Interview with Caroline Hardaker (COMPOSITE CREATURES)
Caroline Hardaker lives in the north east of England and writes quite a lot of things. She earned her BA (English Literature) and MA (Cultural and Heritage Studies) from Newcastle University, and her main problem is limiting herself to one idea at once, or maybe two ideas, or three…
Welcome to the Hive, Caroline. Congratulations on your upcoming novel Composite Creatures!
Thank you for having me!
Is it nerve-wracking to know soon enough your book will be out there in the wild? Are you planning to take part in any virtual events, or do you have any other plans to celebrate your release?
It’s SO nerve-wracking! I’ve had poetry books published before, but something about my first novel makes me more nervous than they ever did. I suppose it’s because there are more readers of novels, and people are often quite definite in whether they enjoyed it or not. But it’s also because I know Composite Creatures is an odd book, and will definitely provoke a reaction.
I’m quite enjoying the world of virtual book events. It’s meant that I can give readings to listeners all over the world, and I get to hear their work too. It’s brought a lot of people together in many ways. So yes, I’ll be doing readings at virtual events whenever I can!
But also – even more excitingly – we’re hosting an online launch for Composite Creatures on the evening of release on 13th April. It’s going to be a brilliant night! Hosted by Angry Robot, I’ll be in conversation with the brilliant author Carys Bray, and the whole thing will be drawn live by award-winning illustrator Chris Riddell! I should add, there is an opportunity for two viewers to take part and have an illustration by Chris Riddell. All the details are on Angry Robot’s Twitter acc: @angryrobotbooks
I’m really looking forward to this event too! I’ll add a link to the tweet for anyone who wishes to enter.
Truly – I couldn’t be any more excited!
Can you tell us a little bit about what readers can expect?
I can… Though I don’t want to give too much away (wink wink). Expect a read that’s earthy, twisty, and a little disturbing. Composite Creatures explores the choices we might make to survive in a dying world, and the sacrifices we make along the way. It takes place in an England very much like our own, but one that’s struggling. Chemicals seep up from the soil and down from a lilac sky. Animals are disappearing, and people are being stricken down by a strange blight, referred to as ‘The Greying’. When you read Composite Creatures, you’re stepping into the head of Norah – so be ready to be both her best friend and worst critic as she makes a series of life choices that take her on a journey to a very dark, and very real prospective future.
The cover of Composite Creatures is very ominous and eerie, which I feel effectively reflects the tone of your book. How involved were you during the design process? What was your reaction when you were shown the final image?
The publisher was amazing at getting me involved with the cover design. From initially creating a Pinterest board together (oh I do love a mood-board) to choosing a concept for the cover – I became a real part of the process.
That’s excellent that you were able to be so involved!
Once we knew roughly what we wanted, Angry Robot sent me a selection of illustrators to choose from, but when I saw Rohan Eason’s sketchy, twisty, surrealist style I knew he was the one who could bring the cover to life.
I’ll never forget when the moment when I saw the final image. I felt a shiver up my spine. Rohan truly took the brief and made it his own. It’s creepy, mysterious, and very dark. Even now, months later, I keep looking at my advance author copy and saying, “Oooh!”
Your novel is set in a dystopian world where Earth has turned toxic and nature and the human race are both dying out. Can you tell us a little bit about your inspiration for this? And did your novel evolve in different directions once you began writing?
The concept for Composite Creatures started as a science fiction poem I was asked to write for a literary magazine in Scotland. But as I stared at it on the page, I realised that there was something in it that could be expanded upon. Unintentionally, I’d written a little vignette of something much greater. So from that point, I wrote a simple outline, and to be honest the story never changed all that much from those initial bullet points!
I talked about my world-building process recently in a YouTube series I make with fellow Angry Robot author Gabriela Houston (it’s called Bookish Take, if you ever want to look it up and here’s a link to make it easy for you), and unlike many authors who pour out all of their ideas and then edit them down, I actually draft my initial concept and then work them up! In the beginning I was focused on writing a story about how we might connect to nature in a future where wildlife is disappearing, but as editing progressed, I realised that I was just as interested in exploring how we justify our choices, even when we suspect that they might be the wrong ones to make. And then writing the world through Norah’s eyes naturally meant the other themes appeared organically, as if her small world birthed them itself.
This is why I love writing in first person. I must’ve been a struggling actor in a past life!
I particularly loved the exploration of ethics in your novel, your reflection on what it means to be alive, and the notion of only the wealthy privileged being given a chance at a prolonged life, whereas the rest are left to suffer. These themes felt unsettling because they could easily become a reality. Were these subjects you had planned to write about from the onset or did they naturally emerge?
Very early on, I wanted to explore what it means to be alive in a world that’s dying. Whether a story is based in the real world or a fantasy one, I always want to write about issues affecting us here, today. And sadly, many of the themes in Composite Creatures are in the early stages of becoming reality.
We’re so lucky to have the NHS in the UK, but in many countries it’s already the case where if you don’t have the right insurance or funds to support yourself you can’t afford the medical treatment you need. The world in the novel just takes this reality a few steps further, into a future where researchers have discovered a new and morally dubious way of increasing human lifespan. We see forms of increasing social division on the news every day, and money and privilege is usually at the root of such gulfs. I really hope the world doesn’t go down the route of Composite Creatures, that’s for sure…
I hope not too, I for one would struggle if we did.
