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An Interview with Sarah Ash

An interview with David Mathew

Moths to a Flame
Sarah Ash
Sarah Ash trained as a musician at university, studying composition. She wrote during that time and after but it was not until her children started school that she begn to concentrate on her writing. She lives in Kent with her husband and two sons - but was born and brought up in Bath. Her first short story to be published in Interzone was "Mothmusic" in 1992. The novels Moths to a Flame and Songspinners were published by Millennium in 1995 and 1996 while The Lost Child, her third novel, appeared in early 1998.

ISFDB Bibliography
Excerpt: The Lost Child
Story: Airs from Another Planet

'I think fantasy is important. I think it fulfills the role of the fairy tale and the myths from days gone by. It's just that now we like our fairy tales and our myths dressed up in a slightly more sophisticated way. Without wanting to sound too pompous, I see fantasy as a metaphor: as a way of looking at things which affect us now. But at a distance. Sometimes you look back to past times, but what fantasy does is put a different sort of gloss on them. For me to write a realistic book about the Stalinist purges (a subject I cover in a fantastic way in Songspinners) would be a very different piece of work; but fantasy allowed me to write about my feelings about the purges in a way that I couldn't do in any other style. But I don't want to claim I'm crusading!'

Sarah Ash and I talked about her life and work at the World Fantasy Convention in Docklands over the Halloween weekend, 1997. She believes that a fantasy writer's advantage over a mainstream writer is precisely that a fantasy writer has a way of tackling unpleasant subject matter in a more palatable manner. Fantasy provides the necessary distancing effect. 'But a criticism that is often hurled at fantasy is, it's an escape. And maybe it is. Maybe it's saying: we can't bear too much reality. But I don't think the books would be popular if they were just addressing a need for escapism: they look at subjects that can't be dealt with in factional terms.'

Sarah is the author of two fantasy novels, Moths to a Flame and Songspinners. These are intelligent, unusual books, well-written and well-researched, with believable characters (male and female) engaged in tasks unlike those of more traditional fantasy heroes and heroines. For example, in the former novel, the hero, Lai, is refreshing in that his quest is simply to return home. He is not a pawn in a central premise of a goal that must be achieved. Sarah explains:

'What I didn't want to do was write something that was defined in areas of black and white. Or Good and Evil, to be more politically correct. A lot of the fantasy that I was reading dealt with the epic quest, and I didn't feel I had anything to contribute. I was always interested in the grey areas. I wanted to know how they coped on those journeys. There wasn't a public toilet on the way, presumably. I was interested in saying: Yes, but supposing... The food's run out and you can't just nip down to the local shop. I like to know the nitty-gritty... There were writers I came back to - Storm Constantine, in particular, Ellen Kushner. I enjoyed Tad Williams, although he was still writing epic fantasy at that stage. I just thought he was writing a different kind of epic fantasy.' What many people disapprove of about fantasy is the presumed unbelievability of the genre; the idea of Conan (for example) riding on a horse through a blizzard with bare arms... 'Yes,' Sarah agrees. 'But then, he's tough!'

How did she come to write the first book? 'I trained at Cambridge as a musician and I was always torn between wanting to compose music and wanting to write,' she says. 'I went on to teach music because I liked working with children, but also that allowed me to continue with a bit of drama and acting, which I also enjoyed. This was in the sensitive days! I was writing mainly for children at the time and came close to making it: to 'We liked it very much but...' And then came getting married and having children, and that really did put a stop on things for a while. I didn't write anything for eight years. I went back to writing when the children were getting older... I had been writing fantasy in the 70s and not getting anywhere, and then suddenly the explosion happened. We'd been living in Wales where we weren't close to bookshops, and we came back to London and I kept seeing all these fantasy books. I'd missed something! That made me start to think again about ideas I'd had earlier.' The central idea is that of the moths that begin by seeming to be a force for good. But this very goodness (the dust they carry on their wings) is soon found to be addictive. Moths to a Flame, in many senses, is an anti- drugs novel. The moths bring perturbation and despair, not to mention, eventually, plague. What gave Sarah the notion of the moth motif?

'One of my students at the time, a very gifted violinist, said to me one day, 'I hate moths.' This student would be very afraid and would squirm away if one flew into the room. That inspired the short story that was in Interzone ("Mothmusic") which appears about two thirds of the way through the book. The moths just appeared as a small episode but I stood back from the book when I'd finished and it seemed that they stood out; they symbolised something ambivalent. Something that could be good, but also something that could be misused, could be evil.' Moths are mainly night-bound and are not as easily recognisable as good as are, say, butterflies. On the most superficial level, they are not as pretty as butterflies. Sarah says the creatures in the novel 'might have been butterflies, and on the cover of the book they look like butterflies! I felt at once that they should be attractive but also that there should be some warning.'

