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E. J. Swift Interview – Paris Adrift

E. J. SwiftE. J. Swift is the author of the Osiris Project trilogy, whose three novels Osiris (2012) Cataviero (2013) and Tamaruq (2015) explore a world transfigured by climate change, in a water-bound city in which the elite live in luxury whilst the have-nots live in poverty. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in Interzone, and the anthologies Irregularity (2014), The Djinn Falls In Love, And Other Stories (2017) and 2084 (2017). Her latest novel, Paris Adrift (2018), is a thrilling and moving magical realist time travel tale about a young woman coming of age in Paris as she becomes involved in an aeons-spanning plot to save the world.

E. J. Swift was kind enough to talk to Fantasy-Faction before her appearance at the Sci-Fi Sessions event at Waterstones last month.

Your new book Paris Adrift is out now with Solaris. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The way I think of Paris Adrift is very much as a coming of age story kind of through the medium of time travel. It’s about a young woman called Hallie who’s running away from lots of things in her life, trying to find her way in the world, trying to find a sense of her own identity. And she kind of accidentally gets caught up in this mission to save the world, essentially.

Paris Adrift is a time travel story that comes down hard on the side of free will and the idea that people can do something to make the future a better place, as opposed to many which are about predestination and historical inevitability. Was this something you consciously wanted to explore?

Yeah I think so. Because I started off with the character, I wasn’t thinking initially so much about how the time travel would actually work. But what was really important for the development of Hallie was that her actions should have consequences, so it was really important she had the chance to change things and she wasn’t just following this set pattern that would end up one certain way. And I don’t really particularly like the idea of predestination anyway so I was happy to do something different with it from that point of view.

In the book, Paris is so vividly realised as a living, evolving city. What made you chose that city in particular?

Paris Adrift (cover)Mainly because I lived there. I spent 18 months in Paris and I pretty much fell in love with the place. I was living in the area of Montmartre so that’s particularly why I set it in that district of Paris. But I’ve also just always been fascinated with the history of the city.

As most cities do, it does have quite a bloodthirsty history, quite a turbulent history. Some of the earliest books I read about Paris would have been the Angelique books [by Anne and Serge Golon], which were published in the 60s, and they definitely come with like a 60s health hazard tag these days if you’re reading them! But from a storytelling point of view the historical detail they capture is extraordinary and so I probably became interested initially after reading that. And then obviously after living there as well, there was even more incentive to find out more.

Hallie gets to visit Paris across the ages, and in particular her visits to 1875 Paris and Nazi occupied Paris are full of vivid, lived-in detail. What drew you in particular to these periods of France’s history?

Part of it was wanting to avoid eras that had been done very much already. So I didn’t want to do the Bohemian revolution era, Moulin Rouge (2001) which is a film I absolutely adore, but so many things have touched on that already. Versailles again, the reign of Louis XIV I was familiar with but again it’s been done so well elsewhere, the same with the Jazz era and the 20s.

What drew me to 1875 is it’s kind of in between period, it’s this flux period between the very briefly lived commune of Paris and the siege of Paris. And this period of really kind of extreme hardship for the Parisians, to the point that they were eating their own ossuaries. Then the Bohemian revolution followed, so it was kind of on the cusp. And I was interested in that in-between area for that period in particular, and sort of who might be living there as a point of change.

I think the commune and the aftermath of the commune was quite interesting when thinking about current day politics as well. Again that’s how I did to the sort of World War II era, cause I decided to bring modern day politics more into the book. I felt that you almost can’t not bring in that parallel of World War II and the occupation because the narratives are so frighteningly similar in some ways. So that was sort of what drew me. But also World War II in Paris I just found fascinating. Because people were still living there quite normally in some ways, they were still going out and partying and the Moulin Rouge was open, and all of these things. So it’s a very odd period again in the city’s life.

How much historical research did you have to do to write those parts of the book?

Osiris (cover)Lots and lots of reading! I also found photography really useful, especially for the World War II period. I use Pinterest quite a lot, to kind of compile some resources there, but obviously it was mainly reading, and lots of Googling, lots of online resources that I found as well.

Hallie also visits a frightening dystopian Paris of the future. How was writing this section different from writing the sections set in the past?

Obviously it’s more of an act of imagination, because you’re extrapolating from the present, but I was also thinking of the present day kind of political narratives that are going on, and then almost a worst case scenario from that.

