Monday, 20 June 2011

Aurora dawns

This lovely lady is Julie Bertagna and she is my special guest today. The reason is that after a long wait by her fans, the third book in Julie's trilogy has just come out.

I didn't read Exodus when it was first published but came across it when I had to review the second book, Zenith, and realised I really needed to do my homework before I could possibly do justice to the sequel.

Since then I have joined the ranks of "anxious awaiters" and was not disappointed when I read Aurora. Julie very kindly agreed to answer the questions I had in mind when I finished the book.

BM: There have been long gaps between the three books, published 2002, 2007 and this year, 2011. I'm sure the many fans will just be delighted to have the third episode but do you think there will be any problems with readers not remembering all the details from the other two books? Or are they just such avid re-readers that they remember even better than you do!

JB: New editions of all three books of the trilogy have been re-issued with fantastic new covers so I think there will be a whole new generation of readers coming to them afresh. For other readers, I took care in Aurora to explain things as much as I could as I went along, but in a way that didn’t interrupt the momentum of the story - just enough that would make sense, hopefully, for anyone who might be reading Aurora first or who hadn’t read the other books in a while. I always re-read books I liked when I was younger, and the feedback I get from readers tells me they do too. But to recap everything would have made for a very stodgy story. Often readers have picked up on details I’ve forgotten and asked questions that I haven’t thought of and it’s been very helpful!

BM: There is also a time lapse of about fifteen years between books two and three in the action of the novels. This is quite a risk to take with readers who have been on a cliff hanger for four years about Mara and Fox. Can you explain why you took this bold step?

JB: I think you should take risks as a writer. That’s part of the reason I’m writing YA fiction. I think it’s my job to take readers places they might not have expected or thought they wanted to go. Books would be very dull if authors were continually asking themselves, will the readers like this or is it too risky? Should I just play safe? I moved the action forward because, quite simply, it would have been a lesser story if I hadn’t. It would have been limited to one generation when this is a big epic tale that spans generations, different worlds and lives. Some people have been hooked and intrigued straight off, others have said, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to go there and make that jump in time but then I got lost in the story again...’ I’ve often had exactly that reaction when reading a book, but the challenge is worth it as I love big stories that take you on unexpected journeys.

BM: Would you yourself describe these books as "dystopian"? It seems to be the current buzz word but was new in 2002. Perhaps Exodus was an early example of dystopian YA fiction?

Dystopian seems to be an umbrella word for anything futuristic right now. Exodus was out on its own when it was published as there was really nothing else like it, and it felt like a risky book to write, so it’s strange suddenly to be part of a ‘hot trend’. The sky city empire in the Exodus trilogy is a dystopian regime which has shut out the refugees of the flooded world, but the rest of the novel is apocalyptic. So maybe my trilogy could be described as ‘Dystopalyptic’ - there, I’ve just invented a new buzz word!

BM: It's really a very political book or books, with the widening post eco-disaster gap between the haves and have-nots. Are you also telling us something about the present?

JB: All the ideas for these books have come out of the real world - from my first inspiration of the Kiribati islanders struggling to survive on scraps of land amid rising seas in the Pacific, to the boat camps of flood refugees and rampaging gypsea pirates, the bio-architecture of the sky city towers, and the walled cities in a time when we are debating the problems of mass migration into ‘Fortress Europe’. Speculative fiction about the future has a big punch when you can feel its roots stretching back into the real present, and see reflections of your own world in the imagined future of the story. But these books don’t preach - it’s up to readers to take what they want from these stories. I do find that they spark great debates and questions and opinions.

Just the other day I did an event in a library where I was talking up the need to keep our libraries open and one of my young audience said, ‘This fight for libraries is kind of like Fox’s revolution to keep the world’s lands free for the boat people.’ That was not a parallel that had ever occurred to me, but I liked it!

BM: I don't want to give any spoilers in this interview but do you think your readers will be satisfied by the ending of the story between Mara and Fox?

JB: One thing I’ve learned about my readers is that a whole lot of them would be insulted by an obvious, trite or sentimental ‘Hollywood’ ending - and so would my characters! I’ve had so many emails and there are debates on my talk forum on all kinds of reasons for and against Mara and Fox ending up together - everyone disagrees with everyone else. It’s great fun and I could never please them all.

I wanted to write an ending where you couldn’t just turn to the back page and find out what happened (as I can be shamefully guilty of doing). All three books of the trilogy end with a surge of forward momentum. There are rewards for careful readers - for example, Exodus opens with ‘once upon a time’ and Aurora ends with the same words. These words also link Mara and Fox and this theme - the power of stories - is at the heart of the books. I wonder if anyone will spot the elements of the ‘stone-telling’ prophecy in Exodus hidden in the ending of Aurora. That’s the kind of subtle detail that my readers seem to enjoy.

I love evocative endings that leave space for the reader to imagine. For me, the most powerful stories are the ones where the imaginations of the writer and reader work together. The best books I’ve ever read, the ones that have stayed with me, have left me haunted, provoked, infuriated, driven me crazy, left me wondering and imagining, sometimes for years...whereas ‘satisfying’ crowd-pleasers, cut and dried happy-ever-afters, have long vanished from my mind.

The ending of Aurora is a whole new beginning and that’s why it ends with ‘once upon a time’.

BM: I must ask because people always want to know: is this the end of the story?

JB: I’m working on a big new book called ‘Riven’ - it might end up as two - about a very different future and it’s very exciting so I’m all caught up in that. Maybe one day I will return to the world of the Exodus trilogy but that’s it for now.

A little bit more about Julie:

Julie Bertagna was born in Ayrshire and grew up near Glasgow. After an English degree at Glasgow University she worked as the editor of a small magazine, a teacher and then a freelance journalist. She has written many award-winning novels for teenagers and younger children and speaks in schools, libraries and at book festivals across the UK. Her books have also sold all over the world. Exodus, her first novel for Macmillan, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award and was described by the Guardian as ‘a miracle of a novel’. Julie writes full-time and lives in Glasgow with her family.


bookwitch said...

Relieved to see that you too feel the books are very political. Julie sort of disagreed with me on that.

Candy Gourlay said...

to get to Aurora, i'm re-reading the other two! and i love the new covers!

Julie Bertagna said...

Well, I'll just enter into the argument! - if I say these are political books with 'issues' that I want to promote then that will turn people off as they will assume I've written a didactic story when that's not the kind of book that fires me imaginatively at all. (Believe me, I've been on the receiving end of that kind of comment before and it can be very vicious and sneering if the person commenting doesn't agree with the politics they think you are peddling.) And that's honestly not where I start from, or the way I write at all - I'm totally bound up with the characters and their story, start to finish. Politics and issues don't enter my head.

But 'real stuff' seeps through... of course it does, subconsciously, unconsciously. It's very subtle and complex. Imaginations are porous. Mine very much so.

The fact is, if you tell a bold story and aim for some kind of truth, it will be political (with a small 'p').

Remember the old saying - 'the personal is political'?

Mary Hoffman said...

Personally, i think EVERYTHING is arguably political! I think you handled the "issues" very well.

Julie Bertagna said...

I very nearly wrote in my earlier comment that 'everything is political' depending on how you look at it!

Mary Hoffman said...

Well, perhaps we look at things the same way! Anyway, I think the way the insurgents (Surgents) are handled is very convincing and well done.

Julie Bertagna said...

Thank you. Yes, a revolution is definitely a political act! But it's made up of lots of personal struggles, destinies and dreams... and those are the stories we writers tell.

I think we're on the same wavelength - you too, Ann!

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