JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com With me today is Alexandra Duncan, the award-winning author of “Salvage.” Welcome, Alexandra.
Alexandra Duncan: Hi. Thanks for having me.
JMW: We’re glad you’re here. Congratulations on winning the Compton Crook yesterday.
Alexandra Duncan: Thank you. It was really, really thrilling and a great surprise.
JMW: “Salvage” is a wonderful book even if it is dystopian and dystopian on so many levels, politically, culturally, ecologically. Why are dystopian novels important?
Alexandra Duncan: I think they are a way of bringing up social issues. One of the great things about science fiction or fantasy as well is that you can take a contemporary issue, remove it from its context, and then deal with all of the ramifications of it in this whole other context and get a new view on it that it’s very difficult to have looking at into the real world. And I think dystopias are useful for that, for thinking about the consequences of things like climate change or women’s rights or anything that affects the way that we live in the world.
JMW: Like I’ve said, I believe 1984 was a very important work, and we needed it, even though it wasn’t pleasant to read, but this “Salvage” is. “Salvage” has got a lot of adventure in there, too. But what’s interesting to me is how diverse the cast was and specifically your main character. What inspired you to tackle a main character so different from yourself and empower 21st century North American woman?
Alexandra Duncan: Sure. I think Ava and I have more in common than meets the eye. When I was growing up, my stepfather was the minister of a Methodist Church. And even though the church that we were in was very much on the progressive end of the Protestant spectrum, there were still very narrow prescribed gender roles largely because we’re talking about the 1980s and ’90s in the rural south.
Progressive there is a very different thing than it is in New York City or San Francisco or someplace like that. And so part of Ava’s culture, this closed culture of maybe of 200 or 300 people that are her extended family on the ship, part of writing that came out of my own experience of growing up in this very small community, and within that community, this relatively small church where everyone knew everyone, everyone knew what everyone was doing. Everybody was watching everybody.
JMW: And everybody knew you were the minister’s daughter.
Alexandra Duncan: Right. So definitely some scrutiny there. And then there are some other things about Ava, too, which is that she can’t read or write. Obviously, that’s very different from me. I was very fortunate to have educated parents and get an education myself and not having barriers as far as that went.
But when I was in college, I was a tutor for kids who have learning disabilities or who had just fallen behind their grade level because of other things going on in their life. One of my students had four younger siblings and her parents were gone most of the night. And so she at 13 was the one bathing the kids, getting them ready for bed, feeding them, doing everything for them because her parents were at work.
And so obviously her homework suffered for that reason. So when I wrote Ava as not being able to read or write and going on her journey throughout the book toward learning how to do that and becoming empowered by it, I was definitely thinking about those kids that I had worked with and their amazing fortitude. It was not that they were stupid or unwilling to work or anything like that, there were just a lot of challenges going on for them.
JMW: Speaking of Ava and how she diverges from you, how important is diversity in your fiction?
Alexandra Duncan: I think it’s really, really important. I think it’s important that fiction mirror the real world in that way, that our real world is very diverse, and I think it’s important that all the people out there who can see themselves in fiction and then that a person like me, a white woman, can see somebody who’s different from her and that’s the way we develop empathy and start to understand other people. So I think it’s really, really important to have fiction be in model for that.
JMW: And empathy is very important to you. I noticed on your website that you have links to a number of really important organizations all over the spectrum and that here at Balticon [SP], you’re on a number of panels talking about activism. How does activism relate to your fiction and why is it important to integrate it in there?
Alexandra Duncan: That’s a really great question. When I was a teenager, I was very, very interested in political activism and social justice. I had visited Haiti and Nicaragua, which are two of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, to do volunteer work and also just to understand how people lived there.
And I came back from there at 15 and 16 having gone on that trip thinking I owe it to the world to give whatever I can to make it a little bit better. What I found in the years after that is that it’s very easy to burn out thinking, “I must do everything I can. I must sacrifice my life to this.”
