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Exclusive Interview: “Briefly Very Beautiful” Author Roz Dineen

 

In the following email interview, writer Roz Dineen talks about how her new sci-fi novel, Briefly Very Beautiful (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, but one in which people, “…take it for granted as a back-drop,” an idea she got from a classic show about a house.

Roz Dineen Briefly Very Beautiful

Photo Credit: © Polly Brown

 

To start, what is Briefly Very Beautiful about, and what kind of a world is it set in?

Briefly Very Beautiful is set in a near future that is very similar to our current reality but the heat, the pressure, the intensity has been dialed-up. So there are a lot of elements in the book that we might recognize as distinctly of our current world — wildfires, the effects of climate change, pandemics, strengthening Alt-Right communities, diminishing public healthcare provision etc. — but all these things have become a little more vivid, their interrelatedness has become more apparent.

The surprising thing (that perhaps shouldn’t really come as a surprise) is how people have compliantly adapted to the worsening conditions. The brink of apocalypse, an impending complete global shutdown has become the new normal.

At the start of the book many people are in denial about how bad things really are; there’s a lot of disassociation in daily life.

Within this world a mother, Cass, wakes up a little and decides to leave The City with her three small children to find somewhere safer and easier to live. Her narrative is interspersed with first-person sections from the point of view of her husband, who is serving as an army medic in a foreign war. Cass and the children journey from place to place in search of a haven. Each time they arrive somewhere new we might think or hope that they have found safety. But, in the end, (at least in my understanding) the greatest dangers that this troop faces are not what you might expect. It’s not really the worsening wildfires, the Incel eco-terrorists, or food shortages that prove to be the greatest threat to their lives. Instead, it’s the psychology of the people Cass meets during her bids for safety that put her (and therefore the children) in the most peril. Cass is most at risk from how she is held in other peoples’ minds.

Where did you get the idea for Briefly Very Beautiful?

Over a period of about a year or so, while I was balancing an intense working week with looking after my children — so a period in which I was very busy and not thinking about writing at all — when I had zero capacity, I found that stories kept popping into my head. I kept seeing a man in a sequestered hotel room in a war zone, or a finely dressed older woman in a grand house being silently cruel, or a mother caring for an infant under the heat of an intense sun.

It was only when I was made redundant, in fact on the first day of my redundancy, that I realized all these stories were connected; they all came from the same world. And it was a world that had been growing in my mind unbidden. It was not a world I knew literally, but one I had become slowly convinced of as some sort of parallel to this one.

I had also been reading quite a lot of climate journalism (daily, in fact I was obsessed; How are we meant to parent through this?) and there were two books in particular that really influenced me: one by R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson called Sanity, Madness And The Family, and another (now incomprehensibly out of print) called The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering The Religion Of The World, by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor.

Is there a reason why you centered this story on a mother of three as opposed to a father of three or a grandmother with three grandkids?

Yes, absolutely. And it’s to do with climate change.

To my mind, the fate of the mother and the fate of the Earth are interconnected. There are many ways to enter this idea, but a simple one might be to wonder if our societies mistreat the mother and the Earth in similar ways.

In many cultures the mother is exploited: she must grow the baby, she must return to work and be the perfect mother simultaneously, she must grow the economy. Her training, her nature in these circumstances, is to give, to nurture, and this is taken advantage of. Our society feels entitled to her kindness, her care, her mind, her labor, her heart. And if she does not perform, if she does not provide total nurture, if she does not appear to be trying to give more than she is capable of, she is villainized and ripped apart.

The Earth has been exploited along similar lines. We have acted with entitlement towards Earth’s bounty, without honoring Earth, without protecting it. We have exploited the mother, we deny her community and honor, we have exploited the Earth, we deny it a protective community, we do not honor it. We use both up until they are wasted.

Of course the characteristics of nurture, survival, care could have easily been portrayed through a grandmother figure, or a father. But I wanted to track here the near death and survival of a mother at a moment when “Mother” Earth was on her last legs. The grandmother in the book is a character who uses up resources that were not hers to squander. The father has been socialized to rage against the dying of the light. He is facing the end of the world very differently from Cass: he is resisting the idea of ego death as hard as he can.

Similarly, is there a reason why Cass is raising three small kids as opposed to two or four?

Three felt complete. As far as I can tell, it’s the number that shows up most frequently when humans attempt to understand existence. Birth-Life-Death. Past-Present-Future. Beginning-Middle-End. Father-Son-Holy Spirit. In some religions (I’m hardly a theologian) it’s the number of the divine, and Cass feels access to a certain divinity through the three children.

