What is the biggest thing that people THINK they know about your subject/genre that isn’t so?
I write science fiction and fantasy, and people (who don’t read it) tend to think of it as ‘all spaceships and magic’. It isn’t! Science fiction, for example, can indeed be based on space, time travel or life on other planets; but it can also be based on imagined scientific or technological developments, major social or environmental changes, set in the real world here on Earth. My latest book, Towards White, falls into this category, imagining a world where scientists have discovered when the electrical energy in your brain goes when you die. It’s set in Iceland and I’ve been told it’s portrayed in a very realistic style. Because of this, people who don’t read science fiction have enjoyed it so much they’re going to read more science fiction from now on. I hope they do!
Can you share with readers a little bit about your latest book?
Towards White is a story about a girl trying to pull herself back together in extraordinary circumstances. 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. I wanted to write a story about a character struggling to do that, and facing a crisis at the same time. Sometimes when it rains, it pours.
They know what’s going to happen to you… after you die.
Scientists in Iceland think they’ve figured out one of our greatest mysteries – where the electrical energy in our brains goes after we die. According to the laws of physics, one form of energy must always become another form. So the electrical energy in our brains and nervous system can’t simply disappear…
When ex-lawyer Becky Dales travels to Iceland to track down her missing brother, she doesn’t care about the groundbreaking discoveries or the positive-thinking practiced by the Icelanders – she just wants her brother back. Having stumbled on something she thinks the Icelandic government wants to be covered up, Becky must piece together the answers fast… before she becomes a victim herself.
What made you decide to sit down and actually start writing this book?
I’ve always appreciated the systematic beauty of the laws of physics, especially life cycles: how one thing becomes another, and another, wasting little but time. So when I read about the conservation of energy law at school, one of the fundamental laws of physics, I dwelled on it, 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. The conservation of energy law states that one form of energy must always become another form of energy—so where does the electrical energy in our brains go when we die? It can’t end, it can’t just disappear…
Over the years I played with this 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!
Tell us more about your main character. What makes him or her unique?
My main character, Becky Dales, has food issues. Weight control is becoming an increasingly popular issue these days, and the methods used to stay slim aren’t always healthy. So it was no surprise to me to learn that 84.3% of young people know at least one person with an eating disorder (NEDC 2010), 15% of women will experience an eating disorder at some point during their life (Wade, 2006), and an estimated 20% of women have an undiagnosed eating disorder (NEDC, 2012b)? As humans, our relationship with food is complicated and strained, yet we rarely talk about it. I wanted to explore this by creating a character authentically representative of those struggles, both to show how something debilitating can remain hidden and to acknowledge an otherwise typically invisible and isolating experience. Help is available. Here in Australia, free confidential help is available through the National Eating Disorders Collaboration helpline on 1800 33 4673. We can start by talking.
What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book?
That readers think Becky Dales is me! Of course, 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, though, 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, and of course, 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!
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Travelling to Iceland. I love traveling. 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.
What role does research play in your writing?
A lot! Especially for Towards White. 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!
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Be determined in spite of everything, but not everyone. Writing is a collaborative process and writers need the support of family and friends, as well as readers and editors. Sacrifice and hard work will get you far, but you don’t want to be alone at the end of it, or for your health to suffer. I’ve had to fight over the years for every precious second of writing time I’ve carved out of my days and weeks, knowing talent is nothing if you don’t put in the time too. But I’ve also put down the laptop when others needed my help or attention, or to look after my health. It’s a matter of balance, of course. Oh, and chocolate and wine, definitely chocolate and wine.
What is your next project?
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 imbalance. 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: zenashapter.com/blog. 😉
Want to learn more about Zena Shapter?
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One response to “Zena Shapter, author of Towards White”
Nice Zena. Difficult subject and I’ll get around to reading it. We need more authors of SF&F who are not all light sabres and zero to warp 10 in 2 seconds. Congratulations.
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