The following are my replies to questions put to me for inclusion on the Gollancz website to coincide with the publication of the book.
How did the idea of Paradise come to you?
Like many people, I have the sense of a time, long, long ago, – so far ago indeed that it blurs into mythology – when man lived in harmony with Nature. To live then was to live in Paradise. Nowadays, this is a somewhat misty ideal, obscured by the reality of what we have done to this lovely earth of ours, but potent none the less because respect for Nature is the foundation of all our ethics. Love and nurturing are as real in their own way as birth and death.
It was thoughts such as these which were in my mind when I came to write The Disestablishment of Paradise. Undoubtedly my own love of Nature informs this alien world, but I was reaching to go beyond Earth. I wanted to discover a new place which, while it may resemble Earth superficially, is profoundly different in all the ways that matter. I had no idea at the outset that the story would become so complex, and it is, in some ways, the most satisfying book I have written. I enjoyed the freedom of writing about so many different lively characters and in creating so many strange creatures!
My desire as a writer, was (as ever) to entertain, to carry the reader into this new world, and reveal, the truth of things as I see it. The name Paradise bothered me a bit, but it seemed the right name. However, I wanted to avoid any too direct biblical associations as they would be misleading. Nor is the book an allegory, at least not consciously, though it may be seen as a warning.
Paradise is both a name and an ideal. At its simplest, it is just the name given to the planet by the people who first discovered it and signifies little more than a pleasant and stimulating place to live, though there are people, mainly women such as Hera or Sasha, who sense a deeper reality. Paradise satisfies some of their deepest spiritual yearnings.
As an ideal, Paradise relates to our present situation on earth. We are, in a way, disestablishing our own Paradise. The sad truth is that our world is already damaged and polluted: this is evident to anyone who reads the news or walks along a beach. We live with the monstrous threat of climate change hanging over us. Of course, the climate has always been changing as the world shifts from snow ball to desert and back again, but it is the speed of change that matters. I do not think there has ever occurred before as radical an intervention in Nature such as we provide – unless one includes the earth being hit by a large meteorite. (See end note)
On a physical level, the planet Paradise has great similarities with the deep green native bush of New Zealand. When you walk there, especially if you are alone, you can feel the immense presence of Nature. It is present in the bird song, in the creak of branches, in the smell of gum and the constant presence of water, whether in a tumbling stream or a quiet lake. The mysterious North Yorkshire Moors where I grew up are also present in the book, as is the desert in the heart of Australia. The truth is, of course, that you can encounter Nature almost anywhere where you can be alone and able to listen, as it were, to the silence. However, lest all this seem too fey, let me add that I am quite down to earth and scientifically minded – I have a microscope beside my desk and that is a constant source of wonder and inspiration, whether I am studying the sting of a wasp, a torn leaf or the fleas from my cat. At day’s end, it is the mystery of it all that intrigues me most…. and that I try to communicate.
Did you sit down and work out all of the details before writing, or did you see what your mind came up with as you were working, and then tidy it all up afterwards?
The book is revealed in the writing. My starting point is always an event which, for some reason – not always clear – matters to me. This event might later prove to be the climax of a novel, but is always a turning point in the narrative to be. It is, in a word, crucial.
In the case of The Disestablishment of Paradise, there is a moment when Mack and Hera are looking for the Dendron and they finally see its footprints in the desert sand. That event, which occurs about halfway through the book, was one of the starting points. The question I faced (and always do in my novels) was how do the characters get to that point, and what happens then?
Incidentally, that event also occurs in a short story that I wrote many years ago and that I put away in the drawer unfinished, and never thought about again. I was not ready to embark on a book such as the D of P at that time, and timing is important. As with athletes wanting to run a marathon, so writers too have to build up their experience in order to write a big book. Well, I re-discovered the story just a few months ago, and there, staring at me was the name Dendron, and the footprints in the sand made by a creature in need, and a human being, a man, who was prepared to risk his life to save it. So, the imagination and the memory work in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.
