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Q & A

How did this book begin in your minds? Did you start with the idea of alien invaders or with a specific character?

JENNIE: Well, for me it started in the kitchen late at night when John came home from a long lunch (that turned into dinner) with a writer friend. He'd had this idea for a book—all he knew was it would be about the first alien child born on Earth, so it definitely started with a character—but he didn't have the time to write it, and was scared the idea would float back into the ether if he didn't grab it. He asked would I help. I'm pretty sure I said no, but it would seem now that perhaps he misheard...

JOHN: Actually, it wasn't so much a question of time as of wanting a degree of female input, I believe, but it certainly was the result of a long lunch.

I suppose it began, for me, with the idea of alienation, particularly the way in which teenagers often feel at one remove from the world around them. It can be a confusing, difficult time, but then I wondered how much worse it would be if you actually felt yourself to be alien. What if you were the first alien child born on Earth after the conquest of the planet by your race, surrounded by a hostile population and yearning for an existence that you have never known? How much worse would adolescence be then?

In a way, this isn't really a book about an alien invasion at all. It's about a young female, Syl, trying to find a place in a world which in one way is not her own, yet is also the world on which she was born. Syl is at the heart of the book, and she was the always the starting point for me.

Did you decide from the beginning that you wanted to write a book together, or did one of you start this book and ask the other to join in?

JENNIE: It was always a collaborative project. That's how John conceived it. But yes, he is not at his most comfortable writing the teenage girl-talk bits. For me, girls, teenagers and women are all just an older version of what they were before, and hopefully wiser too, although as we age I feel we get more cautious about taking risks, and less brave with both our bodies and our hearts.

Our characters are brave and fearless and—the flipside—sometimes terribly reckless too.

JOHN: I mentioned the idea to Jennie for a number of reasons. First of all, I don't know a lot about teenage girls—I didn't even know much about them when I was a teenage boy—and I knew from the start that I wanted the book to have a lot of strong female characters. I thought that Jennie could bring a different element to the book because, quite obviously, she had at one point been a teenage girl, and so she brought with her a different understanding of Syl and her closest friend, Ani.

I suppose, too, that I also wanted to shake up the way I wrote a little. Collaborations aren't terribly common in fiction, relatively speaking. Writers are, by their nature, solitary, in a way that, say, musicians are not. I worry sometimes about whether I'm becoming too blinkered in my approach, and this was a way of challenging what I do, and experimenting with both a new form—in this case science fiction—and a new way of writing it. Mind you, I was still very happy to return to my old way of writing when I resumed work on my own books. There's a different pleasure in writing alone.

It's important to stress, though, that Jennie wasn't exactly a neophyte writer. She's been a journalist and columnist for many years, and has a novel of her own under submission. I knew what she was capable of doing before we started. There were hiccups along the way, as there would be in any new collaboration, but by the end a book emerged that had pretty much equal contributions from both of us.

How does the actual writing work? Do you trade off chapters, or does Jennie write Syl and John write Paul, or what?

JOHN: To be perfectly honest, it was difficult at the start, and didn't get much easier as things progressed. Then again, I've read a bit about collaborations, and even the best of them aren't without their tensions. Mind you, there's an additional level of complication if you're living with the person with whom you're collaborating...

One difficulty was that I don't tend to plan books. I usually know how a book will open, and I might have ideas about some incidents to come later in the story, but the process of writing for me is very gradual, and I discover the story as I go along. Obviously, that doesn't work in a collaboration, so I wrote the first 15,000 words, I think, and then gave Jennie an outline of where I thought the book should go from there while I went off to work on some other projects, and to do some promotion for my own books. When I came back, she had made a lot of progress, and then I went back over what she had written, much as I would have done with one of my own drafts. In the end, though, the nature of our contributions probably did pan out along gender lines: Jennie was better on capturing the developing relationship between Syl and Paul than I was, and maybe I was more curious about how the world worked, and the nature of the intrigues and rivalries within the Illyri system of rule.

