Nina Allan is this year’s winner of two prestigious European SF Awards, BSFA and Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire
Cristian Tamas : Hello, Nina, thank you for the acceptance of this interview !
What’s a sophisticated intellectual like you doing in a place like this, the nerds&geeks playground, the speculative fiction? Why in heaven’s name, SF?
Nina Allan : I’m not sure I’d describe myself as a sophisticated intellectual, but thanks for the compliment! As for science fiction, I truly believe that no other literature offers greater possibilities for innovation, for exploration and for self-expression. Clearly there are a lot of SF works that do not rise to that challenge, but that does not deny the possibility, and nor should it prevent writers from striving for excellence.
I have loved SF my whole life. I think my first encounter with science fiction was probably Doctor Who, which I began watching at the age of six and never stopped (see what I mean about underachievement not being a deterrent?) but it was the novels of John Christopher (The Tripods trilogy) and H. G. Wells (The Time Machine) that made me a true convert. There was something in these writers’ desire to see further than the accepted orthodoxy of facts that just clicked with me, because it accorded so closely with my own habits of creative imagining and obsessive questioning. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ‘science fiction’ until I was in my late teens – these were simply the books and writers that grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go.
Cristian Tamas : “Recurring obsessions include old clocks and rare insects, forgotten manuscripts and abandoned houses”, you wrote. And spiders? “The Spider’s House”? “Spin” (with a spider on the cover !)? “A Thread of Truth”? It’s something obviously related to the Arachne myth, this persistence of the spider motif (“associated with wisdom and divination, the spider serves as a channel of communication with the spirit world…”) ?
Nina Allan : I love that idea of the spider being a channel of communication with the spirit world! When I was younger (and still, but especially as a child) I spent a lot of time observing spiders in my back garden, and looking for new and different spiders when I went on holiday. I was fascinated by the various species of spiders (wolf spiders, garden spiders, house spiders, crab spiders) and how different they were from one another in their habits, habitat and behavior. Some of them even seemed to have distinct personalities!
As a writer, I find there’s so much you can do with spiders – symbolically, metaphorically – and as a writer who is particularly interested in the creative impulse, I find so much imagery in the world of spiders it’s difficult to stop returning to it. The story of Arachne, especially, has always been a touchstone for me, because it embodies in a short but very powerful tale the risk and cost, the arrogance and despair that so often come with being an artist.
Spiders are fascinating creatures, full stop! I guess you could say they’ve become a kind of mascot for me.
Cristian Tamas : You’ve studied Russian literature (that’s really exotic, isn’t it?) at the University of Exeter and Corpus Christi College, Oxford and you mentioned Vladimir Nabokov (a White Russian) and of course, the Russian classics (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov – tsarist Russians) as some of your favourites. What about other Russian writers as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, the Strugatsky brothers, Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, Tatyana Tolstaya (I think “The Slynx” is a masterpiece!), Ludmila Ulitskaya ? Why should someone study Russian literature? What’s the point and what’s the use? Why not American or English or French or German or Italian or Spanish literature?
Nina Allan : Firstly, thank you so much for your recommendation of Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx. I have not read her work up till now (although her grandfather Alexei’s Road to Calvary made a huge impression on me when I read it at university) but I just read a preview of The Slynx and felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle with excitement! I ordered a copy straight away and can’t wait to read it. This seems like precisely the kind of SF the world needs more of (and that UK and American readers should be made aware of) – wholly original, crazy and mind-expanding writing that delights in language and in ideas that no one else has dared to write down. When I read something like this I feel ashamed not to have pushed my own writing this far yet. But getting back to your question, yes, I have read a lot of 20th Century Russian literature – Bulgakov of course (one of my own stories, ‘Chaconne’, was inspired by his novel The White Guard), Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Paustovsky, Platonov, Aitmatov, Evrofeev, Petrushevskaya. I read everything I could find by the Strugatskys (in translation) when I was in my teens, and their Roadside Picnic remains a beloved, touchstone work for me. I wish more people knew Zmyatin’s We (a classic dystopia that pre-dates both Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four) and his amazing short story ‘The Cave’. I think Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 is extraordinary. I’ve not yet read Vladimir Sorokin, but as with Tolstaya’s The Slynx, I’ve just ordered his Ice trilogy and can’t wait to read it. It seems there’s some fantastically exciting speculative fiction coming out of Russia right now. I’m the first to admit that I’m hopelessly behind with my reading in this area (there’s always too much to read, and too little time) but your question has filled me with the desire to catch up, at least a little, and to chart my findings.
