Interview with Ever Dundas (HELLSANS)
Ever Dundas exists in Edinburgh with her husband Cinn, cat Belle, and numerous house spiders called Elvis and Bob. Ever’s debut novel Goblin won the Saltire First Book of the Year Award 2017. Her second novel, sci-fi thriller HellSans, will be published by Angry Robot 11 Oct 2022. Twitter & Instagram: @EverDundas
Welcome to the Hive, Ever. It’s lovely to have you on our Women in SFF feature. Could you please tell us about your upcoming release with Angry Robot, HellSans? What can our readers expect?
It’s a pleasure! Thank you for having me.
I describe HellSans as Chuck Palahniuk meets David Cronenberg with queer crip women anti-heroes.
In a future dystopian UK, the mobile phone has been replaced by the Inex (a cyborg doll-like personal assistant), and the population is controlled by its bliss reaction to HellSans, the ubiquitous typeface. But there’s a minority who are allergic: so-called ‘deviants’ (or HellSans Allergic – HSAs) who are forced to live in a ghetto.
Jane Ward, CEO of the company that develops the Inex, is powerful and in league with the government until she falls ill with the allergy. Losing her charmed life, she languishes in the ghetto, before being rescued by Dr Ichorel Smith, who has a HellSans allergy cure. Icho is on the run from the government and the Seraphs (the ghetto ‘terrorists’), who all have their own agenda for the cure. Jane and Icho go undercover to work together, but the stakes are high, and this is a dangerous society where nobody’s motivations can be trusted.
HellSans is in three parts, and you can read the first two parts (‘Jane’ and ‘Icho’) in an order of your choice. By changing the order in which you get information, it can alter the reader’s experience of the narrative and the characters. When reading a novel, the experience is obviously always different for different people, but having the opportunity there for people to read the book slightly differently makes that even more pronounced.
While I didn’t write it with this in mind, you could technically read only one of the first parts and go straight to Part Three. You would miss a substantial perspective, but I think it would be interesting to see how that impacts a reader’s experience. You could then go back and read the part you missed, changing your perspective after having already read the denouement.
Could you tell us a bit more about your characters, Jane Ward and Dr Icho Smith? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
Jane Ward is a queer woman in her mid-forties, and is famous, powerful, rich, narcissistic, belligerent, and arrogant. She’s obsessed with her looks and fitness, believing her good health makes her superior. Ward is in league with Prime Minister Caddick and is pro-draconian measures towards the HellSans Allergic, but her world is turned upside down when she falls seriously ill with the HellSans allergy.
Dr Ichorel Smith is a queer woman in her mid-twenties. She’s a scientist who has been developing a cure for the HellSans allergy and is very ambitious and dedicated to her career, work being her main focus in life. After getting mixed up in government machinations, Icho goes on the run from the government and the Seraphs who both have their own agenda for the cure.
I’m a big fan of reluctant rebels; people who don’t want to rebel against society, but are forced to by circumstance. There’s definitely a place for the ‘plucky rebel’ story – I love those narratives too – but with HellSans I felt there was more fun to be had with the reluctant rebel in both Jane and Icho. It also gave me a chance to mess with the very capitalist ‘individual hero’ narrative a little, particularly with Jane; she keeps trying to get out of the situation she’s in, but she’s pulled further and further down. She can’t make it out through sheer force of will. She’s in thrall to the power of the individual, the tech entrepreneur who built herself and built an empire, so it’s a shock to her when things spiral out of her control.
Both Jane and Icho are anti-heroes and I had a lot of fun writing them, so I’d definitely say anti-hero women characters are my favourite to write. While things have slowly changed over the years, I still think we need to allow for more women anti-heroes without people wringing their hands over whether it’s ‘feminist’ or whether it’s OK for women protagonists to be ‘unlikeable’.
Recently, I was very disappointed in the decision to soften the character Inej in the adaptation of Shadow and Bone/the Crows duology. In the book she’s an assassin, she kills people, but in the TV show she’s a skilled fighter, but doesn’t kill – only doing so reluctantly when she’s saving someone she loves (there’s also a scene where she asks someone to kill for her, because she can’t do it). The show also simplifies her religious faith, imbuing it with inappropriate Christian-inflected guilt. I think this was a big mistake and does the character a huge disservice. It takes away her autonomy, self-reliance, and responsibility. We don’t need to soften women characters to be able to like or appreciate them. We have a long history of men who are anti-heroes, and we don’t get the same kind of angsty commentary with these characters. There’s still the general expectation that women characters should be ‘nice’, and if they’re not, then they must be forced to go through some kind of redemption arc – I avoided redemption with both Jane and Icho.