Years after writing that incomplete short story, the time was right for me to have a go at writing the novel with the footprints in the sand. The idea which they express became very important to me, very passionate, very alive.. As Hera says, when she is talking to Mack and trying to persuade him to stay with her and help save the Dendron: “Well… there may be one such creature still alive. One. One only. ONE in the whole of the entire universe. ONE. Think of that. One. The last. The only. The never, ever, ever to be repeated. And you and I are here to help it.”
So, the starting point is an event which (for whatever reason) matters to me. The next thing I discover is the first line which is more or less a gift. I have no idea where it comes from. But one line leads to another, and suddenly I find that incidents are taking shape and new characters are suggesting themselves or even marching boldly into the story and demanding to be heard. At times the writing can be like taking dictation. It is as if the story has started to tell its self.
I know this may seem a strange procedure, but this is more or less exactly how my novels are made. Of course there is a controlling intelligence (mine) and I am very strict with myself and I do a tremendous amount of research… but the novel-to-be generates its own momentum. After a certain point the shape of the plot becomes very clear, and that is when I begin to make notes to myself. Ideas about the future development come thick and fast, but there is always an element of the unknown, and the unpredictable.
Two last things. First, I do not believe in making plans and character sketches etc. I did once try to plan a novel and it just did not work, it felt like trying to do a painting while wearing a straight-jacket. Second, (and here my practice is at variance with the ideas taught in writing classes,) no matter how long it takes I do not leave a chapter unfinished before moving on to the next one. If I hit a problem, I never say “I’ll come back and sort that out later.” Just occasionally I have to go back and start again, but not often. Some writers I have talked to write drafts which they then correct when the book is finished. I can not do that. If I were to do that I would end up writing a new book.
In the D of P, I found myself completing chapters and then turning aside and writing the sections which I have called “Documents” These were written in different voices. So the novel grew in a strange way. I once watched someone making a carpet. They did not do the whole thing from bottom up, but worked in different blocks of colour. Well my practice resembles that. My ideal and my practice is to have, at the end of a day’s writing, several pages that are more or less finished. The next day I read them and tune in to the novel. It is not unusual for me to forget exactly what I have written on the previous day – which is a bit strange, I admit, but is something to do with concentration, I think. The novel takes place in a world of its own, and one gets back into this world by reading the last few pages one has written. Then I place the pages face down to one side – and I take pleasure in watching the little pile grow as the weeks pass.
To me it is important that I do not think of my pages as temporary or incomplete – for me they are building blocks and they have to be finished if they are to take the weight. As a consequence it takes me quite a long time to write a novel, but I rarely have to make major changes… that is until the editor gets to work.
Would you like to live on Paradise, or in the future you’ve invented?
Yes. I would love to have lived on Paradise in its early days, especially if I could have someone like Sasha Malik to guide me… but I have lived there in a way. The imagination can be very real and it is not unknown for writers to fall in love with their characters. It would be nice to bathe in that warm sea and hitch the occasional ride on a passing Dendron or watch a Michelangelo Reaper perform its magic – from a safe distance of course.
However, I could not survive in the world which Paradise becomes. It is a catastrophe. I would be torn apart in minutes. It is what happens to civilization (or innocence too) when things break down, when the tipping point is reached, when sanity gives way to madness.
I have no idea what is happening on Paradise right now. I can tell you that a battle is raging. It is tragic really because the roots are now polluted and harmony has become chaos
The question you pose is intriguing. It is tempting for a writer to create happy endings, or false endings to give a sense of completeness or hope. But it is a temptation to be resisted. While writers may fall in love with their heroes and villains, and the imaginary worlds they create, at the same time, they must be ruthlessly objective. Ultimately, we are always writing about the only world we really know – our own lovely Earth.
Make no mistake, to be in love and objective at the same time – that is hard but necessary. No wonder some writers are a bit dotty.
Dr Hera Melhuish is a complex and sometimes difficult character. Do you think you would like her if you met her in real life? If she lived in 2013, what would she be doing?
Yes I would like her very much. She has endured a great deal of sorrow, and yet she retains a ready wit and a sharp intelligence, a bold spirit and a capacity to love unconditionally. Such women have much to teach us and I would have lots of questions to ask her.
