Why I Wrote About Sisterland
More Qs cont'd
Why did you position men as a secondary gender in the story rather than just do away with them altogether?
I wanted to explore extremism in action, and needed men to show them being treated as slaves – and how this diminished women as well as men. I'm also conscious of what happens when communities or tribes or are kept apart because I grew up in the north of Ireland during the Troubles. It's never a sound principle to segregate people, or to allow them to self-segregate, because the other side becomes reduced to stereotypes.
Did you set out to write a sci-fi novel?
Not at all, although as a student I read Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, which was the basis for the film Blade Runner, and was hooked in by his vision. And who doesn’t love Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? I had no choice but to set the novel in the future because I wanted to show what a society would be like where women had been in power for a century or so. However, I made a deliberate decision not to have too much by way of futuristic trappings, bar practical odds and ends like the comtel.
Why does your world mistrust emotions or moes?
Women are always being told they are too emotional and the implications are that it holds them back. Successful women seem to be better able to keep a rein on their emotional responses. I wondered what would happen if emotion suppression was taken to the outer limits, and if emotion became a luxury and was rationed.
What were you trying to convey with the memory-keepers?
That memory is highly selective. We all choose what to retain and what to suppress of our own memories, to some extent. But what if the State undertook to do it for us? What kind of society would that produce?
Did you set out to make the Nine so totalitarian?
Yes, because when I look about the world I see how power corrupts people. Even relatively mild-mannered people undergo a transition and start to inhabit ivory towers. They become convinced they are incapable of being wrong, and stop taking advice. I wonder if they don’t become afflicted with temporary insanity?
Your characters have unusual names such as Innocence, Goodwill and Devotion. Is there a reason for that?
I wanted them all to have so-called virtue names. But I also chose Constance because of Ireland’s revolutionary countess, Constance de Markievicz, a woman ahead of her time. Silence came about because I’ve never forgotten meeting a little girl called Silence in the US at a wedding: it occurred to me that her name would be perfect for a character in a book, but it had to be the right character and the right book. And I kept that name in the back of my mind. I spend a lot of time thinking about names and often change them several times during rewrites.
How did you dream up terms such as peers, meets, Himtime, and so on?
Sometimes friends who read early drafts suggested them, sometimes I fiddled about with various words shunted together until I came up with them myself. It was a wonderful distraction from writing. With MUM I was thinking of the antithesis to motherhood, and hoped the juxtaposition would make it more chilling; the same goes for all the mothers like the Mating Mother, and so on. Motherhood has always been regarded as such a sacred condition, so I wondered how would it be if these mothers didn’t have the best interests of citizens at heart? But insisted they did?
Do you have a favourite character?
Modesty – she started life as a minor character but her role became more important with each rewrite. She just muscled her way into the story. I expect she's on course to run some future version of Sisterland. I also became fond of the memory-keeper, Honour, and was sorry to have to kill her off. But she had to go. No room for sentiment when it comes to plot.
Two dates are mentioned in your novel: June 29 and August 24, Memoryday and Sisterday respectively. Is there any significance?
They are the dates of my parents’ birthdays. I like to slide family references into my books. Both my parents are dead so they’ll never know I did it. But I know. It’s also a way of testing whether my brothers read through to the end – I’m presuming my sister will.
Do Harper, Constance and their child escape to Outsideland?
I really don’t know – I have an open mind about it. It’s possible they do. Equally, it’s possible they are captured, in which case Faithful would be taken away from them and they’d be discontinued. I don’t think Constance would be given another chance: her attempted escaped would be regarded as too great a betrayal. We’ll never know which outcome met their escape plan, but what matters is they had one.
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