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Naomi Foyle – author of Litro’s current Book Club pick, the engaging Astra: Book One of The Gaia Chronicles – tells us about female and teen sexuality in the novel, as well as her creative journey to writing the novel whilst supporting herself working in bookshops, bars, restaurants, teaching in South Korea, and working as a Tarot Card reader.
Litro: Naomi, thank you for joining us. We are delighted to be reading Astra: Book One of the Gaia Chronicles as our first Litro Book Club read of 2014. It certainly makes for engaging reading. Firstly, could you tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been a writer?
Thank you for the warm invitation and kind words about Astra. It was a more personal novel for me to write than it might appear, and emerged after many years of creative exploration and hard graft. When I was young I wanted to be an actor, but my late mother, the British-Canadian writer Brenda Macdonald Riches, always encouraged me to write stories and poems, and I also kept a diary from an early age. I started publishing poetry during university and in 1990 wrote the libretto for a chamber opera, Hush, which was produced at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. After graduation I returned to the UK, and just kept writing: experimental fiction, poetry and fantasy and SF novels, supporting myself with jobs in bookshops, bars, restaurants, arts admin, as an ESL teacher and Tarot Card reader, and as a funded postgrad student. Between 1995 and 2010 I published various poetry pamphlets and two poetry collections, The Night Pavilion and The World Cup (both from Waterloo Press) before Jo Fletcher picked up my first SF novel, Seoul Survivors(2012), and asked me to write another, Astra.
Litro: In a nutshell, what is Astra: Book One of the Gaia Chronicles about?
In a walnut shell, it’s a tale of two worlds: one we see, and one we don’t. A young girl coming-of-age in a land of plenty is gradually drawn into its secrets and shadows, learning hard truths about family, homeland, and her own identity.
Litro: There are lots of environmental themes in the book, and suggestions that a cataclysmic event was brought about by reliance on oil and fossil fuels. The Environment is clearly a subject that motivates you. Apart from the obvious reasons, why is this?
Growing up in Canada, where the climate is extreme, and so much of the landscape wilderness, ‘the environment’ was not an abstraction for me. I grew up in prairie cities that buzzed with mosquitos and swarmed with tent caterpillars in the summer and in the winter were brought to a white halt by blizzards. With my family I went camping in the Rockies, fishing in Northern Saskatchewan, and skating at Pike Lake in the winter. As I grew older I became very aware of the environmental damage wrought by Canada’s logging and mining industries, in particular the devastating impact on First Nations communities who still bear the brunt of pollution, radioactivity and habitat loss. Green issues were therefore a huge part of my political awakening. For all my adult life I’ve felt that the West is sleepwalking into a global disaster zone, seemingly on the premise that the inevitable colossal car-crash will only affect other people. The storms, droughts, weird weather and shrinking ice-cap the whole world is now experiencing are very frightening but will hopefully finally dispel that selfish, blinkered viewpoint. We are all in this sinking ship together.
Litro: The book is split into three seasons – why did you decide to do that?
In a sense there are five seasons, as the last section slips from autumn back to spring, but you are right that I don’t dwell on winter. I liked the classical balance and simplicity of three acts, and the allusion to the three faces of the Goddess: maiden, mother, crone – and, with the return of spring, rebirth. The triangle is also a symbol of Is-Land, of course, and I was thinking that the Gaia Chronicles might be a trilogy, so the idea of three books each in three sections gave me a kind of architectural reassurance, though that could all change . . .
Litro: The book very frankly addresses female sexuality, and teen sexuality especially. Do you think – with ever-increasing sexualisation of young adults in the media – that this needs to be addressed and not shied away from?