In reply to an earlier part of your question, I’m sure that yes, studying Russian did indeed seem an ‘exotic’ choice to a lot of people at the time. I first began learning about Russia, its language, literature and culture in the early nineteen-eighties, when most of what people here in the UK knew about Russia and the Soviet Union came from news reports about what Brezhnev said to Reagan, so not exactly a reliable indicator of what most ordinary Russians were thinking and feeling. Back then, if you were studying Russian it usually meant you’d end up working for the Civil Service in one capacity or another. My own leanings were rather different – my heroes were Dostoevsky, Tsvetayeva, Mandelstam. I think it’s safe to say that my immersion in things Russian either changed me completely or brought completely to the surface aspects of my intellect and character that had always been there but that needed the influence of the Russian soul to set them free.
There is nothing to compare with language for gaining an insight into another culture, another people. In a sense it is something that cannot be quantified, because so much is nuance, instinct, ‘feel’. As well as Russian, I have always felt a close affinity with German novelists (I actually read German better than I read Russian). I regret that I don’t know Spanish, because there are so many Spanish-language writers I wish I could read at least a little of in their original language. I regret also that I do not know any of the oriental languages – I love the speculative cinema of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and I know I’d gain even more from these films if I could get a proper sense of how their languages are structured.
Whichever language you choose to learn, it will never be a waste of time. Understanding a second language, even a little, will always broaden your cultural horizons, and bring new inspirations.
Cristian Tamas : Do you like Andrei Tarkovsky’s films? Have you seen “Solaris” and “Stalker”?
Nina Allan : I worship Tarkovsky’s films! I first saw Solaris, completely by chance, when I was about fourteen. I had no idea what I was watching, just that it was something marvelous and that I wanted to keep on watching it. I saw it a second time about ten years later, with a real sense of ‘homecoming’. I saw Andrey Rublev and Stalker and The Mirror at around the same time. I’m very fond of Stalker – I love the way it tells the story of the Strugatskys’ novel but in a completely different way – but Solaris will always have a very special place in my heart. I only need to hear the Bach prelude that opens it and I’m transported.
Cristian Tamas : Do you consider yourself a European writer? What is Europe for you? A peninsula of Asia, a vast hinterland between Great Britain and Russia? Is Russia a part of Europe or should be?
Nina Allan : I think in the kinds of ideas and forms I like to explore, I’m a very European writer. Experimenting with form, and with the idea of ‘the idea’ as the main subject of a novel is still something a lot of English novelists (and readers!) view with suspicion, but I think European writers are much more at home with these concepts, and accept them much more easily into the mainstream. I love what certain French novelists – Carrère, Binet, Houellebecq, Toussaint, for example – do with form and language. But in the imagery I use – my sense of place – and in the way my characters relate to one another I think I’m a very English writer, all the more so as I get older. The physical and cultural landscape of my own country is central to my imaginative process. So I’m an odd mixture.
Europe is not an outpost of anywhere, it’s the crucible of Western culture. I think any Russian would tell you that the question of whether Russia is ‘naturally’ an European nation, or an Asiatic nation, or something utterly indescribable and a law unto itself, will most likely never be answered. What was it Gogol said about a troika rushing precipitously downhill..?
Cristian Tamas : Great Britain is one of the 3% countries (as US) – only 3% of the total number of books published are translations, in comparison with 25-30% in Euro-continental countries. Why is it so? Is it a symptom of Anglo-centric nombrilism? Or just a result of the former British cultural domination of its colonies ?
Nina Allan : I think it’s both those things, to be honest, and more besides. I’m afraid there is still a tendency among the English (and the Americans) to be lazy, to take it for granted that English is the ‘default’ language, that there is no need for them to learn to speak or even take much of an interest in other languages. I have always found this horribly embarrassing – not that English people don’t learn other languages, necessarily, because not everyone finds this easy, but that many don’t even see their ignorance as a problem. I have noticed in recent years that there is something of a shift at the higher end of the literary spectrum – more writers being translated and gaining a following, prizes like the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize bringing some much-needed attention to writing in languages other than English – but a level playing field still seems a long way off. Political parties like UKIP, with their dreadful ‘little Englander’ mentality, are certainly not helping this situation…
Cristian Tamas : Do you think that a transatlantic culture exists? From continental Europe it seems that UK is culturally mesmerized by US, only tangentially interested by the euro-continental topics and preoccupations… What is your opinion?
