There are three books on my desk as I write this, stacked neatly one atop the other. They’re to the left of my laptop, just in my eyeline. I placed them there yesterday in a moment of pride, as well as expectation that they would be a useful prompt for the writing I need to do today; but I’m beginning to suspect that their presence may not be entirely helpful. There’s a tension about them I didn’t expect, a suspensefulness despite their familiarity. They are the books of the ®Evolution: Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration. They’re my books: I wrote them, and these are my precious first edition trade copies, with which I will never part.
And yet they are not my books, not any more. As a wise friend of mine observed back in 2013, just before Gemsigns was published: once a book goes out into the world it belongs as much to the readers as to the writer. Its meaning becomes community property, open to interpretation, subject to the presumptions and peculiarities of every new mind it passes through. It may be understood in ways that you, the writer, did not anticipate. It may mean more than you expected, or less.
It will leave its mark on the reader, as it has on you.
In an earlier post here on Civilian Reader I talked about the ways in which I’ve been influenced by stories. It turns out that I have been not so much a recipient as a conduit; and the stories I have absorbed and transmuted and retold have as often been tales of truth as of fiction.
Fiction is, after all, a particularly effective way of telling the truth.
I thought that this time I’d write a simple post on what I’d hoped to accomplish when I set out to write my own books, and whether I had managed to achieve those goals. It’s turned out, like the stories themselves, to be far from simple and to mean far more than I expected.
My career as a novelist began with wanting to tell a story about what might happen in the future, given a set of plausible circumstances in the here and now. In telling that story, I wanted to acknowledge the dark spirals that human nature often leads us down; I also wanted to imagine the possibility of better, more ethical decisions than the ones we often make. I wanted to chronicle the birth of a legend; to create a contemporary account of what might someday become the creation myth of a new humanity.
I did all that. But along the way, and often to my surprise – the subconscious works in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform – I have also written stories in which the dynamics of of division and integration, rejection and acceptance form the framework for every character arc and plot twist. I have examined the impact of economics and politics and religion. I have constructed a trio of London novels, as deeply informed by the social history and psychogeography of the city as anything else. I have written about love and friendship and families; and about enmity and outright hatred.
If you’d asked me before I started whether I planned to incorporate the grim history of slavery, emancipation and racism; the reactions I’ve witnessed both to exceptional ability and to disability; the lessons learned during a long career in business, public policy and urban development; and the experience of multiethnic, multicultural, multifaith family and friendship groups that span different countries and socio-economic classes, I’d’ve said that wasn’t my plan at all. I only ever intended to tell a story. But here’s the thing about speculation of any kind, and certainly about speculative fiction: it always begins with what you know – and you almost always know more than you think.
Stories, it turns out, are potent things. They are subversive and tricksy and smart. They won’t stand for being limited to your intentions. They have lives of their own.
And so I eye up these three volumes with their bright, innocent covers, these books of which I am so proud; and they scare me, just a little. I wrote them, but I do not control them. I do not know how much, or how little, they are capable of.
They are yours now too, dear reader. They are waiting to see what you make of them.
For more on Stephanie Saulter’s novels and writing, be sure to check out her website and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.