It intrigued me when I was writing the book that it was becoming a book about and by women. They are the main characters. In fact there is only one man of substance, Mack, and he is important but he does not drive the novel. It is the women who make the hard decisions and who live with the consequences. This was not planned, but it is what happened. And I was very happy about that.
When I was writing The Disestablishment of Paradise, I read a wonderful book called Man on Earth by Jacquetta Hawkes. That book influenced me greatly and I can not recommend it too highly. Jacquetta is (was) well-known as an archaeologist – she died some years ago – and in her book she speaks of the wonder of life and the achievements of our finest artists and thinkers. She was married to J. B. Priestly. I did not realize it at the time of writing, but I think Jacquetta’s bigness of mind influenced my portrayal of Hera. Both are women of great intelligence, great wisdom and great passion.
If Hera were alive now she would either be a leader in Greenpeace battling to save the whales in the Antarctic ocean or a doctor caring for children caught up in any one of the many wars taking place round the world at present. She would also have a house with a splendid untidy garden and high walls behind which she could retire and let her hair down when exhausted.
What brought you back to prose writing? Do you have any plans for the future?
I have had three careers which have sometimes existed simultaneously: as a theatre director, as a teacher of drama and as a writer. My four books Escape to the Wild Wood, Stand Alone Stan, The Dragon Wakes and The Burning Forest each of which is an episode in a tetralogy called A Land Fit for Heroes had emptied me of ideas. I actually felt empty when I finished the last one. All my knowledge and feelings had somehow been poured into those books. For a while, I thought I had nothing more to say. I was also saddened that those books had not do not been widely read even though they were well reviewed. Perhaps their day will come. If readers enjoy The Disestablishment of Paradise, then I am very sure they would enjoy A Land Fit for Heroes.
Anyway…. It took a while before I felt the urge to write again. I went back to working in the theatre. At the same time, I read widely and voraciously. Wrote some poems. Taught creative drama. Fiddled in the garden… and was on the whole, happy. But then, little by little, ideas started to come to me. I was worried about climate change and the seeming inability of our governments to deal with it effectively. I was horrified at what was happening to our wild-life especially the wanton killing of animals such as elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horns. I thought about the death of species. I remembered the image of a lonely creature blundering into the desert, leaving only its footprints…. And then one day I simply started to write again. It just happened. I probably thought it was another short story starting up – but the writing took off. I actually began at what is now Chapter 2 of the present ms. at the point where Hera is on Paradise and planting at sea.
Quickly the story became complex, and the voices of the characters became clear. The story outline developed. I decided to use a story teller as I had done in The Eye of the Queen and Wulfsyarn, A Mosaic and this seemed to make the telling easier. I also had the idea that I wanted to write special ‘documents’ to make the story more plausible. Almost without knowing it, I was writing again and very happy to be doing so. Simple really… well not quite. But that is another story.
For the future: I have found that the ideas I developed in The Disestablishment of Paradise remain very strong in me. As a result, I have written a version of the story for younger readers called The Paradise Mission. The story is told by a young woman called Hetty, who is an Explorer. She has arrived on Paradise to look for a young man called Crispin. He was the first human to reach Paradise, but has now gone missing. It is her mission to find out what has happened to him and to rescue him if possible. In fulfilling her mission, she encounters Paradise in all its wonder, danger and exuberance. What happens to them is, for the time being, a secret – but I hope the story will be published soon.
I am also at work on a new novel – a dark comedy called The Headman – but there is not much I can tell you about that except that the story keeps changing. It has not yet found its form and seems to be quite different to anything I have written before though the theme of renewal is familiar. I bring back to life some very misty characters from mythology.
End note. One of the finest texts I have read on the topic of climate change is the recently published Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs. Pantheon Books New York. 2012. The book is both an adventure story and a scientific report documenting the author’s travels to some of the most remote and extreme parts of our planet, in order to find out what is happening. His conclusions have as their backdrop the history of our ever changing, ever ending and renewing world. Beautifully written.