Author Spotlight: Susannah Wise (THIS FRAGILE EARTH)
Susannah Wise is an actor and writer who grew up in London and the Midlands. A childhood spent outdoors inspired her love of nature and tree climbing. The death of her father in 2015 was the catalyst for THIS FRAGILE EARTH. His preoccupation with astronomy and the beauty of the night sky formed the jumping-off point for the story. Susannah studied at the Faber Academy, graduating in September 2018. She lives in London with her partner and son.
Welcome to the Hive, Susannah Wise. Let’s start with the basics: what is This Fragile Earth about? Why should readers check out your work?
Hi, thanks so much for having me here. This Fragile Earth is a post-apocalyptic survival story about a mother and her six year-old son who, following a tragic event, are forced to flee near-future London and travel to the Midlands to seek out the protagonist’s mother. When they get there, however, things are far worse than they could ever have imagined.
The book is a grounded science fiction thriller. At its centre is the beating heart of the relationship between the two main characters.
If you’re a fan of John Wyndham, or perhaps Emily St Mandel’s Station Eleven, this is the book for you.
What was the spark that ignited this story for you? Where did the idea come from?
I have always had a very over-active imagination and trouble sleeping, and am highly skilled at dreaming up scenarios, both good and terrible.
In 2015, my father, aged 90, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I didn’t know what to do with myself. That night, I lay in bed constructing a catastrophic fantasy, I think as a way of managing shock and fear. What was the worst possible thing I could imagine happening to me and my son (then aged 5), I thought? It took me only an hour to dream up what turned out to be the entire plot of This Fragile Earth. The next day I started to write, and I haven’t stopped since.
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
Well, definitely no music! I really cannot concentrate with music on, as it influences my mood so much. I’m a pianist and like Signy, the protagonist in my book, I do compose myself occasionally, so can’t ‘not hear’ the notes, if you get my meaning.
My writing process has to be fairly fluid, due to being a parent and having another self-employed career (as an actor), which frequently pulls me in another direction at short notice. Saying that, I mostly write at my kitchen table, but honestly, I can write anywhere: trains, planes, cafes. I’ve even taken my writing on set with me when I’ve been filming. It’s an excellent use of all that hanging around that actors have to do.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
Absolutely. Mostly, the daily practice is just gritting my teeth and forcing myself to sit down in front of the laptop. If it’s a really bad day, I’ll tell myself I’ll write only 250 words. Usually, this is enough to get me started, and I will end up writing far more without even realising it. I do generally try for a minimum of 500 words a day if it’s a first draft. This is the least I can get away with, whilst still managing to hold on to the characters and plot in my head!
If it’s a new project, or a large edit, it can be very daunting, and there is a strong sense of dread which builds for some time before I start. Then when I actually get going, I feel such relief, and think, ‘why was I so worked up about this?! It’s fine.’
I do plot out my books in a rough fashion, but the story never sticks rigidly to my plans. It’s actually one of my favourite things about writing. The ability to meander, the time given over to such a long piece of work, that allows one to explore little deltas.
We always appreciate a striking book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
Thank you! My original feeling was that the cover should have a slightly 1970’s graphic aesthetic. Gollancz were fantastic in that they allowed me to voice all my thoughts, even getting me to send over some ideas, before steering me gently towards the fabulous image that we have now. It’s one that fulfils so many criteria and is a really clever bit of work from the art team. I am both indebted and very grateful to them.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? Do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing?
I’m reluctant to describe my characters – I hope that readers will meet them in their full glory when they read the book! But I do really enjoy writing younger characters. I loved writing Jed, the boy in This Fragile Earth. I based him entirely on my own son: it was so wonderful having his little voice with me in my head whilst I was constructing the story.
There are also a bunch of teenagers in my second and third novels. I adore teenagers. Their view of the world is not-quite adult, but no longer childlike. Their minds exist in a gorgeous hinterland and I feel I learn a lot whenever I have the privilege of spending time with any of them.
Are you yourself as tech-reliant as your characters Signy and Matthew? If our technology stopped working tomorrow, would you manage just fine?
I think Matthew and Signy aren’t as tech-reliant as some other people in the novel, though I myself am far less than even they are. I do use my phone a fair bit and my laptop is like my pet because it holds all my words and thoughts – goodness knows what I’d do without it.
