Please welcome Francesca Haig to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Fire Sermon will be published on March 10th by Gallery Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Francesca: I’ve been writing since I was a child – I was always a seriously nerdy kid, mad about reading and writing, and I always had a clear idea that I wanted to be a writer. Before I was a novelist I published poetry, and I worked in academia too, which is just a different form of writing – but now that I’m writing full time, it’s nice not to have to worry about the footnotes and bibliographies of academic writing!
As for why I write, I suspect it’s the same answer that most writers would give: I write because not writing has never really an option. I’ve always been a storyteller, and few things make me happier than mucking about with words.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Francesca: Plot then pants. I’m a plotter at first – I find it really helpful to have an outline laid out. Apart from anything else, it breaks the novel down into manageable chunks. When I sit down at the desk at 8:30 in the morning, I’m never going to feel like “today I’m going to write a novel.” But I can just about face the prospect of: “today I’m going to write the scene where this character goes to X and discovers Y.”
While having a plot outline is helpful at the start, I find that I use it as a kind of scaffolding – it’s necessary when things are getting started, but then it’s often jettisoned once the writing itself takes shape. The main plot points tend not to change, but the way the characters end up getting to those points can often surprise me.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Francesca: I think it’s letting go of the perfectionism of being a poet. When I started writing the novel, it was very hard to let myself off the hook and accept that a novel can have sentences, or even paragraphs, that won’t necessarily zing with the same intensity as a poem. In a poem, every single syllable and comma has to be carefully weighted. But sometimes a passage of a novel just needs to accomplish some necessary work in the service of the overall narrative. Obviously we work hard to get every page as good as it can be - but you simply can’t expect the same word-by-word exactitude in a novel as you demand of poetry. When I first started writing the novel, I’d agonise over every single word, and it could be paralysing.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Francesca: There are so many, both poets and novelists. But of all of them, there are two novels to which I return more than any others. The first is Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, an incredibly lyrical novel about the aftermath of the Holocaust. Like me, Michaels was a poet before she became a novelist, and when I read Fugitive Pieces I was stunned by how poetic her prose was. I can remember so clearly the sensation of reading it for the first time, and thinking: you’re allowed to do that with language!
The second is Cormac McCarthy’s astounding post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. It couldn’t be more different from Michaels’ novel – instead of lyrical prose, The Road is written in an incredibly stark, stripped-back language. It stuns me each time I re-read it. My writing style is probably much closer to the lyricism of Michaels than the starkness of McCarthy, but the bleak landscape of The Fire Sermon definitely owes a debt to McCarthy.
TQ: Describe The Fire Sermon in 140 characters or less.
Francesca: 400 years after the blast, we're all twins. When one twin dies, so does the other. Oppression, resistance, adventure, juicy moral dilemmas!
TQ: Tell us something about The Fire Sermon that is not in the book description.
Francesca: It has some funny moments! I think when people pick up a post-apocalyptic novel, they’re not always expecting to find moments of humour. But for me, it was so important that there be some moments of levity, as a necessary counterpoint to the starkness of the devastated world. I’m not saying it’s a slapstick comedy, by any means – a lot of it is pretty grim and dark - but there are moments of lightness, particularly in the interplay between Cass and Kip.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Fire Sermon? What appealed to you about writing a post-apocalyptic novel?
Francesca: I wasn’t thinking about it as a post-apocalyptic novel when I started to write it. All I had, at the start, was the idea of a world of twins, and when one twin died so would the other. Everything else (the post-apocalyptic setting; the oppressive society; the mutations of the Omega twins) grew out of that core idea. But I think there’s a reason that people keep writing (and reading) post-apocalyptic novels –I think many of us are catastrophists at heart, quick to imagine the worst-case scenario. Literature is one way of tackling those fears.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Fire Sermon?
Francesca: Not very much. Although the novel has sci-fi elements, I was only interested in the human consequences of these things, rather than the mechanics of how they worked. My main research had nothing to do with nuclear radiation or genetic mutations – it was just the research that all writers do: reading authors I admire and being inspired and challenged by their writing.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Francesca: Kip was the easiest. I really enjoy his wry take on the world, and his little sarcastic asides were great fun to write. I have such a soft spot for him, after all that he’s gone through with his traumatic past (even though it was me who inflicted his traumatic past onto him!).
The hardest was probably Cass. She’s the main character, and she’s so flawed and conflicted. I love her, but for a long time I was nervous that other people wouldn’t, because she’s so complex. It took a while for me to learn to trust my instincts with her, and to allow myself to concentrate on making her authentic, rather than worrying about whether she would be “likeable.”
TQ: Which question about The Fire Sermon do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Francesca: I wish people would ask about the editing process! It might not sound sexy, but it’s so crucial to making a novel work. People sometimes cling to a romantic idea that novels are banged out in a hurry, and I’m always keen to disabuse them of that notion by emphasizing all the rewriting and editing that goes on between a first draft and publication. Even though there were times during that long process when I wanted to burn the manuscript, I now recognise how essential that work was. A lot of the things that I’m now proud of in The Fire Sermon didn’t even exist at first draft stage. Novels aren’t written – they’re re-written.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Fire Sermon.
“I don’t know when I first realized my own difference, but I was old enough to know that it had to be hidden.”
TQ: What's next?
Francesca: I’m hard at work on the two sequels to The Fire Sermon - I’m working with my editors on polishing Book 2, and I’ve recently started writing Book 3. At some point I’d like to finish my next collection of poetry, too. The Fire Sermon series is keeping me so busy that poetry’s had to take a back seat lately. I want to get back to poetry soon. But ever since my time in academia, I’ve also had a hankering to write a crime novel set in the English department of a university…
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Francesca: Thanks for having me!
The Fire Sermon
The Fire Sermon 1
Gallery Books, March 10, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages
The Hunger Games meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in this richly imagined first novel in a new post-apocalyptic trilogy by award-winning poet Francesca Haig.
Four hundred years in the future, the Earth has turned primitive following a nuclear fire that has laid waste to civilization and nature. Though the radiation fallout has ended, for some unknowable reason every person is born with a twin. Of each pair, one is an Alpha—physically perfect in every way; and the other an Omega—burdened with deformity, small or large. With the Council ruling an apartheid-like society, Omegas are branded and ostracized while the Alphas have gathered the world’s sparse resources for themselves. Though proclaiming their superiority, for all their effort Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: Whenever one twin dies, so does the other.
Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin, Zach, gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side-by-side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.
Francesca Haig lives in London with her family. She received her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chester, where she is also Programme Leader in Creative Writing. Her poetry and prose have been published in many literary journals and anthologies in both Australia and England, and have won various prizes. In 2010 she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship. The Fire Sermon is her first novel.