Today Jana welcomes Lindsay Francis Brambles, whose debut YA horror novel Becoming Darkness is available from Switch Press (Jana’s review can be found here). They discuss world-building, fictional texts within novels, and the practical challenges of conveying fantastical ideas. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Becoming Darkness! (see below for giveaway details)
Jana Nyman: In Becoming Darkness, Sophie Harkness’ voice is vulnerable, yet self-assured, with all the nuances of a young woman who struggles with the challenges of adulthood and maturity while realizing how very little she knows about the greater world. Was it difficult to authentically portray that voice on the page? How did her character come to you, and why did you want to tell her story?
Lindsay Francis Brambles: What you see of Sophie in the novel is the result of an evolutionary process. Pretty much right from the start, I knew I wanted to tell the story from a female perspective because that allowed for a better window into the world of Haven and the constraints of that society. Before I even started writing, I had the fundamentals of the character very clear in my mind, and knew the type of person she would have to be in order to get her to the end of the story (I always write the end of the story first so I know where I’m going). But I also knew that as I wrote the book she would change. Had she not, it would have been unrealistic.
For me, it was important to have Sophie be a study in contrasts. I didn’t want her to be a stereotype or a cliché, and it was important to me that she would at times come across as somewhat contradictory because in real life people are. Few of us are consistent and wholly predictable in nature. I also wanted Sophie to have a level of maturity born of being an only child whose mother had never been in her life and whose father was often absent. I think a person grows up fast in a situation like that, but I also think it can saddle them with certain vulnerabilities that someone in a larger family with two parents might not have. Also, in a society like Haven, the expectations placed upon the female half of the population would tend to force a level of maturity we wouldn’t necessarily see in countries like ours.
As a writer, you make up characters, but the foundations of those characters are often rooted in people you’ve known and personal values you may hold. There’s no question that for Sophie I drew upon women who have played a role in my life — most notably my mother and sisters (and more recently my nieces). For me, all these women are extraordinary and have been successful despite the fact that even in Western societies like ours, women must overcome hurdles that men never have to confront.
I thought that putting Haven at the Pacific equatorial line was a great move — particularly because your vampires are vulnerable to sunlight, but also because it provides geographic isolation for Immunes. Sunlight and isolation also come into play later in the novel, with regards to the activity at the North and South poles. Were there any locations you wanted to use in Becoming Darkness, but didn’t get the chance to? Will the next novel explore more of the globe as Sophie knows it?
In the very initial stages of development, I did consider placing Haven in a pre-existing city in North America. But I quickly dropped that idea because I didn’t feel it would constrain the inhabitants sufficiently for my story. I wanted a community that was truly isolated from the rest of the world — both in psychological and physical terms — and struggling for existence with limited resources. I also liked the idea of a tropical island setting because for most of us that immediately evokes thoughts of paradise: white sandy beaches, palm trees, turquoise seas, warm weather all year round. The opening scene of the book has Sophie and her best friend walking by a beautiful sandy beach, the idea behind that being that readers would get an initial impression of Haven as a paradise and then have the rug pulled out from under them with the discovery that for all its physical beauty, the island archipelago has a darker, less pleasant aspect to it.
The use of the North and South polar regions has, for the vampires, a practical application. But I have to admit that for me there was also a personal component to that. I live in a country that often has brutal winters. I’ve been through far more of them than I care to think about. But I’ve also lived in countries where the only ice they know about is the kind you put in a glass. It just seemed an obvious choice to have Sophie move from one extreme to another as a sort of metaphor for the psychological journey she undergoes.
In the sequel, which I wrote during various phases of waiting for things to happen with the first novel, Haven is seen in a little more depth. There’s more about the islands and life on them, but I have to warn you that that book goes in a direction I’m not sure many readers will have anticipated. I can say that it involves No Haven for Darkness, the fictional novel that cropped up in Becoming Darkness and which I used as a short cut for describing the technological and social level of Sophie’s World. I always intended No Haven for Darkness as a vehicle for further story development, and this is intimately connected with events in books two and three — which themselves hinge upon the Old Ones’ objective. The intention is to bring the story full circle, with both the beginning and ending being brought together.
The entirety of Becoming Darkness is rich with allusions to works like Dracula and The Man in the High Castle, among others. I noticed that you didn’t restrict yourself to just nodding toward plot details, but used character names like Jonathan Harkness or Mary Wolstencroft to create specific references in the reader’s mind. Why was it crucial to you to include these moments?
I think any book (or medium, for that matter) that involves vampires necessarily evokes Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While it wasn’t the first book to feature vampires, it is certainly the best well known of the antecedents of modern vampire literature. I was reading Dracula for the first time when I came up with the idea for Becoming Darkness and it definitely inspired some aspects of my book (besides the obvious). I wanted to pay homage to Stoker’s novel, but I also felt that the use of certain names would be a definite cue for readers who were familiar with Dracula.
