Monday, October 23, 2017

In Conversation with Zena Shapter

Hi Everyone,

Today we have a special treat - an interview with Zena Shapter, author of Towards White.

Scientists in Iceland think they’ve figured out one of our greatest mysteries – where the electrical energy in the brain goes after we die. . . but when ex-lawyer Becky Dales travels to Iceland to track down her missing brother, the government blocks her at every turn. Becky must piece together the answers fast… before she becomes a victim herself.

Zena is an award winning Australian Speculative Fiction writer, editor, tutor and self proclaimed, 'all round story nerd.'

The Supernatural Underground is happy to share some of her insights and reflection here.



SU I’m so looking forward to seeing Towards White in bookstores. Can you tell us when it will be out, to start, and what genre we can find it in? 

ZS It came out 29th September 2017 and you should be able to find it in your favourite bookstore under: science fiction, thriller or crime/mystery (it’s a cross-genre book). It’s also written in a very realistic style, so will appeal to a variety of readers. One of the first editors to read it was a fan of literary fiction only. Towards White converted her and now she reads science fiction all the time!

SU Becky is an intriguing character. Can you tell us how much of yourself went into her creation?

ZS  I try to put a little of myself into every story, not only because it helps make characters more authentic, but because I read to connect with others, their stories and challenges, and assume others do too. So when I’m writing, I like to offer readers the opportunity to spend time in another person’s shoes, and to do that I have to search through my own closet of shoes and find the right pair to offer up (BTW I don’t actually have a closet for shoes, my shoes are bundled up on wardrobe shelves!). Once I’ve found an experience I might be able to share, I imagine what it would be like to intensify that experience and go through it in extreme conditions, and once I know what those conditions might be, I build my character. During character development, I also think of friends and family who resemble my character in some way, and borrow bits of them to add into the mix. So there’s a bit of me in Becky Dales, there are bits from a few lawyer friends I know, but Becky’s also herself because none of us have ever been in her situation in Towards White – I’m sure we wouldn’t want to be either! We all fall apart sometimes, face the darkest of dark hours, question the essence of our being, then seek a way back to ‘normal’ life. Unfortunately for Becky, she faces having to do this during a crisis. Sometimes when it rains, it pours!

SU I love the world building in Towards White. It is almost like and alien world. You must have lived in Iceland, am I right?

ZS He he, no, I’ve never lived in Iceland, but I’ve been there. I love travelling. I love exploring new places, seeking out unusual stories and uncommon sights, then taking copious notes on them. I have a heap of travel notebooks, and they allow me to travel back in time to when I was last in a place, then write scenes that really show readers what it was like to be there. I visited Iceland in 2001, and when I re-read my notes it’s like being there again. Hopefully when readers read Towards White, they’ll travel there with me too.

SU You know I’m very curious about the science and the philosophy woven into Towards White. Are these questions you’ve wrestled with for years, or did it come to you in a flash?

ZS Both! I grew up around elderly people, for whom death was never far away, and loved studying science at school, so knew all about the energy and nitrogen life cycles. As a teenager, I also enjoyed philosophical contemplations – wherever I could get them! So when I was about eighteen – home from University where I was reading English – I was up late one night philosophising with friends about life after death and I found myself layering our discussion with my scientific background... The conservation of energy theory states that one form of energy must always become another form of energy, energy cannot simply disappear. Our brains are powered by electricity, so I simply made the leap to wondering what happened to it after death. Our bodies go to the worms, what about our electricity? It can’t simply disappear, and it’s far too efficient an energy to simply dissipate, or entropy, as heat. I dwelled on the idea, pondered it, and extended it as far as I could. What if…what if that was the answer to one of man’s greatest mysteries: life after death.

Over the years I played with the idea but it wasn’t until I went to Iceland in 2001 that the story that would become Towards White started to take shape. I fell in love with the country’s austere beauty and inspiration simply poured into my brain from there. There were some delays along the way – moving to Australia, marriage, two children, a new career and finding the right publisher – but the story evolved so much it demanded to be told, and finally it’s here!

SU How much research went into the story? Can we hear a bit about your process?

ZS Well, once I knew I wanted to write a story based on my scientific ideas set in Iceland, I started thoroughly researching those ideas. For the scientific side of things, I went to libraries in the UK and over here in Sydney, read online and asked scientist friends, putting together a folder of research and ideas about energy. I researched all kinds of other relevant things too like gravity and electromagnetism, how colour works, magnetic field therapy, Reiki, astronomy, genes, artic phenomena, the auroras, the constitution and history of Iceland, and of course the brain and nervous system, including brain death and methods of execution. I also bought an Icelandic dictionary and got to know the language as best as I could, including famous cultural quotes and swearing. Many of these ideas have been ingrained in the story from the very first draft back in 2002, but I cut out a lot of the language as my writing technique developed because it didn’t bring anything to the story but ambiguity. Some of the research I cut too because it was too lengthy – but I still have it all somewhere!

SU Becky’s relationships with men are complicated. Did you know she would have such an intense history/backstory from the start, or did that evolve as you wrote her?

ZS It evolved. In earlier drafts of the novel, Becky was a self-assured confident young legal editor who had simply had enough of men. But beta readers found her too assertive, so her confidence had to take a knock. At one point she was lactose intolerant! At another point she was called Kate. But as the drafts went by (there were about ten!), she became more and more complicated, she internalised more, and the more I based her on real friends and family, the more I came to understand her. Hopefully by the end of the novel, readers will understand her too.

SU  What is a typical writing day like for you?

ZS My typical writing day has changed so much over the past few months. It used to look like: admin and emails while the kids get ready for school, exercise until about 9.30am, sit down to write until the kids arrive home around 3pm, ensure I’ve written a minimum of 10,000 words a week, then the rest of the afternoon on client work and free stuff for other authors.

But my creative support business has taken off dramatically this year, and it’s become a struggle to get to any writing at all! I still exercise three days a week, but then have about five hours of client work each day, an hour of face-to-face mentoring other authors, and an hour of teaching (as an average across the week). It’s no wonder I’ve only written a few short stories this year. I have a plan though, to instigate some better balance into my writing life – wish me luck! I will write more again, I will write more again!

SU  Finally, what’s next for you?

ZS Once I’m writing again, I’d like to re-edit a fantasy novel I’ve been working on for a few years, following on from a Writing Inclusive Fiction course I studied earlier this year. It’s so important to write with sensitivity and respect, I want to ensure I’m doing what I can to address imbalances in society, as well as in my own life. I’m also working with agents in the US and England to get more of my writing to readers. Watch this space! Or rather this space over here: ;)

Thanks, Zena!

You can find out more about Zena on her Website, Facebook and Twitter.

Towards White can be purchased on in Kindle or Print.

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