In a special interview a few years back, Julie answers the questions most often asked by you, the readers.
What inspired you to write Exodus and Zenith?
A tiny snippet in a newspaper. It was a momentous bit of news, tucked away in a corner, about terrified islanders in the Pacific Ocean who were losing their land to the rising sea. It was 1999, before anyone was talking about climate change. The islanders’ SOS was ignored by the rest of the world, but I couldn’t get their desperate plight out of my head. I began to wonder: what if that was happening to me? What if I was losing my home to the ocean, and the outside world didn’t care? I began to find out about global warming and the threat of rising oceans. And I began to wonder about the future.
I also discovered that people in every part of the Earth have their own version of a world flood story. This made me wonder if, in the distant past, there had been a great flood. Perhaps this ancient terror had been preserved in story all across the world. Perhaps the kinds of flood I’m writing about, set in the future, have already happened deep in the past. What ancient lands might be lost under the sea? It’s a timeless story.
What message would you like readers to take from the books?
The most powerful books I’ve ever read have electrified my imagination and left me wondering. I don’t enjoy books that try to tell me what to think. Great books take you on a journey. A story can be your torch, map and compass – a way to let you explore terrors, and dreams. I try to write the kind of story that I like to read – a journey that sets your imagination ablaze and leaves you wondering.
Do you think the future you describe is really going to happen?
A hundred years ago, no one imagined a future where planes filled the skies, where streets would be jammed with cars, or where televisions, phones, computers and central heating in homes would be the norm. (Though, of course, even now that’s only true for the rich nations of the world. Many millions of people don’t even have access to clean water.)
Just ten years ago, few people used mobile phones, email or the Internet. Now we all do. There were no iPods or mp3 players, no YouTube or MySpace, no digital cameras or computer games, no widescreen or reality TV.
A hundred years ago, all of that would have seemed like wizardry.
When I was a child, people imagined a future full of shiny robots and space travel, but we had no inkling of the everyday technology that has transformed our lives in a tiny space of time. So it’s impossible to know what the world will be like in the future. But you can wonder. You can look at a current trend, at something that is happening now, and wonder: how might that develop in the future? What would life be like if it did? And that might leave you thinking about the kind of future you want to create.
Where do you find your characters? They feel so real to me.
I find them in the landscape of the story. I always begin with a landscape (or seascape or cityscape), and the characters and their stories grow out of that. The best examples are the Treenester characters in Exodus and Zenith, who bear the names of places in their drowned city. Those characters sprang to life, ready formed, the instant I gave them their odd names.
Who is your favourite character?
I have the strongest bonds with Mara and Fox as I’ve lived inside their skins and been through so much with them. I couldn’t choose between them. The most fascinating character, in a way, is the biggest character of all: the Earth. As I wrote the books, I began to view the Earth as a temperamental, pitiless, savage character, like a god in an ancient legend.
Was it hard to imagine the world flooding?
It’s too big a thought, so I imagined my own part of the world flooding. Instead of a Pacific Island, I imagined a Scottish island threatened by a rising ocean. I walked around my own city and imagined it invaded by sea. As I looked up above an imagined waterline, I discovered my city anew. I saw statues and symbols that told the story of the city’s past, carved in stone; things you never see when your attention is at street level. I found Mara’s face on an old stone statue.
Since then, my city has flooded for real and I’ve seen so many news images of floods in Britain and all across the world. Now, it’s not so hard to imagine.
Some people think global warming is nothing to do with humans. Even if it is, what’s the point in me trying to do anything about it? One person can’t change anything.
That’s what Mara thought, but she found out that one person can make a big difference. There have always been changes in the world’s climate that have nothing to do with the humans. But the gathering evidence strongly suggests that human activities and a booming world population are adding to natural global warming, causing world temperatures to reach a critical point. A world that is too hot will have more storms, hurricanes, floods, drought, disease and famine. It’s true that there’s no absolute proof. But what’s the downside of living in a way that is less damaging to the planet? Less pollution and waste? Fewer animal extinctions? Greener technology? Preserved forests? A world fit for future generations? Doing nothing is a big risk. Taking action seems a good idea, whichever way you look at it.
Do you have hope for the future?
I do. Humans are the most destructive creature on the planet – but also the most ingenious. That’s the crux of what I found myself exploring in these books: the battle between the destructive and creative sides of human nature. It’s a battle between death and life, darkness and light. As I wrote the story of young characters struggling to live in changed world, and I looked back through history, I felt that our survival instinct is the most powerful drive we have. It made me very hopeful that humankind will find a way to adapt to whatever the future brings. The world will change, I’m sure of that – but when did the world ever stay the same?
Are you as brave as Mara?
I wish I was! But Mara is no superhero; she’s an ordinary girl who must become extraordinary in order to survive. She often gets scared, loses heart and makes mistakes. What keeps her going when she loses almost everything? I think it’s her deep curiosity about the world and an open heart. A stubborn nature too: she just won’t give up.
I can relate to that last bit – and also that, faced with a scary situation, you can discover a courage you never knew you had. Not always though. When I was writing Exodus, I climbed to the top of Glasgow University’s big, old bell tower. At the top of the tower is a great Gothic steeple with a winding staircase inside that spirals to the very tip of the huge steeple. I didn’t dare climb such a precarious stairway – but in Exodus Mara does.
TV and newspapers are full of scary reports about floods and hurricanes and wildfires. Exodus and Zenith made me wonder what the future might be like if we don’t do something about global warming. I’m worried. What can I do?
There is so much you can do. There are fantastic organisations dedicated to protecting the Earth, its creatures and your future – and they need your help. My favourites are Friends of the Earth (www.foe.co.uk), the World Wildlife Fund (www.worldwildlife.org or www.panda.org) and Oxfam (www.oxfam.org.uk). On these websites you’ll find endless ways to take action and become involved in worldwide campaigns, like FOE’s ‘The Big Ask’ climate campaign, that are tacking the very things you are worried about. You could begin a ‘greenblog’ like Treehugger and Eco Chick. Visit the EarthSpace page on my website (www.juliebertagna.com/earthspace), where you can find out about lots of other great websites, activities, ideas and information.
An army of people all across the world are becoming ‘eco-warriors’, taking action to protect the future. Lots of small actions by many people add up to big change.
Now that I’ve finished Exodus and Zenith, I can’t stop thinking about Mara, Fox, Tuck and the Treenesters. Do Fox and Mara never get back together? I can’t wait for the next book. Please tell me what happens?
That’s why I’m writing Aurora, the third book – I need to find out what happens too!