Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Interview, Reading and UK/Ireland Giveaway: Sophia McDougall on Space Hostages

Having absolutely loved Sophia McDougall's MG sci-fi Mars Evacuees, I was thrilled to get the chance to read her sequel, Space Hostages - also BRILLIANT - and then ask her a few questions about it! Plus, we have Sophia reading from the book, AND our UK/Ireland readers can win a copy of both books as well - wow!

1. I was slightly surprised (but delighted!) when I found out Space Hostages was coming out, as Mars Evacuees seemed to read really well as a stand-alone. I loved the direction you took Alice's story in in this book, though - but did you always have it planned as more than one book? (And will we see her and her friends return again?)

Truthfully, no, it wasn't always intended as more than one book. In fact I would go around the place swearing it was all stand-alones for me for the rest of my life. But... people I showed it to seemed to want more of it, and eventually it struck me that was a pretty good problem to have?Mars Evacuees does work as a stand-alone – I hope Space Hostages does too. But by the time I approached the two-thirds mark or so in Mars Evacuees, I knew I wanted to spend more time with those characters and the relationships I'd built between them. I also knew the book was going to end with the children looking up at the stars and the line “There are millions of worlds.” In cosmic terms, Mars is practically next door. There's so much further to go. And the kids have gone from being evacuees to being potential explorers. It seemed a shame not to follow through on the promise of that line and actually let them explore.

To be honest, I don't yet know whether there will be more. I would like there to be.

2. Prior to Mars Evacuees, you wrote the adult trilogy Romanitas - what made you switch to writing MG?

Well, I'd had the basic idea for Mars Evacuees in my head a long time – long before Romanitas, in fact. I was nine when I first thought that children being evacuated to Mars was a pretty cool premise. I had another bash at writing it as a grim, dark YA in my mid-teens (there was no robot Goldfish, I was going to kill off most of the human race) and then shelved it. But I did always think it was a good idea so I'd always thought I might go back to it. And by the time I'd finished Romanitas I wanted a change – I knew I couldn't write another saga of Seriously Big Books for a while, but I still liked writing about whole worlds. Also I remembered how important books had been to me when I was “middle grade” age, around the time I first had that idea. They were everything. I wasn't very happy at school (you can see hints of a particular primary school in Muckling Abbot School for Girls). I used to spend hours every week in the bookshop because I felt completely free and accepted there. I wanted to do something for that age group because it was a bit like doing something for the kid I used to be.

But the other reason is I don't really see why I wouldn't want to write in different genres, for different age groups, . . I mean, they're all stories! If you have an idea that works better for kids than for adults, or an idea that leans towards a different genre from the last book you wrote, how would it make sense to dismiss it because you've decided you're not that sort of writer?  Although sadly, the system we have doesn't make it as easy for writers to switch around as I wish it were.

3. One of the most unique things about both Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages is that we see more discussion of gender identity than in a lot of other MG books, since there are aliens with non-binary genders. Do you think it's important to introduce children to ideas about gender identity early in their life?

I suppose I do. It's unnatural to me that in most sci-fi, all the aliens you meet are either male or female. Even if they're shapeshifting gelatinous blobs, apparently they still have to be girls or boys.  The gender binary doesn't even fit humans, so why would it fit the whole universe? It's boring sci-fi – and also, for a kid who maybe doesn't feel comfortable in the gender expected of them right here on Earth, the implications must be pretty awful.  

Now, all the human characters we meet seem to identify as either male or female so I'm not trying to make too large a claim for what the books do with gender. The treatment of it is pretty light. But I hope that bringing up some basic ideas is worth something: e.g there's more than the gender binary and it's easy to respect what people want to be called: Thsaaa is one of five Morror genders and goes by “they,”  the Goldfish is perfectly happy being referred to as “it,” but the sentient spaceship Helen, identifies as female, so she is, and it's as simple as that.

I remember this one guy on Twitter insisting to me that my robots must be male or female. He said, your robot would be performing as a human! And humans are male or female! So your robot is male or female and you are wrong! And I was like, “...Well, for starters, it's not performing as a human, it's performing as a fish.”

So I think it's worth introducing people to the idea that life and gender are not that simple and that this is a good thing. 

4. Another great thing about both books is the complex alien societies you've created - how much time do you spend world-building? Does it all happen before you start to write, or do you tweak things as you go?

