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Making characters come alive

Space travel, characters grounded in reality and a rocket that may – or may not – leave Earth. Ramona Depares interviews writer Loranne Vella about her latest novel, Rokit.

Loranne VellaLoranne Vella

Your books always related to the fantastical. What is it that attracts you to the genre?

I am first and foremost attracted to fiction. I read fiction (I do read biographies, but only occasionally). And I write fiction. There is too much of the real world around me to dedicate even more time to writing about it. This other world, this other reality which I have to create from scratch, is what excites me.

I try to stay away from the word ‘fantasy’, when describing my work because it can mean different things to different readers/writers. I am not a reader, nor a writer, of high fantasy mainly because the fictional realities that interest me most are those that are grounded in reality, almost entirely, but not completely. It is this blurring between reality and fiction which holds my attention most; the sudden loss of equilibrium when you feel you don’t know anymore where reality stops and fiction starts.

It is in this ambiguity where my characters and stories reside. This kind of fiction can be referred to as low fantasy. But you find the same principle in magic realism and other similar genres – a tilt of the head and nothing seems to be what it is anymore.

Jeanette Winterson, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, Michel Faber, László Krasznahorkai… these are some of the authors that have shaped me as a writer. And if you’re wondering how I can say this about high fantasy after writing the Fiddien Trilogy?, let me just remind you that there were two of us writing that story.

Most of the high fantasy elements were Simon’s, in fact. I was usually more interested in seeing how each character is dealing (internally and externally) with these bizarre happenings.

So what is your focus when writing?

Character development is where I put my emphasis most. My stories come to life in this way – I create a reality, perhaps an uncomfortable one, and a set of characters each with their own characteristics, and then spend time observing them, studying them, to see how they will deal with these situations, with each other, how they force themselves to act, to change, to adapt.

The character has to come alive. Otherwise the story is dead. Perhaps this is the legacy I have inherited from 25 years of working in theatre, which I am now pouring into my writing.

What will our world be like 50 years from now?

What inspires you in terms of fiction?

I am also fascinated by stories set in space, maybe more as a reader than as a writer. When I started writing MagnaTM Mater I had decided it would take place in space. The story never left the earth. So I promised myself the next one would. So much so that, even before I had a story, I had decided it would be called Rokit.

For many years I’ve been haunted by the image of a rocket ready to take off. I watch the movie Millennium Actress very often just for the opening sequence – the astronaut walking inside the rocket, the rocket set to take off… And here my favourite writers are Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Leiji Matsumoto.

As for movies, those with long, slow, silent sequences of space travel are my favourite (Solaris, Moon, 1001 Space Odyssey, definitely not Interstellar – too loud!). I have spent the past five years of my life living with Rokit and its characters – Petrel, Rika, Veronica – who are very real to me. Whether the rocket in Rokit leaves the earth or not, I’ll leave it up to you to discover.

How was the idea for Rokit born?

Both MagnaTM Mater and Rokit are set in the future. The past, we sort of know it; the present, we’re living it. So the unknown factor of the future – the question ‘what’s it going to be like in 20, 50, 80 years from now?’ – fascinates me and inspires me to create possible futures which my characters can inhabit, in which the story can unfold.

But, since I prefer low fantasy to high fantasy, I don’t like to think too far ahead. A few decades into the future are enough. In MagnaTM Mater it was just one decade. In Rokit it’s 50 years. I watched the clips on Youtube in 2014. They were talking to me about my present from the past, their present. That was when the idea to set Rokit in 2064 came. What will our world be like 50 years from now?

Your chosen language is Maltese. There was a time it was thought that using Maltese for contemporary fantasy was too difficult. What has your experience been like? Do you agree?

I may not be living in Malta anymore, but I am Maltese, I speak Maltese, I work in Maltese, I write in Maltese. It’s not my chosen language. It’s my language. It never occurred to me to write in English (although I do have a couple of short stories in English written during my days as an English student at University).

We might be a bilingual people, but one language tends to be more natural to us than the other, be it English or Maltese. Maltese is definitely my mother tongue, even though I learnt English earlier, more formally and more thoroughly than Maltese at school.  I don’t think it’s that easy to switch from one language to another as creative writers. Or perhaps it’s not so for me.

The writing process is a challenging one in finding, first, the right terminology for the topic in question and secondly in unlocking the evocative – poetic, musical and visual – potential of our language. So, whether I’m talking about medicinal properties in plants, fantastical creatures who are half humans and half animals, cyberspace, skateboards or space travel, the question is not ‘if’ but ‘how’ Maltese can be used in novels.

What is Rokit? Describe the novel without giving too much away.

To describe Rokit in a few sentences is perhaps the most difficult task of all for me (especially if I mustn’t give too much away). The reason is that its structure balances on a number of distinctive yet interlinked concepts, themes, genres, characters and situations and I feel that if I were to select just one of them, I would do injustice to the novel as a whole. But I can try to mention a few.

On one hand it’s about travelling back to one’s roots. Petrel’s grandmother was Maltese so he leaves Croatia, where he’s been living for the past seven years, to learn more about her country. It is also about the fragmentation of Europe – Petrel is travelling at a time when the delineation of boundaries is once again on the map.

And Malta is under siege, again. It is about the effects of global warming. It is about photography – seeing reality through a lens. It is about war and oppression, about history repeating itself. It is about a young man growing into an old man and about a boy becoming a man. It is about a man who has no clue what his destiny has in store for him.

It is about a woman who tries to change the course of her future with every step she takes. It is about a revolution (in more than one meaning). It is about time. And it is about space.