Nina Allan : I think that is, regrettably, very true. I think the big turning point here was when Margaret Thatcher allied herself (and by extension, our whole country) with Ronald Reagan and with the American model of capitalism. This position was further entrenched when Tony Blair sided with George W. Bush over the Iraq war. If Blair had sided himself with Europe in opposing Bush’s action, we might have a different world picture today.
Cristian Tamas : Your work had been translated in France, Spain and Germany and you know very well that there are millions of English language readers in continental Europe. By the way, UK is the largest intra-European (and world, also) books exporter and it’s a reality that British literature (speculative fiction included) is the best known European literature in continental Europe. British writers, for example, are the ones most often invited to the different Euro-continental countries’ SF events (with some exceptions such as Aliette de Bodard, Hannu Rajaniemi, Karin Tidbeck and Andrzej Sapkowski). Is this not a culturally dominating position?
Nina Allan : As I’ve mentioned before in reply to an earlier question, I think this ‘taking for granted’ is dangerous for British writers, because it leads to intellectual laziness, and eventually a stultification of the imagination. It’s essential for the creative process, not to mention the political process, to be exposed to ideas and culture beyond one’s immediate environment. I personally think it would be fantastic if more of the British SF events were to invite guests of honour from other countries. The SF scene might start to look very different if they did.
Cristian Tamas : What speculative fiction writers from continental Europe do you know?
Nina Allan : Hannu Rajaniemi of course, Aliette de Bodard, Karin Tidbeck, Emmi Itaranta, Johanna Sinisalo, Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, Ionna Bourazopoulou, Frank Schätzing, Wolfgang Jeschke, Zoran Zivkovic, Marianne Leconte, Tim Krabbe, Albert Sanchez Pińol, Sofia Rhei, Friedebert Tuglas, Jacek Dukaj, and not forgetting the late, great Stanislaw Lem. It would be wonderful to have a database listing European SF works in translation, so British readers could more easily find out about and gain access to more European writers.
Cristian Tamas : “The feminization and infantilization of speculative fiction has resulted in the worldwide success of fantasy, an intellectually numb commercial degradation of fantastika” – at least according to the claims of some „male chauvinist pigs”. That’s not politically correct at all, wouldn’t you agree? Would it be more politically correct to condemn and to renounce to the male domination of the SF field by replacing the masculine pronoun “he” with the feminine “she”, for example? In our “Brave New World”, “questions of gender as such do not exist”?
Nina Allan: Regrettably, questions of gender do still exist – as is aptly demonstrated in the quote above. For a long time, science fiction was perceived both by insiders and outsiders as a kind of ‘boys only’ club, and I think there is still a misconception in some quarters that women are ‘not interested’ in SF. This is patently nonsense, and I think it becomes increasingly tiring for women – both writers and fans – to have to explain themselves and to refute specious arguments that hold no water in the first place. Speaking from my own experience as a woman who writes SF, I have received only encouragement from both male and female writers, readers, fans and critics. I have to say that as a younger reader it never even crossed my mind that as a female I ‘should not’ be reading SF! I was reading Hugh Walters’s space exploration series (the YA of its time) when I was twelve years old, also John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, which remains an inspiration to this day. I think the best way of confronting entrenched opinion is for women to simply keep doing what they’ve been doing for centuries – writing great SF.
Cristian Tamas : Brian Aldiss is convinced that modern speculative fiction was invented by a woman, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (that’s my opinion, too !) Indeed, some of our best SF writers are women such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.), Catherine L. Moore, Katharine Burdekin (Murray Constantine), Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, etc. ; “In 1948, 10–15% of science fiction writers were female; women’s role in speculative fiction (including science fiction) has grown since then, and in 1999, women comprised 36% of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s professional members.” And Leigh Brackett says of the history of women in SF: “There always were a certain number of women fans and women readers.” Is speculative fiction’s “male-oriented” reputation unjustified?