I reckon I wouldn’t be TOO bad if the tech failed – I’m pretty good in a crisis. It’s more the small stuff I sweat over. My partner would be brilliant. He’d stay calm and can build absolutely anything out of anything.
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?
Bliss! I’m going to assume I’m in London (where I live) for the day? If so, I would start with a massive breakfast of coffee, fruit and endless slices of toast and marmite, followed by – (after digesting, obviously) – a dance class. I usually do African Contemporary dance with Francis Angol at Movement Angol Dance and I LOVE it, even though I’m not terribly good. Since March of 2020, we have only been allowed to meet three times in person, and zoom for me just doesn’t cut it, so I am really looking forward to getting back into the studio.
After class, I’d meet a friend or two for a long walk, probably on the Heath. Then we’d lunch together at the Bull and Last pub on Highgate Road.
In the afternoon, I’d cycle along the canal, or down to the South Bank to have a mudlark and a wander, followed by a film at the Bloomsbury Curzon and then dinner somewhere in town, before cycling home. I don’t have a car, so I cycle everywhere in London. It’s faster most of the time than driving.
That would be my impromptu day. As you may have gathered, I like moving about and eating…
And getting up early enough to fit all that in!
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Ha! I wonder if I’d be a Pegasus, and have someone riding me (no pun intended) into battle. I would always rather be the creature. They’re far more exotic.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I just loved Children of The Stones by Jeremy Burnham as a child. I think it might be out of print now? I do know there was a 1970’s TV show made of it. It’s a spooky mystery: a father and son arrive in a tiny village surrounded by a strange stone circle. Stranger still, are the odd villagers, who are always happy and smiling.
The story contains real jeopardy and loads of concepts around physics and time-travel. There are shades of John Wyndham in it too (are you spotting a theme here?!).
My Year 5 teacher, Mr Williams, who was also our drama teacher, read it to the class. He was Welsh and his melodious voice lent itself so beautifully to the story.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
As an author, I have already finished my second novel, which I think I’m allowed to tell you is NOT a sequel. It’s a dark comedy about grief, with elements of the surreal, and magical realism. I’m very proud of it, in all its off-the-wall glory. I think it will be out next year, or early the year after.
Currently, I’m working on my third novel, where there are some dark goings-on in a tiny village in Cumbria. It has taken far longer than my other two novels to write this book due to the pandemic and home-schooling, but I’m hoping it will be no worse for it. Perhaps it will be better, who knows?!
As an actor, I have the second series of Trying for Apple TV out in May, and am very busy auditioning like mad for other things, but it is all a bit of a juggle with launching a book at the same time (as I write this, I’m also trying to learn 10 pages of dialogue in 24 hours for a self-tape tomorrow).
My partner is a production designer for film and tv, and has been away for work for seven months, so solo parenting, especially during this third lockdown, has added another element to my work/life axis!
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate the release of This Fragile Earth? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
That’s a very good question. Originally, the novel was due to be released in April, but my kind and clever publishers decided it would be nice if I had a chance of a launch party, and perhaps a Q&A or two in person.
As my release date is 24th June, in theory we should be out of lockdown (fingers crossed), and so I’m currently planning a launch party IN REAL LIFE. I can hardly believe I’m writing those words… I’ve been lent the most fantastic venue in town for the 23rd, and I’m really hoping I can have 100 of my friends there to celebrate with me.
At 7pm on the 24th itself, in association with Daunts and SFX, I will be in conversation (via zoom) with the author Sophie Ward, where we will be discussing TFE in more detail. If anybody fancies checking in, keep an eye out on social media for it. It would be lovely to have you there.
I can tell you my publishers have got some other events, signings, and Q&A’s lined up with other big bookstores, so please do look out for those in the near future.
You can catch Susannah in conversation with Robert Powell on June 29th HERE
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
It might sound obvious, but what I would really love is for readers to enjoy both the plot and the writing style, and to care about what happens to the characters. If that happens, I’ll feel as though I’ve done my job properly.
Thank you so much for joining us today, and good luck with the release of your debut!
This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise is out now in harback by Gollancz
You can find a copy for your shelves HERE