Author of the incredible 'The Last Whale' in a Q&A!
My review of 'The Last Whale' is here.
I am so very grateful to have been included on the book blog tour for 'The Last Whale'. Your story has really left quite an impression on me. It is absolutely stunning, important, beautiful, breath-taking... It will remain with me for some time.
Well, first of all thanks for your kind words, for being part of the book blog tour and also for some great questions.
1. Often authors begin a novel from the seed of an idea or an image or a feeling. What was the catalyst that urged you to begin 'The Last Whale'?
As is often the case, it was a convergence of things, and I honestly can’t remember which came first, so in no particular order…
· The concept of whales being vital to the ocean ecosystem (which they are)
· The wonderment of seeing whales in the wild
· My Norwegian and whaling family history
· A strong desire to write more about nature and the sea. In no way did I feel ‘done’ with that, after writing Girl.Boy.Sea. My books are partly about exploring new ideas and partly about unfinished business.
Having said all that, I remember writing a new scene for a crit group I work with, after presenting them with three pieces from something else over several months. It was about a boy, sitting in the bowels of a ship, waiting for the call to go on deck and fire a harpoon. And the reaction I got was pretty strong. So, though the ideas and concepts were there, that’s probably the moment I committed.
2. The story is breath-taking in its multi-layered narrative, spanning centuries. Did you plan for this or did it evolve through the process of writing and editing?
I knew very early on that it was going to be three or so interwoven tales, over three or so generations of the same family. What I didn’t know was how interwoven they would become. They were originally quite separate, but became a coherent whole in the writing.
3. Your writing is deceptively and poetically simple, and also complex and informative. It packs an emotional punch. How do you know when your writing 'sings'?
Thank you. The quality is dictated in part by the time I have available - or make, or find - to write. I don’t know about singing, but I do try to get to the point where I can’t think how I might improve a particular piece, so I have to leave it alone. But that does not mean I am satisfied. In terms of emotional punch, I have to really, REALLY care about my characters. That comes first. The story is ultimately about what happens to the characters.
4. Arguably the protagonist of the story is a wonderful AI called Moonlight. How did you develop her distinctive, changing voice and do you think AI is or will be a necessary tool in tackling climate change?
I seem to be in a pattern of writing about one thing, but finding that something very different, though complementary, finds its way in. In Girl. Boy. Sea. it was 1001 Nights, in The Last Whale, it was AI. The story is about change and global warming - and the advance of AI is perhaps the biggest change we now face. I looked at Hal, and I, Robot, and other manifestations of self-aware robots or computers. But I quickly decided to go the other way. To write about a computer that is benign becoming aware. Two of my favourite human qualities are kindness and inquisitiveness, so I imbued her with those; especially the inquisitiveness of a child; of Alice in Wonderland. Shakespeare’s Tempest is my favourite piece of literature bar none. I used aspects of the spirit Ariel, who also lives on an island with a ‘magician’ (as Abi is, of sorts), and who is both incredibly powerful, but innocent and who yearns to be free.
AI will no doubt be a valuable tool in tackling global warming. As we are looking at complex and interrelated systems, we may not be ‘enough’ to prevent a catastrophe of our own making, but might just be smart enough to create tools that can really help us. But it’s a big unknown and very hard to predict.
5. This is an important gut-wrenching book about our climate crisis. For a child reader, what is the one important message you hope they will take away from it?
I always say I am wary of messages in books. Obviously; ‘global warming is awful and we have a responsibility to fix it.’ But a reader will know that before they even pick up the book! So it’s more about questions, and hopefully getting young people thinking:
When is it okay to rebel? (or not)
Where does personal responsibility lie?
Can AI help us?
Under what circumstances is it wise to take a risk?
What separates us from computers that are smart and can talk?
Is the world one system, and are we a part of it?
How important are family relationships in defining who we are?
That said, a reader could enjoy the whole thing, and never think about any of these questions, and that’s fine too, of course. But in any case, I hope it gets them thinking.
6. Without giving too much away with the ending, what do you realistically hope the future of humanity and the Earth will be?
I am essentially an optimist. Looking at the facts right now, could lead to cynicism. Not only the science, the political complacency and tribalism, when - at risk of being a total hippy – we need to think of ourselves as ‘one,’ and ‘part of.’ Failing that countries at least need to collaborate. But I don’t see much of that. Sigh…
However… history is full of mavericks who ignored the odds, broke the rules and blew raspberries at convention. These people change the narrative and they make great subjects for stories.
7. Finally, 'The Last Whale''s heroes are mostly female with a sense that they have been historically ignored. How much do you think that, in particular, male world leaders need to listen to female voices much more, such as with Greta Thunberg, to make headway on tackling climate change?
It’s a simple fact that most of the bullish, populist, angry idiots are male, and most of the sensible, progressive leaders (e.g. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern), are - relatively - young women. It’s certainly true that the majority memberships of most animal, conservation and environmental organisations are female. So perhaps that tells us something.
Thank you so much for answering my questions and I wish you all the success with the incredible 'The Last Whale.'
Thanks to you for great questions 😊