The Tea: An Interview with Emma Newman

Photograph by Lou Abercrombie

Vector caught up with Emma Newman, author of the Split Worlds, Planetfall, and Industrial Magic series, and other excellent things, at BristolCon in October 2018. 

Hello Emma Newman! What a delight and an honour. How has your BristolCon been so far?

Well, I actually arrived quite late, so I’ve really just got here.

So far it’s been, “ambushed for an interview.”

Yes! And looking at beautiful art, actually.

Now, you are much better at interviewing people than I am. But one person you never seem to interview is you. So if you were interviewing you, what would you ask you?

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

Would you like a cup of tea?

I would love a cup of tea! But I think that’s in another room.

In that case, there’s no time to lose! Your last book was Before Mars, part of the Planetfall sequence. What projects are you working on now?

Well, I’ve just finished my last round of pre-copy edits on Atlas Alone, which is the fourth book in the Planetfall sequence. That’s been sent off, and I’ve just got the copy-edits to come back on that one … so it’s a long way down the road to being finished, which is always a nice feeling.

Can you tell us about the shift from urban fantasy to science fiction? Are there sort of traces of urban fantasy in the earlier Planetfall books that then trickle away, or … ?

No, no. I mean, it completely surprised me that my first books were urban fantasy, because I’ve always been a science fiction fan. When I was a teenager, in fact most of my adult life, science fiction is all I’ve read. And then a story came into my head and I wrote it … and then I was informed by the publisher that it was urban fantasy. I had no idea, I was just writing a story! So it was partly that. That was the story that came out at that time, and it happened to be urban fantasy. Strictly speaking, the first novels I wrote were post-apocalyptic, which is a little bit away from urban fantasy. 

Whereas with science fiction, I was actually quite scared of writing it. It was hugely intimidating. I also didn’t know how I’d be received as a woman writing science fiction. I was concerned about how male the classic canon is, and whether I could be welcomed into the genre. And beyond that, the even greater concern was what could I add to the conversation. Because there had already been so many amazing ideas and so many incredible writers. What could I possibly add to that dialogue?

What did you try to add?

In-depth psychological studies, and explorations of mental health. So much of the science fiction which I utterly adore is very concept-driven. In some of the science fiction which I truly love, the characters are practically cardboard cut-outs, there to deliver the incredible concept, the amazing execution of an idea. But they’re not characters in the way that would satisfy me. What I wanted to do was have it all. I wanted to have a really, really strong science fiction concept, but I also wanted to have realistic, flawed characters that the reader gets to know very, very, very well.

And ‘flaws’ is one well-established way of thinking about how you round out characters. But maybe ‘mental health’ is a different way of thinking about that?

Oh very much so. I really don’t see mental illness as a flaw. The ‘flaws’ that I’m thinking about are things like the way that they cope with secrets, the way that they cope with pressure, the way that they just can’t figure out how to have good relationships with their friends and their family. The mental illness side is very separate in my mind. As somebody who has lived with an anxiety disorder for over twenty years, and having many friends who have a variety of mental illnesses, there is an incredible strength and resilience in people who function in the world as it is today. 

In Planetfall, for example, I wanted to show the protagonist’s incredible intelligence. I wanted to show how she was a pillar of the colony. I wanted to show her as an absolutely badass 3D-printing engineer. She is all of those things first, and it’s halfway through the book that the reader finds out what the nature of her mental health issues are. And that was really important to me, that the reader gets to know her as a person. I wanted them to discover a character who’s as rich and complex as a real human, rather than, ‘Oh look at this character defined by her very interesting mental illness.’ So that’s what I wanted to show: that you can see so much more of a person thrown into relief by a mental illness, but also kind of underpinned by it as well.

That is really interesting. Okay, let me see if I can express this question right. There’s often a tension, in how we understand mental health, between the biological and the social. So for example, the DSM — the official handbook that lists diagnoses for mental disorders — has gone through several editions. But that’s not just because the medical profession has been updating its understanding over time. People’s actual behaviours, actual experiences, actual realities, have also changed according to the societies in which they live.

Yes.

And science fiction allows us to extrapolate future societies, or to imagine alternate societies. So I guess what I’m wondering is, when you explore possible futures, are the possible futures of mental health part of that?

I think about it a huge amount, although it hasn’t necessarily been the emphasis in the books. One of the things that I did want to examine is, even if you have incredible medical technology, where there are embedded neural chips that can run your body physiologically, you can still have mental illness. It isn’t just biology. There are stresses, there are traumas that happen in someone’s life, and you can’t just medicate that away.

Sure. No matter how sophisticated the technology is.

And something I wanted to examine in Planetfall was the reaction of the community, when it becomes apparent how much the protagonists are suffering. Because the community doesn’t necessarily handle it as well as they could have. I really wanted to examine how you can have the best of humanity, incredibly progressive, very forward thinking, very intelligent people … and they can still screw it up when it comes to supporting somebody with mental health issues. And my kind of fury at how this particular mental illness often gets treated in our media. But I can’t talk about it too much without …

Spoilers.

Spoilers, yes. So yeah, it is something that I think about a lot, and sometimes address in my writing. For instance, if you have technology which enables you to effectively neuro-chemically manage your brain, where is the diving line between alleviating the symptoms of mental illness, and changing fundamentally who that person is? Where is that line? 

And maybe sometimes there kind of isn’t a line.

You know, I have a friend who has bipolar disorder. We have discussions about lithium, and how sometimes you face a trade-off between functionality within a really shit society, against being the best you can be. And then, how are you going to ride out the worst of the depressive episodes? So finding that balance is so hard. 

But then, if it’s possible that you’ll one day have more defined and granular mental technology, and chips that can actively intervene and manage those levels, what would that mean? Are you going to be able to get … get the best of yourself … without kind of numbing everything, without making everything grey, in that way that can sometimes can happen with lithium? Those kind of issues, I’m really interested in.

Final question. Any recommendations? What have you been enjoying?

I’ve just read back-to-back and hugely enjoyed The High Ground and In Evil Times by Melinda Snodgrass. They’re the first two books of the Imperials Saga. They’re really excellent, solid fun, rip-roaring, fast-paced. It’s like a space opera with great characters and an examination of class, and privilege, and what meritocracy really is not. They’re really, really enjoyable.

Fantastic.

And in terms of pure si-fi, Semiosis by Sue Burke. It’s a colonization and first contact story. It spans I think five or six generations of people in this colony, a colony which doesn’t start the way that they wanted it to. And it examines a relationship with an organism which is indigenous to the planet. In my mind it is very old school sci-fi — the concept comes first, and you don’t get to know the characters in a great deal of depth, because the characters are spread out across several generations. But I really enjoyed it, and it felt really solid science-wise.

Awesome. We’ll keep an eye out for those. And we’ll be looking forward to Atlas Alone too. Thank you so much, Emma!

You’re very welcome!

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