AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Virginia Bergin

    Virginia Bergin

    WHO RUNS THE WORLD?

    MACMILLAN CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    JUNE 2017


    WHO RUNS THE WORLD? is an intriguing and powerful exploration of gender, loss and hope. It is set in a world that is run by women, not by men, after a disease that killed only men has destroyed the world as we know it.

    The story is set two generations from the time of the disease and follows River, a 14-year-old girl, who discovers a sick teenaged boy near her village. He has never seen a girl; she has never seen a boy. By finding the boy and beginning to unearth his past, they start to uncover the terrible secrets that lie at the heart of their society.

    We asked author VIRGINIA BERGIN - author of THE RAIN - to tell us more about WHO RUNS THE WORLD.


    Q: You studied and worked in psychology and film writing before you became a YA author - how have these disciplines/interests influenced how you write now?

    A: Working as a research psychologist taught me to listen non-judgementally - and to understand that everyone has their story. I interviewed dozens - perhaps hundreds? - of adults and young people about some very sensitive subjects, such as mental health and criminal behaviour, and heard stories that would make your heart bleed and your hair stand on end... and the stories behind the stories. Listening makes you humble.

    Documentary scriptwriting taught me to drive a story forward because you need to hold on to viewers! And I learned how stories can be told visually... there are no pictures in my books, but if I describe a scene well enough the reader should be able to 'see' it - and this visual element is very important to me. What I'm trying to achieve is the creation of a world that absorbs you in every way; so you see it, smell it, touch it, hear it - even taste it. (That's in addition to the characters who think and behave in it, and the ideas and moods I'm trying to put across.) (Writing is tricky!)

    Q: Like Who Runs the World, where disease has all but wiped out men, your earlier books The Rain and The Storm are also set in a world where something has collapsed (the environment). So what drives you to explore these kinds of settings?

    A: I think I'm a very 'what if?' kind of writer, and a global disaster is the ultimate 'what if?'. . . but, more than this, I think it's very interesting to explore what happens when you remove or fundamentally alter something we might take for granted. I think it has the potential to throw light on our current relationship with that something!


    Q: Why did you want to write about a society / global order run by women? How did you decide what that world would look like and what was your key focus/ambition?

    A: The answer to this question is too big for one interview! I had lots of reasons for wanting to explore this idea; some political and intellectual, some very personal... but in a creative sense, it was the biggest challenge of a 'what if?' I could imagine - in fact, it was almost too much of a challenge.

    I felt a huge amount of pressure to get the world 'right' because I felt I wanted to represent women positively... until I realised that, in terms of gender, I don't even know what a 'woman' is (so how could I possibly know what a world run by women would look like?).

    I decided I was free to imagine the world however I chose, so what you have is a mish-mash of ideas that interest me and which I felt could have feasibly emerged out of the dying of the males.
    To me, the details of how the world run by women works are not so important in the story - what is very important is that it is a world that is free of any of the pressures associated with being 'female'.


    Q: In terms of its timing, why did you decide that it would be set two generations down the line?

    A: I wanted the main character (River) and her peers to be almost free of the prejudices, pressures, assumptions and stereotypes that affect girls today. Almost - but not quite. As one aspect of considering how our ideas about gender are created and transmitted, I wanted to include the family influence of her Granmumma (actually her great-grandmother) and education - although River has barely paid attention to what is said about men as it is history to her, and not relevant to her world.


    Q: Was there also some wish-fulfilment in terms of the kind of society that a female-dominated world would create? What for you would be the main positives in this world? And the negatives?

    A: I anticipate being asked this a lot! The broad answer is NO.

    The world described in the book has had to endure a terrible tragedy. I wouldn't want to see a world run by women any more than I enjoy living in a world that is currently, for the most part, run by men.

    What I wanted to get at was... if we - all of us, male as well as female - could start over, what kind of a world would we want to live in?

    In this story it's women who are able to start over, and I used this to sneak in some values I hoped people might decide upon (the Global Agreements). They are very 'idealistic'. That, for me, is a positive, people agreeing on the basics from which all other decisions flow... and it was also very important that there was a different kind of democracy, in which everyone was actively engaged.

    The negatives? I think those are revealed during the story; ideals are hollow unless inclusive and acted upon - and it might take great courage to do that if everyone around you has a vested interest in not doing so.

    That's my broad answer. Another answer would be that I would be very, very curious indeed to see how women would run the world. I don't think it would be perfect - and Who Runs the World? is no utopia - but . . . right now, at our point in human history, I think we need to do things in a different way. I think people have become very disengaged and cynical about mainstream politics, but what are we going to do about it... ?


    Q: Why did you decide to make this female-dominated world still imperfect with questions over democracy, power and second-class citizens?

    A: See above. And... much though a huge part of me wanted this world to be perfect, I felt I would be doing a great disservice to us all if I made it so. I felt that:

    1) I would be saying that women are better than men. I've lived my whole life hearing the message that men are better than women. I had no wish to invert and repeat a lie.
    2) I would be saying that women are not human. It is very, very hard for people - female or male - to be perfect. Impossible? I suspect that, even in the very best - most fair/democratic/harmonious - societies that have ever existed, people were still people, and so all kinds of human 'weaknesses' would have been present. Perfection is not truthful.
    3) In this story, there is a big question-mark over the apparent 'second-class citizen' status of men. It arose in a time when the whole human race was under threat, when the simple preservation of a male was more important than the quality of life that male had . . . and it continued in a way that the main female characters have been largely unaware of. Unlike the situation we have today, when a man could easily at least begin to see what women endure, the women in the story have had no access to male reality. Perhaps they should have made more effort? And is it easier not to?
    4) An imperfect world is essential for a story! No conflict = no plot!