Nina Allan: Well, yes and no. As Leigh Brackett suggests, the reality on the ground has always been that women read, write and enjoy science fiction. As you rightly say yourself, it could be argued that the first modern science fiction novel was written by a woman – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and that a woman invented the genre. However, the number of women SF writers with standing book contracts with major publishers is still many times smaller, in the UK at least, than the number of men, which would seem to suggest that certain long-standing prejudices – ‘women write fantasy, men write SF’ – still exist and are being upheld to a degree. Even within fantasy you can still find industry bias towards male writers – walk into any major bookstore and you’ll see male SFF authors outnumbering women on most of the table displays. As always, the best thing individual readers and writers can do to help to combat these prejudices is to speak out, to make their feelings known to their readership, their fan base, their publishers. It’s only by highlighting the problem that we can begin to solve it.
Cristian Tamas : “I have no great love for genre staples such as vampires, zombies, satanists, werewolves…”, “I’ll never write secondary world high fantasy because (along with its boring twin brother, sword and sorcery) it’s probably the area of the fantastic I’m least interested in” you said. Why not? Staples like these are part of the business, are they not ? Big Business – the “Zombie Business” alone is generating 5 billion dollars annually ! If “greed is good”, then what value has art ? Why not make the consumers happy by giving them more of what they want ? What are your favourite themes ?
Nina Allan: As any writer will tell you, there are far easier ways of making money than writing, and anyone who simply wishes to become rich would be best advised to choose another profession! Of course, there always have been and always will be ‘zeitgeist anomalies’, certain subject areas in fiction that become popular overnight, generate a huge amount of wealth for those who are lucky enough to cash in on them at the beginning, and then disappear equally rapidly, to be replaced by something more fashionable. And if people enjoy zombie stories they should read zombie stories! There are some good ones out there (Max Brooks’s World War Z and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, just as two examples). And I think I also said in the blog post you quote above that if I could think of a new angle on an old trope, a way of making it interesting to write about, then I’d go for it. (I wrote a vampire story two years ago, as a bet with my partner, who challenged me to write a vampire story with some original features. The story is called ‘Sunshine’, and it was reprinted in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best SF and Fantasy 2013. I think the story stands up fairly well, but that’s definitely all I have to say about vampires for the time being.)
The main reason I generally avoid the ‘usual suspects’ in speculative fiction is not because I disapprove of people reading this kind of fiction (I don’t) but because I don’t find much in it that speaks to me personally. For me, writing fiction is all about the challenge of producing work that is meaningful to me, that reveals something of the way I see the world, a way of setting down ideas and images that is entirely my own. I love to write about memory and the way it codifies the human personality, the passage of time and what it means in human terms, the possibility of moving beyond our current sphere of knowledge, literally or figuratively into other worlds. I admire SF that seeks to examine and question current ‘realworld’ political, social or cultural issues in innovative and challenging ways. These are the ideas that excite me, and I want to convey some of that excitement in my own writing. If I don’t feel excited by what I’m writing about, readers certainly won’t. I think it’s important to see readers as fellow explorers, people you’re inviting along on a voyage of discovery, as opposed to passive ‘customers’ – readers are always smarter than the industry believes…
Cristian Tamas : There are non-Anglo European SF authors writing directly in english as Aliette de Bodard, Hannu Rajaniemi, Tom Croshill, the result being that their talent and originality are worldwide known. Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad are also fine examples of European authors writing in English. However, Zoran Zivkovic, the Serbian fantastika author is saying that in spite of being a professor of English language and literature, he will never write in English: “I would never write my fiction in any other language than my native Serbian. It is the language of my art. When I wish a prose text of mine to be available in English translation, I rely on a good English translator”. Should one cultivate only one’s native garden?
Nina Allan: I think Zoran Zivkovic is entirely right to write his fiction in his native language. He clearly feels that to do otherwise would be to dilute his emotions, to be less true to himself as a writer. But such a statement would not be true for every writer. For Joseph Conrad, writing in English was a decisive act, a break with his past, a reinvention of self that he found liberating rather than constraining. Nabokov grew up multilingual – the very fact of his multilingualism was always a defining feature of his writing, one he used to play linguistic games and create multilayered tapestries of language that no other writer has been able to emulate, before or since. The Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski always claimed that writing in English freed him up to express emotions and ideas he would have felt ambivalent or reticent about expressing in his native language. So I would say this is a very personal decision that each multilingual writer has to make for him- or herself. The most important thing though is that this should be a free choice – no writer should come under pressure to write in English. Diversity in terms of language should be encouraged, cherished and supported through adequate and skilful translation.
