'On the morning after the launch in London of Francesca's book, I was accosted by a customer at eight-thirty point-05 am at the doors of Fullers, "Have you got Francesca's book?" (Possibly it was Francesca's Mum?) I didn't know the title ... but soon found out line and length on the book and the book launch, what Francesca wore, what was drunk on the night.… Which was terrific, cos it wasn't half an hour later that someone else came in asking for the book, and oh, I was so knowledgeable ... it was great!'
Last Christmas, London-based poet and novelist Francesca Haig returned to Tasmania for a family visit, something of a regular pilgrimage given she's returning home this Christmas too. During her stay, she took time out to visit Fullers Bookshop in Hobart where she spoke with Rachel Edwards about her 'Fire Sermon' trilogy, a post-apocalyptic story published in more than twenty languages and shortlisted for The Morningstar Award (best debut novel) in the 2016 David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy, the 2015 R.T. Book Reviews award (best science fiction novel), the 2016 Norma K Hemming Award and the 2016 Aurealis Award (best young adult novel).
Rachel Edwards, Francesca Haig
Rachel began by congratulating Francesca on her three book contract.
'Thank you. It's very exciting at first, and then you realise: you have to write three books!' Francesca replied.
'Do contemporary political scenarios have any bearing on the trilogy?' Rachel continued. 'They're set about four hundred years in the future in a post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear era. I'm sure we've all read post-apocalyptic novels that have left us with a fairly desolate feeling in our bellies, and I think the topical part of this is we're looking at situations like Syria today - such as in Aleppo where 100,000 are being encroached upon by armed forces, civilians being killed – and we've a similar situation in your books set 400 years into a post-apocalyptic future. I'm wondering what current echoes you might have brought into your futuristic novels?'
'I don't write books with a didactic purpose,' Francesca replied. 'I think that's such a turn-off for a reader. And I wish I could say they were topical in that they were topical about something that's happening now. But the depressing truth is that these kind of genocidal tendencies have been longstanding. Before I became a full-time writer I was an academic, and my PhD specialised in holocaust literature so it was perhaps really unsurprising that I was going to go on ahead and write a novel about a hugely divided, repressive society.
'But, this isn't history. And perhaps on a less dramatic level there's also much going in the novel concerning disability, literally half of the population in the books are born with some sort of disability - including Cass, the main character - so I was also writing about the ongoing disenfranchisement, and repression, of the disabled.
'All of which makes the books sound worthy and preachy and that they're books first and foremost with a social agenda.... But at the end of the day, although I'm about as far Left as they come, I really just wanted to tell you a story.
'Nevertheless you can't escape the allegorical implications of the book, and I think that's the case for anyone writing post-apocalypic material in the contemporary world. The other element in the room of course is the apocalypse that we're facing now. Perhaps until recent events in America, I would have said the apocalypse that will get us first is climate change. I'm not so sure of it any more, there are a few more things into play now. Although the apocalypse I had to use in the novel - for narrative reasons that became clear in book two - had to be a sudden event, rather than a more gradual encroachment.…'
Elaborating further, Francesca suggested she was probably incapable of writing a post-apocalyptic novel lacking, in its outlook, any residue of hope. 'It’s probably natural that I wasn’t going to depict a world without hope because I think as readers we need that. Probably the most interesting post-apocalyptic book I've read in recent years is Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven; the really astonishing thing about that book, despite it being such a stunning and devastating apocalypse story, is that she leaves an element of hope at the end. And that’s quite radical within a post-apocalyptic world, the great post-apocalyptic novels often don’t have any. In fact the darkest one - when people ask me what’s the bleakest of all - is not Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I think you go back to Nevil Shute’s On The Beach for an apocalyptic story (set in Australia) where there really is no hope at the end. I won’t spoil it but it’s absolutely magnificent and about as bleak as they come, it doesn’t offer us even that glimpse of hope that you get with The Road where you've the relationship between father and son. So yes, I tend to look for hope even within our increasingly bleak international landscape.'
Rachel asked about the significance of place within Francesca's writing, particularly in connection with islands and island literature.
