An interview with Joe Treasure

Please explain to my readers what a dystopia is

Sir Thomas More, an English nobleman, wrote a book in 1516 about an imagined world in which everything was ideally organised. He gave it the punning title Utopia, which is Greek for ‘no place’ but sounds the same as Eutopia, meaning ‘good place’. The word entered the English language to describe any idealised future. Early in the 20th century, writers began imagining nightmare futures, and the word ‘dystopia’ was coined. The Iron Heel, published in 1908 by the American socialist Jack London, chronicled the rise of a tyrannical American government. George Orwell’s 1984, published shortly after the Second World War, imagined England under a brutal Stalinist system. In the 1980s, the Canadian Margaret Atwood began exploring concerns about the environment and the role of women in The Handmaid’s Tale. More recent examples include The Hunger Games, in which Suzanne Collins imagines a future where Roman-style gladiatorial games are staged as reality TV shows.

Why did you decide to write about a Dystopia?

I decided to set my story in the future so that I was free to imagine a society built on different assumptions. I began with no strong feelings about how good or bad that future would be. But it was necessary that my imagined community would have forgotten almost everything that we know. Much that is valuable about world culture, including hard-won principles concerning democracy and human rights, must wait to be rediscovered, along with all kinds of basic technology. On the other hand they are innocent of modern warfare or environmental destruction. Is this a dystopia? I’ll let readers decide.

How do you go about writing about a fictional world?

With any story something hooks you, a moment of conflict, the fragment of an episode. You follow the thread and see where it leads. With an imagined world, you probably start with a question. What if things were different in this way or that way? The question might be political or philosophical or practical.

Why do you feature Jane Eyre?

This was my hook. I asked myself what a society might look like that had chosen an arbitrary book as its sacred text. I was thinking of a novel, something intended to be read for pleasure, not for instruction. I quickly settled on Jane Eyre because it has such a strong story. People are overwhelmed by their own emotions, or by natural forces – hunger, fire, cold. You don’t need to understand sophisticated cultural systems to grasp what’s going on.

Where do you find your inspiration for your novels?

Inspiration is mysterious. It’s a cliché that in order to write you must have something to say. I’m sure that’s true. But it’s also true that you don’t need to know what it is you want to say until you’ve finished writing. The spur to write might be technical. You set yourself a problem and try to solve it. Meanwhile, in some mysterious way, your ideas emerge. I set out to write about Jane Eyre. I ended up writing about forging community and surviving loss, deeper topics.

What are the key things we need to know about your protagonists?

Agnes is 15 in a community where that makes her more of an adult than a child. In many ways she’s very dutiful. She tries to follow the precepts of Jane Eyre, whom she thinks of as real. But she harbours rebellious impulses. She’s more unpredictable and creative than the community allows.

Jason has led a rough life. He can be awkward, aggressive even. But when society begins to fall apart he shows qualities of resourcefulness and resilience. He also has an orphan child to look after, which motivates him to survive. That’s what occurs to be about him. Readers might have sharper insights.

What are your top tips for budding authors?

Write for the sake of writing. It isn’t worth doing unless you’re driven to do it from within.

Seek out constructive criticism and listen to it as openly as you can. You can be selective later about what criticism to act on and what to filter out.

Write first without censoring your ideas. Shape and edit afterwards.

If you feel stuck, do something else. If you’re still stuck, write for an hour, however badly, and see what you’ve got.

Don’t write what you think you ought to write. Write what you need to write.

The Book of Air has been out for a few months now, would there be anything you wish you could have changed about the book? If so what and why?

There’s always something. But I remind myself that nothing is perfect, and my later ideas may not be improvements anyway. If every copy was lost and I started writing it again from scratch, it would either be dead or it would turn into a completely different book.