The rocket is really there. There is a space centre. And the rocket is set to take off. But the rocket is in the background of the story. Just like climate change and cyberspace were the backdrop for MagnaTM Mater. The rocket in Rokit is also a very strong symbol. A symbol of uprooting oneself, a definite breaking away from one’s own roots, a means of launching one-self as far away from one’s reality and comfort zone as possible. It is also a symbol of hope.

What has the writing process been like?

I can only think and write creatively if I am alone, without any distractions, for a few days at a time. The day-to-day routine breaks the internal communication with my story and my characters. February 1, 2012 marks the day when I started writing Rokit.

I took time off specifically for this. I told myself I would start it and finish it that same year. Little did I know that I was already two weeks pregnant and that things were going to happen in a completely different way.

For some two years after that, Rokit existed only in my head as I could not find the time to write. It was developing, though, and quite fast. In fact, I’m glad things happened in this way because the complex nature and structure of Rokit could only come about because of this length of time.

Although it did not really take me five years to actually write it down, the story had enough time to take shape and mature in the best way possible. At this point, I cannot say I wish I had more time to polish it further. For me, it’s perfect the way it is.

Rokit is deeply rooted in the world of photography, photographers and war photography. How was it merging the written and the visual creative arts in this novel?

Rokit is a visual novel, dealing with themes and concepts that lend themselves easily to visual representation (clocks, cameras, spirals and other geometrical shapes, fractals, Flemish paintings, architecture, etc.). Photography also plays a very important part, so much so that the very first paragraph I wrote back in 2012 was a description of a photograph (which is now found in the middle of the novel). I used photographs as inspiration.

Then, as their importance grew, I realised that not only are there many photos in the story but that two of the main characters are photographers. And further more, photography and its science became the axis around which the plot and the characters revolve and evolve. But, as I said before, this story revolves around more than one axis.

For this book you worked with artist Julinu. What made you pick him?

For all the above reasons, when it came to creating the cover of the novel, it was important for us (Merlin Publishers and myself) to collaborate with a visual artist who would manage to capture all these different aspects in one single image. I was familiar with Julinu’s work also because he was responsible for the artwork and layout of my short story Dawn l-Erbat Ikmamar L’Għandi, commissioned for Ritty Tacsum’s photographic exhibition 4 Rooms in 2013.

With Rokit’s cover, Julinu did a great job. He took it very seriously, to such an extent that in the initial stage he presented to us six very different images, which made it somewhat difficult for us to select the one to proceed with.

At the end there were two very strong candidates for a cover. I’m happy that we have chosen this one, the scene of desolation inside the boundaries of the rocket, but I dream about the other image very often.

Day-to-day routine breaks the internal communication with my story and my characters

In the Fiddien Trilogy you co-wrote with Simon Bartolo, the town of Mosta was central and very much a character in itself. In Rokit, it’s Ħaż-Żebbuġ’s turn. Is the centrality of Maltese towns in your work deliberate?

The love for one’s country, one’s roots, one’s identity, takes on immense proportions once you distance yourself from it. Leaving Malta 11 years ago had the same impact for me as getting on that rocket and leaving the planet. There was first a time of grieving, until, some years later, I found myself feeling at home in the city of Brussels. I call it my second home.

I have changed during these 11 years, but Malta will always be there to remind me of who I really am. Or who I was.

The conflicting emotions of leaving Malta, returning to it, yearning for it, yearning to leave it, are very much built into the fabric of Rokit. Does your life experience of living away from Malta inform that?

There are times when I’m caught off guard with a strong need to put on my coat, go out and head to a stationery that is actually in Mtarfa, to go out for a walk from Wied il-Buni to Ħal-Far, to Buskett, around Mdina, through the narrow roads in Vittoriosa, in Żebbuġ... to go for a coffee and visit a bookshop in Mosta, say hello to a cousin in Ħamrun.

The feeling is so strong that I feel dizzy when I realise that these places are miles (and some months) away. Writing about these places calms me down, creates that connection with my country which I often yearn for, even though I do not plan on coming back to live in Malta (yet).

I can see how big the changes in Malta have been this past decade. And, sometimes, it’s painful to know that I was not present when these changes took place. All this definitely comes out in my writing. Writing about these places calms me down, creates that connection with my country which I often yearn for, even though I do not plan on coming back to live in Malta, yet.

Some of your works are designated YA. Do you think there is still scope for these kind of classifications given the crossover with works like Harry Potter, etc? Who will Rokit appeal to?

There is obviously a big difference between writing for 10-year olds, 15-year olds and 20+-year olds. I obviously know who I’m writing for from the start of every book I’ve written. And for each book I have worked on, there was a different audience in mind, even within the Fiddien Trilogy itself (Sqaq l-Infern and Wied Wirdien were for 10 to 13-year olds, Il-Ġnien tad-Dmugħ was for a slightly older audience).

With MagnaTM Mater it was 15 to 16-year olds. Rokit is my first novel for adults. This shapes the writing process, of course. How the novel is marketed, I leave that to the publisher. Who ends up reading it is completely out of my hands.So when adults were enjoying the Fiddien Trilogy as much as the 13-year olds I was happily surprised. When more 20-year olds were reading MagnaTM Mater than 15-year olds I was surprised too, perhaps in a different way. Rokit is for adults. The kind of book I read today. The same kind of book I was reading when I was 16, 18 and 25.

Rokit is launched on March 10  at 7.30pm at Blitz, Valletta.

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