    Q: For River, the lead character, her world is 'gender neutral'; she has never seen a boy, an 'XY', and the boy, Mason, has never seen a girl. What was it like imagining what their meeting would be like?

    A: Nearly impossible.
    (It took a lot of drafts, and an earlier version of the story was written in two parts; River told one chapter, Mason the next. From that I'd had to understand the meeting from both their points of view.)


    Q: We meet two male characters in the narrative - one boy, one man - and the man is immediately very aggressive. Is this portrayal overly negative about men?

    A: Again, this is a question I anticipate being asked a lot! I think a story like this could be told so many different ways - and I hope people do! - but I wanted to confront the nastiest male stereotypes head-on.

    In the first instance, there's Mason. Immediately aggressive - the story should explain why - and River immediately associating this aggression with a whole load of ideas about males she has never really paid that much attention to (because she has never had to).

    I wanted to show how even the tiniest scraps of half-remembered 'information' can become FACTS when you're threatened. It's the start of prejudice, perhaps, this generalising - which is not to say that River isn't absolutely right to feel horrified by Mason's behaviour.

    Then there is Killer, the man. Unlike Mason, who has sunk, Killer has managed to rise to the 'top' of a brutal system. He inhales freedom - and exhales violence and death. It is all he knows. Would he be like this if he had been raised differently? I wanted to think about the cultural transmission of expected behaviour... (though I should also point out that Mason and Killer are 'Beta'. The implication is that there could be an 'Alpha' stream, where, perhaps, life might be different.)

    My intention was to invoke the very worst image of masculinity . . . and, sadly, I don't think it's an unrealistic or unfamiliar image. I think many - too many! - boys struggle with notions of what a 'man' should be like, and the story presents an extreme experience of this. What I hope is that readers - and particularly boys - will use this story as a way to think and talk about the pressures they are under.

    Yes, I chose the two escapees to be who they are. Yes, their portrayal of 'male' is negative.
    Is it overly negative? Mason, to me, is a character full of hope.


    Q: Why did you decide that the city we see in the story would be Birmingham, and why did you want to include this glance at a bleak future for 'corporate world'?

    A: Hurray for Birmingham! It is a great, diverse city!

    Also, Northerners think it's in the South, Southerners think it's in the North... but in the world that I imagined, democracy is so part of daily life it would not be such a big deal as to where the actual business of central government happened. (Actually, I had imagined that central government would be so mobile it would travel, but I never managed to include this in the story.)

    I destroyed the corporate world... because I wanted to and I could! (Writing fiction is very satisfying like that!) I think it would have collapsed anyway with the dying of the males (the world population was halved in a short space of time), and among my mish-mash of thoughts and ideas about what the 'new' world would be like, I decided women would not re-create what had been - ie vast corporations with huge wage-gaps between workers and executives, profits stashed away to avoid tax.

    I was extremely concerned about how to show the way in which River's world is run is not a muddling-through, but a result of active choices - although there was a limit to what could be described in the story without crowding out the plot. I think some of the Birmingham scenes might seem a bit too steampunk!


    Q: There seemed to be room for a follow-on to this book, but the ending provides a conclusion. Were you tempted to make this book into a series or was it always to be a stand-alone?

    A: Stand-alone... but part of me would really quite like to write the prequel!


    Q: Are there other 'big issues' in the world that you follow and are tempted to write about?

    A: I don't actively seek out 'big issues' - oh, that's a lie! I do! But I wouldn't ever want to write about one without being sure there was a story there. Story always comes first... because I am not a politician, or an academic. I do not write manifestos, or push facts. I write stories. I'd like to write stories that make you think.

    Sooo . . . I am interested in the power of social media, and in human emotions (specifically: anger).

    What's next? I'll write whatever shouts loudest to be written!


    Q: Where do you write and what are you writing now? Any bad writing habits?

    A: I'm not writing at the moment, but I am thinking. (I've just taken out a subscription to New Scientist magazine because it's so inspiring!)

    I write in my flat in a room so tiny it cannot legally be called a bedroom. My worst writing habit is . . . well, if you asked my editors they'd say it was tinkering. (I re-wrote whole sections of The Rain and The Storm just before they went to press, and I did a huge re-write on Who Runs the World? after the proof copy was printed.) (Oops.)

    I think my worst habit is editing as I write. I have tens of thousands of words cut, pasted and stashed in 'off-cut' files because I re-write as I write. I suppose this is just my process, but I sometimes wish I could be a bit more free-and-easy about what goes into a draft instead of trying so hard to get it right first time. Which is impossible, by the way.


    Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing?

    Being with friends! Walking, reading, watching films.


    Q: What are your top tips for teenage writers?

    GET ON WITH IT.

    I know this could sound harsh, but it's the best advice I can give because self-doubt can paralyse you, and the only way you'll learn how to write is by - er - writing.

    I'd also add that it's important to read as much as you can, to feel free to write whatever you want, and to dare to share your work to other people - this can be really scary, but learning to give and receive constructive criticism will really help your development as a writer.


    Q: What books/authors have you read recently and loved?

    A: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas should be REQUIRED READING. End of.

    I've also really, really enjoyed The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (and the audiobook is superb!) and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders - though I should warn you, these aren't strictly 'YA' books, and are probably only suitable for older teens. The Age of Miracles is exquisitely written, and told to you by 11-year-old Julia, but it is one of the grimmest, bleakest stories I have ever read. And All the Birds in the Sky is a delicious, free-and-crazy rule-breaker of a story about a witch and a geek - oh yes! It also contains some sex scenes told in a fairly 'adult' way. Just so's you know!


    Q: What advice would you give your teenage self?

    A: YOU ARE OK. Now go seek out love and happiness, because you are allowed to have those in your life, and you need to have those in your life.

    (I was very unhappy a lot of the time, and I didn't know what to do about it.)