Like many people, I’ve been dipping into more fantastical novels of late. With the same four walls staring down at us all the time, it’s nice to escape into a different world. Recently I immersed myself in the dystopian world of Rebecca Ley‘s Sweet Fruit, Sour Land. Although it’s not necessarily a nice place to live (especially for the women), the prose is hauntingly beautiful and the central relationships give hope for the human heart. Read on to find out how memory can create the most vivid images and how being true to yourself is the best way to go. Also be encouraged that even those who find plotting tricky can produce an amazing book!
There are many dystopian worlds that are preoccupied with gender and reproduction. In your book, you go against the usual ideas about women being innately motherly. Why were you drawn to these ideas when writing your book?
I suppose I wanted to explore my own feelings about motherhood, and women’s identities as separate from being mothers. The logical way to do this in my head was to think about a world where it wasn’t a natural part of life to have children, but a mandated policy, and a world where the choice is made all the more difficult because of the dystopian setting – which feels increasingly relevant in the world we live in now. I don’t think I discovered an answer to the question I was asking, but in the end the innocence and joy of children felt like the redemptive part of the novel.
Your prose is so lovely! The passages where the characters are craving the food (and particularly, fruit) they ate before the world changed are particularly evocative. How do you arrive at such prose without becoming overly wordy? Did you rely on particular memories and feelings of your own?
I like to delve into childhood memories of food for my writing because I always find they are the most emotionally charged. I try to think of what the memory of a particular meal or treat stirs up in me, like the childish joy of unwrapping chocolate in silver foil, for example, and then I just let the idea run away with itself. I could write about food forever.
World building is always tricky in novels like this. Did you have the entire world set up before you did the first draft or was it something that developed with the story?
I’m terrible at plotting so I didn’t have this as mapped out as I should have at any point really. I started with an image and built the world from there. The setting always felt like the vehicle to the story and not an end in and of itself, but it took many many drafts to get it to the version that exists now.
I loved the female friendships in this book, and it provides such a stark contrast to the horrible patriarchal world and deeds we discover when the book gets darker. Were there any parts of the book that were particularly enjoyable or difficult to write and why?
I loved writing about the central female friendship between Mathilde and Jaminder as a kind of romance. The first time Mathilde spots Jaminder across a room it’s like love at first sight, but they also have raging resentments and arguments, which is how close female friendships can be. It felt important to make their love the central relationship in the novel. Those relationships in real life are just as defining as more traditional romances. That was definitely an enjoyable part of writing the book, and the characters made it easy. Whereas the rest of the book felt like wrestling with plot and structure and form, with those two, I just listened.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in writing?
Find the thing you enjoy writing about, and just do that as much as you can – without thinking about your imagined audience or who might read it. Whatever feels good to write, feels good to read.
Rebecca Ley is a prize-winning novelist – her debut novel, Sweet Fruit, Sour Land, won The Guardian Not the Booker Prize in 2018 and was shortlisted for The Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Betty Trask Prize. Ley writes essays as well as fiction, and her recent essays have been published in Water Journal, and shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize 2017.
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