Nina Allan has become a strong voice in the realm of science fiction through her highly praised short stories. ‘The Race’ is her debut novel and already has quite a few readers talking and rightfully so. Fans of her work will actually feel right at home here as ‘The Race’ is clearly a standalone novel but within it could also be considered four separate stories.
Science Fiction (SF): Nina, thanks for taking some time to chat with us today. First, if you could share with our readers what your upcoming novel ‘The Race’ is all about?
Nina Allan (NA): Thanks for inviting me! The Race is fundamentally a novel about the choices people make, and how one significant decision can impact an entire future. The story features four individual narrators, whose lives are linked in ways that may not be immediately apparent but that become increasingly clear as the novel progresses. Two of these narratives take place in what could be described as ‘our’ world – the version of our planet’s history we recognize as being true. The other two – and the new appendix/epilogue – take place in an alternate near-future that should nonetheless feel recognizable to readers through the textures of its landscapes and most importantly through the lives of the people that inhabit it. I enjoy using near-future and alternate settings in my fiction because they enable me to counterpoint our own present with a possible and not always desirable future, and also to include some weird elements – in this case, empathic smartdogs and giant whales!
SF: Fracking is clearly brought up in the novel as it has shaped the world your characters live in, is there any other social commentary that you slipped in as well?
NA: I think The Race contains a fair amount of social commentary. Politics is fundamentally inextricable from life as it is lived, a fact that I think is becoming especially apparent in the current climate. I came across a review of The Race in which the critic described the novel as being about the struggles faced by women trying to make their way in society, a description that pleases me greatly because it feels so true. Both Jenna and Maree face multiple obstacles, both social and personal. Similarly in Alex’s section we see him having to confront his own past, as well as the racism that marked his childhood, adolescence, and right on into adult life. Alex is particularly concerned for his daughter, for the state of the world she is about to enter. Over and above all this, The Race is a novel about scientific responsibility and the human relationship with the natural environment. You mentioned fracking, which The Race talks about specifically as a failed and hugely damaging chapter in our quest for energy. As a species, we urgently need to start seeing our planet as more than simply a resource to be exploited. The Earth is who we are – simple as that. These subjects are way too vast and too complex for one small book to address, but I do believe it is important that writers at least try to raise the questions.
SF: Have any of the events in ‘The Race’ been inspired by your life experiences?
NA: All of them, and none. I believe that the act of writing is finally inextricable from personal experience – writers write what they know, whether they like it or not. You could say that fiction is what happens when personal experience combines itself, in a Cronenbergian way, with the imaginative process! Whether we’re writing a novel about dragons on Mars or exploring a system of caves in the Brecon Beacons, the way we write about it – the angle of approach, the line of emphasis – will absolutely be determined by the sum of our experiences to date. How literally we use those experiences is another matter. But ultimately and from the reader’s point of view, that should be irrelevant. What counts is on the page.
SF: ‘The Race’ has gone through multiple iterations as you’ve brought it together from the first draft. How recognizable would the final release be from where you started?
NA: Completely unrecognizable. The Race has its origins in an idea I had for a novel in which a conscientious objector finds himself drawn inexplicably towards violence – a multi-stranded narrative where the protagonist discovers he is being haunted by himself. This was the Derek/Del character, of course – but I ended up disliking him so much that I began shifting the emphasis of the narrative towards his sister. In fact, the only portion of The Race that remained pretty much unchanged throughout is Christy’s section. There’s a whole extant, unpublished novella-length section that has Maree’s journey taking place in ‘our’ world. Readers who are interested in that conscientious objector can find the original Derek in the character of Dennis Beaumont, the anti-hero of my 2015 novella The Harlequin. Part of the challenge of writing a novel is discovering whose story it really is. This can take a while!
SF: The next novel you have coming out from Titan is titled ‘The Rift’, could you tell us a bit about that?
NA: The Rift is the story of two sisters, Selena and Julie. Julie disappeared when she was a teenager – the police believe she was abducted, but no body was ever discovered, no killer arrested. Selena has spent her whole life in the shadow of Julie’s absence. Some twenty years later and completely out of the blue, a woman makes contact with Selena, claiming to be Julie and with an incredible story about how and where she has spent the ‘missing’ years. Selena finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into Julie’s story – but can any of it really be true? Is the stranger really Julie in any case? I have to say I loved writing this novel. As with The Race, The Rift’s primary concern is with human relationships, but there’s plenty of weirdness too, plenty of metafiction, all the things I enjoy! I’m looking forward to the book being out in the world so I can discuss it with people.
SF: You’ve also published quite a bit of short fiction. What would be your favorite piece and why?
NA: I would have to say my novella The Harlequin. I like the London ambiance, the fictional echoes of places I know well. There’s also the matter of Dennis Beaumont, the protagonist. His actions – his entire worldview, on occasion – can be repugnant, shattering. But he is a deeply conflicted, complex, human character. I hated the way his story turned out but I enjoyed writing him. I became completely immersed in his world. I love the supporting cast, too – Rose and Stephen, Doris and Lucy. I felt pleased with the way everything finally came together.
SF: How do you tackle sitting down to write a short story compared to a novel?
NA: For me, there is no difference, and that may be a part of the increasing problem I find in writing ‘short’ short stories at all! I read a superb interview with Peter Straub recently, in the July issue of Locus magazine in fact, in which he articulated this issue precisely: “Very often when I intend to write a story, it takes on some of the ambitions of a novel, and pretty soon I am describing the characters’ grandparents, the house they moved into before the house they lived in now, what their younger brothers are doing, and what goes through their minds on the way to the grocery store. In other words, I novelize by instinct.” I read that and I thought yeah Pete, that pretty much describes my own working method. It means I discard a lot, but I learn a lot in the process. Nothing you ever write is ever wasted.
SF: Science Fiction and fantasy are rampant through your work, is there an area of science fiction that you prefer over others?
NA: I’d have to say the near-future, the alternate reality, those worlds that could be ours but aren’t quite. I find this arena incredibly stimulating, both for writing and for reading. It’s a literature of anxiety, but also of possibility.
SF: Which author is your go to for reading and why?
NA: I’d read anything by M. John Harrison, and indeed I reread him frequently. He manages to balance the poetic and the polemical in his fiction in a way few writers achieve. His approach to speculative fiction – do what the hell you like with it – is one that appeals to me greatly. The distinctly British sense of place, the understatement that characterizes his work also has deep resonance for me. Other touchstone writers would include Iris Murdoch, whose work is weirder than a lot of people realize, John Burnside – his recent novel Glister is a masterpiece of Scottish weird – and also Nicola Barker, who can write dialogue like no one else, and whose mammoth but addictively readable weird novel Darkmans is, in my opinion, one of the most important English novels of this century so far.
SF: Is there anything you currently have in the works that you could share with us today?
NA: There’s a brand new novella called Maggots, due out later this year from Solaris as part of a five-novella anthology called Five Stories High. I’ve always wanted to write something inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft and I think it’s safe to say that Maggots is it. Again, I loved writing this story, mainly because of the central character, who gets himself into a bit of a predicament over an alien aunt and things just spiral from there. I do hope readers enjoy the ride.