Francesca Haig | THE FIRE SERMON

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Even before it was been published, THE FIRE SERMON was being hailed as the new classic in Young Adult post-apocalyptic fiction, and widely touted as the natural successor to THE HUNGER GAMES. STARBURST spoke to author FRANCESCA HAIG to find out more…

Francesca Haig grew up in Australia and gained a PhD at the University of Melbourne, where her principal area of research was Holocaust literature. While her poetry and prose has been widely published in the UK and overseas, The Fire Sermon is her first novel, and it has received the kind of reception of which most authors can only dream. The book has sold in more than twenty territories (mostly at auction) and DreamWorks have already snapped up the film rights, with Guardians of the Galaxy co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman currently developing the screenplay.

STARBURST: How are you handling this spectacular reaction to her first book?

Francesca Haig: It’s partly thrilling and partly terrifying! I’m always very wary of people announcing it’s the next this or that, not because I don’t admire and enjoy books like The Hunger Games, but because the potential for backlash is so huge. I’m just thrilled anyone’s going to read the book at all and the idea of any hype associated with it is so incredible to me. I still turn to my husband on a regular basis and ask ‘Is it real? Is any of this really happening?’

One thing that does thrill me is that people have also mentioned my book in association with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as well as The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is an easy analogy to draw – it’s dystopian or post-apocalyptic and it’s got a young female protagonist – but The Road is closer to my heart because the world I was trying to create is probably bleaker than The Hunger Games and perhaps more adult. And The Road is one of my all-time top three novels.

How does it feel to have your characters go out into the world and meet people finally?

It’s really strange because I’ve spent so long with them! Part of me is so grateful to be able to talk about them, but part of me also feels a little bit protective of them too. When a reviewer said they didn’t take to one particular character in the book, I felt such a surge of maternal love - ‘No! You can’t say that!’ it was such a funny protective instinct!

The Fire Sermon is filled with so many extraordinary people but, as in most stories of this type, not all of them make it to the last page. Is it a wrench when you let those characters go?

It’s definitely not an easy decision to lose characters. I miss one of them particularly, especially because they injected a necessary sense of humour into what is quite a bleak story and I liked their worldview and snarky little asides.

Cass is an exceptional heroine, far more three-dimensional than we’re used to meeting in this kind of fiction.

It’s funny you say that because someone lambasted me recently for jumping on the strong female heroine bandwagon, which made me fall about laughing! A strong male hero isn’t noteworthy, but a strong female heroine is a bandwagon and a trope!

What I hoped to achieve with Cass was that she be strong but not strong in a necessarily straightforward way. Her strength lies in her weakness - not, I hope, in a stereotypically feminine softness, but in her willingness to see things differently. If the story was just going to be about a good twin and an evil twin it would ultimately just be an episode of Days of Our Lives, but what’s interesting to me about Cass is the complexity and twistedness of her relationship with Zach and the fact that, because she doesn’t ultimately see division between Alphas and Omegas, that’s what makes her revolutionary.

How long did the book take to write?

Bloody ages! I had the idea at least a decade ago. It was a little, unfocussed, side project for a long time but then I was awarded a writers residency called The Hawthornden Fellowship, when you get to live in this amazing castle in Scotland for a month. And although I was given the Fellowship to work on a very worthy collection of poetry I found myself writing this book instead, in the afternoons when I was all ‘poetried’ out!

So you didn’t start writing with the trilogy in your head?

Actually I did! I made it clear when I submitted it to my agent that it was a trilogy and it went out to publishers as Book One, along with the synopses for Books Two and Three. And I had a broad road map of where I wanted it to go. But obviously during the process of writing that changes – not dramatically, the end point is still the same, but the route the characters take on the way has varied a bit in the process of writing and will continue to vary as I write Book Three. I’ve actually delivered Book Two to my editors. There was a lovely quote I heard, ‘I love synopses. They’re how I pretend to know where my next book is going and my editors pretend to believe me’!

Did you always intend to write a book set in a post-apocalyptic world?

