The Earth Below

Dystopia. Romance. Escape.

How did you come up with the world in the book?

I have always wanted to write a dystopia, and I’ve attempted to do so before, first when I was seventeen. However, I had given up on writing fiction, and concentrated on my academic career.

A strange series of events led me to write this book. First, a friend decided to become a polyamorist, and outlined his reasons for this choice. It struck me during our conversation that, while I thought he should be free live his life in that way if he chose, I would not be well-suited to such a choice. I began to think about different ways in which people arranged their relationships. Shortly afterwards, I had abdominal surgery, and was on a cocktail of painkillers, as well as other drugs to treat my severe asthma. I had a very strange dream about two people escaping from an underground post-apocalyptic society which had strict rules requiring consecutive relationships with different partners. The four people in the dream – Marri, Macon, Felix and Vin – all became characters in the book. I dreamt the first three names.

When I woke up, I wrote the dream down. After three chapters, I realized I couldn’t stop. It was as if the story possessed me. I’d never shown my fiction writing to anyone other than my sister before, but after I sent my story to some friends and family, they told me to keep writing.

Is the city in this book based on a real city?

I have made the city deliberately ambiguous and generic. However, the London Tube has provided my primary inspiration for the underground railway system, although I have also used my experiences of underground railways in other cities around the world. I’m obsessed by abandoned buildings and ghost railway stations. There’s a peculiar kind of beauty and sadness about them. You can see the images I used to write this book via my Pinterest account.

Did you research this book?

Yes. Once an academic, always an academic. For differing conceptions of marriage, among other things, I consulted Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: A History – How Love Conquered Marriage. I discovered that societies have organised sexual partnerships in a multiplicity of ways (some even more unusual than the arrangements in this book) and concepts of what constitutes marriage vary vastly from society to society and from time to time.

For a history of underground London (including giant rats!) I read Peter Ackroyd, London Under. I also watched a number of documentaries on underground cities, consulted a book of photographs called Subterranean London, and looked at a number of blogs detailing abandoned underground railway systems around the world.

When considering what the psychological effect of solitary confinement on Marri, I watched this account by an Australian prisoner who spent some time in solitary confinement in the 1970s, and I read papers by psychologists such as Craig Haney's paper here and Stuart Grassian's paper here.

As to what would happen if humanity were wiped out tomorrow, I consulted Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, which describes how cities and human structures would decay. I looked at many, many pictures of abandoned cities. I also looked at what had happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima, and what the harmful effect of radiation on animals might be (see eg, here, here and here), but also that it might allow for a resurgence in certain animal populations.

More broadly, I have always had a fascination with revolutions, economics, behavioural economics, class systems and the way in which the law works.

Is Marri based on you?

No. If Marri was me, she’d be a total klutz, she’d have a variety of disabilities and ailments, and she wouldn’t be small and dainty. Also, she’s not educated or intellectual, and she doesn’t exercise a great deal of self-introspection. She is a teenager who has been brought up in a severely repressive society, and her character reflects that. She’s never had much of a chance in life, whereas I was lucky that my parents gave me every opportunity in life.

That being said, Marri shares certain features with me, other than colouring: a tendency to speak one’s mind; a hatred of rules that don’t make sense; as well as passion and honesty. But she also combines aspects of my sister and other women I know and admire. On the other hand, many of the other characters also share features with me (both Felix and I chew our nails and say “sorry” a lot).

Have you been trained in creative writing?

Although I undertook a Bachelor of Arts, I majored in English literature, History and Medieval Studies rather than creative writing.  I have written a number of academic books and textbooks.

I read voraciously, in almost every genre. There are so many books in our house that they spill off the bookshelves. In my view, a good book has two aspects:

·         Good writing; and

·         A ‘hook’ which makes you want to read on, so that you care about the characters and about what happens to them.

I hope I’ve lived up to this aspiration.

What is the significance of the dedication?

Miss Marie Green was my form teacher and A-Level English teacher in England. She was instrumental in improving my writing skills and in broadening my literature tastes as a teenager. She also improved my confidence by getting me involved in school plays. I wish she had lived to read the book; we re-established contact a few years ago, and she knew that I was writing it.