Edward Willett’s novel The Cityborn is the story of two young people and their flight from the mammoth city-building that has been home for all their lives. We recently spoke with Willett about the book’s message, and his fiction-writing philosophy.
Unbound Worlds: When I read the description of The City, I thought of two books: J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise, and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Were either of these influences?
Edward Willett: Not consciously. I’ve never read High-Rise, and I know Inferno only through reading about it, rather than reading it myself. That said, I was very pleased to see an early review comparing The Cityborn to High-Rise, since I have read some Ballard, and getting mentioned in the same breath strikes me as a terrific compliment!
UW: The City is literally stratified by class, with the poorest living in the lowest levels, and the wealthiest and most powerful living in the highest ones. This, along with the fact that trash generated by the residents is dumped around the bottom level suggests some heavy metaphors. Can you talk about these?
EW: Any metaphors exist only in the mind of the reader. Certainly they weren’t in my mind as I wrote. Most of my novels begin when a setting or character (or character in a particular setting — in this case of a boy living as a scavenger on a giant trash heap outside a city), seizes my imagination, often combined with some science-fictional or fantastical “what-if?” question. I build the story from that initial seed like an oyster crafting a pearl around a piece of grit, typically by asking myself questions. “Why is this boy living in a trash heap?” “How did the trash heap get so big?” “What kind of city would create it?” “Why is the city where it is?” “Who’s in charge of the city?” And so forth, and so on. The stratified City of The Cityborn grew out of my answers to those questions, especially the big one, of how the City came to stand where it does, astride the giant Canyon into which its rubbish has been dumped for centuries.
Is there ultimately some kind of message to The Cityborn? If so, it’s the one that tends to pervade all my stories: that individuals matter, that their actions matter, and that ultimately, it is the choices and actions of individuals, striving to do the right thing (even if they make mistakes along the way) that can change a society for the better.
UW: You studied journalism. How did your work prepare you for writing fiction, and did your experiences influence The Cityborn?
EW: I went into journalism (beginning my career at the weekly Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Review) because I knew I couldn’t make a living right away (if ever) writing fiction, and I figured it was at least a way to write and get paid for it. But I think journalism, as I learned it (not, I fear, as it is mostly practiced today) also prepared me for writing fiction by encouraging me to look at issues from more than one side, and to try to understand and fairly present the viewpoints of people with very different backgrounds and beliefs than my own. I think that’s extremely useful when it comes to writing characters of all stripes. (As, to, is my lifelong interest in theatre — I’ve performed in many plays, musicals, and operas, both just for fun and professionally — and inhabiting and bringing to life a character other than yourself is, of course, what acting is all about.)
On the more practical side, working as a weekly newspaper reporter cured me of any possibility of writers’ block. The paper comes out when it comes out, and you have to write whatever it is you have to write to fill it, and there’s no time to sit around waiting for the words to come. You have to make them come.
UW: To what extent does young adult fiction serve the purpose of explaining the complexities of adult life to young people preparing to move into it? Sometimes, I’m reminded of the stories that elders pass on to youth in primal societies.
EW: It may do so, but it’s not something I think of when I’m writing it. I think young adult fiction’s highest calling is the same as any fiction’s: to plunge readers into a world that is different from their own and introduce them to people who are not them. Fiction is a way to broaden our understanding of other people, other ways of thinking, and other ways of living. That may be particularly valuable for young readers, but I think it’s important for all of us.
UW: Leaving these heavy questions aside, you’ve said that you The Cityborn is “all about entertainment”. Clearly, you’re interested in your readers having fun. Do you have anything else you’d like to say to prospective readers?
EW: I started writing because I wanted to tell stories that would captivate readers as much as the stories I was reading captivated me. (The fact my first complete short story, written at age 11, was entitled “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot” is a good indicator of what kind of fiction particularly captivated me!) That’s still my goal. I want readers to explore the worlds of my imagination, to get to know the characters I have conjured to inhabit those worlds, to vicariously experience those characters’ adventures, loves, losses, and triumphs.
Science fiction and fantasy allow authors unlimited opportunity to unleash their imaginations. I hope readers will enjoy where mine has taken me, and that they enjoy plunging into the worlds of The Cityborn and my other novels even more than I enjoyed creating them.
More about The Cityborn:
The metal City towers at the center of the mountain-ringed Heartland, standing astride the deep chasm of the Canyon like a malevolent giant, ruled with an iron fist by the First Officer and his Provosts in the name of the semi-mythical Captain. Within its corroding walls lies a stratified society, where the Officers dwell in luxury on the Twelfth Tier while the poor struggle to survive on the First and Second, and outcasts scrabble and fight for whatever they can find in the Middens, the City’s rubbish heap, filling the Canyon beneath its dripping underbelly.
Alania, ward of an Officer, lives on Twelfth. Raised among the privileged class, Alania feels as though she is some sort of pampered prisoner, never permitted to explore the many levels of the City. And certainly not allowed to leave the confines of the City for any reason. She has everything a young woman could want except a loving family and personal freedom.
Danyl, raised by a scavenger, knows no home but the Middens. His day-to-day responsibility is to stay alive. His sole ambition is to escape from this subsistence existence and gain entrance to the City—so near and yet so far out of reach—in hopes of a better life.
Their two very different worlds collide when Alania, fleeing from an unexpected ambush, plunges from the heights of the City down to the Middens, and into Danyl’s life.
Almost immediately, both of them find themselves pursued by the First Officer’s Provosts, for reasons they cannot fathom—but which they must uncover if they are to survive. The secrets they unlock, as they flee the Canyon and crisscross the Heartland from the City’s farmlands to the mountains of the north and back again, will determine not only their fate, but the fate of the City … and everyone who lives there.