DF: In this case, it was the former. I'd had "a retelling of Persuasion" in my idea file for years. I love retellings in general, and I love Jane Austen retellings like Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary, but I'd never seen one of Persuasion, my favorite. "Post-apocalyptic" is another favorite genre on my mental "to do" list. One day, they collided (and quite the tongue-twister they made, too). From there it very much was a matter of figuring out what caused the apocalypse and how to get from that to the class issues I wanted to talk about. (Fun fact: in one discarded concept, it was the upper class who were the technically savvy, genetically modified ones.)
For Across a Star-Swept Sea, the companion novel, it was the opposite. I had written For Darkness Shows the Stars as a standalone and I knew another Austen was not where my heart lay. One of the characters in For Darkness, Andromeda, spends a lot of time talking about revolution, which got me thinking about what if there was a place who responded to the Reduction in a different way? And then I thought about revolution stories I knew, and how the Reduction, being a brain injury, was actually a metaphor for "losing your head." Another longtime resident of the Idea file was "a gender-flipped Scarlet Pimpernel" and I realized I'd finally found the premise to make it work.
TS: One of the my favorite aspects of the FDSTS is the world it’s set in. Sure, it’s the mad future where humans have mucked it all up since genetic modification of food and people has poisoned the world, but since that took place in the distant past, generations ago, the violence and chaos of it all have faded. What’s left is an old fashioned world, one which Jane Austen herself would have recognized: agrarian, pious (perhaps a touch sanctimonious) with a rigid class hierarchy and yet for all that, oddly egalitarian to the sexes in the ruling Luddite community. What inspired this old fashioned and yet futurist world? Would you want to live there?
DF: Thank you! back in 2004, I visited New Zealand for several months. It's such a gorgeous, verdant land, and also kind of a contradiction in itself. Off in the middle of nowhere, filled with species that can't be found anywhere else on Earth. I once saw a penguin sunning itself under a prehistoric palm tree-- that's how "odd" it is there. It's a very young, very small country with an incredibly rich history and a unique melting pot of cultures. It's a highly agrarian society which is very English in some ways, yet there are these cities which are super modern and filled with immigrants (fun fact: Wellington has one of the highest rate of interracial marriages per capita in the world), and also the small but highly influential population of Maori who are very much trying to preserve their native culture among this onslaught. Who wouldn't want to set their stories there?
Would I want to live there? NO WAY. I would, however, like to live in New Pacifica, the setting of Across a Star-Swept Sea. Gorgeous, lush surroundings, cool technology, awesome dresses? Where do I sign up? Their reaction to the Reduction was very different, and they are in a much healthier place now. There are still problems to be solved (the southern island is having a bloody revolution, the northern one has problems of sexism), but I think those characters are on their way to fixing that stuff and then it'll be a technological paradise.
TS: Elliot North, the protagonist, is raised to believe that genetic modification is quite literally, the root of all evil. It’s the cause of the great disaster they are all still recovering from. After years where all innovation and experiments were forbidden, society seems ready to move on again. The novel ends with Elliot North reconsidering her views on the matter. Where do you stand on the subject?
DF: Is that where it ends, though? The story starts with her watching the product of her own genetic modifications being mown down in front of her eyes. I think Elliot North is a girl in denial, and the story is about first recognizing and then accepting that you may not believe what you've been taught to believe. The wheat Elliot is growing is her reconstitution of Norman Borlaug's semi-dwarf wheat, which, together with other innovations, jumpstarted the Green Revolution in the mid twentieth century and is responsible for saving a billion people from starvation. There are studies that attempt to demonize this wheat, saying it's less nutritious and causes gluten intolerance and other ills, but I think that comes from a place of privilege. You don't knock less nutritious wheat when the alternative is starvation. And that's where Elliot is when she makes the incredibly difficult decision to flaunt the beliefs of her ancestors and secretly plant it. It's genetic modification or death.