Throughout Composite Creatures we follow your main protagonist Norah quite intimately. She’s a fairly nuanced character as she often appears quite detached from people, but we can also sympathise with her because she’s clearly vulnerable and insecure. Was she an easy protagonist to write about? Did you have any other characters which were your favourite, or perhaps least favourite to write?
In many ways, Norah was hugely easy to write, because she’s very real. I don’t want to say there are shades of me in there (you’ll understand why if you read the book!) but I can really relate to the choices she makes and her thought process in getting there. Everything she does, even the very worst things, are totally justified in her head. Often it’s only in retrospect that we see our actions in a different way.
I really loved creating Art’s character. In comparison to Norah, he had far more energy and drive. He meant I could be cheeky and funny, and see him through the eyes of Norah – who is very much in awe of who he is. Plus he wears a lot of colourful trousers.
It’s interesting to see that in early reviews, everyone has a different opinion of Art. Some readers relate a lot to him, whereas others think he’s utterly deplorable. I love the fact that I’ve created someone so nuanced that readers see different shades of him in different readings.
I personally enjoyed how eccentric Art is at the beginning and how much he loses that spark as the novel progresses.
Whilst we’re talking about characters, who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
I’m hugely flighty. Whenever I read or watch something new I’m picking up new favourites. But if I could somehow merge Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings then I’d be pretty satisfied forever, I think.
I would be utterly bored writing characters who were all good or all bad. I’m most interested in writing women who make decisions and actively seize the consequences – for better or worse. Though we all aim to be good, we’re probably all a bit morally grey, aren’t we?
You published a collection of poetry last year titled Little Quakes Every Day, can you tell us a little bit about your poetry? Which would you say is the hardest to write, poetry or a novel? Are there distinct pros and cons to both mediums?
I did! And I can say with total honesty that if I hadn’t been a poet first, there’s no way I’d be a novelist now. Poetry is the prefect way for any writer to hone their craft, from use of rhythm and pace to how to be experimental with syntax. It helped me to find my voice, and work out which types of stories I like to tell, as after all, poems are mini stories themselves.
Most of my poetry has a strange or dark twist to it. My first collection, Bone Ovation, is a folkloric exploration of bones, and throughout the book, readers meet a variety of characters from a woman made of paper to a man made of bees. And my second collection, Little Quakes Every Day, is a look at discoveries through time, from historical figures like Mary Anning and mythological figures like The Morrigan, through to speculative discoveries of the future.
I’d say writing poetry and prose is very different.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s easy to become swamped by all the advice that’s out there. I generally think that if someone tells you how they do it, listen, but if they tell you what to do, ignore them! You really do need to find the method that works for you – your timeframe, your writing style, and your level of patience.
But the best piece of advice I ever heard was more a piece of reassurance. It was simply a reminder that writing your first draft is like pouring sand into a sandpit, and then it’s in subsequent drafts where you start to build sandcastles. It totally takes the pressure off that first draft, and hopefully lessons the horror of the blank page.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
When I first discovered Angela Carter, all those years ago, she blew me away with her lyrical and cryptic prose. She took magical realism and made it dark and intimate, in a way that only someone who really understands the human condition can do.
It’s my ultimate aspiration for something I write to be adapted for film, and there are a huge number of female film-makers and actors I’d be hugely excited to work with. Greta Gerwig would be amazing!
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
I tend to watch lots of things at once so no matter what mood I’m in, there’s a perfect world ready that’s attuned to my emotional needs! So today I watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix (I did cry at the end) and Schitt’s Creek. I’m on the lookout for a new fantasy or historical series to watch… Though I always end up binge-watching my old favourites!
I still need to have that all-day 4K extended The Lord of the Rings marathon I’ve been promising myself.
Caroline, you speak to my soul! I’m waiting for the day I get a 4K tv to do exactly this!
Games are just the best way to escape. I had a fab time playing The Last of Us and watching my husband pee himself with fear. I’m definitely the brave one. We’re also on constant board game binges. I’m currently the reigning champ playing Seven Wonders and Ticket to Ride.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I recently had a baby (he’s 7 weeks old as I type this), so in reality I’d most likely be singing a silly song or reading to him! But if he somehow was able to entertain himself for a while, I’d be crafting something. Whether it’s knitting, painting, or pottery – I’m always making something. It’s the same with stories. I think something in me just won’t let me sit still, and always needs to create something from nothing.
Ahh congratulations! I can only imagine how busy you must be right now.
I bet you haven’t had much time to read recently but can you recommend a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure?
I keep shouting about her recently, but I can’t get enough of Aliya Whitely. I recently read The Beauty and it haunted me for days afterwards. I’ll never look at mushrooms the same way again.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
This is a question I’ve thought about a lot!
I’ve ALWAYS thought a dragon, though with Game of Thrones still being in everyone’s minds it seems a bit on the nose! But I still can picture my glorious battle dragon – glistening in shades of gold and brown like a tawny owl. I can genuinely say that I’ve been mentally picturing this dragon since I was about 15 years old!
Sounds like you have one epic dragon there!
Finally, without giving away too much can you tell us a little something about any future projects you may be working on? Or if you can’t discuss this… What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I wish I could talk about my current work in progress, but I don’t think I’m allowed to! But you might not be surprised to know it’s deep, dark, and takes place in a world a little different from our own. In some ways it’s much more surrealist than Composite Creatures, and I can’t wait to hear what people will think about it eventually. It’s quite experimental!
I look forward to it.
But ultimately, what I want for everything I write is for readers to finish the last page, close the book, and stare out of the window as they question the way things are. It’s an incredible privilege to have made people think!
Thank you so much Caroline!