BSFA Survey Response: Kit Whitfield

Survey coverKit Whitfield is the author of two novels: Bareback (2006), set in a world in which only a small percentage of people are not werewolves; and In Great Waters (2009), an unsentimental alternate history in which mermaids are instrumental to the balance of power in medieval Europe. She lives in London. Whitfield was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and her responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

Yes and no. If you classify books by content, mine could certainly fit in that category; I’ve written one with werewolves and one with mermaids, and those are pretty traditional staples of fantasy or horror. But it’s my belief that genre classifications aren’t really that good for either writers or readers. The main purpose they serve is to make it easier for booksellers to pitch to shops. That’s useful for business, but it can be rather cramping for books, and a writer who feels they have to fit too precisely into this artificial category is probably going to limit their own writing. My first novel, for instance, was published by a science fiction imprint in the US, a literary fiction imprint in the UK, and wound up in the Crime section of Borders, and that feels comfortable to me: the idea that a book has to fit in one category and one category only seems kind of reductive. So I’ll happily classify myself as a sci fi/fantasy writer if I get to classify myself as a literary writer and a thriller writer as well. If I have to pick just one category, I tend to dig in my heels and say that i just write books.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

Pretty much the subject matter. This seems to me the way sci fi/fantasy is generally classified: if a book contains something that doesn’t exist in the real world, you can technically put them on those shelves. It’s fair enough, but it’s definitely not the whole picture.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

I like writing about imaginative scenarios for two reasons. One, the world itself is a magical and numinous place; we get used to it, but when we really stop and look, reality is extraordinary. Writing an imaginary situation allows me to caricature the extraordinariness of reality, to create that stop-and-look effect by presenting a world that’s as new and strange to the reader as reality can be to all of us when we see it with fresh eyes. Two, it makes it easier for me to be a bad girl. If I steer too close to literal reality I start getting conscientiously worried about whether I’m portraying it accurately. If I’m portraying stuff I just made up, that gets me off the hook: I can write whatever I darn well please. It’s disinhibiting. Writing non-realistic scenarios gives me a more direct line to my subconscious, and that’s where the fire is.

On the other hand, if I get an idea for a non-science fiction or fantasy story, I’ll happily write that too. I just go with whatever ideas seem likely to come out best.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

Well, my work is distinctively me, and I’m British, so inevitably my novels are distinctively British in some way. They probably have a British sensibility (or rather an English-Irish sensibility, those being the two nationalities I was raised by). I’m a member of a country with a tremendous history of imperialism and bad karma that I love nonetheless, that’s currently fallen from its power and has spent a lot of time truckling to the dangerous superpower that was Bush’s America – a nation that seemed rather to despise us and everyone else who wasn’t a member of the fatherland, which meant we got a certain dose of what we’d dished out in previous centuries, although on a smaller scale. The politics of that situation have influenced my writing: there are a lot of moral incompatibilities and power dynamics in there. Also, as a writer I tend to resist easy solutions. Having parents from two different countries, and countries that have historically been oppressor and rebel (English father, Irish mother, and the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland was very prominent in the news during my teens), has probably influenced me: I grew up in a house where there were two completely different ways of looking at the same situation, and where you came from made a big difference to how you thought. That’s a truth about human thought that tends to shape my stories.

None of this is really conscious, though. At least in my own experience, deliberate point-making tends to lead to heavy-handed writing. I just try to write as honestly as I can and let my nationality influence things how it will.

5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

In my second novel yes, because it was set specifically in an alternative England in the past. In my first novel no, because the whole idea was to create an imaginary city that would feel as much as possible like everybody’s home town; I was trying to tell a story about societal prejudice in an Everysociety, so it needed to be anonymous – and in fact, we changed some of the vocabulary in the US edition so the narrator would feel American to Americans and British to Britons. So it depends on the novel. The aesthetics of Britain tend to influence my backgrounds – grey English cities and beautiful English woodlands both spark my imagination at times – but it’s best if I just let those chips fall where they will. The settings have to work for the story, and that varies from book to book.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

Most of the writers I’d pick out have influenced me as stylists rather than storytellers. Margaret Atwood is at the top of my list for that; Toni Morrison and Antonia White are my other favourite authors. But when it comes to writing, you learn by osmosis. Probably everything I’ve read has influenced me; it’s just in the primordial soup at the back of my brain. When it comes to the writing process, the books of Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg are my touchstones; without them, I don’t know if I’d ever have discovered I could write at all.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Oh yeah. In Britain I’m published by Jonathan Cape, a literary imprint; in America it’s Del Rey, which is popular science fiction. I’d class that as pretty different! America, in my limited experience, is a bit more likely to classify something as science fiction because it has a science fictional component, whereas Britain can be a bit more flexible in its classifications. But I could be wrong about that; it might just be that I caught the eye of different editors who happened to work in different genre imprints. A lot of the difference is packaging rather than essentials. My editors in the different countries are all original, intelligent and sensitive people who’ve had insightful things to say about the books, and the different things they’ve spotted are probably as much a mark of their personalities as their genres. Everyone’s an individual.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Different packaging, different promotion, and inevitably this will have an effect on what people expect from the books. But again, it’s more about individuals than it is about nationality. I’ve had a good relationship online with plenty of readers who post to my blog, and I know it’s less about where they live and more about who they are. The thing about the Internet is that it’s international, so I don’t really meet my readers in national groups; they come from all over the place, and that makes for a nice, vibrant mix.

Of course, this is self-selecting: I encounter the readers who introduce themselves to me, and it’s a pleasure to meet them, but I have no idea how the silent majority is reacting. I can’t control how people will react to my books once they’re out there, and it only gives you headaches to worry about stuff you can’t control, so I’ve pretty much filed reader responses in the ‘Not my business’ drawer in my mind unless the readers themselves want me to know about them. Fan-watching stresses a writer out and probably makes the readers nervous as well, so I try to adopt a laissez-faire attitude.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

The same effect that any good book should have. It should be an engaging read that touches the reader in some way. Beyond that, every book’s effect will be slightly different whatever the genre, so hopefully the book will have an effect that’s close to what the writer intended – or at least an interesting one.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

Self-ghettoisation, to coin a horrible word. A lot of science fiction and fantasy readers get mocked for liking those books, and that’s bad, but some of them react to this by declaring that every other genre is rubbish, which is just as bad – or, on a lesser scale, by starting to see SFF as a political category rather than just one of a number of ways of describing a book. This can lead to the genre turning inwards. Sometimes SFF can have a rather embattled attitude, and that’s not a creative atmosphere, because there are beautiful, wonderful books in every genre and shutting oneself off from them is simply cutting off your nose to spite your face. Other genres are not our enemy. If you read them openly, they’re not even very Other. Even if people aren’t embattled, every genre has readers who only read books from that within genre; SFF is no exception to this, and while people are obviously free to read however they want, I think it’s a pity. The best thing to do is to draw influences and enjoyment from as wide a range of books as possible; if we stay in too tight a circle we’ll only get stale. Anyone who only reads within a single genre – be it science fiction, crime, romance or modernist experimental metafiction – is going to miss out.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

I like to take every book on its own merits rather that seeing them as developments.

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