Lepidoptery also features noticeably in two other important modern texts. 'I can think of one,' Sarah replies. 'I do think of Silence of the Lambs. I like the nocturnal side of the moths as well - because I do think that opens up a lot of imagery, a whole wealth of associations.' In Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a girl finds an affinity with butterflies and there is a memorable scene in which she is lying outside, completely smothered in them. 'I've read Midnight's Children and Haroun and The Sea of Stories, but I haven't read The Satanic Verses.' Of course, part of the reading experience is appraising what we assume the author to have read and been influenced by.

'I started writing Moths in about 1988 and it went through a number of versions. It started off as a very different kind of fantasy; the moths didn't play a very large part in it. By the time the short story appeared in Interzone, I had started to look again at the book. Even after it was accepted it went through two more rewrites before the version that came out. The ultimate version that came out was one I wasn't 100% satisfied with, but I wouldn't in any way lay the blame for this at the door of Caroline Oakley, my editor.'

What sort of audience did she have in mind for Moths to a Flame? 'I don't know. I hoped it would be for people who enjoyed fantasy but were maybe looking for something a little bit different. Because that was how I felt. I felt there were books that I was not seeing which I think was probably one of the impulses.'

One of the interesting factors of both of Sarah's novels so far is the substitution into the texts of vocabulary that is almost our vocabulary but not quite. For example, coffee is 'quaffe', a dungeon is a 'donjon', and alcohol is 'alquer'. A similar distancing technique is used in Peter Carey's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. ( 'No, sorry...' Sarah says: she hasn't read that one either. Oh well.) On the subject of this type of neologising, Sarah has the following to say: 'I've received quite a few brickbats about this. Why not call a spade a spade? In my latest book I've gone out of my way not to invent, but that's because it's a slightly different setting. I love words and I like playing about with them. In the case of 'quaffe' I got: Why don't you just call it coffee? You've called a meringue a meringue. Bringing a few words like that into Songspinners was just to say, this is in the same world as Moths...'

Not only are Sarah's two novels set during different points of history in their mythological universe, they were inspired by different points in history in our own. Moths to a Flame seems partly Ancient Greek and partly Arabic, and Songspinners seems much more an eighteenth century England, with its references to periwigs, among other things. 'People have thought of all sorts of periods for the books, but Moths is definitely much earlier on in history. I tried to write a novel about Byzantium, which hasn't seen the light of day, but almost did - and the reading I was doing then about Constantinople - that did rub off quite a great deal. I do look back into history rather than look into the near future, which will come out even more in my third novel, which has a much more historical basis. That's if anybody wants to see it!'

Songspinners was a result of Sarah's love for music. What influence does music have on her writing, as opposed to on her life? 'I find it very difficult to separate the two things. I'm a pianist, but I have to say I'm not a brilliant pianist and my main interest is in composition. 1994 was the last time I wrote something that was performed - locally. Nothing big. I find music is an integral part of what I do. When I started writing as a child it was because I made pictures in my head when I listened to music, and the pictures always turned into a story. In some ways I still work along those lines. Some people don't like to work with music but I do... I've always been very interested in the psychology of music: how things work - left brain, right brain - and I suffer quite a lot from getting music on the brain. So much so that I can sit down and 'play' through a whole movement, but sometimes the brain plays tricks and I get the same phrase repeated. Sometimes it's so loud that I can't understand why other people can't hear what's going on in my head.'

The plot of Songspinners might even make a good plot for an opera. 'That would be wonderful! If any composers out there would like to do it...' Perhaps she could do it herself. 'I'm not sure. I had opera at the back of my mind. Something melodramatic. Opera is probably my favourite type of music. I like the blend of drama and music. But I've never been able to set my own words. I've always fancied, though, setting somebody else's.' Anthony Burgess believed that the future of the novel depended on the eventual fusion of music and the literary form... 'And he was a composer as well,' says Sarah. 'He was probably rather ahead of his time.'

Songspinners also examines the theme of artistic persecution and suppression. Now that we have established that the Rushdie Affair was not on her mind, what was? 'I was going further back than Rushdie's problems in Songspinners. I was looking at Stalinist Russia in particular. Inevitably I look in musical tropes. And also back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, in Belgium - where there was a riot that brought down the government. Guiseppe Verdi, too - his themes being sung when they shouldn't have been, and people being put up against the Austrian government. So those were the things I was thinking of....

'When I was in my teens and discovering the music of Shostakovitch, I was appalled at what he'd had to go through. And some other Russian composers, too, had to alter their styles. And the effect this must have had on them! Not to mention the composers who went into the Nazi concentration camps and were part of the Stalinist purges. Shostakovitch was never able to write in the same way again. I love the Fourth Symphony and I think that was the first one to be suppressed. Either you toed the party line or you were in deep trouble. Which he somehow managed to do, but I sometimes think: what an anguish it must have been to have these thoughts that he couldn't put down. He sometimes produced a piece that was ironic, and I would imagine that it was lost on the Communists. When the Shostakovitch revival happened in the late 60s, there were still critics saying, 'This music is so buoyant' as if this were a terrible crime. And yes, it's true - but there's a terrible bitterness behind the buoyancy. You can hear it if you listen hard enough.'

