Culture

Francesca Haig interview: Meet the author of 'the new Hunger Games'

What qualities should you look for in a writer? In an increasingly challenging market, there's a small, contemptible streak in most authors which means they wouldn't be too distraught to discover that a fellow-novelist was indolent, tormented, unsightly and (not being overly bright) radiated a degree of arrogance that their mediocre work did little to justify. Judged by these criteria, Francesca Haig is an immediate disappointment.

The Australian's remarkable novel The Fire Sermon precipitated a bidding war won, reportedly at no small expense, by HarperCollins. The book – which appears in paperback on 30 July – is the first of a trilogy. Film rights have been purchased by Steven Spielberg's company DreamWorks.

The Fire Sermon is an often gruesome tale, likened by some to The Hunger Games, set in a post-apocalyptic society in which every individual, or Alpha, has an identical twin. Omegas, these unfortunate doubles, are born with deformities. Branded on the forehead and segregated, they are tortured, casually slaughtered and generally presented with what British politicians like to call "tough choices". When one twin perishes, both die.

"It seems odd," I tell the poet and academic, 33, when we meet in her favourite north London café, "that such dark work could come from a person who is, er ..."

"Irritatingly chirpy? Yes. My PhD [from Melbourne University] was mainly on Holocaust literature. I'm really not a gloomy person, though I know some people imagine that I wander around dressed in black, tearing my hair out and moaning."

The Fire Sermon is in a tradition of novels that goes back to writers like Alan Garner, author of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: work whose default demographic is the young adult, but which exhibits a quality of writing and invention that attracts older readers. In one of the most memorable sequences, the heroine, Cass, rescues Kip, an Omega who has been submerged with others in a tank of fluid, kept alive by tubes which pierce his body.

Haig is an engaging character who laughs easily, and has yet to develop any of the inimical traits traditionally associated with fame. She lives a quiet life around the corner from here with her husband Andrew and their one-year-old son. Where do those horrific images in The Fire Sermon originate?

"The tanks really are at the core of the book. There are bloody massacres in there, but the tanks have their own sterile, insidious horror. I didn't realise at the time that I was writing about [a relation, name withheld at Haig's request]. She was severely anorexic and spent years in hospital, where they fitted a gastro-nasal tube. It was only when I was doing the final edit that I realised I had revisited that memory. Traumas like that, they don't just go away."

Much of the book's power derives from the protagonists' paradoxical dependence on the wellbeing of their estranged twin.

"I think that relates to the way you can develop so intense a bond with a person that you ask whether, if they died, you would be able to take another breath. We've all felt that: whether it was towards a lover, a parent, or a child."

Haig grew up as "a massive nerd" in Hobart, Tasmania. Sally and Alan, her parents, both worked in education. For six years Francesca taught creative writing at the University of Chester.

My image of Tasmania, I tell her, "involves random shootings, bizarre and aggressive wildlife and alarming tribal rituals – a kind of antipodean version of Carlisle".

"There was one mass shooting," she says. "Hobart is a really just a small, quiet place. And I love it. I'm a small-town girl."

"I don't want to be mean but – to misquote Alan Partridge – 'England has three centres of academic excellence: Oxford, Cambridge, and Chester'. Was The Fire Sermon your ticket out of there?"

"Absolutely not. I loved working at Chester. The English department there is fantastic and vibrant. I go back as often as I can.

"I've been as surprised as anybody by what has happened. The book started as a fun side-project. If someone had said we're going to publish you and give you a couple of thousand pounds, that would have been enough for me. Everything has happened out of nowhere."

Concerning her new life of "being chauffeured to events and having lunches in posh restaurants", she says, "I'm looking on with a mixture of surprise and benign curiosity".

"Are you annoyed at having written 'The new Hunger Games?'"

"Only by the suggestion that there's some kind of bandwagon. I got rejections from agents who said, 'The post-apocalyptic wave is over'. Post-apocalyptic literature," she adds, "goes back to Noah".

Haig heads back home to refine her latest visions of Armageddon, in the style whose boldness, elegance and originality guarantee her own, rather more inviting, future.

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