Personally, as a reader I get a kick out of discovering little Easter eggs writers sometimes plant in their books. These can be in the form of actual historical figures making an appearance as characters or simply references to other literary works. There are a lot of such allusions in Becoming Darkness, though I don’t expect readers to pick up on them all. And while some of them may have significance and a bearing on characters or situations, not all of them are so deeply rooted.
Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one of the great alternate history novels, and I make no bones about taking inspiration from it and paying it the homage it so richly deserves.
In Dick’s novel, America is divided between Nazi Germany and Japan (the axis powers having won the war). There is a book-within-the-book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by Hawthorne Abendsen, and this fictional novel is an alternate history in which the Allies won the war. Several characters in The Man in the High Castle are familiar with the book, and it plays a large role in setting the stage for their motivations.
I make a less direct reference to another great alternate history novel, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, in which wartime Britain is occupied by the Nazis. I liked the sense of oppression that Deighton brought to his occupied Britain, and this was something I tried to bring to Haven to some degree. Although Haven is not actually occupied, it’s made clear that the citizens are ever aware that in a sense they live in one big prison camp, existing at the whim of the Nazis forces that control everything beyond the islands.
I especially liked the idea of a novel-within-a-novel, No Haven for Darkness, and its relevance within Becoming Darkness — not just as it showed the possibility of a world without vampires, but the way No Haven for Darkness kept popping up in the narrative and its importance to various characters. Did you also develop that text in detail while working on Becoming Darkness, or did you focus on the parts you needed to explore Sophie’s journey?
I seriously considered writing whole sections of No Haven for Darkness and using them as a preface to chapters in Becoming Darkness, but in the end I decided that this would slow the pace of the novel and serve as an unnecessary distraction. Moreover — and I don’t want to give too much away here — the second and third books in the trilogy (particularly the third one) have a lot to do with No Haven for Darkness. While the fictional novel serves a means to contrast our world with Sophie’s and quickly apprise readers of where her world stands in terms of technological and social developments, it also has a much larger role to play — which is why you see it in the hands of more than one character throughout the story.
There are plenty of alternate history novels (and other media) that examine the ramifications of a reality in which the Nazis were victorious. I haven’t seen too many, though, which pair the Third Reich with vampiric forces. Could you talk a little about the thought process which led you to that point, and what challenges it posed for you during the writing process?
The birth of Becoming Darkness is pretty much a serendipitous one. I just happened to be in the process of reading Dracula when I chanced to see a documentary on TV about Hitler and the war in which there was a clip from a British information movie that had been made for public consumption in the event that the Nazis successfully invaded the United Kingdom. In the clip there was this scene with people in London going about their daily business while a group of German soldiers toured the city in a double-decker bus. That just got me thinking about how things might have been different if the Nazis had in fact been successful in conquering Britain.
I started toying with the whole idea of alternate histories, and with vampires just happening to be on my mind at that time, I guess it was inevitable that I come up with some sort of scenario that involved them — or something that resembled them enough that they’d be referred as such. Being interested in history and science (well, actually, I’m pretty much interested in everything), I’d read enough books about the war and subjects like viruses that it didn’t take long to come up with a storyline that saw Nazi experiments go awry and result in a disaster for all of humanity. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had the basic framework for the world in which my story would be set.
With respect to the difficulties posed by using the vampire trope as a vehicle for my story, it was definitely not as easy as if everyone had been human. I always had to keep in mind both the vampire’s strengths and vulnerabilities and try to keep those consistent. Sometimes that led to excellent opportunities to add to the plot, but on other occasions it was restrictive and meant having to think around some scenes. There wasn’t always the latitude to do with the vampires what would be simple to do if the characters were ordinary humans. For example, at one point I have Val show up at Sophie’s flat during daylight hours, which wouldn’t merit a second thought were he human. But because he was a vampire, it was necessary to make clear that he went to great lengths and considerable risk to get himself there.
Obviously life is more complex (in our own reality and the world of Becoming Darkness) than purely opposing factions like black and white or good and evil. How important was it to you to explore the middle ground between two extremes, both in terms of character development and the world in which those characters live?
That’s really the whole point of the novel. I wanted to tell a story in which it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the good from the bad. That’s not to say that there is ever any doubt as to the Nazis being evil, and I had no desire to portray them as anything but. Indeed, the reason I use that term liberally in the book is to separate Hitler and his ilk from vampires like Val, Ticket, and Isabelle. I think by now it’s pretty much a given that readers don’t need to be reminded of the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis, so evoking the two is meant as a shorthand for all that ghastly history. At the same time, I wanted people to get this idea that not all the vampires living under Hitler’s reign are cut from the same cloth as he is. They aren’t all evil, and many — if not most — were once good human beings and only circumstances beyond their control led them to where they are.