The main character in Songspinners is Orial, a female amanuensis, employed by a composer whose hands are ruined in a fire, to write down the music he dictates. This had its basis in history. The composer 'Delius had syphilis (I think) which caused him to go blind, but he still wanted to compose. A young Yorkshireman called Eric Fenby loved Delius' music and he presented himself to the composer, who was then quite old, and offered himself as his amanuensis. They had this very strange working relationship where Delius would umm and aah and they worked out this amazing shorthand. It's a story that has always haunted me. I thought, how difficult for Fenby to write it all down, and how difficult for Delius, in his own kind of prison, to put the idea across... I started off with a short story idea about a composer who had a stroke, but I didn't go through with it. But it led to Songspinners and the short story that was in Interzone ('Airs From a Different Planet').'

Orial's moral dilemma is to follow her artistic impulses or obey her father, who has forbidden his daughter any access to music because of the way his wife died because of music. Needless to say, Orial rebels. Sarah comments: 'There are certain things that I had great fun with her, particularly in the setting. If anybody wants to look closely at where it's set, they'll see it's where I come from. I come from Bath, I'm a Bathonian, and when I was growing up - I'm living in exile - I would walk around imagining an alternate Bath. The insights I could bring to Orial are her desires to be a composer. I tried to put across the process of composition which is something that other writers who are not composers always get right.'

What is Sarah's working schedule like? She says, 'I find I'm restricted by and large to my sons' term time. When they're in the house it's quite difficult to work because it's them and their friends. So I do have to be quite self-disciplined. I work in the mornings when I'm not at school, or in the afternoons when I'm not at school. If there's a major rush on I work any time that I can possibly get upstairs to the word processor.' Would she waste time if she had a whole day to write? 'Quite possibly, yes.'

Could she speak a little bit about the new novel? 'It's called The Lost Child and it's set somewhere that could be Southern France. It would obviously be an alternate Southern France and it deals with the problems of what I call the Tsiyonim - a race who lost their city of Tsiyon several centuries earlier and are now doomed to try and wander the world and try to settle in somewhere. But they suffer persecution. They lost Tsiyon because they had an immediate connection with their deity, and due to some mistakes which were made at the time the connection was... not exactly severed... but altered. At the back of it is they are still trying to reconcile themselves with this problem... A young man named Rahab is an apprentice tailor. In the middle of the night he hears a noise and goes downstairs, and on his doorstep is a dead child. Everything unravels from there.'

So the theme of reconciliation is present in everything that Sarah has written so far? 'It's something that has been in the back of my mind for some time,' she explains. 'All three books have religions in one way or another. It is something that bothers me about the present modern-day world. But this is the first time that I've put something from my own personal background in a fantasy context - which is to do with being part of a religion, and yet not part of it. Especially when you see the orthodox side of the religion behaving in a way that you find fundamentally alien. This kind of dichotomy is a troubling issue at the moment. Writing about it - I don't think I've found any answers, but...' At least you understand the questions.

'Exactly... My background is Jewish but I'm not practising. (I usually get speechless at this stage.) I feel that as I'm not living a Jewish life I'm not qualified to speak about Judaism, but the issues are still there - the issues of persecution, tolerance and the desire for tolerance. That must have informed my work at some level. But it wasn't consciously there. I read about a lot of mythologies, about what makes things tick. I looked at what Lai (in Moths to a Flame) had done and what would make him be able to live with himself afterwards. He has a great need to atone which drives him. In the first version of the book, Lai fell a lot further down in terms of addiction, and he had to crawl back up. But we modified that in the end.'

Does she plan her work carefully, or prefer to freefall? 'I used not to plan at all, and I think that was my error. I don't find planning easy but I couldn't do what I do now without planning. I'm not somebody who plans everything.I don't have a very detailed synopsis but I do nevertheless have a synopsis that I work to, by and large, with the odd deviation.' It veers in another direction? 'Sometimes it does, yes. Sometimes I have to say: Back!' And how much preparation would she put into a novel? 'Quite a lot,' she replies. 'I do quite a lot of background reading, which may sound odd for fantasy fiction.' And reading in general? 'I do read children's fiction to keep up with what there is. I like to read poetry, although I haven't read much recently. If you were to look at my bedside reading at the moment...' Eclectic? 'Eclectic, absolutely. I allow myself to read novels in the summer holidays, but mostly during the year I read around whatever work in progress I have going on...'

(This interview first appeared in the March 1998 issue of Interzone.)

Copyright © 1998 by David Mathew

David Mathew studied English at university, worked as a teacher in Cairo and Gdansk, and is now a full-time writer and journalist. He is working on a biography of Ramsey Campbell and has recently completed a novel. He is also co-designing a game show.

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