JENNIE: Sometimes the writing doesn't work! We've had stonking rows, and as we pass the draft backwards and forwards via email we'd both take out bits that the other was most happy with, and then it came back with the edits sneakily reinserted. Every time I received the manuscript, I wondered which of my "babies" he'd killed. But then when it comes to writing, they do say you should kill your babies, so undoubtedly the process made it better.

There was some confusion at first: I thought we were writing for a slightly younger market so I gave him 70,000 words (and very pleased with myself I was!) which consisted largely of a chase across the Highlands, and he had a fit and just about rewrote them all. Then I felt it had become somewhat serious and cerebral, but I must admit it was a much better, richer, more intriguing book because of his rewrite. After all, he's possibly written the odd book before...

JOHN: That was probably the most fraught part of the initial writing. It was just a misunderstanding, but it set us back a bit. I did rewrite, but in the way I would with my own work: I left some sections entirely alone because they were fine, but then I was pretty ruthless with others.

JENNIE: Not to be outdone, I then went in and rewrote chunks of it, and it bounced back and forth several more times. And that was before it even saw an editor. By the end of it we were both a lot less precious about our words. I hope.

JOHN: It was also the case that, as a consequence, it became harder to spot the join, the points where Jennie's sections and my sections blended together. And as she changed things that I'd written, and I altered things that she had done, the style and the content became products of both our efforts.

The Illyri look enough like humans that Syl is able to pass for human, if she's careful. What are the most important differences between the Illyri and humans—or are there any?

JOHN: At various points in the writing of the novel, the book discussed the concept of "seeding": the idea that life might have come from ancient spores. There's less of that in the final draft, but I always had it in mind that the Illyri and humanity would have come from the same genetic source material, hence their similarities. But we also wanted a believable attraction between Syl and Paul, which wouldn't quite have worked if one of them had tentacles.

There are also hints in the novel—mainly in a discussion between Ani and Paul's brother, Steven—that there is something slightly amiss about the way the Illyri have developed. They've kind of been promoted above their pay grade: they're more advanced than humanity, but not that more advanced, relatively speaking. What has given them an advantage is their knowledge of the location of wormholes, enabling them to travel vast distances very quickly. But that knowledge has come from the Sisterhood, the once-enclosed and isolated Illyri female order that has now begun to play power games within the empire. That raises questions about how the Sisterhood came by that knowledge, and why they are now so interested in the conquest of other planets, and the subjugation of their populations.

What I wanted to capture was something of the haplessness of the Illyri. They really are finding the whole business of ruling humanity very difficult and bloody, and some of them have begun to question if they should be on Earth at all. There's the sense that even the Illyri are noticing that something is rotten at the heart of their empire, but very few of them have enough information to be able to figure out what the cause of the corruption might be. For that reason, I'm not too worried if people read the book and think, hey, there's something slightly off kilter about the way this world works, or seems to work. We kind of want them to think that, because that's what the Illyri themselves feel.

JENNIE: Well, obviously there are both parallels and physical disparities, just as there are between similar creatures that have evolved in different regions of the world, which is why Syl and Ani must wear glasses and hats to disguise themselves. The Illyri are lean and long, glossy-haired, more golden in flesh-tone, and they have these amazing, vivid eyes without lids, but with pupils that close when they sleep. They see colours that we can't.

The Illyri psyche is probably more stern too, more highbrow and scholarly, and they're definitely a culture that take themselves terribly seriously. They thrive on mind games and secrecy, while status and position are very important.

But we are as much products of our biology as we are of our environment, so the Earth-born Illyri are more in tune with the heartbeat of their adopted world than their parents are. And equally, the human teenagers have never known a life without the Illyri; living with aliens, or despite aliens, is simply what they do.

Conquest is set in Scotland—but not quite the Scotland readers may now. How and why did you decide to set it there?