The first inclination for most readers, I think, would be to regard all vampires as the enemy and all the Immunes of Haven as the heroes of the tale. I liked that surface dichotomy, because too often in our own world we have a tendency to think in such black and white terms, invariably motivated by the exigencies of current political thought. At the moment, for example, we have a situation in which there is a growing tendency to ascribe the basest motives of the most radical and dangerous elements of the Muslim population to all Muslims. But anyone who has lived among Muslims (as I have) knows this is utter nonsense, and it would be akin to blaming all Roman Catholics for some of the more odious acts of violence committed by the IRA.
In Becoming Darkness I wanted to slowly expose a darker core at the heart of Haven and show that even good people sometimes do bad things. That said, I didn’t want to pass any moral judgments that would determine in the reader’s eyes whether or not what the Haven government did was right or wrong. I wanted readers to reach the end of the novel and make the decision for themselves as to whether the price Havenites pay to have peace is worth it. There will be some people who will argue no, that if you subscribe to certain principles you must hold to them, no matter what. But others will see the answer as obvious, that when it comes to survival, anything is acceptable. There are always choices, but sometimes there really is only one. I think Sophie starts off by thinking in terms of black and white, but by the end of the journey there is a lot more gray in her world view.
You’ve lived a remarkable life — traveling all over the world, experiencing a breadth of cultures and countries the likes of which most people can only imagine — and I’m sure you’ve had some truly amazing experiences. How is your fiction influenced by those experiences? Is there any one moment that you hope to incorporate into your fiction at some point, if you haven’t already?
I don’t think I realized how lucky I was when I was living that life, but when I look back on it now, I do so with great fondness. My parents were pretty laidback when it came to my brothers and sisters and me, and when I think of how we used to go gallivanting about Sukkur and Isfahan, often just us kids on our own, wandering through the bazaar or cycling about the city, it seems pretty incredible — especially in a day and age when most parents won’t allow their children that sort of freedom to roam about their own neighborhood. In that respect, we really did have an adventurous life. My time overseas definitely did influence aspects of Becoming Darkness and I don’t think I could have breathed the same life into Haven had I not had the childhood I had. Imagination can go a long way, but sometimes genuine experience lends that touch of verisimilitude that transforms a scene and gives it a quality that allows a reader to become truly immersed in the world the writer has created.
At some point I’d like to incorporate my parents into my work — or at least some aspects of their lives — because when I look back on it, I realize they were quite extraordinary in their own right. My mother was an only child who was largely raised by her mother, her father having essentially abandoned them when my mother was thirteen. She trained to be a singer but the war intervened and she ended up working for the Admiralty. She lived through much of the Blitz, including the bombing of the house she lived in, survived nearly being blown up in a street at night, and then was sent to Washington aboard a battleship that had to evade U-boats on its way across the Atlantic. While in Washington she witnessed the entrance of the US into the war, then went to Canada to attend the Quebec Conference, and eventually ended up working in Mexico (for the British legation). She returned to Britain in time to narrowly escape being blown up by a V1 buzz bomb. After the war she worked in Spain, then moved to Canada, met my father, and ended up traipsing about the jungles of the Belgian Congo with him and a baby (my oldest brother).
My father trained as an electrical engineer and served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a junior officer, mostly on the escort carrier HMS Chaser, but also on merchant marine vessels that were the target of U-boats. He saw action in both the North Atlantic and in the South Pacific. After the war he left Britain for better job prospects and to escape the rationing that was even tighter in the early post-war years than it had been during the war. I often think he acquired his wanderlust from the navy, which is probably why we eventually ended up going overseas in 1968. For my father, I think there was always this need to be somewhere else, to experience new things, and that stayed with him pretty much until the day he died.
One thing I would like to incorporate in a novel at some point would be flying. I featured zeppelins in Becoming Darkness not only to emphasize the difference between the technological state of Sophie’s world and ours, but also because I just have a fascination with them. In fact, I’ve always been interested in flight, and years ago that led me to flying gliders. I loved my time piloting those machines, and eventually I wrote an SF novel (never published) that drew on my gliding experiences. I’ve often toyed with the idea of resurrecting that manuscript and rewriting it as a YA — and there’s always the possibility I’ll do that one day. But for now I’m concentrating on other projects — in particular Becoming Darkness and its sequels.
On your website, you’ve created a multi-media experience for readers who are interested in learning more about Haven and the effect of a global Third Reich as it affects Becoming Darkness. Did that evolve as a part of your writing process, as you were creating this world and its many inhabitants, or come afterward? Is there anything in particular — a drawing, map, or piece of supplementary history — that you’d like to draw attention to?
