Folklore and Dystopian Britain: Verge by Nadia Attia
This one’s pretty special. Years ago I was at a Byte The Book event when I met Nadia Attia. We bonded over our shared hatred of networking and our frustrations with the publishing world. So I was utterly delighted when the release of her debut novel popped up on my feed a recently. Since we met she’s been busy – winning the Faber Prize for fiction in 2019 and a place on a writing retreat in the house that inspired Wuthering Heights. And her debut novel is just brilliant. Verge is a dystopian novel that takes us to a post-Brexit Britain that is gorgeously medieval. Attia has unearthed folklore and myth from the English hills, along with some unpleasant superstitions and prejudices.
The book also has great characters. The stroppy Rowena who is fierce and passionate, followed by a dark curse that she is on a journey to try and heal. Halim is kind but conflicted, taking on the job of transporting Rowena across hazardous country in order to make money to get freedom from his parents. The dynamic between them is jaggedly drawn, with lovely clipped dialogue and description. I particularly enjoyed the description of festivals and traditions. I grew up in Cornwall, where I marched through the town playing The Floral Dance on the trombone and got a free saffron bun on the way home from school the day a new mayor was elected. It was wonderful to see the traditions in action, and I like how she re-connected communities to the earth around them. There were many dark and disturbing moments, showing how insular thinking can lead to hatred and suspicion, and I like that we got to see all the range of human nature in this fascinating and compelling novel.
I wanted to find out more about her dystopian setting and how she researched folklore for her book. Read on to find out more:
Your novel is set in a post-Brexit UK that has reverted to a rural landscape with borders between counties and lots of mistrust and superstition. Why did you decide to set your story in this location and what was the inspiration for it?
The landscape in Verge is very much a part of the story; it represents nature fighting back, the ‘wild’ and how it’s so hard to control even though we try to fence it in and carve it up. I love nature and really wanted to incorporate that into my story about two young people finding their way in a harsh, divided Kingdom (as you say, inspired by Brexit!). I (mostly) made up place names and loved researching the etymology of actual locations, with each name referring to an aspect of the landscape or trade in that town/hamlet. In this alternative Britain people have returned to the old ways out of fear and necessity.
I absolutely loved all the references to folklore and ancient traditions. Is this something you’ve always been interested in or did it come about because of the book? Why did you decide to include elements in your book that verge on (har har) magical realism?
I’ve always loved old folk and fairy tales and gothic literature, and have recently been getting more into zines, and ramping-up my folk horror and fantasy consumption (Midsommar, The Wicker Man, A Field in England, The Witch, Men, The Witcher, LOTR, Dark and so much more). I soak up everything and I’m sure it influences my writing. Magical realism is that sweet spot between writing something grounded and believable and allowing the supernatural to creep in; I love liminal spaces and exploring the path less trodden so it’s the perfect genre for me.
Your characters are wonderful, flawed humans. How did Halim and Rowena come to be and how did you make them so rounded and lovely?
I’m half Egyptian so I wanted to draw on that and, in Halim, create a character who faces very different challenges in the world because of the colour of their skin and how they sound. In Rowena I was inspired by my nan and how much fire she had inside her and how she was this force of nature. The two main characters just naturally came to me as perfect opposites and troubled souls.
What was your route to publication?
I started writing Verge when I was on the London Writers Awards (a scheme run by Spread The Word), and as part of that I was matched with an agent for a one to one. Her colleague read the extract I sent in and was keen to chat with me about it and see the finished manuscript – and that’s how I landed an agent at Bell Lomax Moreton (John Baker). His sheer enthusiasm and thoughts about the world I was creating really chimed with me. I worked on edits during lockdown and then he pitched it to publishers and Serpent’s Tail snapped it up, which is brilliant as they’re pretty damn cool! It all sounds easy but I’ve been writing for years and have faced many near-misses and rejections.
What writing advice would you give to others and anything else you’d like to share?
Keep at it, and try to use the rejections as fuel for the fire: if you believe in your story keep working on it and honing it and (fingers crossed) someone will see the potential. And don’t be precious about your words, editing is a skill in itself and it’s the best way to elevate your work.