About The Author
Alice Broadway was born in 1980 and raised as an evangelical Christian by her family a few miles from Oxford, before leaving the church in 2014.
In her debut YA novel, Ink, the first in a trilogy, people's lives are literally written on their skin, in the form of tattoos marking significant events. On their death, the person's skin is flayed and turned into a book of remembrance for their loved ones to keep. When Leora's father dies she discovers that his ink has been edited and his book is incomplete, meaning that he will be considered unworthy of being preserved - unless Leora can discover what really happened to him. Soon she is is forced to question everything she once believed in, including the truth about the un-tattoed 'blanks' who are the stuff of which children's nightmares are made.
Exclusively for Foyles, we caught up with Alice to discuss the potency of tattoos, the fear of the Other and the power of myth.
Questions & Answers
What gave you the idea for the book?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but I think the idea came from a combination of watching a documentary on Ancient Egyptian death rituals and a bit of a personal addiction to social media! The thought of honouring the dead by keeping them close was an intriguing thought – especially in our culture where death is feared and dead bodies are rarely seen and are quickly buried or cremated. I also wondered what impact our love of sharing our lives on social media would have on how we chose to be remembered. The world and story of Ink came after lots of dreaming along these lines.
Do you have a personal interest in tattoos, you certainly describe them as potentially very beautiful and of course, potent things.
I feel like a total fraud because I don’t have any tattoos myself. The main character in Ink, Leora, agonises over what tattoos to choose and I think I feel the same way – I’d want it to be perfect! I love how tattoo culture has changed even in my lifetime. I remember, as a child, associating tattoos with the things I had been taught I should avoid. I think tattoos are much more accessible and obviously, so much more mainstream now. I find them beautiful and beguiling: for me the meaning and choices behind someone’s tattoos are fascinating. I am drawn to a culture where people are curating their own galleries of artwork that they can carry on their skin.
How much research did you have to do, both into history of tattoos and the practical side of applying them?
Researching Ink was one of my favourite things about the writing process. I relied heavily on the generosity of experts and was amazed by how kind people are and how graciously they share their skills and passions. I visited Emma Kierzek at Aurora Tattoo, Lancaster, and was honoured to watch her work and to interview her as she tattooed a customer. I also spoke to Dr Gemma Angel, who is an expert on preserved tattoos. Her knowledge was invaluable – who else would be able to answer questions like ‘how much would skin shrink in the tanning process?’ or ‘what do preserved tattoos feel like?’ As a writer and tattoo artist herself, she was incredibly inspiring to me. I also spent time visiting museums and a highlight was getting to see preserved tattoos at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Many dictatorships are built on fear of the ‘other’, just as here the Blanks have been demonised and driven out. It is a timeless concept but were you thinking about particular contemporary examples?
The fear of the other is an interesting thing, isn’t it? Because I think all our fears are based on that: it makes sense to fear what we do not know. I think I am most challenged by our temptation to remain in a state of ignorance – to keep on fearing what we do not know, because at least we’re familiar with that fear. That’s where I see Ink may be able to speak into some of our current issues – what if we discovered that ‘the other’ isn’t as different as we thought and it is the fear that has been keeping us captive, not them?
What is missing in Leora’s world is forgiveness, the chance to start again. Do you think redemption is a possibility in today’s society or do we actually stigmatise people just as deeply if not quite so literally?
In Ink, because every failing is marked on your skin forever, there is no escape from past mistakes. I feel strongly that redemption is possible and forgiveness is necessary, but I think we use those words too easily sometimes. I see redemption and forgiveness as ways of letting the past rest and allowing for a new future with greater hope, but I think, in reality we find forgiveness and redemption impossible without seeing justice at work too. Our lives, our hurts and our failings are so complicated – I think we like the idea of forgiveness, but we resist the pain that it requires. It’s a fragile thing, just like human relationships and the capacity to hope; but I believe forgiveness and redemption are worth pursuing.
The book is about the search for truth. Is there such a thing as a secret kept for someone’s own good? In stories truth will always out, but what about in life?
All humans are bubbling full of secrets. The tricky thing is to know what secrets should be kept and what should be revealed and who holds that power of secret keeping and revelation. I think we all love the idea of truth, but the reality of it is messy and often ugly. I think we are in a culture where shame can rule and I believe that only creates more secrets and more shock when the truth comes out.
What were the challenges in creating a dystopia?
Dystopia has such a strong heritage of amazing stories, incredible characters and awesome twists and so there is always the fear that what you write will be too much of a naff tribute act instead of being something new. I think dystopia always has something to say about current culture, but I wanted Ink to be a book that people could escape into, rather than feeling they were reading a social commentary.
This is the first of a trilogy, do you have the other books mapped out, or even written?
I’m taking a break from writing the second book to answer these questions. Book two knows where it’s going and book three knows where it wants to end up but isn’t exactly sure what route it will take!
Were you ever worried that something you might have written in this book may cause an obstacle subsequently?
Oh yes – constantly! And I still am. But there’s something quite nice as well about having Ink as this unchangeable world and having the rest of the trilogy ensure it works round what already exists. But yeah, I’m terrified of plot holes!
Is the founding mythology – the fable of the white witch - on which Leora’s world is built so very different from ancient religious texts which are still key today, but often used to incite war rather than peace?
I find myths fascinating – using story as a way of trying to make sense of the world. It’s a beautiful way of saying ‘this is why things are as they are’ or ‘you mustn’t do this or the same will happen to you’. I think faith groups use myth and story for that reason because they speak to our souls and humanity in a way that bare facts don’t. I love theology and thinking about hermeneutics: the way people interpret story and scripture and history. And that’s the thing with myth and story – it depends so much on interpretation. There is a biblical image that ‘the word of God’ is like a sword and I see myths (both religious and in the world of Ink) working just like that: powerful, awesome, but also fearsome in the wrong hands.