And so I started to look for ways that I could integrate that feeling that I want to do as much good as I can with my career, in addition to writing, I’m a librarian. And then I try to look for opportunities just to give back a little bit.
The links on my website are . . . you’re right, there’s a large variety there, links to rain, to all kinds of organizations that deal with maternal death and morbidity, just all kinds of things that are concerned with making people’s lives better around the world. I feel like my one little piece that I can do is to signal boost for those causes.
JMW: And signal boost for the cause of librarians. Because a lot of this is obviously drawn from your life experiences. But there’s all that sciencey stuff that goes into a science fiction story, especially when it takes place in a future Earth where you have to get the details. Did being a librarian help in that regard or was it just something you enjoyed reading on your own?
Alexandra Duncan: I think being a librarian definitely helped. I have that curiosity, which is part of what made me a librarian, to want to say, “Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m going to go and find out.” But then being a librarian, I’m at the center of this web of all this access to information. So I know, “Oh, I can order a book from there or oh, I can go to this aggregator of journal articles and read about this.”
A lot of the science in “Salvage” is medical or sociological, which is . . . Those are some sciences that I find fascinating. My mother is a nurse, and so she was also really helpful for me when I would go to her and say, “What would really happen to you if you had a severe calcium deficiency, which is what happens to you if you spend too much time in zero gravity or you start to have this terrifying calcium deficiency that will actually kill you.” But I couldn’t have . . .
JMW: No. You had to find a way around that. They have to have to a medical away of dealing with it because so many people lived in space who did that.
Alexandra Duncan: Right. But she was able to describe to me some of the beginning signs of what would happen to you with that kind of calcium deficiency. And so Ava goes through some of those things.
JMW: Oooh scary. Also scary. You mention accidental fires on your website. Are you a fire starter?
Alexandra Duncan: No, I’m just really accident prone. I went through a baking phase, a major baking phase.
JMW: Something tells me that was not a good thing.
Alexandra Duncan: I mean, it was a good thing that we got lot of apple pies out of it. But probably the most dramatic incident was when I decided that I was going to try to bake a vegan pie for my friends who are vegan. I was using a butter substitute of vegetable oil base thing, and I didn’t realize that you’re supposed to put less of that in than butter.
What happened is it liquefied and bubbled up over the side and then fell down onto the burner, and yeah, there’s fire everywhere. And of course, I was doing laundry that day so I was just wearing a bathrobe and opened up the oven, and it’s like flames. I just shun it for a second. I was like imagining the fireman showing up with me being in my bathrobe, and I burned my house down because of a pie. Then I opened it back up and threw flour on it and everything was fine.
JMW: Flour and baking soda will solve most of life’s problem.
Alexandra Duncan: But yeah, that’s one of the instances of me catching things on fire.
JMW: And I bet the cats were no help whatsoever.
Alexandra Duncan: No.
JMW: Not a bit.
Alexandra Duncan: I don’t even think they’ve noticed. My cats are terrible in understanding danger.
JMW: They figured as long as you’re alive and feeding them, what do they care? All right. We’re coming up on the end of the interview. Could you please give our viewers a little idea of what you’re working on now?
Alexandra Duncan: Sure. I have just finished doing edits on the companion novel to “Salvage.” The companion novel is named “Sound” and it will be out September 22nd this year. So I’m really excited about that. I am drafting another novel after that that will be more of a near-future dystopia, having to do with genetically modified crops but also explosions.
JMW: Explosions are good. Explosions are good. No short stories. Are you focusing on novels?
Alexandra Duncan: I am focusing on novels at the moment, yeah.
JMW: Anything you’d like to add?
Alexandra Duncan: No, I don’t think so. I really appreciate you having me. It was really nice to talk to you.
JMW: Thank you. We loved having you, Alexandra. Thank you for being here and thank you for BuzzyMag.com.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.