Clare Rhoden is a Melbourne-based author whose thought-provoking post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, The Pale, hit shelves late last year. I thought up some thorny questions to ask her, and Clare admirably rose to the challenge! The Pale revolves around the fallout from a cataclysmic earthquake, and explores its consequences upon several different groups: settlers, tribes, canini, and the modified humans of the Pale. Here’s what Clare had to say about the world of The Pale and her own writing process. Clare has also been kind enough to provide an extract from the just-published sequel to The Pale, entitled Broad Plain Darkening.
Congrautlations, Clare, on the publication of Broad Plain Darkening! I found the first book in the series, The Pale, immensely enjoyable. You dropped us right into a futuristic world complete with talking dogs, and I, for one, was hooked straight away! Are there any specific strategies you used to introduce readers into such a believable world without bogging them down in too much detail?
Thank you! Actually, having such a huge and heavily-populated world in my imagination has caused me some heartache. I find that when I create a character, an entire back-story – including parents and grandparents and siblings, childhood episodes and favourite foods – suddenly downloads into my mind. I must then fight with myself not to include all this in the story. Sometimes I succeed. The best trick I’ve found was suggested by my editor: in a multi-society world such as we find in The Pale, a reader needs a specific pair of eyes to see through. That means that each scene must be realised from only one perspective. It sounds simple and obvious, but it’s been a tough lesson for me.
As for the physical world, that can be quite tricky. I try to weave in bits of description, keeping in mind that the characters themselves would not see these aspects of their world as strange – to be believable, the created world must be ordinary to its inhabitants.
Finally, I write and write and write – always with too many people and too much detail. Then I cut and cut and cut – I write the iceberg and submit the tip, if that makes sense.
Which characters in The Pale do you relate to the most?
I don’t suppose I can name them all, hey?
I do love the canine scout Mashtuk, a character based on a German Shepherd Dog we once owned. He pretty much has my whole heart. His partner Zélie is feisty and sensible, which I really like, and the tribal leader Kilimanjara is a wise older woman with whom I identify strongly. However, I’ve been told by workmates that the quick-thinking, swift-acting, practical but sometimes wrong-headed Valkirra Adelriksdottir, the Chief of the Settlement, is just like me, so I watch her quite fondly too. And I’m keeping an eye on Freya of the Storm – she has great potential. Clever and sensitive.
Dystopian novels often reflect writers’ real concerns with worrying societal trends. Is it satisfying to be able to address your own anxieties about the future through your fiction?
I’m not sure that satisfying is the word I would use. The Pale was initially inspired by a dream I had about Australia’s response to the refugee crisis, a dream of abandoned children left crying outside a rich walled town. I think that writing in dystopian mode allows me to explore just how bad things could become, and think through ways to prevent the worst happening. It also allows me to take different perspectives, which helps me approach my real-world concerns with a more open mind. I can consider the question ‘why on earth would someone think that way?’, so our problems somehow appear more human-scaled.
If you had to imagine a utopian society, what would it be like?
Utopia would be a place and time where everyone had their needs met and nobody was exploited. That includes animals as well as humans. There would be enough of everything to go around, there would be no automatic privilege, and there would be time and respect for art. Ageing and mortality would be accepted as natural and all forms and qualities of life would be celebrated.
And dogs wouldn’t die many long years before their human friends.
What do you struggle the most with in your writing, and what do you find comes most easily?
Good question. I still find it difficult to put my bare, naked words in front of strangers, but I’m definitely getting braver about submitting. I’m also developing more resilience about the editing process. It can be quite a challenge responding to editors’ suggestions, corrections, and changes.
Finding time to write is quite difficult, but I’m lucky in that when I do sit at the keyboard, words just fall out of my fingers… good words, bad words, silly words, superfluous words… which is why I need to do so much pruning of drafts.
Which writers do you find the most inspirational and why?
I read across many genres and find that I am most inspired by writers whose works stay with me. Such stories become part of the inner geography of my mind. Huge, sprawling imaginary worlds with robust characters amaze me and I truly admire writers who can bring them to life. I love well-researched and realised historical fiction – Mary Renault, Edith Pargeter, and Hilary Mantel for example – and I am addicted to several fantasy series. Robin Hobb, Neil Gaiman and Mercedes Lackey continue to impress me.
I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Broad Plain Darkening. Can you give us a taste of what to expect?
Broad Plain Darkening will be both sad and hopeful, in its dystopian way. Instead of a synopsis, how about a little extract?
‘Tell me again why I have to die.’
Jaxon Tangshi, the Senior Forecaster, chanced a swift glance at his regent’s profile. Adaeze was magnificent.
‘My lady,’ answered Jaxon. ‘You must appreciate your position as our regent. You are our talisman against the dark, wrecked world of the Outside.’
Adaeze set her fists on her hips. ‘Yet you insist that I must die. Curious, Senior, don’t you think?’
‘My lady, your role is clear. You represent the highest possible achievement of our humachine kind in this degraded, post-Conflagration era. You are the recipient of the very best of our software and hardware, and the most excellent and exquisite liveware that the Pale can possibly produce. Every citizen reveres and, I might add, fears you. So they should, as you are so far superior to anything we ordinary folk could ever become.’ Jaxon’s voice caressed each syllable, his demeanour one of complete adoration.
Adaeze tilted her head back, lifting her chin toward him like a challenge. He watched as she folded her powerful forearms, sheathed in guards of engraved black tourmaline, across her gem-studded vest. He could see that his explanation meant little to her in her present cantankerous mood. ‘I must die because I am the best that the Pale can produce? What kind of logic is that?’
‘The immutable logic of the first citizens,’ said Jaxon, shaking his head, as if in sorrow.
Thank you so much Elizabeth for these great questions! I look forward to chatting again in the near future.