Le Pen Station…

Le Pen Station, exactly, yeah it was quite frightening when the election was happening, after I’d had the book contracted but before it was published, and I was thinking, oh god, if she actually gets in… I didn’t think it would happen but that would have been quite terrifying.

Your work is passionately politically engaged. Would you be able to tell us about that aspect of your writing?

I think it’s become increasingly so. Weirdly I never used to consider myself political, but today I just feel you can’t really not engage with that to an extent. I went to a talk, I think it was for International Women’s Day, and Jeanette Winterson was speaking. I really strongly remember her saying, “You have to do both, the personal and the political.” And that always stayed with me. So I have that as a little bit of a mantra for thinking about that.

But also while I was writing Paris Adrift, it didn’t start off as a political novel by any stretch. It’s been around for quite a long time in my head. But the last couple of years when I came back to it and I was thinking about the eras I was writing about, and the past and the present day, it felt more and more important to try and engage with that. And to present young people politically engaged which is definitely the case now. It was important to me as well to show that.

Paris Adrift deals with altering the timeline to prevent a warmongering demagogue rising into power, but these are achieved by Hallie helping people rather than acts of assassination and violence. Was this an important choice for you?

I don’t know if that was a conscious choice while I was writing the novel. But maybe tied in with one thing that I really tried to do was give Hallie some really strong role models who were women from different ages. So you have the character of Millie, with Aide Lefort, and with Gabriela in the present day, I wanted those people to be complex and women who were people that she could learn from and help her as part of her own identity. So I suppose that emerged as part of that in a way.

Hallie suffers from anxiety attacks, which from a representation point of view was really nice to see handled sensitively in a speculative fiction novel. What were the challenges of writing that aspect of her character?

Cataveiro (cover)Well I’m glad you thought that because I try really hard. I hope that was the case. There’s always a little bit of nervousness when you’re portraying something like that because you want to get it right as far as you can. And you want to do it sensitively. I wanted it to be part of her, I wanted it to be there, but I didn’t want it to be what the novel was about, I didn’t want it to become all about mental health, partly because that wasn’t the story and partly because I think other people are doing that far better than I could do elsewhere.

There’s such a huge mental health epidemic at the moment, especially among young women, and again it felt like something that almost should be recognised and for a character that had that background it felt like it would almost inevitably emerge in some way. In terms of the challenge, I suppose it was trying to do it sensitively, trying not to let it overtake the novel. The main thing I try to do is try to find accounts of people talking about panic attacks and anxiety attacks and watching videos of people talking about it online. Just, reading as much as I could about it, to try and get a sense of what that might feel like for Hallie.

Your previous three novels, the Osiris Project trilogy, explore life in a world following catastrophic climate change. What keeps drawing you to the apocalyptic?

I think with Osiris I started with the idea of this landscape and I’ve always been drawn to wildernesses, to emptiness, to these big kind of natural landscapes that we’ve been losing so much of now. I think there’s something in the post-apocalyptic that kind of reverts to that in a way, and the world becomes kind of large again and less mappable and less known. So I find that quite attractive as a writing setting.

Interestingly I’ve been thinking a lot about that in terms of my next book which I’m writing at the moment, and how to project the future. Although it will have some similarities I also think it’s quite important to try and show a hopeful picture as well. I’ve had quite a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff lately, so I think that probably I will try to move away from that, going forward. I guess there is that danger of the kind of glamour of the post-apocalyptic, and it becomes almost the only thing you can think about when thinking about the future, and again you want to try and find alternatives. But certainly the wilderness factor and the romantic aspect of kind of ruination are quite appealing as tools to write with.

The Osiris Project trilogy explores the fallout from climate change in great detail, from the submerged cities to climate refugees. What are the challenges in writing about something as big and all-encompassing as climate change, but still keeping it engaging on the human level?

Tamaruq (cover)That’s where you start really, with the human level. Because if you don’t have that then you don’t have a story. So having the two characters on each side of the divide was my way of sort of starting that conversation in a way. With Osiris I was interested in the idea of a city that started as a utopia, and that was the original vision for the city, but actually when hardship comes, when things are tough for everyone, that’s when the walls come up. That’s kind of what I was trying to depict. But certainly with climate change, it’s so massive and I think one of the biggest challenge is the science changes so quickly. And I’m sure that a lot of the stuff I researched for the Osiris trilogy is now way out of date. Some of the books I used as kind of blueprints for that like Mark Lynus’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (2007) were a great resource for me at the time, but again a lot of that stuff may have moved on since then.

