Interview with Naomi Booth
Naomi Booth is a writer and academic. She is the author of Sealed (2017), a terrifying novel about climate change and contamination, in which a pregnant woman and her partner escape to the Australian countryside to avoid an epidemic of a skin-growing virus that seals people inside their own bodies. She is also the author of The Lost Art Of Sinking (2015), which won the Saboteur Award for Best Novella and was shortlisted for the MMU Novella Award.
Naomi Booth was attending the Dead Ink Press Catalogue Launch in the Tottenham Court Road Waterstones in London, and was kind enough to speak with the Fantasy Hive.
Your novel Sealed is out with Dead Ink Press, would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
Sealed tells the story of a youngish couple who have decided to try to escape the city, because something very strange has started happening to people’s skin. The narrator of the novel is eight months pregnant when the novel begins, and they travel to a new place, ostensibly to start again and to try to escape some of the things that are happening in the city. But as you can probably guess, that escape is not possible and in fact things begin to intensify in their new location. And the novel is based in a very heavily fictionalised version of a near future Australia.
What was it that drew you to the landscape of a near future, climate-change-wracked Australia?
I suppose a number of things. Firstly, I wanted the landscape of the novel to be somewhere very beautiful, but somewhere that also felt quite dangerous. That’s one of the things I’m interested in, the idea that we might be at once kind of enthralled by the natural world around us but it might also become charged with danger and become a deadly landscape. And something about the scale of the Australian landscape really appealed to me as a setting. I did initially think about setting the novel in the UK and, it felt to me as though the scale wasn’t quite big enough to get that sense of being very far away from help if you needed it. I also in earlier drafts thought it’s not plausible that some of the things that happen with heat would happen in the UK, and we’re speaking in the middle of a massive heatwave, and then last summer, an area that I know quite well, the Pennines, was subject to summer fires in an unprecedented way. In lots of ways I think in fact the things that are happening in that landscape are increasingly the things that can happen anywhere and everywhere.
In the novel you have this connection between the damage to the landscape through climate change and the damage to the human body through this skin-growing virus. Was this something you particularly wanted to pick out in the story?
Yeah, I think so. Just before I started writing the novel I was reading quite a lot on pollution and climate change and environmental damage. And a couple of things really stayed with me. One was I saw a wonderful Australian writer called Rebecca Giggs speaking and reading, and she said one of the things we need to address about climate change and about the environment is that it is not a thing that is happening out there; everything that’s happening in our world, everything that’s happening in our air and our water is also happening inside us. It’s affecting our bodies. She said something that really made me think a lot, that most of us think of the skin as a kind of barrier, and of course skin isn’t a barrier, it’s porous, so we are vulnerable to everything that is happening in terms of the contamination of our world. I was thinking quite a lot about becoming or attempting to become pregnant at the time, and I also read a wonderful book by Eula Bliss called On Immunity where she talks particularly about kind of concepts of the purity of the pregnant body, or the foetus inside the pregnant body, and how that’s an absolute myth. She cites a study in which lots of environmental contaminants including things like paint strippers, dry cleaning fluids and rocket fuel, are found in human breast milk. So I became really fascinated by this idea that our bodies are not clean or safe. At the minute there’s a lot of mobilization around the sanctity of life in the womb, and I’m much more interested in the idea of pregnancy as a kind of deadly condition. The idea that everything inside us is subject to exactly the same things that are going on outside of us, it’s all porous. And Eula Bliss says, we are already contaminated, even at birth. We are continuous with everything around us, including other people, including the natural world, including every poisonous substance that might be around us. I’m also interested in pregnancy as a condition which for many people I think heightens anxiety, so I wanted to think about what it would be like to be subject to certain anxieties where it’s not decidable whether that anxiety is out of proportion or is actually a kind of intuition about a deadly environment.
And I think there’s a lot of people sympathetic to that point of view now, the idea of bringing a child into the world when we have all these anxieties about what we’re doing to the planet, and what’s going on in politics around the world…
Yeah. This hasn’t been used as a quote on the book, but someone did describe the novel as the best form of contraception that they’d come across! I don’t want to frighten people about being pregnant, I don’t want to put them off. I think pregnancy is a really fascinating and complex condition that’s often euphemised, it’s often presented as a straightforwardly positive thing. And of course it’s not for many people. And we’re currently engaged all across the world in a battle to try and achieve and obtain reproductive rights. So I suppose I wanted to portray pregnancy as a really complicated and ambivalent condition, which is very bound up with death. Even pregnancies where the pregnancy is wanted and can be supported and is healthy, I think pregnancy is a condition where you encounter death very frequently.
There’s a lot of body horror in the book, particularly in that scene towards the end. Is that something you’re consciously drawn to while writing?
I mean it’s not something I’ve written before, I don’t know whether it’s something I’ll write again. I’m definitely interested in the extremes of experience you can find in body horror. I suppose I want to achieve something where something very horrible is happening, but you can’t look away. Particularly that final scene, I hope, is simultaneously horrible and sort of beautiful, that’s my vision for what happens at the end of the novel. This is a novel that exists in a heightened world, but I did want to attempt to produce a birth scene that did justice to yet again the complexity and ambivalence of that experience, which can be extremely violent and gruesome and bloody and can also be incredibly beautiful, all at the same time. Those things don’t negate one another.