I work backwards in a way: I think of the first impression I want an alien to make, then work out what sort of world a creature like that would come from. For instance with the Eemala in Space Hostages – the main thing about them was I wanted them to fly – I pictured a sort of purple-red, six-limbed cross between a gibbon and a fruitbat. So that suggested there would probably be a lot of other flying creatures on their planet, and there would have to be some kind of vegetation that rose high enough to make getting into the air easy. But I didn't want to reproduce trees, so I had the idea of loops, enormous plants that coil in and out of the earth and pile up on themselves in huge tangling spirals, and also vast funnels sprouting out of the ground. So what kind of civilisation would a flying species that had evolved from that kind of background build? I thought their cities would be as much about having a place to hang upside down from, or to take off from as about shelter. So the kids find a city like an enormous pylon – it's all very vertical symbolically as well as literally, with poorer people at the bottom. Which was also a nice way of showing that these were people – the Eemala are quite an attractive species, but they're not perfect, any more than humans are.
But some things come just as I'm writing, for instance – the kids plunge from orbit into the sea on Yaela. I didn't want them to reach land immediately but I needed to get them out of the water, so I had the idea of round, floating plants a bit like the giant lily pads of the Amazon. I remembered David Attenborough saying that they could support the weight of a small child and being so sad I would never get to be that child. But my characters get to do it.

Also I wanted a contrast with Mars, which is very barren and cold, so of course Yaela, the Eemala's world, needs to be warm and fertile and colourful.

5. I'm intrigued by the alien speech, as well - how much of a language did you create for the Krakkiluk? Just the words that are included, or was there more that didn't make the cut?

I didn't write a lot of extra vocabulary or go very deeply into the linguistic rules of the Krakkiluks – partly because I was trying to give the impression it was very hard for humans to accurately mimic the sounds they make -- but I did for the Morrors and the main language we hear them speak (like humans, they have several)! At first, I was more focused on trying to give an impression of a particular set of sounds than the details of the language: I wanted the Morrors' speech to sound like sighing and wind in the trees, with lots of very long vowels and soft sounds. But when you've established that “Au-laaa” means “No,”  (which comes up in Mars Evacuees) and then you want someone to say “You cannot do this!”  in the same language, there should probably be some related words in there. So you get “Aulereth-laa  and also “Au-leee neth ele vilamaaa poru?” which means “Don't you have children of your own?”  and when the reply is “I have thousands of children”, again, you need some of the same words, so “Eth-hraa vilamaaa au-thraal ruu!” And that in turn says something about how numbers work in this language, so you need to take that into account when anything about thousands or millions comes up again. And in Space Hostages you see the kids trying to get a rough grasp of another alien language a few words at a time.

6. I love so many of your characters, but the Goldfish is a particular favourite! If you could have a robot goldfish, would you want one? Or do you think you'd get annoyed by it, as certain characters do?

Ha – my first reaction was “oh, no!” – I'm not sure I could take all that pressure to do maths homework! But, on the other hand, my ability to do mental arithmetic has declined and I'm sure it could help me fix that, and while the Goldfish can be very, very relentless, if it counts you as its responsibility it is always on your side, and that would be lovely.

7. Other than your own characters, if you could meet any fictional alien, who would it be?

I'm going to have to go with Mr Spock, particularly if I could persuade him to give me a lift on the Enterprise.

8. Are there any books you'd particularly recommend to readers who've enjoyed Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages?

Diana Wynne Jones's books – almost any of them, really, but perhaps especially Howl's Moving Castle, Charmed Life/The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Archer's Goon. They're mostly not about space (except for Archer's Goon, a little bit) – I wrote these books partly because I couldn't think of many kids' books about space. But these are wonderful books that mix comedy and seriousness and danger, and are full of strange worlds and strange characters, and that's the kind of book I wanted to write.

I've also got to mention Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. It's for older children and it's bleaker than Mars Evacuees, but it's about kids trying to survive in a war, it's one of my favourite books and it definitely influenced the way I wrote Mars Evacuees.   

Thanks for a fab interview, Sophia!

If you're in the UK or Ireland, you can WIN a set of both books - Mars Evacuees and Space Hostages - kindly given to us by Egmont UK! To enter, just leave a comment below telling us your favourite fictional alien before 11:59pm BST on Tuesday 14th May! And if that interview hasn't whetted your appetite for Space Hostages enough, check out Sophia reading from it!


  1. I'd love to win these, just my type of thing (and my daughter will love them too)

    1. By the way my favourite alien is Slartibartfast the Magrathean designer of planets with his lovely fjords (from the Hitchhikers Guide).

  2. Got to be the Spackle from Patrick Ness' 'Chaos Walking' trilogy!