BookView Interview with Author Elaine Graham-Leigh

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we talked to Elaine Graham-Leigh, an activist, historian, qualified accountant and author of The Caduca, an immersive SF novel (read the review here).

I am an activist, historian and qualified accountant (because even radical movements need someone doing the books). I am the author of The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade (Boydell and Brewer 2005), A Diet of Austerity, Class, Food and Climate Change (Zero Books 2015), Marx and the Climate Crisis (Counterfire 2020) and now The Caduca (The Conrad Press 2021). I speak and write regularly on a range of political issues and my science fiction stories have appeared in zines including Jupiter SF, The Harrow, Bewildering Stories and Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. I live in north London.

Website: www.redpuffin.net

Twitter: @egrahamleigh

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I grew up in a very bookish household, so I knew even before I could read that books and language were powerful. The family copy of Middlemarch still has my crayon scribblings from when I got hold of it as a small child. I was firmly convinced even then that books were the most important things in the world.

How often do you base your characters on real people?

In my science fiction I don’t think I have any character who is directly based on someone I know – for me, that would feel like caricature. I do sometimes borrow small traits and habits for minor characters – in The Caduca there’s a character who does a flicky thing with their fringe that’s very much drawn from the life – but only from people I used to know. Even for minor characters, you have to think so much about their inner feelings and motivations, doing that for someone I’m still in touch with would feel like an invasion of their privacy, even if no one else would recognise them.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

I don’t know about a big ego, but you have to have a fair amount of self-belief to think that strangers should pay money to read something you wrote. The aphorism that you have to be able to believe that your writing is simultaneously the best thing and the worst thing ever written has it about right.

How often do you read?

Every day, every chance I get. I can’t imagine trying to write if I didn’t read – you learn so much from seeing how other authors handle structure, pace, characterisation and so on. That said, there are some authors I have to stay away from when I’m writing my own fiction because their styles take over mine. While I’m reading Guy Gavriel Kay, I find myself sticking portentous sentence fragments in all over the place, and at that point there’s nothing to be done except wait until it wears off.

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. There’s an assumption in publishing that what readers want is more of what sold last time, but I don’t think that’s actually the case. People’s tastes are wider and braver than they’re often given credit for. I don’t set out to write something that’s marketable – for one thing, I write very slowly, so if I started on the new big thing, it would be outdated long before I got to the end of the first draft. I write the story that I think needs telling and hope people like it.

QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR BOOK/WRITING:

Tell us some more about your book.

It’s called The Caduca and it’s a science fiction novel. From the back cover:

The planet of Benan Ty is just another poor and violent ex-Terran colony. Now the Chi!me, the major power in the galaxy, are coming to broker a peace deal between guerrilla group ViaVera and the government.

For Quila, a rising figure in the Chi!me diplomatic service, the posting to Benan Ty could be the making of her career. Meanwhile Terise, one of ViaVera’s inner circle, is just trying to get her lover out with his life. But in a conflict where no side’s motivations are pure, they are both about to discover how much they have to lose.

Set in a future where humanity has gone to the stars, but taken exploitation and oppression with them, this is a story of imperialism, resistance, friendship and ultimately, liberation.

What inspired the premise of your book?

It really comes out of the two decades and more I’ve spent in various campaigns against imperialism, war, austerity, climate crisis. It’s inspired by the behaviour of the western powers, the experience of building campaigns against that, and of course what we’ve seen happening around the world, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and so on.

How many rewrites did you do for this book?

More than I could count! I wrote the first draft more years ago than I like to remember, but then put it aside to concentrate on writing short stories. I learned such a lot from writing in the shorter format that when I returned to the novel, I was able to give it a really substantial rewrite. And then tinker with it for a few more years, of course. When I said I write slow, I meant it.

Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?

It started with an image, of a woman in a doorway. I didn’t know who she was, or what she was doing there, just that she was lost and the image was all there was left. In the process of finding out what the story was, the original image disappeared, but there is a ghost of it still lurking in the first chapter if you look hard enough.

Which scene, character or plotline changed the most from first draft to published book?

The ending. I won’t go into specifics, but for a long time I was determined that it was going to go a certain way, but the characters were insistent that wasn’t going to work. In the end they won.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

That change is possible, even if it doesn’t come in ways or from groups that we expect.

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