JOHN: Scotland was always in mind when I first started thinking about the book. I didn't want to write a book like this and set it in the US, in part because my mystery novels are set there but also because it's too big, and I wanted this book to work against a smaller backdrop. Meanwhile, Ireland—where we live—is just too small. England, by contrast, is too heavily populated: there's just not enough wilderness. But I've always loved driving through the Highlands, and I'm very fond of Edinburgh as a city. I also liked the fact that Edinburgh Castle is so visible. It dominates the landscape of the city in a way that the Tower of London does not, and so it was an ideal symbol of Illyri rule. I suppose Scotland also has a history of rebellion against outsiders, from the Romans to the English, so the Scots seemed apt opponents for the Illyri.

JENNIE: Hah! Neill Blomkamp had already taken South Africa for District 9!

Seriously, we needed somewhere big enough to get lost in, but small enough to get found in; somewhere with architectural grandeur and ceremonial pomp that would appeal to the Illyri, coupled with a long rebellious history that would give us a steady supply of fabulous resistance fighters. And what alien invaders could resist setting up shop in spectacular Edinburgh Castle?

Did you grow up reading science fiction and fantasy? What were your favorite books?

JENNIE: Funnily enough, when I was growing up science fiction was ALL that my dad read. My mum read us things like Treasure Island and Little Women, and she took us to the library every fortnight for new books to read by ourselves; I loved fantasy books from The Faraway Tree to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Hobbit.

Meanwhile my dad would just stockpile tatty sci-fi paperbacks at the local book exchange. He took us to the Saturday matinees at the cinema too, usually to see something with spaceships or superheroes.

Then my parents had the record of HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, and I knew it backwards. I even plagiarised chunks of it when I was 12 to write a radio play for my English homework, but I made all the heroes female. Alas, this wasn't so much a feminist statement as necessity, because my cast was made up entirely of my girl friends.

I also remember a formative TV show called "Under The Mountain." It was fabulous, from New Zealand I think, with slimy Wilberforces from space, and it was nigh-compulsory family viewing. Later, the same could be said for the television series "V." And of course there were "Battlestar Galactica" and "Star Trek" too.

I think I only stumbled on sci-fi in book form as a teenager, when my class was given John Wyndham's The Chrysalids as a setwork book. Well, I was utterly engrossed but also... baffled. This was the 1980s and The Chrysalids was published in 1955, yet it was still so fresh, so lingering. The otherworldly feeling it gave me stays with me even while the storyline is just a shimmer in my memory. Sometimes I still use the name "Sophie Wender" as a pseudonym...

JOHN: I also had War of the Worlds, although mine was on cassette as our record player at the time was terrible. I remember having to send off for the accompanying booklet because it was too big to be included in the cassette case.

I was a huge sci-fi fan from an early age, but it was television that started me off. I loved "Doctor Who," and my dream assignment is still to write an episode. I progressed from watching it on TV to reading the Target novelisations of the series, which, in a pre-VCR/ DVD/ On Demand age, was the closest you could get to watching something a second time. I didn't have much money for books, though, so most of my reading was library-based: I read the Tripod novels by John Christopher because they were in the children's section and then, when I had exhausted the children's section and was given an adult ticket to shut me up, I started on H.G. Wells and John Wyndham. (I particularly liked The Chrysalids, I seem to recall.)

But, in common with my horror reading, my sci-fi education is largely based on older books. I don't read a lot of modern horror or sci-fi, so my touchstones are all from the last century.

When you're writing science fiction or fantasy, can you make up all the details, or do you feel the need to base some of it in reality? Did you have to do any research for this book?

JOHN: Jennie and I differ on this a little, I think, so I'll just give you my response. I did a lot of background reading—Michio Kaku and Ray Kurzweil, among others—mostly because I was curious about how certain technologies might develop: artificial intelligence, military, medical. I wasn't too troubled about inventing new engines for spacecraft, although I did like the idea of methane mining to provide fuel for short- and medium-range ships. On the other hand, I didn't want the Illyri to have technology so superior that the humans really didn't stand a chance, and that also ties in with what I said earlier about the Illyri having taken a kind of jump without doing the groundwork for it first. In some ways, they're very advanced, but in others they're still feeling their way. That seems kind of realistic to me anyway: progress doesn't occur at a similar rate across all fields of endeavor.