For the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans out there, I named Jane Ward after Grant Ward. I consider Ward’s arc in S.H.I.E.L.D. to be one of the best character arcs in TV (and I’m in the middle of a big S.H.I.E.L.D. rewatch as I write a piece about his arc). There’s a scene where Grant Ward says: “I don’t need redeeming,” and that stuck with me. You could argue there is a redemption arc for Grant Ward, but it’s not a straightforward one, and I really appreciated that about the show.
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!
Because I have M.E. and fibromyalgia, I don’t have set working times; I work around illness. I also make sure I get plenty of rest breaks otherwise I end up burning out or having an illness flare-up. So I do a lot of time management to get writing done. It can definitely be frustrating at times, but I never feel guilty if I can’t write because I’m unwell or need to rest; it’s just part of my reality and I work around it. I don’t believe you have to write every day to be a writer; that’s ableist. I also think taking time to read, think things through, and write notes is just as important to the writing process.
Because of M.E., noise can sometimes cause a flare-up, so depending on how I’m feeling I may need to write with noise cancelling headphones on. But when that’s not an issue, music is a hugely important part of my writing process.
I can’t listen to music without headphones when I’m writing; it pulls me out of the narrative. But with headphones it encloses me in the world I’m creating and gives me sharp focus, the ‘real’ world disappearing. I know some writers say they can’t write to music with lyrics, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I can’t listen to new music when writing; that definitely distracts me, so I often end up listening to the same thing over and over again. Although, I’m a bit obsessive that way anyway and can easily listen to the same album for months, and I often listen to the same song on repeat, or even the same part of a song on repeat.
In the HellSans acknowledgments, I give a salute in thanks for the soundtrack to Suede and Pearl Jam, as I listened to some of their albums repeatedly throughout the writing and editing (along with the Legion soundtrack version of ‘Behind Blue Eyes’). Suede’s song ‘Flytipping’, from The Blue Hour album, features in HellSans, as it fits with one of the themes.
Speaking of worlds, what inspired your futuristic/dystopian worldbuilding? How much of current political events have helped shape your novel?
Living as a disabled person under Tory austerity for over 10 years was a huge influence on HellSans.
HellSans is a dystopia inspired by rage when I fell through the cracks of capitalism and struggled to get any help. I was already aware how awful it was living under a Tory government in a world in thrall to capitalism, but the experience of losing my job because I was too ill to work and having to go through the horrendous, humiliating not fit-for-purpose benefits system really rammed that home – and my situation wasn’t even as bad as many others; I had a lot of support to help me get through that, but many don’t.
When the pandemic hit, people said we were now living in a dystopia, but disabled people had already been living in a dystopia for years; it’s just that no one cared. The Tory government were investigated by the UN for human rights violations against disabled people, and it barely caused a ripple.
I remember early feedback for HellSans which said, “wouldn’t people just feel pity towards the HellSans Allergic?” rather than actively persecuting them. Firstly, pity isn’t any better – we don’t want pity. A core disabled activist mantra is ‘Piss on Pity’. We want rights, we want access, we want a society that isn’t built on ableism and eugenics. Secondly, non-disabled people have this cute idea that if they were to fall ill they would get care (both longterm social care and medical care), and they could easily access the benefits system. I hate to disillusion them, but many disabled people can tell you that’s not how it works. Disabled people are stigmatised, scapegoated, constantly under surveillance, and repeatedly forced to prove their needs. Life for disabled people in the UK wasn’t great before the Tory government, but the Tories have systematically eroded and dismantled what little support there was, all while stirring up “benefits scrounger” rhetoric.
So, all my rage is channelled into this sci-fi thriller. It’s political, though not preachy, and the characters and story very much come first.
As a disabled author, how important is disability representation to you in your own work and in others?
Before I answer, I need some disclaimers. I’m wary of calls for ‘authenticity’. Authentic for who? Disabled people aren’t a homogenous group. While I definitely want more disabled authors given the support and opportunities to tell stories (whether they feature disability or not) and we need more decent disabled protagonists that don’t fall into the trap of tired ableist tropes that we’re so utterly sick of, we don’t want to fall into the trap of the ‘authenticity’ police.
Just as I’m wary of ‘authenticity’, we also need to be a little wary of ‘representation’. Firstly, representing who? In a similar vein to ‘authenticity’, any one disabled protagonist can’t carry the weight of having to represent all disabled people.
I also have an issue with readers who always want themselves reflected back at them in stories. Because we’ve had such terrible ableist representation before, I understand disabled people want to see themselves reflected in culture. It’s needed. It’ll be utterly refreshing and we need a flood of it. On the other hand, I just want to point out that as readers or viewers, we don’t always have to see ourselves reflected in a narrative or protagonist; that’s a pretty narrow view of storytelling and what it can do.