Cristian Tamas : The Euro-continentals are mainly watching US and UK movies and series, reading mainly US and UK novels and comics, playing US videogames, using US tools as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc, following like lemmings US trends and crazes…Globalization means Americanization? Has Euro-continental popular culture (and the world’s, too) been Anglo-colonized?
Nina Allan: To an extent, the ‘McDonald’s Effect’ has been endemic in the UK and Europe for three decades or more. (I well remember my own sense of sadness when the first branch of McDonald’s opened in Moscow!) However, there are signs of some fight-back, and we must not forget that influences flow in from everywhere, and in a multitude of directions – think of the huge and increasing popularity of Japanese animé, Korean cinema, French graphic novels. The internet has made the world a global village – it has also given young people from marginalized cultures more opportunities for communicating with each other, for sharing cultural influences and creating their own art, film, music, graphics. I think it’s hugely important that people speak out, claim their identities, refuse to be re-colonized. The internet is a huge force for positive change, making information more widely available to more people than ever before. We have to grasp this opportunity for all it’s worth.
Nina Allan: I think Peter Kaptein is accurate when he compares trying to organize writers with herding cats – as he says, a speculative arts association can only be successful if each individual artist is encouraged to involve themselves with group actions in a way they feel personally comfortable with and genuinely committed to.
Debora Montanari is also absolutely right in stressing the importance of communication. The first job of any European speculative arts association would be to let people know that this work exists, which means encouraging writers and artists to promote themselves (through blog posts, through interviews, through reviewing works that interest them). Some of the Anglophone online fanzines are also beginning to understand the importance of diversity, and are doing their bit to promote the work of writers in translation – I would cite the online magazine Strange Horizons as a particularly important example.
Cristian Tamas : Would you be interested in an European Fantastic Arts Association or an European Speculative Fiction Society?
Nina Allan: I think either or both would be a wonderful idea.
Nina, thank you very much for your time!
© Cristian Tamas & Nina Allan
Nina Allan’s novella “Spin” is the winner of the 2014 British Science Fiction Asssociation’s (BSFA) Award for Best Short Fiction and „Complications”, the French edition of Nina’s story collection “The Silver Wind”, is the winner of the prestigious 2014 Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the Foreign Short Fiction category. In the GPI, which is roughly the French equivalent of the Clarke Award, the Short Fiction prize can be awarded either to a single short story or to a collection. In the case of “Complications”, the award is for the book as a whole, and the translator, Bernard Sigaud, took the Jacques Chambon Translation Prize for his work on this collection. Congratulations, Nina and Bernard !
Nina Allan : “I was born in Whitechapel, London, grew up in the Midlands and West Sussex, and studied Russian literature at the University of Exeter and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. I wrote my first short story at the age of six but my first published story came out in 2002, in Dark Horizons (the journal of the British Fantasy Society). Recurring obsessions include old clocks and rare insects, forgotten manuscripts and abandoned houses. Writers who have inspired and continue to inspire me include among many others Vladimir Nabokov, Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, J. G Ballard, Roberto Bolao, M. John Harrison, Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link, and of course Christopher Priest, my partner and first reader. We live and work in the historic seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex.
My stories have appeared regularly in premier British speculative fiction magazines Interzone, Black Static and Crimewave, and have featured in the anthologies Best Horror of the Year #2, The Year’s Best SF #28 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012 and 2013. My story ‘Angelus’ won the Aeon Award in 2007, and short fiction of mine has shown up on BFS and BSFA shortlists on several occasions.
A first collection of my short fiction, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by my story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. My most recent books are the story collection Microcosmos (NewCon Press March 2013) the novella Spin (TTA Press 2013) and Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories (PS Publishing April 2013). My first novel, The Race, set in an alternate and near-future version of southeast England, will be published in summer 2014 by NewCon Press.”
Nina’s collection “The Silver Wind” was translated and published in France (“Complications”) and Spain (“Máquinas del tiempo”) and three of her short stories were published in German magazines.
The Spider’s House, Nina Allan’s Homepage : http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/
A review of “Spin” by Lila Garrott : http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2013/08/spin_by_nina_al.shtml