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Brigid Rose interview

14 October 09 words: James Walker
If you poured George Orwell, the sci-fi film Gattaca, and a Buddhist into a literary pot - you'd end up with The City of Lists

Artist and writer Brigid Rose recently won a Crocus first novel competition of which the City of Lists is her winning debut. Set in a dystopian future in which passions are subdued by narcotics and individuality is tantamount to rebellion, the book centres around three main characters; Neeve, Valentine and Lol. The novelist argues that the book is inspired by the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, though it could also be described as an Orwellian romance. Intrigued by the ethical issues raised by the book- particularly in relation to contemporary laws regarding freedom - James Walker caught up with this ‘brave new’ author at a recent reading in Nottingham. 

Tell us something about yourself...
I live in Calderdale, West Yorkshire with my partner, John. I’m forty years old. I started off doing visual art and went to Art College when I left school. I still do art and have exhibitions of my work but about ten or so years ago I started writing as well. My artwork always had a strong narrative element so I think it was inevitable. In 2002 I went to study Creative Writing at Lancaster University. That’s where I began writing the novel.

So writing is relatively new for you?
I wrote things when I was younger – the bog-standard teenager poems and the odd bonkers fairy tale that I illustrated. But I started taking writing more seriously when I was about thirty after being inspired by some poems a close friend of mine had written. She’d nearly died of a brain tumour and so her poems were (and still are) full of this intense appreciation of life.

When did you first get the idea for the book?
From reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. There’s a sentence that starts, ‘As the egoic mode of consciousness and all the social, political and economic structures it created, enter their final stage of collapse…’ I really liked the idea that humans might grow less egotistical and materialistic and as a consequence a lot of the out-dated and corrupt aspects of society would die a natural death. I was intrigued by the idea that things as peaceful as meditation, reflection and spiritual practices etc, could bring about a sort of revolution.

And one way authority resists revolution is through bureaucracy...
In the back-story to the book I imagined that people en masse had become more enlightened and so dramatic societal changes had begun to occur. But I also imagined that people in positions of authority had been highly resistant to this, wanting to maintain the status quo and retain power. So in the story there’s been a massive backlash from the powers-that-be. They’ve clamped down on loads of things but especially on meditation, retreats, teachings - anything that helps quieten the ego. The enlightenments pointed at in the novel are a sort of heresy to the authorities in the story.

What injustices annoy you in modern life?
It does make me sad that many parts of the world still have regimes where basic things like the right to form unions, to vote in fair elections and to have uncensored internet access are not enjoyed by people. I feel lucky to live in the UK where we can take a lot of these things for granted. One thing that gets to me is laws around homosexuality. It’s still illegal in some countries whereas here people can form civil partnerships. I think it’s one of the most damaging prejudices – to thwart people in their expression of love. I wanted to point to something about that in my novel, hence Valentine’s ‘Bad Passion’.

Eckhart Tolle, whose teachings inspired Brigid to write the book 

Given the prescribed roles of your characters, the book reminded me a little of the film Gattaca (1998). Was this an influence and are you a bit of a sci-fi buff at heart?
That’s a great film. I especially liked the Jude Law character - how he burns himself up in the end. The whole film is suffused with a sort of transcendent kind of longing. Beautiful.

I think by nature I’m a bit of future-orientated person. I quite like films like Minority Report, Blade Runner, and AI. One of my favourite ever scenes in a film is the one in the mall in Minority Report where the Pre-Cog is helping Tom Cruise’s character to evade the police. She tells him to throw coins to a beggar, to pick up a brolly etc. Because she can see into the future, she knows these little acts will help him to escape. It’s a wonderfully choreographed sequence. Neeve in my book has a sort of ‘clairsentience’, I think you’d call it, but this probably comes more from an inspiration from Pat Cadigan’s short story, Angel.

I’m not into all sci-fi though; things like Star Wars don’t mean much to me. But when it comes to envisioning the near-future and how it relates to ordinary people’s lives, then I’m usually interested. I think you can get to grips with some meaty philosophical questions about what it is to be human in this kind of book/film. I’m sure films like Gattaca have strongly influenced the novel.

The book is reminiscent of 1984 in parts, such as the suppression of language. Were you aware of this influence when writing and if so, do you see your work as a development of this idea or something different?
I read 1984 and also Brave New World when I was at school so that’s twenty-odd years ago now. But I’m sure that both these books hugely influenced The City of Lists too. I can’t remember many specifics though– just the overall feelings of the books. At one point during the writing process I thought I ought to go back and read 1984 to make sure I wasn’t just copying it out of my subconscious! But I thought if details of it were even fresher in my mind then I’d definitely end up copying it. I think I’m a bit afraid to read 1984 now in case I’m shocked how much I’ve subconsciously thieved!

Other stories that influenced the novel are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman and Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. I read these more recently and they were fresh in my mind at the time of writing.

Riddley Walker is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which language, literacy and religion are almost worthless. Recently, there have been a lot of books written about post-apocalyptic futures (such as The Road, Two Journeys, The Pesthouse etc) as well as a resurgence of the zombie genre on film. Why do you think this is? Is the future really this bleak?  
I suppose these days, with so much access to information and with news coming in from across the planet, we are much more aware of the things that threaten us. And they're big issues - global warming, tsunamis, global recession, pandemics, freak weather conditions, terrorist attacks. They're global problems. Maybe this makes our imaginations darker when we project into the future; our uncertainty gets highlighted in the narratives of books and films, like with the resurgence of the zombie genre.
But I think they're quite inevitable, some of the issues we're facing now. It seems most of these huge problems are just the consequences of our ignorance in the past. Hopefully they're serving as a wake up call to us to start thinking about what we've been doing. In that sense, I reckon good things can come out of disasters. People are thinking more globally now. We're realising how connected we are to each other and to the planet. I don't think our future will be as bleak as the ones portrayed in things like Riddley Walker but I reckon we probably need to learn a fair bit from this bonkers time.

In the book, the circles represent enlightenment and hope...
All over the world circles are taken as a symbol of oneness and unity, I think? There’s just something beautiful and quite calming about them. I remember seeing a programme on TV about a nun who looked at a painting one day and instantly became enlightened. I just really liked the idea that looking at a shape or at a series of shapes could bring about some kind of change in consciousness. It’s a potty idea, but you can do what you like in fiction and that’s what’s so great about it – you can make the impossible possible.

Any enlightening advice to budding writers?
Get plenty of daydreaming time in so your mind can just wander off. Long walks are particularly good. Don’t pay any attention to what’s fashionable book-wise. Don’t worry too much about being a useful member of society. Read all sorts.

Brigid Rose's website
James Walker's website

£8.99 Crocus Books

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