And lastly, in terms of disabled characters, we need to be careful that ‘good’ disabled characters or ‘good representation’ (i.e. not falling into ableist tropes) doesn’t mean that the characters have to be ‘good’ people. They need to be allowed to be nuanced and messy, anti-heroes, villains… Obviously, villain disabled characters have a lot of baggage they need to shrug off, as over the years the simplistic ‘disabled/scarred/disfigured = villain’ trope has been a pretty lazy easy go-to. In HellSans, Icho has scars but they’re not there as a symbol for her character.
Those caveats aside, I can’t overstate how important disability rep is to me in my own work and in others. Disabled people most definitely have not had their day; in novels, films, TV – everywhere, basically – we’re subjected to the same tired ableist tropes. And non-disabled people lap it up. We’re done with the ‘faker’, the ‘better off dead’, and the inspiration porn (the capitalist individualist narratives where the disabled person ‘overcomes’ and makes it through sheer force of will, completely ignoring structural inequalities). We’re done. Ableism aside, it’s just bad writing. And extremely dull. Writers – do better.
And all these tropes have an effect on our daily lives, the tropes feed into everyday life and back again in a hideous loop: the government and press stigmatise us as fakers, scroungers, and ‘useless mouths’, the arts reflects this, people consume the arts, this feeds into the stigma, and if affects our lives in countless ways, whether it’s direct abuse, unemployment, poor pay, a punitive benefits system, and so on.
I have chronic pain and flu-like exhaustion, which is as awful as it sounds (and I would sell a Tory’s soul not to be in pain 24/7), but because I have decent support, I’m living with a family I love (husband, cat, and numerous house spiders), my husband has a steady income, we have a decent roof over our heads, and I’m in a career I love, my life is generally pretty happy. What makes my life miserable is medical neglect, stigma, lack of access (everywhere), a dire benefits system, and boring ableist tropes in writing by (usually) non-disabled people. I’m not better off dead; I’m better off with good support. And no stigma. Society needs a massive overhaul. Crip revolution, anyone?
Let’s talk about Inklusion. Could you tell us more about the project you have co-founded to create a guide to making literature events accessible for disabled people? What made you want to start this project?
Since my debut novel Goblin came out in 2017, my experience as a disabled author and audience member has varied across the industry. Access is inconsistent, and it was difficult having to constantly advocate for myself, not knowing how that would be received. I don’t want fellow disabled people to go through this and feel excluded from culture. Good access practice should be the norm, not the rare exception, so my writer colleague Julie Farrell and I decided we’d help make that happen, and the Inklusion Guide was born. It’s been a pretty intense couple of years getting this off the ground, and I’ve had to put my creative work aside to do it, but I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. The guide will be published by Penguin Random House UK and it launches in August at Edinburgh International Book Festival: you can attend either in-person or online and it’s Pay What You Can, which we hope will make it accessible to a wider audience: www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/celebrating-inclusion
Personally for me, I found one good thing that came from lockdowns was the use of virtual events, which actually made it more inclusive for disabled people who, like me, perhaps cannot travel to in-person events or find that the chosen venue is not accessible. How important do you think it is to continue having virtual events? Is there any more you feel publishers/event organisers could do?
That’s fantastic it helped you – many disabled people have said the same. I’ve also had many non-disabled writers say they need this access too (for various reasons, including geography, finances, childcare, and so on).
It’s hugely important we don’t lose this access provision – ever since these online options became available because of the pandemic, the disability mantra has been that we’re ‘Not going back to normal’: event providers must continue to provide this access going forward, otherwise people will be excluded again. We need publishers and event providers to commit to this. The Inklusion Guide encourages hybrid events, and there’s been a recent #KeepFestivalsHybrid campaign and a Spread the Word guide to putting on hybrid events, which will hopefully help.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
No creature. Humans should fight their own battles.
(Alternative answer: Falkor from Neverending Story. We’d go after school bullies).
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual/in-person events our readers may be interested in?
I’ll likely have a wee glass of prosecco at home with my family and listen to Suede’s ‘Flytipping’ on repeat. There’s a couple of HellSans launch events being planned for early October, hopefully hybrid (in-person and livestreamed). Keep an eye out on social media for updates!
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
Joy. I often find dark, gruesome art quite invigorating, inspiring, and kind of joyful (the Manics’ Holy Bible is my go-to perky album) – there must be other weirdos out there who feel the same, right?
Thank you so much for joining us today!