Also, in a more practical sense, according to the timeline of the book, three was the maximum number of children that could possibly have been born. And it was important that there weren’t only two. With only two kids certain recurrences in their stories might seem coincidental. But with three kids it’s not an accident, it’s a pattern, and I needed that to be clear.

And then, for the last of these “What if?” questions, is there a reason Cass goes to live with her mother-in-law as opposed to her own mother’s house?

Both Cass’s parents are dead. She is very much alone in the world and this is important to her story. There is a flashback to her childhood where we meet her mother. This happens as she drives through her childhood neighborhood on her way to her mother-in-law’s place. I don’t think she would have been able to go back to her childhood home, even if her parents were still alive. It doesn’t seem like a safe place to me.

Briefly Very Beautiful sounds like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story, but more in the vein of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven than, say, The Walking Dead or The Last Of Us, in that it’s more about the people and not so much about the apocalypse. How do you describe it, genre-wise, and why that way?

I was trying to write a story about characters. I don’t usually love novels that are issue-led. I believe fiction is most effective when it focuses on character, story; an internal rather than external sense of self and other. The apocalypse in this novel is a low-key backdrop.

Which is not to say that it’s not important. But I always think back to a very old British TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited,which was screened when I was a kid. They filmed it in a huge, grand stately home called Castle Howard. In a BTS documentary the director admitted that, at first, they didn’t know how to shoot the house. There was almost too much distracting splendor to absorb. So they decided to shoot the house by taking it for granted. They didn’t try to show off its palatial interiors. The characters in the book are almost entirely habituated to the grandeur, they barely notice it. The director decided to follow suit and the result is that the adaptation feels very real.

I tried to use the same principle in the book. What do you do with the thing that is actually too huge to comprehend (the apocalypse)? How do you approach it? You take it for granted as a back-drop. Then it feels real. I think that even during the apocalypse, people will still be preoccupied by their relationships, their bowel movements, their anger at or worry for their parents. Even when the world burns down, petty human concerns and matters of the heart will continue, it’s just they’ll be happening in a more intense setting. I think that focusing on character is always the way in to big ideas. It’s similar, I guess, to looking at the reflection of the eclipse in a glass of water, rather than burning your eyes on the sun.

So, to answer your question more directly, I’d say the genre was dystopian but with as much psychological realism as I could manage.

Now, while Briefly Very Beautiful is your first novel, I’m guessing it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Beautiful but not on anything else you’ve written?

This is the first fiction I’ve written since high school. However, I have written quite a few essays and reviews over the last 15 years or so, and this was excellent training.

I think J.G. Ballard had a huge influence on me. As well as Margaret Atwood (of course), Octavia E. Butler, and Hilary Mantel. And Halldor Laxness (though I can’t really explain why with that last one).

How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games?

I remember going to see Children Of Men at the cinema by myself when I was at university in Dublin. I went into the movie theater on a whim on a Wednesday afternoon, and when I came out it was dark and bleak and raining and I was on the wrong side of town. However, I was very happy to be alone leaving the movie theater because I didn’t want to discuss the film with anyone. I wanted to hold on to my experience of it, which I felt would be diluted if I shared it. There was most probably a kernel of Briefly Very Beautiful there.

Apocalyptic stories are sometimes self-contained and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is Briefly Very Beautiful?

To me, the book is stand-alone. I feel I got everything I wanted to show about these characters squeezed in there. You could argue that the book ends in a way that begs the question: Well, what happens next? But I don’t think I could ever write that sequel. I wouldn’t trust myself not to mess up the characters. If I leave the story here, the characters will always remain real to me. I feel like I got out of the manuscript just before I lost my sense that they were real.

Earlier I asked if Briefly Very Beautiful was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Beautiful could work as a movie, show, or game?

It’s currently being developed as a TV series here in the UK. I think TV is the perfect format for it. And I feel exceedingly lucky to be part of that process.

Congrats. So, if the producers ask, who would you want them to cast as Cass, her mother-in-law, and the kids?

I did semi-cast the book in my head after I’d finished writing it. It was a game that my first friend to read the book started, and we weren’t limited by reality; we were allowed to cast any actor, dead or alive, at any age and any point of their career. But now some of the real-life casting is in place and I am thrilled by it.

Roz Dineen Briefly Very Beautiful

Finally, if someone enjoys Briefly Very Beautiful, what similar kind of apocalyptic novel that you loved would you suggest they check out next?

I think if a reader has any interest in apocalyptic scenarios and hasn’t yet had the pleasure of J. G. Ballard, I’d dive in there without further ado. The Parable Of The Sower by Octavia E. Butler is another must-read.

I also loved Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton, which I read after handing in my book. It’s not what you’d call classically apocalyptic in terms of genre, but it’s hellish — both on a character level and for Mother Earth — and brilliantly done.

 

 

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