Not at all. The idea of this book came with the twins; that was the whole hook for me – what if there were twins, and when one died the other died as well? So everything else arose organically out of that. What could have caused a mutation like this? Not surprisingly, I chose a nuclear blast. Looking back it shouldn’t be a shock that I’d end up writing post-apocalyptic fiction because my academic research specialism was Holocaust literature but it wasn’t a calculated move. In fact, by the time my book was going out to agents the impression was that the post-apocalyptic ship had sailed and I got some rejections from agents on that basis. God bless my brilliant agent who thought that if there’s a good enough story there’s always going to be room for more!

And each generation has its own post-apocalyptic literature.

Absolutely! Post-apocalyptic fiction goes all the way back to the Bible and Noah! It’s not specifically a new or young adult phenomenon. We’ve always been interested in the ‘What if?’ questions and we’re all catastrophists at heart!  And even though I have read and enjoyed some of the more recent wave of post-apocalyptic stuff the things that were seminal for me were from the fifties and sixties –  John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, and works by Russell Hoban, a brilliant author who also wrote loads of children’s books. That was the triumvirate which shaped my post-apocalyptic imagination much more than the contemporary stuff.

It’s a regret of mine that I couldn’t use an environmental catastrophe, because that’s the one we’re hurtling towards. It didn’t fit because I needed the nuclear mutations and I needed that big dramatic moment for various reasons that will become clear in subsequent books. But if I were writing a cautionary tale that would be the tale that I’d write - about global warming. Not to dismiss the potential horrors of nuclear technology, but that’s not the one that’s immediately pressing at the moment.

Isn’t that one of the reasons post-apocalyptic fiction has such a constant return because, like watching horror movies, it lets us confront our nightmares from a safe distance?

Yes, certainly in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, we try on our nightmares and attempt to exorcise them through the story but my fear about the environmental issue is that it’s not at the forefront of enough people’s minds for it to even become a nightmare. One of the things that amazes me about our complacency regarding climate change is how much denial we’re in and when readers have asked me, ‘Hang on, isn’t it implausible that the Alphas would be so self-destructive as to interfere in the health and well-being of their Omega twins when their own health and well-being depends on keeping them alive?’ I look around at our fast-sinking world and the damage we are doing every day to the planet we depend upon and think, ‘How is that implausible?’ The consequences of environmental destruction are becoming more and more dramatic but we still persist.

So, thinking about the ‘fatal bond’ the Alpha and Omega twins have, where did that idea come from?

To start with I should point out I’m not a twin, it’s nothing as obvious as that. On one hand, the fatal bond is the most fantastical sci-fi element of the book but on the other hand, it comes from one of the most universal and relatable ideas of all, the notion of loving someone so much you feel you couldn’t continue if they died. If you’ve ever been close to someone – not necessarily a sibling, it could be a lover, a child, even a parent - that thought, ‘How do I go on when they’re no longer here’ can be terrifying. The fatal bond in The Fire Sermon is a literalisation of that question.

Are you working with Dreamworks on the screenplay?

No, I’ve got no expertise in screenwriting so I’m very happy for it to be in Nicole Perlman’s experienced hands. I’ll be very excited to see if anything comes of it, but Hollywood’s such a nebulous world, I don’t want to count my chickens! It’s fun to imagine it taking shape on the big screen though.

So you’ve no concerns about how The Fire Sermon will be translated onto film?

It’s a tricky one. Even though the news of the film has headlined a lot of the stuff surrounding the book, at the end of the day that’s kind of peripheral. Whatever happens with the film, the book is always going to be there. And when I sit down at my laptop, the book is what it is and the film won’t take away from that. I used to teach film studies at University and I have a fairly relaxed acceptance that it’s a different medium. That’s the official line! Unofficially, of course I hope and pray that what they do with the film I’ll love and enjoy and part of me will be very nervous when it comes to questions like casting etc.! But I’ve spent so long with these characters that they’re not going to be nudged out of the frame, whatever happens with the movie.

Finally, your son is fifteen months old now. When the trilogy’s finished do you see writing any post-apocalyptic children’s books in your future?

Oh no! There are quite enough brilliantly dark children’s books out there already! I was reading Where the Wild Things Are to my son and that line ‘We’ll eat you up - we love you so’ is so true and so unsettling! I’ve got one beautiful children’s book by an Australian author called Sean Tan called The Red Tree, and as far as I can see it’s a twenty-odd page reflection on clinical depression, I don’t think children need any post-apocalyptic literature from me!

THE FIRE SERMON is released on February 26th, you can read our review here.

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