Much of what is featured on my website was taken from notes, sketches, and mock-ups I made as I was in the process of writing. I’m a visually oriented person, so I tend to see the scenes I write as movies and images in my head. Sometimes, however, it helps to make that concrete in the form of a
sketch or a mock-up. These can both help in the actual writing and also inspire in those moments when the way forward may seem a little difficult. That’s one of the reasons why I did a rendering of Sophie very early on: Whenever I looked at that picture I could just feel everything about her character and it would motivate me to continue writing.
One of the difficulties of crafting a book like Becoming Darkness is that unlike in a contemporary that takes place in our world, you have a lot of world-building to do. There are details you have to get across to the reader in order to imbue the setting with authenticity. You want to make it sound like you’re writing about something that’s real in order to draw people in. That’s not always easy.
For example: When you use a term like “car” in a contemporary, readers have an immediate image in their minds of what you’re talking about. But in Becoming Darkness I didn’t have that luxury; I had to go beyond that to give the reader a sense of what a car in Haven was like, since a machine like Peppy wasn’t like the cars we’re used to here. At the same time, I had to weave that information into the story in such a way that it was essentially transparent to readers. You can’t just shovel data at your audience; you want to avoid info dumps as much as possible (although sometimes they’re just unavoidable). So incorporating the details of a world like Sophie’s had to be done in a way that was never too overt.
After I’d finished the final draft of the book, I had all this extra information on hand and it seemed obvious that when I put up a website I should include it. I know as reader myself that I enjoy all the extras an author might offer and I figured this was a way of giving readers more insight into Sophie’s world without force-feeding it to them in the book. Of course, I didn’t include everything that was in my notebooks because in some cases the ideas I jotted down in those were dead ends. I was also selective with the visual side of things, not wanting to push readers too much in one direction as far as how things look. I think one of the great pleasures of books is that we, as readers, get to participate in the creation of the world set in the pages — in the respect that the words are merely guideposts for our own imaginations. You never really want to take too much of that away.
For people who visit my website, I recently put a lot of the aforementioned material into a fictional guidebook that can be downloaded. I’ve designed it to look like one of those tourist guides you might pick up while traveling. The file is a PDF called A POCKET GUIDE TO HAVEN. Anyone is free to access it and post it elsewhere on the Internet.
Can you talk a little about any writing project you’re currently working on, whether it’s a continuation of Sophie’s story or something entirely different?
I actually wrote the sequel to Becoming Darkness during a period when I was waiting for my agent to get back to me on changes she wanted me to make to the Becoming Darkness manuscript. Over the course of the following years I’ve done rewrites of the sequel while working on other projects — one of which was a semi-fictional novelization of my mother’s early life before and during the war. I did the latter more as a personal project that is unlikely to ever see professional publication (although I might at some point put it up on Wattpad).
Currently I’m working on a YA contemporary. This one’s told from the viewpoint of the middle child in a family whose mother is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. I’ve drawn a lot from my own experiences for this one, having watched my own mother suffer through the disease and eventually die as a result.
A feature of our Author Interviews at Fantasy Literature is that we like to ask authors about their favorite cocktail recipes — either as they relate to the author’s creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with their work. Are there any drinks which remind you of Becoming Darkness, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
In the sequel to Becoming Darkness there’s a scene at a Halloween party in Caelo where the theme is — you’ve guessed it — vampires. All the drinks are variations on a Bloody Mary (the virgin kind, since these are all teenagers attending the party) and one of them is a godawful sounding concoction made from tomato juice and soda water. I don’t actually like tomato juice, but I have to confess that ever since I wrote that scene I’ve been rather tempted to find out what that drink would taste like. I’m sure it would be positively wretched, but you never know.
As far as cocktails go, I have to confess that I’ve never had them. I didn’t get into the whole drinking thing when I was young, so I never acquired a taste for alcohol. Not even beer or wine. I think part of this was growing up overseas, where I lived a pretty isolated life — particularly in my teens. So now about the strongest thing I drink is tea, which — yes — is very boring. My parents weren’t teetotalers, so it’s not like I lived in a house where booze was forbidden. Far from it; my father enjoyed his regular beers and my mother wasn’t averse to the occasional gin and tonic. It’s not like I’m against drinking, either; I’ve sat in a few drinking establishments in my time (though I’ve usually been the odd man out, sipping at a coke or a glass of juice).
I’ve tried lots of different teas throughout my life, but I always come back to what I’ve known best: What is commonly referred to as Orange Pekoe in North America. I drink my tea black (nothing added) and I can’t abide it if it’s tepid. My younger sister will warm up day-old tea in the microwave and drink it, but for me that’s horrifying and disgusting and I think it tastes positively wretched. I like my tea to be fresh and hot, and I don’t like it steeped too long. My very British paternal grandmother insisted on her tea being strong — far stronger than I could ever tolerate.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and for providing so much insight into your creative process.
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of Becoming Darkness. US-based addresses only, please.