, distance travel by train, which does not require steering, and the use of a system of bells for inshore navigation—though having kayaked in fog, I share Telmaine’s opinion of Darkborn in boats. Since they own their world, and are technologically more advanced than the Lightborn, they can engineer it according to their needs. The most challenging aspect of their lives is not directly that they are blind but that direct sunlight is lethal to them; sonn is no protection there. They have very accurate clocks and a complex system of social, legal and technological responses to that danger that have developed over centuries, and that they now take for granted.
When I was writing from the point of view of Darkborn, I found I had to explore a different vocabulary, one of shapes and textures. I have a fairly good spatial sense, so I was able to imagine myself into the spaces my characters were moving around in, and write from that perspective. When writing interactions between characters, I had to lose the language of eye contact, and to a certain extent, facial expression. Passive observation is difficult for Darkborn – it can be done, but it’s a skill – and most Darkborn have to use sonn, so that the object of their observation is aware of them. Sneaking around is difficult, too, as I found when Ishmael was trying to get to speak to Tercelle.
Spec Can: In the Darkborn Trilogy, you explore the topic of stigma, particularly the stigma attached to being able to perform magic. What inspired your interest in stigma? Was there a particular social stigma that informed your perspective on stigma?
Alison Sinclair: I suspect I came to use stigma for a number of reasons – it’s dramatically useful, because it imposes constraints on power, breeds conflict and jeopardy and ensures characters with gifts don’t have too easy a time of it. I suspect it’s also because my background is Scots Presbyterian, with an ingrained assumption everything in life must be paid for, usually in suffering.
Since with the Darkborn I was drawing in broad strokes from the Victorians, I included their emphasis on propriety and social order. Everything about magic threatens that social order – it is unregulated power, independent of wealth, social class, or gender. Very awkwardly, mages crop up in the best of families, and even weak magic, like Ish’s, reveals what lies underneath the social facade. Stronger mages can use their magic to coerce others into acting contrary to their wishes and interests – which is where they find an enemy in the otherwise fair Archduke. The usual forms of might and authority cannot defend against it. Mages like the Broomes’ commune have been partially protected by polite society’s choosing to ignore their existence, a tacit agreement that if they don’t trespass or threaten the power structure, they’ll be let alone – And stigmatized groups, as we know from history, have many uses to the larger society. By the end of Shadowborn, of course, that compact is thoroughly broken. One of these years, I’ll have to write the fallout on both sides of the Shadowborn insurrection. What I need to do is think about the plot, beyond and then there were consequences.
Spec Can: Gender features strongly as a topic in your work, particularly the relationship between women and men and the roles that society forces on them. What inspired you to explore gender and why is it so significant in your work?
Alison Sinclair: In my three earlier SF novels, and in my earlier writing life generally, my attitude was best summarized as, ‘I moved here to get away from all that.’ As a reader, I enjoyed the exploration of gender roles, even grim ones, like Charnas’ A Walk to the End of the World – I went straight from Wyndham, Clarke and Asimov to the social and feminist SF of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – but I lived with it in every day life and had no desire to live with it in my novels. When I made up my own worlds, I could make them ones in which the principle of equality was non-negotiable. And then along came the Darkborn. I suspect it betrays my underlying attitudes and assumptions about fantasy, that one cannot escape the historical models. For the Darkborn, property, propriety and inheritance are paramount, and at least at the top of society, they have strict ideas of male and female roles and responsibilities. Rather than going the route of having a woman who rebels, I made Telmaine one who would not have questioned her place (which is, after all, near the top of the social pecking order), except that she has magic, and it forces her to an awareness and a series of choices she would not otherwise willingly make.
Spec Can: What can fantasy and science fiction novels do to bring attention to social issues and critique the status quos that we perpetuate in our society?
Alison Sinclair: My personal view is that the role of science fiction and fantasy is less to critique the status quo than to explore the alternatives, both desirable and undesirable. Critiquing implies accepting the constraints of the present day. For that, there is mainstream literature, which has a superb tradition of it (though I have the sense that the novel as social critique has fallen out of favour in mainstream literature. Maybe SF/F is being asked to make up the deficit …). In SF any and all givens are up for change, provided the writer can make a story out of it. And even if fantasy looks to historical models, those cover several millennia of human experience in finding solutions to the problem of how to get along with each other (or not), and building families, societies, civilizations and great works of art or atrocity.
I also think the exploration of alternatives is particularly important, given its appeal to young adults, who are still developing the intellectual tools for critique, but who respond strongly to the aspirational aspect. You can see that in the number of people who work in space exploration, or in science in general, who trace the origin of their ambitions to Star Trek or early SF, and by readers’ responses to Jo Walton’s Among Others, in which the protagonist envisions and constructs a different life for herself through reading, primarily of SF.
Spec Can: Is there something particularly Canadian about the way that you explore identity in your work? What aspects of your Canadian identity do you see showing up in your writing?
Alison Sinclair: The experience that shows up most persistently in my work is of being an immigrant. Mine’s a more subtle dislocation than most, since I was not crossing boundaries of race, language, or religion, but there were distinct differences in social norms and expectations. I entered Canadian society at an age when I was just learning the customs of the world outside my family, and re-entered it in my teens, when I was starting to learn to negotiate the adult world. I came from a society where accent and vocabulary were basic markers of origin and class, which more than anything else determined inclusion/exclusion. As a newcomer to Canada, I had an accent that set me apart, and a different vocabulary. As a small, memorable example, I spent my first morning at a new school in near agony because I did not know the proper way to ask to be excused to go to the washroom – and at eight, that could make or break you socially. Words had different meanings, the tiny taboos of school society were different – though the punishments for breaking them were as cruel – boundaries were different, manners were different … The paradigm Sinclair character is the one who has started in one place and ended up in another, and who lives with the perpetual unease of having come from somewhere else, if he or she is not actually caught between two worlds. That’s Lian in Legacies, Rache in Blueheart, everybody in Cavalcade, Erien in Throne Price, Ish and to a lesser extent, Balthasar in the Darkborn novels, and Teo in my upcoming novel, Breakpoint: Nereis.
Spec Can: What is the appeal of magic? Why do you think readers keep being fascinated by the idea of magic?
Alison Sinclair: Well, there is the pure power fantasy, but I think there’s also the fascination with the idea of working one’s will on the real world, of escaping physical boundaries. And for the imagination, there’s the opportunity to come up with an entire magical system, all its rules, properties and symbols, from scratch, and be able to unify it thematically with the rest of the book. How often do SF writers get to rewrite the rules of the universe to suit themselves? I admit I spent a certain amount of time staggering around punch-drunk with I can do anything, before writerly discipline set in and I had to start thinking about logic and consequences.
I want to thank Alison Sinclair for this fantastic interview and for all of her insights, as well as for writing enlightening fiction that questions social norms. You can explore her work at http://www.alisonsinclair.ca/ .