An Unlikely Interview with Julia August

Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood is a story told largely by implication. You don’t show us the big bad, or the heroes saving the world, but they’re there between the lines of the emails exchanged between your protagonist and a person seeking his help in translating an obscure fragment of mystical text. Did you always want to tell this story in an epistolary style? Do you think stories told through letters make for an more intimate experience for the reader? Does it make them more active participants in a story?

I always wanted to tell this particular story through a combination of emails, blog posts and online articles. I like playing around with formats and voices, in the first place; and in the second place, academics use the internet to communicate as much as anyone else these days. (Maybe more: research in the humanities tends to be a solitary business and it’s pretty comforting to be able to reach out to people through your computer. It’s not unusual to, for example, see people gossiping on Facebook about a faux pas on a mailing list.) Additionally, in this case I think the format does make readers more active participants in the story. My background is in history, where you bring a range of sources together to create a streamlined narrative; this story lays out the sources, but leaves it to the reader to fill in the gaps. I think most people will already know what usually happens in a story that starts with someone finding a long-lost prophecy, so I thought I could leave that side of it to the imagination. Unless you’ve actually used a critical edition, though, you may not know how much work it takes to turn a manuscript into a usable text; plus, of course, translation is rarely straightforward; plus there are certain ethical issues involved in dabbling in the antiquities black market… Our Heroes may not care very much about all this, because they have higher concerns (like saving the world), but academics definitely do. (Also they would be shocked to hear you say Lucia Lucilla is “obscure”. Next you’ll say you had to look Cicero up!)

There’s an intriguing photo on your website, which you also use as your twitter avatar, which begs for more explanation and seems sure to have an interesting story behind it. Is the scuba diver holding the human skull you? What is the context of that photo? Is it a snapshot from an archeological excavation? A poster for an underwater production of Hamlet? Inquiring minds must know!

I wish it was as interesting as that! I’m fascinated in a completely non-academic way by sunken cities and shipwrecks and all the creepy abandoned things on the bottom of the sea. (I went to the beach at Dunwich not long ago – we did not hear church bells ringing under the waves, sadly.) The photo’s just a picture I found somewhere of some underwater archaeology that I have nothing to do with. I think the most recent similar pictures are from Herakleion in Egypt. There are some wonderful photos here.

Whether it’s philosophy or quantum physics or economic theory, speculative fiction writers often draw from academic theory, research and new discoveries to inform their work, and it’s no surprise that an Academia-themed magazine will attract stories that do just that. Can you tell us a little about one such influence? Who are they? What aspect of their work resonated with you, and how has it influenced your own work?

Let me cheat and give you one particular section of online academia that was really influential for this story: those academic bloggers who talk about the international market in antiquities. If you followed the links within the story, you’ll probably know already that one particular episode I had in mind when I wrote this story was the discovery of new Sappho fragments, which caused quite a stir at the time for various reasons. Outside that particular incident, if you’re interested in issues involving archaeology, papyri, antiquities, etc., it’s worth looking up Roberta Mazzi, Paul Barford, Donna Yates, and Looting Matters, among others. This is a particularly hot topic given everything going on in Syria right now, where major archaeological sites like Palmyra are being systematically looted and then ostentatiously destroyed. If you want to know more about the ethics and practical aspects of black market antiquities, these blogs are a good place to start.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

Funny you should mention J.D. Salinger. I actually spent a few months working on a cruise ship this summer (in a much less exalted role, though) and it was a very weird environment. You’re living two floors down from your work, you wake up in a different place every morning, your days start at 7am and end at 11pm rather too often, you don’t get weekends and you’re in contact with your customers (that is, passengers) practically all the time. There was no privacy and the internet was terrible. And then I got off the ship and felt as if I’d lost three months somewhere and the whole thing had just been a dream. It did inspire a story that’s currently looking for a home, but I think in the long run I learned some useful things about pressurized environments that will probably show up elsewhere.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

I see Stephen Greenwood sitting in his Oxford flat surrounded by priceless artefacts looted from various ruins and museums and palaces, sitting on countless drafts of articles he can’t publish because he can’t prove the provenance of anything Cara’s passed on to him and utterly terrified that one of his colleagues may one day come in and recognise something he definitely shouldn’t have. It’s a hard life, collaborating in saving the world.

What else are you working on or have coming up you want people to know about?

This autumn I have had or will have stories in The Sockdolager and Unsung Stories, and I should have stories coming up in the winter issue of Kaleidotrope and Lackington’s Magazine Issue 9 (another epistolary piece involving legal documents, radio plays and terraforming.

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