Sealed is a work of climate fiction that draws on post apocalyptic science fiction and dystopian fiction but doesn’t sit comfortably in any of these categories. What is your approach to genre fiction in the way that you think about your work when you’re writing?
When I’m writing I probably don’t think very much about genre at all. I try and write the material in a way that seems to suit the idea and the character and the storyline and the landscape. It is something I thought about when I was editing the work, and I guess I wanted it to have the kind of pace of something that was tense, so thinking of an eco-thriller kind of pacing, so it’s quite a rapidly developed story, it’s quite fast paced. So it’s quite readable even though sometimes the content is quite difficult. That’s a decision you make is thinking about how to keep the reader with you, especially if you’re kind of dwelling on some quite unpleasant things.
What’s your experience of working with Dead Ink been like?
I’ve had a really wonderful experience with Dead Ink who, again that question of genre, I think Dead Ink have been willing to publish things where it’s not always clear how they fit into genre or they’re doing something a bit unusual in terms of a blend of different genres. So they’ve been fantastically supportive publishing me and they haven’t tried to you know force me to push the work in a particular direction either. They’ve been happy to take a work that is generically quite unusual and to really support it. Most indie publishers are in it for the love of the work, so they’re not making some decisions that some of the big publishers have to about how will this fit into our marketing strategy. A lot of the smaller publishers who I think are kind of heroes are taking enormous risks both personally and financially on quite unusual books. So I’ve felt very grateful and fortunate to be one of those books that Dead Ink have taken a risk on.
You’ve also written a novella, The Lost Art Of Sinking…
That’s another generically quite unusual work, I would say. It tells the story of a young woman who compulsively passes out. So she is engaged in ever more extreme ways to attempt to pass out. And it’s shorter than a novel, longer than a short story, again that’s kind of an experimental length, these novellas, they’re not always an easy sell to readers. But I really enjoy them. I love sitting down and reading a piece of fiction in one sitting, which a novella allows you to do. Particularly for this novel I wanted it to feel almost like a sort of swoon that you pass out into the novel for a few hours and then you’re ejected back into the real world, or the conscious world. And that novella came out of a long research project that I’d been involved in to do with researching the literary history of swooning and fainting and passing out. And I’d been working on that in an academic way for a number of years. The novella attempted to imagine what it would be like for a contemporary female character to compulsively pass out. I was also writing it when Fifty Shades Of Grey had to be referred to as a phenomenon, and it was on the top three points in the bestseller list for a really long time. And there’s a lot of swoons in Fifty Shades Of Grey in that slightly hackneyed romance clichéd way so I thought of this as a kind of a satire or a dark comedy that took that to the extreme, what would it be like for a young woman to actually pass out all the time, and wanted to pass out all the time.
So does your academic work and your fiction work feed into each other?
Yeah, they definitely do for me. I often wind up when I’m writing something, either I’m doing kind of academic research and that leads to fiction, or the process of a fiction that I’m doing leads me to do lots more research. Whilst writing Sealed for example I got really interested in the idea of presentations of pregnancy as a deadly condition and I’d like to do some academic work on that. You might have seen some statistics that were publicised just a few weeks ago about UK maternal health rates for BAME women and how much more dangerous it is to be pregnant in this country if you’re not white, and similar figures are available in America. I got really interested in the condition of pregnancy as a result of writing Sealed. So the academic research sometimes informs the fiction and sometimes is started by the fiction.
What’s next for Naomi Booth?
Well a couple of things. I just finished a new piece of short fiction, which is for a new series that’s going to be released on Audible at the end of August. And Audible have asked a number of writers to reimagine regional folktales. I was asked to rewrite the Yorkshire folktale of the hairy boggart, which is a creature that haunts farms. I just finished that and I really really enjoyed it, finding out a lot about boggarts. That will be available through Audible at the end of August. And I’m currently working on my next novel for Dead Ink, which will be out next year, and it’s called Exit Management. It is a Brexit murder novel. Maybe all I’ll say at this point.
Have you found writing for Audible different from writing for the printed page?
Yeah I did find myself thinking a lot more about sound, and I did find my style changed slightly, thinking about being voiced by an actor, for example, but I was very keen to include certain sound elements as well. So it is a short story and it isn’t a piece of radio drama, but there will be some unusual things I hope with sound in the piece. I wanted to play with the idea that the narrator can hear a sound, but it’ not clear whether that sound is real or not, so hopefully there’s going to be some interesting sound elements in the piece. Trying to do that just with words is completely different to what that might be like if they’re able to make the kind of sound, the kind of banging that might be produced by the boggart, or might be in her imagination.
Thank you Naomi Booth for talking with us!
Naomi Booth is the author of SEALED and THE LOST ART OF SINKING, both available now.