Elise Valmorbida interviews Oana Aristide about her debut novel, Under The Blue, recently published by Serpent’s Tail. Aristide’s novel follows an artist and two mysterious women (one of whom he desires) as they speed away from disaster. Their road trip is interspersed with a narrative of two scientists educating an AI with the complete works of human civilisation. Described in The Times as “achingly believable, unsensational, and chilling”, and in The Guardian as “beautifully written, emotionally gripping,” Under The Blue is a novel that possesses you. Its freight is philosophical, but the story is immersive and vividly real. It demands to be read compulsively, pausing as infrequently as possible, until the end—which feels inexorable, but contains surprises.
First things first: dystopian fiction. Where do you think Under The Blue sits between literary fiction and genre—and what are the differences for you?
I feel that the difference between genre and literary fiction is less about the subject matter and more about the depth of the story and the writing. Stanislaw Lem (the author of Solaris) was writing science fiction—if we just look at his settings. But I can imagine his novels stripped of their science fiction content and still having a lot to offer to readers. There’s the opposite example as well, when something is labelled literary fiction but is actually just pretentious instead of profound. This tends to happen to established writers who ‘get lazy’ and publish more often than they ought to.
I think also the industry is a little to blame for being so quick to label works. On the one hand, the UK is an extremely competitive market and publishers struggle to get their books noticed, so it is understandable that they want to place their novels on an easily identifiable shelf. But I think this underestimates readers, or at least a large number of them. I just want to be told if a book is good or not by a reader whose taste I trust, and then I really don’t care ‘what it’s about’. My reader friends have a similar approach, and I don’t think we’re unique.
You started writing Under The Blue years before the real-world pandemic. Your heritage is multi-ethnic. You’re living on a Greek island where you’ve set up a family hotel. You’re actually an economist. Where did your novel come from? How did it come into being? And how much did you need to edit once reality started catching up with your fiction?
The novel started with a sense of the atmosphere of the road trip. The heat that the characters experience, and the perspective they would have on civilisation and human concerns once most of that civilisation is gone. I didn’t want to write a sensationalist novel (there is no gore in the book)—I wanted to put the reader in the emotional shoes of someone who can fathom what has been lost, and why.
The only edits I did with the real pandemic in mind were some bits at the beginning that concern hand-washing, and generally the fear of getting infected by having touched a contaminated surface. My character knows very little about what is going on at the beginning, and I felt it was plausible that he would not take great care about touching things, but after our own experience it jarred to read of someone, in a pandemic, being oblivious of the risk of touching surfaces.
There’s symmetry between the two narratives: a trio in constant motion through one landscape after another; another trio in stasis, confined, isolated and abstract. How did you arrive at this structure?
I thought about the structure for more than six months before starting writing. With previous work it sometimes happened that I painted myself into a corner, and I wanted to avoid that this time by making sure that the characters fit the story, the point of view fits the story and the characters, and that there is tension throughout the novel. The ‘stasis’ trio works I think because their chapters are written in dialogue form, and the narrative movement takes place at that level. The thoughts and dialogue of the ‘motion’ trio are much more contemplative and backwards-looking, but this I hope works thanks to the forward thrust of the road trip.
Late in the book, the artist-protagonist struggles to explain the power of art to his companions.
In the sullen silence that follows, a forgotten memory suddenly comes to his mind: a woman he briefly dated – tall, rich, soft-spoken and casually cruel – and her reaction after visiting an exhibition of his. ‘It’s like you have two sets of eyes,’ she said. ‘One set for the artist in you, with which you see to the core of things, and one for plain human interaction, which is very nearly blind.’
Please unpack this powerful idea for us.
In order to achieve a credible result, a writer has to put herself/himself in the shoes of their characters, and this process offers valid moral lessons for real life as well. When it comes to writing, the only thing preventing a writer from really understanding their characters is time and effort, but in real life we also have our own preconceptions and knee-jerk reactions to contend with, making it more difficult to exert the same care as for a fictional character. It is often said that fiction can help raise awareness by allowing readers to inhabit the consciousness and situation of fictional characters, but the same thing happens at the writing stage, with the writer.
English is your fourth language—after Romanian, Swedish and German. How do those other languages affect your thinking? Your writing voice?
Unfortunately I think the other languages mostly get in the way, and that there was a lot I had to unlearn to make my written English sound like a plausible first language. Things like: where in a sentence to place the most important word, how to be informal but not grammatically wrong. There are subtle differences between languages that can make a text flow or sound stilted.
Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to someone thinking about writing a dystopian novel?
I don’t believe I am in a position to give advice; I can maybe speak of what I found useful. But I don’t think that writers of dystopian fiction should follow different rules to writers in general.
Are you a reader of dystopian fiction? If so, please tell us about your favourites. If not, why not?
I have read some of the classics: The Road, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World. I don’t seek them out, but nor do I avoid them. My favourite is probably On the Beach; I love the atmosphere in that novel. I also think that many of the best non-dystopian novels incorporate something of that notion. ‘Dystopian’ to me is when there is something structurally wrong with the world, some flaw that is not accidental but is there to stay and the characters have to learn to live with it. Should we one day find ourselves dependent on social media, for instance—that is dystopia.
What advice would you give to writers about the journey from creating through to publication and beyond?
I’ve met many talented writers who are very unlikely ever to get published because of aspects that are far less talked about than how difficult it is to get an agent, a publisher, etc. They are unable to take criticism constructively, they don’t like to edit, they are satisfied with a level of writing that might seem clever in the context of a writing class but needs a lot more work to stand out in a publishing context. I think most aspiring writers fail at this stage, and not because it is inherently difficult to get published.
About the publication process—my experience has been bizarre, since almost all of it happened during the pandemic. I didn’t have a book launch, book signings, all festivals have been online… I will need to publish a second book to experience all these things—which is not a bad thing to work towards.
This is your debut book but you’re already working on a new novel. Are you at liberty to talk about it? Please tell us what you can!
I can say that it’s not dystopian, and that hopefully it will be a lot more difficult to stick a label on it.
Thank you, Oana, for these insightful responses. I hope readers of this interview are keen to get their hands on Under The Blue. I recommend it highly—no, higher than highly!
Under The Blue is published by Serpent’s Tail in hardcover. The paperback will be published in 2022. You can buy the book at bookshop.org and all good booksellers.