Novelist, scriptwriter, critic
"Sophia McDougall is a great writer, who can do grim alternate history and bouncy YA sci-fi adventure with equal aplomb. She’s almost certainly going to do something amazing again soon. You should be reading her."
I was a little stuck when I was first asked what I was About.
Usually, people ask what your book is about, at which point you can say "It's about a Modern Roman Empire," or "it's about Kids on Mars With Aliens And Robots" and people will be happy enough. But at this particular reading, and the question -- I think phrased as "What do you write about?" seemed disconcertingly bigger, as if to say: Yes, but what are the underlying themes? Why are you even doing this? What is your mission? What is your quest?
I couldn't say "I write about space travel" or "I write about history" or "I write about magic" or even "I write about cool women" even though I have done all of those things. I've never been the kind of writer who wanted to stick to one thing. Alternate history for adults, science fiction for children, shorts, audio, journalism, TV, Film, ... I've written them all (or am currently actively working on it.) They're all — so far — broadly within the sci-fi/fantasy/speculative genre, but they're scattered pretty widely across that field and I've got ideas on the backburner that don't fit there. I like to write snappy jokes and witty dialogue, but I also like to write angsty epics where everyone's too busy facing death to be more than occasionally funny. It's important to me that my casts feature a significant number of interesting women and girls (who talk to each other), but as I kind of famously hate"strong female characters", I don't have a pithy way of expressing that.
So I asked the audience. "Anyone got any ideas?" "ASPIRATION", yelled the fantastic Liz de Jager, with surprisingly little hesitation. I took it on faith that she did not mean the marketing, lifestyle kind of aspiration ("one day I too will own a granite kitchen countertop and go paragliding in the South of France.") She sounded as if she knew what she was talking about. So I decided to go with that and think about what it might mean later.
It came back to me when I was listening to a song one night. I get kind of obsessive about music and writing sometimes; there have been times I couldn't write a character until I found them a song. But I never thought of finding a song for what I was About as a writer. And if I had, I wouldn't have thought of that song, which on the face of it has nothing to do with alternate realities or bejewelled lobster-people, or anything else I've written about, and which for two years after the political upheavals of 2016, I couldn't bear to listen to.
It's 'Democracy' by Leonard Cohen. Towards the end Cohen sings about despair — the kind of sadness that's more than personal, the kind that if you're like me, you know all too well:"I'm just staying home tonight, getting lost in that hopeless little screen," he sighs in 1992, not knowing just how small and how hopeless the screens were going to get. But then:
"But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay
And I'm junk, but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet ..."
And I thought, oh, that. That kind of aspiration. That's what they've got in common, the Romans and the aliens — and even the pop culture articles, in a way. Do I have to explain what I think it is, the little wild bouquet? No — I think you know.
I write about that.