Anne Charnock’s new book, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, just came out this week, and she kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about your new book and what inspired you to write it?
I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel that combines my interests in science and fine art. The end-result of my lengthy musings, and many months scribbling in my cave, is my second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. It’s a mixed genre novel that has three storylines set in the past, present and future. The three storylines are underpinned by a feminist theme and as a whole, the novel touches on issues of loss, the nature of success, and historical truth.
So, unlike my first novel, A Calculated Life, which is near-future science fiction, this novel combines science fiction with contemporary and historical fiction. In the future scenario, the controversial Academy of Restitution has a mission to give overdue recognition to women in every field of human endeavor. There’s a hard science fiction element, too—advances in human reproductive technologies are bringing men and women new freedoms.
Your research for Sleeping Embers took you to China and Italy! Will you tell us more about that?
There’s nothing better than a writing project that demands a foreign trip! One of my characters is the real-life painter Antonia Uccello, daughter of the renowned Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello. Very little is known about her, but when I discovered where Antonia lived in her adult life, I simply had to go to Florence to see for myself.
As for China… I created a teenage character, Toni, in the present-day storyline whose life is wildly adventurous compared to Antonia’s. I took the opportunity to visit China for a month—by chance I had a friend working there—and based on my amazing travel experiences, I wrote three chapters in which Toni visits Shanghai and Suzhou with her painter father.
Your first book, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award. Did that change how you approached your writing? How did you feel when you got the news?
I was flabbergasted. The news arrived in an email from the awards administrator and the email listed all the finalists. My brain didn’t seem to register the title of my own novel or my name. I closed the email thinking I wasn’t on the list, but I thought I’d better double check as it struck me as odd that the awards administrator had contacted me. I re-opened the message once again, and there was A Calculated Life—I don’t know how I’d missed it—at the top of the list in capital letters.
Gaining that shortlisting did make a difference to my writing. I felt I could push the boat out, try something different. So, I’ve written a novel with a more experimental structure because I’ve always been a big fan of fractured narratives.
Do you think your journalism background helps in your writing?
Yes and no. It gave me the discipline to sit down and write. It also taught me to see the different sides to an argument, and it taught me that people are full of surprises. I feel this helps when I’m developing fictional characters. However, my training has turned me into a vicious self-editor. Sometimes I have to remind myself that there’s no space restriction—I’m no longer restricted to a set number of column inches. As a hangover from my journalism days, I find myself referring to ‘dialogue’ as ‘quotes.’
What authors have influenced you the most in your writing, and your life?
As a five-year-old, I only had eyes for Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. My local library had the complete set and I spent hours devouring them. In my teenage years, I read a real mix: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, George Orwell and Margaret Atwood. In recent years, I’ve sought out authors who take risks with the structures of their novels and mix up the genres. So I’m a fan of Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Maggie Gee, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing, JG Ballard, Tom McCarthy, Kate Atkinson…I could go on!
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Difficult question. It would be… Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend?
I’m actually re-reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad at the moment. And I recently enjoyed Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’ve also caught up on some books I should have read years ago such as by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing my next novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time. It’s set in the near future. Though it isn’t a sequel to Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, there are links. And I’m trying to convince myself I need to make another exotic foreign trip for research purposes.
About Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind:
History is storytelling. But some stories remain untold.
In fifteenth-century Italy, Paolo Uccello recognizes the artistic talent of his young daughter, Antonia, and teaches her how to create a masterpiece. The girl composes a painting of her mother and inadvertently sparks an enduring mystery.
In the present day, a copyist painter receives a commission from a wealthy Chinese businessman to duplicate a Paolo Uccello painting. Together, the painter and his teenage daughter visit China, and in doing so they begin their escape from a tragic family past.
In the twenty-second century, a painting is discovered that’s rumored to be the work of Paolo Uccello’s daughter. This reawakens an art historian’s dream of elevating Antonia Uccello, an artist ignored by history because of her gender.
Stories untold. Secrets uncovered. But maybe some mysteries should remain shrouded.