Absolutely. Sex is an elemental force in our lives, and the cause of as much pain as pleasure – from STDs, abortions and difficult break-ups, to abusive relationships and the modern horrors of sexting blackmail and ‘revenge porn’. But while UK mainstream culture places an extraordinary emphasis on sexual prowess and very narrow definitions of attractiveness, our various school systems provide little in the way of preparing young people for a lifetime of negotiating their desires and emotions. The Family Planning Association reports that Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is not mandatory in Scotland; in England schools are only obliged to convey biological information and a recent study of 20,000 students showed that 40% of them considered even that provision to be ‘poor’ or ‘v. poor’. Teenagers are naturally concerned about sex; they need not only accurate information about their bodies, but support and advice around relationship skills. I support the call to make Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) a statutory aspect of SRE, and personally think it’s best to start early, like the Dutch do, before the typical adolescent self-consciousness and resentment of authority kicks in.
Having said all that, I wouldn’t petition Michael Gove to make Astra a set text. I think the Gaians have many sensible ideas, including acknowledgement of gender as a continuum, and flexibility in the age of consent when both parties are minors. But they also have some pretty noxious and controlling notions about teen sex. I got the idea of the Woodland Siesta, for example, from Edmund White’s biography of Jean Genet, who spent his early adolescence in a French forest detention centre, where the unsupervised boys ran wild at night: I hope it is clear that neither that, nor the Gaian’s prohibitions on early monogamy, were intended as serious suggestions for today’s youth! Nor did I write the book for teenagers – though I would be happy if young people feel it addresses any of their own issues, I would recommend that parents read it first and decide if they think early teens, in particular, are ready for it.
Litro: What other themes were you interested in addressing in the novel?
Apart from colonialism, environmentalism, veganism and teen sexuality in an eco-fascist society? ☺ The book is also about family and the growth of a warrior woman. In that sense it is very much about gender roles. The underlying issue of the rights of refugees, and the suppressed theme of racism (Gaians purport to be ‘colour-blind’, meaning in practice they efface ancestral cultural differences) will become more apparent in the second novel in the series.
Litro: What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?
No matter how many ideas they pack, novels are about people, and I basically hope that readers will develop some kind of affection for Astra, and are able to relate her struggles to their own. Of course, I’d also be incredibly pleased if the book also helped remind readers of all there is to live and fight for at this particular historical moment: not just the planet and its incredible biodiversity, but a world in which we take responsibility for each other as a global community. If I’m allowed to entertain grand ambitions for the moment, in the long-run I’d like The Gaia Chronicles to help give people hope for the future, hard-won as that hope will have to be. And finally, I’d be happy too if Astra helped to help break down the marketing barriers that divide SF from ‘literature’, and female readers from SF (women certainly write it in droves).
Litro: And finally, what’s next for Naomi Foyle?
Right now, I think I deserve a nice glass of wine and some quality time with Octavia E. Butler and Lilith’s Brood, don’t you? On Wednesday I’m helping to launch a BIN Veolia campus petition at the University of Chichester, and on March 6th I’m reading with Ihor Pavlyuk and Steve Komarnyckyj at an English Pen Ukrainian Poetry Evening in Oxford, all thanks to Steve, who has translated some of my poems into Ukrainian. I grew up close to Ukrainian culture in Saskatchewan, so that’s all pretty special for me. The Astra Brighton launch has finally been set for March 20th, so check my blog for details soon, also of a poetry pamphlet coming out later in the year with Waterloo Press. No Enemy But Time takes a line from Yeats as its title, and is dedicated to the memory of the late Northern Irish poet and editor Mairtín Crawford, who died tragically young in 2004. The poems reflect on my friendships with Mairtín and his late mother Flo, and other experiences in Ireland, a place where they both made me feel very much at home. Hopefully I’ll get over to Belfast to launch the pamphlet, and catch up with old friends there; otherwise travel plans are up in the air until I’ve saved enough to afford a trip to Canada and New York: Seoul Survivors launches in North America this August, and a visit is long overdue. Until then, I’ll mainly be bunkered down in Brighton finishing Book 2 of the Gaian Chronicles. Assuming I crack on between the craic, Non-Land will be out in Feb 2015 from Jo Fletcher Books. Perhaps by then I will have made good my threat to join the Green Party – or at least to go dancing more often!