In book two, Cataveiro, we get to see what the rest of the world is like outside the city of Osiris. How much of that was already planned by book one, and how much did you have to make up as you were writing book two?

Probably much more of the latter I think! When I wrote Osiris originally I wrote it as a standalone, I wasn’t sure where it would go, I wasn’t sure what I would do beyond it. But as I was writing it I did start getting ideas for what might be beyond the city. One thing I knew really early on was I didn’t want to write three books set in Osiris. I was really adamant about that, I would have bored myself apart from anyone else, so I was really clear I had to get out of Osiris, which is in the South Atlantic, for book two.

South America is a place I’ve always been fascinated with as well, so I thought that’s where it’s going to be. And then really it was my research into that that started building up the culture. And again it often comes from one idea, so quite early on I had the idea of the stories of the last jaguar. And that really filtered through the whole book, thinking about that idea of species extinction and the storytelling that might come out of that and the mythology that might come out as a result, and then I think story telling became quite a theme in that book as a result.

You also write short fiction. Your short story “The Endling Market” is included in the 2084 anthology (Unsung Stories, 2017). What was your experience writing specifically for an anthology?

2084 (cover 1)Well I came aboard the 2084 anthology quite late, because I was one of the additional writers that they were able to add as a result of the crowdfunding success, so I did have a bit of a steer from George in that he wanted something environmental from me. Which did help. So I took that as a starting point. And then I decided quite early on that species extinction was sort of the way to go, because I looked at climate change in my other work and that narrowed it down again. I quite like doing anthologies though because you do get that steer, you do get that kind of brief, whereas with short fiction often I won’t just have an idea and think, oh I can do that. I like having something to work from that helps stimulate ideas.

That story and “The White Fox and the Red”, are both powerfully angry stories about humanity’s destruction of indigenous cultures and wildlife habitats, the poaching market and humanity’s arrogance towards nature, yet both are beautifully and poetically written, which is part of what makes them so effective. How do you achieve that balance?

I think the poeticness is important to me because I want to show what’s at stake, I want to show what there is the potential to lose, especially with nature. I suppose it’s about finding the voice really. And the voice for “The White Fox and the Red” was a weird one. That story just came out of nowhere. I just kind of had this voice suddenly pop into my head, it was one of those rare ones where you’re like, oh ok this is just going to work. And I think that slight kind of sense of distance perhaps helped get the anger across a little bit, but at the same time I wanted the descriptions to be as beautiful as I could make them, because I wanted to show what’s at stake. It is something I feel really really strongly about. As terrifying as it all is, reading all the science around species extinction and climate change, I think there has been a real explosion in nature writing recently which is quite interesting to see, and is quite a hopeful sign that people are beginning to perhaps rekindle some of those connections and think more about those issues.

The White Fox and the Red by 12 ORCHARDS

What are the differences between writing short stories and novels? Do you always know what length an idea is going to be when you start writing it?

I do normally. I think if something’s a short story I’ll know quite quickly that it’s something that can be contained within that, so generally I have a sense of that quite early on. Short fiction is obviously a more intense process but also quite contained, so it will usually take me about a month to work on a piece of short fiction. But still with quite a lot of research going into it. I quite like that opportunity to really hone something down and really get that language as good as you can. Whereas with a novel you know you’re always going to miss something, you’ll always look at some passage and think, I could have done better there.

What makes speculative fiction and the fantastic such an effective medium for writing about political issues?

I think perhaps it’s that you’re one step removed in a sense, you’ve got the chance to be a bit more allegorical with things. You can use speculative fiction to just slightly twist things a little bit to give the reader a sort of barrier so there’s not the nervousness to engage that there might be otherwise, but also just a slight mirror to look through that gives you that slightly different perspective and allows you to overcome your preconceptions.

What’s next for E. J. Swift?

I’m going back to my interest in climate change. I’m currently working on a book about coral reefs and the ocean ecosystems, and it’s set in Australia around the Great Barrier Reef. It’s three women across three centuries, drawn together by their love of the ocean, they’re kind of connected. No time travel in this one. It’s in early draft stages at the moment so that’s the plan. If I can sell it!

We would like to thank E. J. Swift again for speaking with us today! You can learn more about Paris Adrift and her other works on her website or you can follow her on Twitter @Catamaroon.

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