This interview has been edited for length.
Most likely, your first dystopian or utopian novels swept you away and gave you life in your high school or even elementary school years. From the chilling books by Lois Lowry (The Giver Quartet ) to the existence-questioning His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, dystopian fiction has captivated us for a great portion of our lives. One such great collection you might remember is Gemma Malley’s The Declaration and its sequels. They were, and still are, exciting and breathtaking novels that take place in a world where old age is but a memory and population control keeps the world intact. I am extremely grateful to the author for answering a few questions about her books and for giving amazing advice to young, aspiring authors. Below, please enjoy an interview with Gemma Malley.
Was the original idea for The Declaration a dystopian novel or did it take some time for the setting to become a dystopian society?
The starting point for The Declaration was my obsession with ageing. Not the fear of getting old, but that fact that people are living longer and longer, that there are eminent scientists devoting all their time to finding a ‘cure’ for ageing, and that no one seems to be asking the really important questions: do we really want to live forever? What would happen if we did?
I read a great book by Simone de Beauvoir years ago called All Men are Mortal, which looked at the prison of immortality from the perspective of an individual, and I wanted to look at it more widely. I read recently that for children being born now, the average age of life expectancy will be one hundred years. So there will be people living much longer than that. What does that mean? And with people having fewer children, how is the world going to change?
I thought I wanted to write an article about it, then I suddenly found a character in my head: Anna, a surplus child, born illegally into a world where children weren’t allowed anymore. (That’s something no one ever talks about: if we live forever, there’s no need—or space—for children anymore. So that’s no new ideas, no young kid on the block transforming huge computers into iPhones or challenging the notion that the world is flat.) As soon as Anna was in my head, I knew that this was a book, and that it was her story; the dystopian society around her was simply the backdrop.
For centuries, readers (especially young adults) have been attracted to utopian and dystopian fiction. Why do you think this genre has such a continuous and powerful draw for us? Were you influenced by any earlier novels of this genre?
I loved Brave New World and 1984 when I was a teenager. I’m not into dystopia for dystopia’s sake, but I think these books are timeless because they explore our fears. They’re grounded in reality—we can imagine how the world might have got to that point—which makes them all the more terrifying.
In my books I’m always trying to answer a question—so in The Declaration it’s: “do we really want to live for ever? Have we considered the consequences?”; in The Resistance it’s: “would you take longevity drugs if you had the chance? How happy are we to brush uncomfortable facts under the table in the search for what we want?”; in The Legacy it’s: “what happens if the human race is reliant on a drug… and then the drug goes wrong?”.
In my next trilogy, The Killables, The Disappearances, and The System, I wanted to ask whether a ‘perfect’ society was possible; and whether we are turning the world into our own version of 1984 (we may not have Big Brother watching us, but we’re asking the world to scrutinise and judge us instead, with selfies, Facebook updates, tweets, and Instagram—continually seeking approval, and subjecting ourselves to abuse and bullying in the process).
Then in The Returners, I wanted to explore what would happen if we let our fears push us into super right-wing territory, and ask whether we have true free will or if we are the product of our environment or upbringing. All of these stories lend themselves to varying degrees to dystopian settings. For me, the important thing is that the reader can totally envisage our current society ending up in this place… I always spend a lot of time working out how we get to this new world from where we are now. I’m not saying it’s inevitable, but I’m shining a light and saying, “look, if we carry on down this road, we could be headed here… and it’s not so great”.
The Declaration series puts great emphasis on population, reproduction, and health. Why did you decide to use these issues as the targets of control and organization in the novels?
Because they’re the big issues we all face. Health is the elephant in the room right now—we’re living longer, and we’re healthier, but that’s partly because our health system is so much better. Drugs are available to help us, but they’re expensive. Birth rates are plummeting in the developed world, and as other countries become more economically successful, their birth rates will lower too. It’s not that they are the targets of control and organization so much as that by solving one problem, we create more. Lower birth rates are good environmentally, but what is the societal and financial impact? Great healthcare is obviously fantastic, but does it put a great deal of control in particular hands?
What effects, if any, would you hope your books to have on teen audiences?
I just want to get people thinking. Thinking about the world, about themselves. I think being a teenager is exhilarating—exciting and terrifying. You realise that the world isn’t black and white, that you need to figure things out yourself, that no one has all the answers. It’s the very best time to read challenging stories. I got really into existentialism and dark Russian novels like Crime and Punishment when I was a teenager (no, I didn’t have a life—we didn’t have Facebook back then!). I hope my books have ideas in them that stay with people, and make them look at the world a little differently.
Do you have any advice for university English Majors who are about to venture out into the fields of writing, publishing, or editing?
Keep a love of reading and/or writing, because that will sustain you. Be flexible. Understand that publishing is a business like any other; audience is important, as is marketing and publicity. Don’t be precious. Look people in the eye and smile a lot—people want to work with those who can see the possibilities. Get out there: make friends and nurture them. Be organised (writing requires a lot of planning and time management). Remind yourself how lucky you are every day, even when you may not feel so lucky.
You can check out Gemma Malley’s website at: http://www.gemmamalley.com/
and all her wonderful novels at: http://www.amazon.com/Gemma-Malley/e/B001JPCE6S
-contributed by Polina Zak