JENNIE: I'm not sure we differ so much as we are just playing the same game but on opposite ends of the field. I'd be more speculative, and happier to accept the possibility of something, whereas John would be very much hard-fact and science based. He requires probability more than possibility, whereas I seem to labour under the notion that if I can imagine it then it can be written down. He demands to know why and how. "Just cos," doesn't hold much sway with him, unfortunately.

In my ideal world, I'd write whatever I fancy, and he'd head off to fact-check it for me, and then make it possible. Wouldn't that be peachy? And lazy too.

Perhaps together we are where fantasy and science collide.

Was it hard for you to put yourselves back in the minds of teenagers? Syl and Paul have more serious concerns than most 16-year olds. What were you worried about when you were 16?

JOHN: I suspect I was quite a serious 16-year-old, so apart from the usual concerns—Will my spots ever clear? Will a woman ever want me? What will happen to me in a year's time when I finally escape the school system?—I was pretty introspective, and a bit solitary. I guess, inevitably, some of that leached into my writing about the characters.

I'm not sure that it's very difficult to think yourself back into the time when you were a teenager. I often think that we never quite leave childhood and our teenage years behind: those years are the seeds of what we become, and so they're always a part of us. I think that's why so many of my books return to themes of childhood, and in that sense Conquest is just another way of exploring the same subject matter.

But what interested me about Syl and Paul was that, on the one hand, they're ordinary teenagers with the same concerns that most teenagers have, yet on the other they live in a world that is essentially in a state of war, and in which each of them is at risk of imminent violence and even death from the forces of the other. Paul, in particular, has been forced to take on adult responsibilities, and we're also told that he has killed. There's a sadness to him because he's been forced to grow up too quickly. For that reason, he's trying to protect his younger brother from the same fate. He and Syl have also both lost a parent, and I think that, unconsciously, they sense something of that loss in each other.

JENNIE: What was I worried about as a teenager? Everything. It was the Cold War and nuclear disarmament was a huge issue for me. I was convinced we were all about to be nuked (and it did come close on occasion, didn't it?), so I wore peace-sign earrings and embraced being a Jennie-come-lately hippie.

I was worried about animal welfare, and became a vegetarian at 13, albeit one who ate fish because the family doctor said I should, and now that I'm an adult I can't seem to stop. Perhaps that's the difference between being a teenager and being all grown-up: youth is idealistic, not pragmatic, and teenagers tend to have deep-seated convictions and formidable follow-through, right or wrong.

I worried about my country too, about South Africa. It was the end days of Apartheid, and the only world I knew—being a white child, so automatically privileged—was shaking in its foundations. Literally. Twice I heard bombs going off in my hometown, one in my favourite Wimpy Bar.

I was a Brownie and then a Guide, and the movement was mixed-race, but there was trouble when black girls were included in the gala at the local public pool. It was horrible.

And then I asked a history teacher why black children couldn't attend our school. "The history would be different," she replied.

As a teenager, I had friends and boyfriends who were conscripted into the army at 16 to fight what we were repeatedly told were terrorists, whose only wish was murder us in our beds. They were all communists and the threat was RED! The South African government propaganda machine was efficient and ruthless, I'll give it that.

I joined the End Conscription Campaign but it was a safe enough protest, because girls weren't conscripted so I wasn't risking jail.

Oh, and I was terrified of going to hell. I thought I was "the vilest offender" we sang about at church who was damned by Scripture. I was sure dropping the F-bomb would see me burn forever. Maybe it will, but f*** it!

It's like it happened yesterday. I guess inside all of us is the teenager we once were, and we still smart from those old hurts, fears and heartbreaks. It's just beneath the surface.