'There is a certain island sensibility to the books,' Francesca replied, 'a sense of isolation that can be double-sided. I know when I was growing up, all the negative aspects of the island were very apparent, I couldn’t wait to leave Tasmania. I left at seventeen and I’ve not lived here since. Now when I come back I want to go full-pope, stepping off the airline I want to get down and kiss the ground, I love this place so much. This attraction-repulsion aspect of island life is something I feel very strongly.
'I’m going to disappoint Tasmanian lovers though by saying that it's not Tasmania I’m thinking of when I write about the island that’s a semi-mythical hideway of the resistance – I mean it’s obvious in the book, it's too small and different in its topography to Tasmania. I was on a holiday with the inlaws on the southern coast of Ireland and we caught a boat out to the Skelligs which are these incredibly remote and stunning islands that were very powerful for me in terms of my conception of what the island looked like.
'But I don’t think I could have written about the island in the way I did had I not also grown up in Tasmania.
'I’m always so proud of the way Tasmania punches above its weight in terms of authors, whenever I see a Tasmanian figure in the literary news I do a little fist pump.'
Rachel alluded to Francesca's dual literary interests as poet and novelist. Wearing two hats.
'In many ways I don’t feel that I put on my poetry hat - or beret (it'd be very pretentious) - as opposed to my novel hat,' Francesca replied. 'But there are certain things I've definitely noticed. My prose skews very lyrical and metaphorical and I have to cut out about 80% of my similes and metaphors in the copy-editing process or it’s too flowery for words. I do think I’m something of a reformed poet even though I’m mainly writing novels now. The main thing for me was allowing myself to write stuff that wasn’t perfect. I don’t want to be slandering novelists because all novelists think that by the time their novel is published, every page and every sentence is beautifully polished. As a poet, there’s so much exactitude that’s demanded of you, it’s such an exacting form of writing that every line break, every word, every simile, every sentence, every comma has to be perfectly weighted, and there’s no room for error. A thirty line poem can’t have a word wrong.'
'As a poet, there’s so much exactitude that’s demanded of you.... '
'Books are more forgiving, and I’m not saying that I think my books are loosely written, but I have come to accept that to try to write novels – and my novels are almost 120,000 words long, that’s 360,000 words – if you try to write that like a poet you’re a stronger woman than I am. So I had to allow myself to accept that sometimes there would be a page or a paragraph or even a whole section that didn’t necessarily contain a stunning metaphor. Which would be unforgivable in a collection of poetry, to have a page where that didn’t occur. Sometimes in a book you just have to serve the book, and that might be … that something has to happen.
'But – I have to say that I do think, plot – I don’t enjoy that process. I sent my agent a text message half-way through the rewrites of book one, in which I said, "I finally got those ... effers ... off the island". I don't enjoy that process, I keep saying that my next novel is going to be a very literary novel in which people sit in rooms and have feelings…. I don’t want to deal with plot for a long time. I think I’m probably by nature more of a poet and I accidentally just wrote three novels.'
Francesca Haig grew up in Tasmania, gained her PhD from the University of Melbourne, and was a senior lecturer at the University of Chester. Her poetry has been published in literary journals and anthologies in both Australia and England, and her first collection of poetry, Bodies of Water, was published in 2006. In 2010 she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship. She lives in London with her husband and son.
Francesca’s post-apocalyptic 'Fire Sermon' trilogy is published in more than 20 languages. The first novel, The Fire Sermon, was published in 2015, followed by The Map of Bones in 2016. The series concluded with The Forever Ship (2017). Francesca maintains a website presence at www.francescahaig.com
Rachel Edwards is the editor in chief of Transportation Press, whose second book, The Third Script, new short stories from Iran, Tasmania and the UK was launched in March 2016. She is the Non-fiction editor of Open Road Review, South Asia’s leading magazine of literature and culture, a regular guest on ABC radio discussing books and publishing and was host of the long running 'Book Show' on Edge Radio, in the guise of Paige Turner. Rachel blogs at Paige Loves Books