Author Interview with Isobel Granby
In December 2020, just over one year ago, we published “The Second“, Isobel’s gripping story about friendship, honour and auroras near the North Pole. Now we share an interview with Isobel in which she talks about humour, getting writing ideas, and the artistic process that allows her to create this richly imagined world. Readers might also enjoy listening to this podcast episode with Isobel (under her alternate name, Karin Murray-Bergquist)
What was the creative process of writing “The Second” like? Did your original idea change much before arriving at its final form?
It was written for a speculative fiction writing workshop and very last-minute in its original form. I did the plotting and world-building on the fly, and basically the original idea was “what if the protagonist were trying to save their friend from a duel?” This seemed like a neat, concise plot that could work in a short format and wouldn’t stretch out to be a novel. Initially I was actually going to set it on a ship—sort of a fantasy take on the navy of the Aubrey-Maturin series or Horatio Hornblower. Then I decided that ice and snow would make a more evocative setting, and that it would be pretty awesome to set it in an airborne fleet, probably because I was reading Night Flight by St-Exupéry at the time! I submitted this unwieldy hastily-written thing and the other participants in the workshop gave me very helpful feedback to make it coherent, and I edited it for the final assignment in that class. In a way, it did change a lot from its initial conception, but the main element was always intended to be the central relationship between the characters Vance and Howe. That part was fairly consistent from beginning to end.
“The Second” is a speculative fiction story set near the North Pole, with glimpses of a wider world that is very different from our own. What’s your approach to world-building? What elements do you consider the most important to establish the sense of place?
I usually work in our world, with magical elements, so this is one of the rare occasions on which I’ve written in a secondary world. One thing that surprised me in writing this story was that it sometimes wasn’t clear that it was a secondary world, because it could also be our world in the future or an alternate history. It was especially hard as my story is so focused on one place, and conveying the sense of the rest of the world was something I had to consider, even though the narrator hasn’t been beyond the circumpolar community. Thinking about this meant thinking about how Vance might have heard stories about the world beyond the north, which probably would come largely from port settlements where ships from other regions would come in, so it would be a blend of material goods and sailors’ stories, and accordingly pretty colourful.
I think one of my priorities with world-building is to ask how the characters know the things they know, or how they might have received misinformation and how that can be corrected. Do they read? Are there radios? Is communication primarily oral? How many generations live together typically? In a fantasy context, are there ghosts, oracles, or other liminal beings who can be consulted for advice? As for establishing sense of place, I think it is crucial to know how people get around, something that often makes a difference to how credible the world and various environments within it are. I realise this puts me on thin ice as I’m not a pilot, and my knowledge of polar travel is secondhand, but this is something I usually try to consider when writing.
Another factor is technology, as that affects how people live in the everyday, and the issue of where food comes from and how abundant it is, also has links to which techniques of preservation and production are available. What is the scientific background of the world in question, and how is that communicated and understood? How is belief practiced in this context and how does it affect people’s lives, how they talk or think or swear? (A belief system with multiple deities might use them all as curse words for different purposes!) Language is important, even if you are not making up a language, with how people speak in different situations, and remembering that language use will shift between places. So those are many factors, and they are all connected and intertwined, though not all are mentioned on the page.
You write in a range of styles and genres that includes theatre, podcasts, fiction, humour, journalism, and even academic writing. Is there a single compulsion that unifies these writing practices? How do they fit into your identity as a writer?
There are definitely character types that I keep coming back to, and relationship types. The intense friendship dynamic, where characters go to great lengths for each other, is one. Another one that I joke about sometimes is the melancholy 19th-century man, who for some reason keeps appearing in my stories, whether I want him to or not. I try to balance out his presence with snarky narrators who make things a little more lively, and I have a fondness for both characters who subsist on sarcasm and ones who are overly sincere. Especially when they interact.
In terms of themes that unite most of my work, there are a few ideas that keep coming back, and one is friendship. I want to convey the excitement, elation, frustration, richness, and beauty of platonic friendship, and the ways in which it can be tested and strengthened. Ideas of home, as well, or rather exile, tend to slip into my work as characters face solitary departures from their home, feelings of not quite belonging and not knowing why, and siren songs of other worlds. Also, the question: what are the things that sustain us and keep us both grounded and hopeful?
Regarding the myriad forms in which I have written, I think I just can’t work any other way! I will often find snippets to use in one project while working on another, as the half-written sonnets in my class notebooks will demonstrate. I can be in a museum and come across an idea for a poem, or finding some background for a journalistic article and decide to use some of it in a story I’m working on at the time. I’m an actor as well on occasion, so writing for theatre gives me a certain charge that I don’t often find elsewhere. Though I should say that I am still quite new to it, and definitely in need of practice. I also need to be open to letting projects surprise me!
For my podcast project, Corentin in Quarantine, I thought it was about people being stuck together during a crisis, but it surprised me by how much it was about getting over a breakup, and people’s best intentions also being their greatest obstacles. This could be serious (honest conversations are not easy) or comedic (catapults are not the best way to deliver care packages). Eventually Corentin has to expand his sense of what it is to be valued, and to love other people, as he gradually forms bonds with the other characters beyond jealousy or flirtation. I know it sounds terribly sentimental but it is easier to get away with that if done with humour.
Finally, the theme that really unites all my writing more than anything else, my main creative obsession in a way, is that it is sometimes possible to strive for something unreachable and still feel that it is worth your while. This has appeared in my creative and academic writing. Even if you feel useless, even if you lose contact with your fairy lover after breaking her sole interdiction, even if your exile as punishment for slighting your queen is permanent, there can be beauty in that effort towards the impossible. But someday you should try to find a balance between that elusive goal and the world you live in. Tangible things are important and valuable too. The impossible is not a place where you can live in the long term.