About The Author
Sandra Newman was born in America but lived in England for 20 years. Her professions have ranged from academia to professional gambling. Her first novel, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Her second novel, Cake, was published in 2007, and her memoir, Changeling, in 2010. She co-wrote How NOT to Write a Novel, an irreverent how-to guide, and 2012 saw the publication of The Western Lit Survival Kit: How to Read the Classics Without Fear. She lives in New York.
Her latest novel is The Country of Ice Cream Star. Set in the ruins of a future America, fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star and her people survive by scavenging in the detritus of an abandoned civilization. Theirs is a world of children - by the time they reach twenty, each of them will die from a disease they call posies. When her brother sickens, Ice Cream sets out on the trail of a cure, led by a stranger whose intentions remain unclear, but who may be leading her and her people into a war that will utterly decimate them. Told in a poetic invented patois, this is a fast-paced and moving story of love, survival, heroism and religion set in a bleak future that seems all too convincingly possible..
Frances Gertler talked to Sandra about inventing language, why the bar for plausibility in fiction is higher than in life, and the simple trick that enables her to be at least three times as productive as she used to be.
Author image © Charles Hopkinson
Questions & Answers
Can you tell us about the inspiration and starting point for your book?
It's really hard to answer this question honestly. It's like trying to say how you became the person you are. There are so many possible answers; everything that's ever happened to you is the answer.
I could cite some books that were inspirations, though. It's obvious, since the novel is written in an invented patois, that it was somewhat inspired by novels like Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange that used invented versions of future English. But I don't think The Country of Ice Cream Starfeels much like either of those books. It's a lot warmer, and it's much more of a straight-up adventure story with a fast-paced plot and a hero you root for. I think that comes from Mary Renault's historical novels, particularly her series about Alexander the Great, which I've read countless times. Ice Cream is a lot more human than Renault's Alexander, but those books gave me the taste for heroes and heroic tales. In a more general sense, they were also some of the first books that made me realize that you could write a gripping adventure story and use really beautiful language without slowing the plot.
Did you see yourself as writing in the tradition of dystopic fiction and did that make the job more or less challenging?
I wasn't consciously writing in the tradition of dystopic fiction, but I have read heaps and heaps of dystopic fiction, and I think that knowledge is present throughout the book. But honestly, I've never been able to see Ice Cream Star as a dystopian novel. Ice Cream's world isn't miserable or oppressive or bleak. It's actually a lot of fun, and people are more free than they are in our world. Even though Ice Cream's world is spectacularly dangerous, I kind of wish I lived there.
You have created a very lyrical, convincing patois for the novel. Did you work by instinct or did you set yourself some particular rules and how did you establish that it 'worked'?
I really just started with the idea of a language that developed from African-American English. Beyond that, the rules emerged from use. I was just playing with it to find ways of making it beautiful or charming or funny.
But a language can only change in certain directions and still make sense. And it had to sound natural; it had to feel like language people would actually use. All of that is really instinct. After I'd written it, I found that I was able to explain all of the rules of the language, but I hadn't consciously devised these rules before writing. I think if I had, the language wouldn't have come alive in the way it did.
Your earlier fiction has contemporary settings; was it liberating switching to a wholly imagined distant future?
It was very liberating. I no longer had to pretend to know anything about the real world. It also meant that I had a lot more liberty to create interesting situations. I could write a war novel, and I didn't have to abide by any actual historical events that would limit what could happen. I know it might seem like World War II, for instance, would give a person a lot of scope. But it wouldn't allow me to have one of my characters suddenly become the god of a city, as Ice Cream does.
Ice Cream is a heroine to fall in love with: very beautiful, very brave and loyal, and like most heroes and heroines, she is on a quest that will determine not only her destiny but that of her own and indeed all the surrounding communities. Can you say more about how you envisaged her at the outset and how she developed in the course of the book.
I wanted Ice Cream to be a genuinely good person who gradually grows, through circumstances beyond her control, into being a leader, and specifically a war leader. At the same time, she had to be a fifteen-year-old girl, so the conflict between all of these things generated a lot of her character.
Religion generally doesn't come off well in the novel at all: it can be benign and provide shelter, but is mostly portrayed as corrupt, and to Ice Cream appears ridiculous, destructive and cruel. In some ways it seems an even greater threat than the 'posies'. Was that a conscious intention?
I actually don't have a particularly negative attitude towards religion. But Ice Cream does, so her view tends to dominate. And for her, religion mostly appears to be patently ridiculous.
Also, in the book, where religion comes off worst is when the religion becomes the government. This inevitably turns it into just another corrupt temporal power, which is naturally prone to hypocrisy, bribe-taking, and violence. Ice Cream takes all this pretty much in stride, since these are things she's been familiar with all her life. She's not shocked when avowedly religious people do these things, since it never occurred to her that religion is to be taken seriously in the first place.
Today's youth seem like lazy self obsessed slobs compared with these often feral children, whose primary task is to survive as long as they can and care for their younger ones. They make mistakes, but do you think these fictional characters offer many more admirable qualities?
I don't think the differences are really that stark. Of course, Ice Cream is a hero, so she has all possible admirable qualities; and the other people we meet in this world are mostly leaders, so whatever else they are, they were competent enough to claw their way to the top of the heap. But in the margins of the narrative, you can still glimpse plenty of lazy, self-obsessed slobs. I think this is an eternal type, but it's probably no more common now than it ever was, or will be. I don't find that most of the young people I meet are that lazy; they just come across as lazy because we're always asking them to do completely meaningless tasks, and we don't even pay them. Any group of people will seem lazy under those circumstances.
It's probably true that Ice Cream's people are less self-obsessed, but in my mind, this is because they grow up in a small group where everyone knows them. They don't have to decide who to be, because they've always known exactly who they are. And there's no question of being accepted, because they are already accepted by virtue of being born. So there's much less pressure to invent or define themselves.
Often after scenes of politicking or war, Ice Cream refers to the protagonists as 'children', a shocking reminder of all the adult roles these young people are being forced to face. Was it a challenge to draw the lines convincingly between child and adult?
It took a lot of thought, yes. It's also one of those things where the bar for plausibility is higher because it's fiction. When a very young person is surprisingly mature in real life, you're just impressed; you don't say, 'That's unrealistic; it couldn't have happened.' In a novel, the reader has to be convinced that it's plausible.
But for myself, one of the points of having the word "children" simply mean "people" in the patois of the book was to erase the distinction as much as possible. People really are children, as we all realize, uncomfortably, when we become full-grown children. They're children when you kill them in a war, and they're children when they kill you in a war. History really only begins to make sense once you absorb this fact.
You've written fiction, non fiction and a memoir - do you plan your next book each time or does it choose you? Can you keep more than one genre on the go at once?
I've tended to write fiction for the love of it, and non-fiction in order to earn money. And I often write both at once, because I find it helps me to get more work done. When I get sick of the book I'm currently working on, I can be "lazy" by working on my other project. I know it seems as if you would know that you're not really being lazy, and that it's still work, but this one simple trick has made me at least three times as productive as I used to be.
Can you tell us anything about your next work of fiction?
That's an easy one, because my next work of fiction is a sequel to The Country of Ice Cream Star, which begins exactly where the last book leaves off.
Sandra Newman was interviewed Frances Gertler exclusively for Foyles