Something special always happen when a scientist turn’s their hand to writing. A mixture of both scientific fact and a wondrous imagination can create a world that is often terrifyingly believable. Following her debut novel The Comet Seekers, Helen Sedgwick’s release, The Growing Season is sure to be a success! I was lucky enough to review this two months early and I was so intrigued by the ideas behind it, that I just had to find out more! Thus, here is my interview with Helen herself!
Tell me a little about your science background.
I studied science at University; an undergraduate degree followed by a PhD in soft condensed matter physics. I spent three years at Edinburgh University developing a lab-on- a-chip device for the study and isolation of single cancer cells. The work involved maintaining human cells in an artificial environment – how to keep them alive and healthy, how they grow, how they respond to external conditions. This research in particular was helpful when I was writing The Growing Season.
So, what made you turn to writing?
During my time working at Glasgow University I took an evening class in creative writing, which I absolutely loved. The tutor suggested that I might consider applying for the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow. I was fortunate enough to be offered a place and to change my postdoc in the engineering department to part time. So I had this wonderful year where I was simultaneously a member of staff and a student, a research scientist and a creative writer. It was a great way to work out which career I really wanted. By the end of that year, I knew I was a writer.
How did you land your publishing deal?
Well, it took a long time! I graduated from the MLitt in 2008. I then spent several years writing a novel, occasionally getting a short story published, while also doing some editing, running a literary magazine, teaching creative writing (and a bit of violin and piano), and working part time in a café.
I got an agent then parted ways with that agent without a publishing deal. In 2012 I won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, which was a real turning point for me – the award comes with amazing support and encouragement. I realised during that year what novel I wanted to write next, and three years later I had finished The Comet Seekers. After several rounds of feedback from friends and colleagues, I sent the manuscript to an agent, Cathryn Summerhayes. From that point on things happened very quickly. Cathryn read the book and offered to represent me within about a week, and soon after that we got our first offer. To my utter surprise and delight the book went to auction, and we accepted the offer from Harvill Secker. And of course I’m still with Cathryn and Harvill Secker for my second novel, The Growing Season.
Are You a Procrastinator?
It depends on what it is I’m supposed to be doing. When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I don’t usually procrastinate at all – once I’m engrossed in the story and the voice is working and I love the characters, I can’t wait to sit down at the computer every morning and write. I often write my first drafts quite quickly once I’ve started them, and then spend a long time (usually years) editing them.
That whole process really is a joy, and I still can’t quite believe I’m lucky enough to spend my time writing and editing novels. But when I’m trying to start something new it’s a very different story. I usually spend years thinking about a novel before I’m ready to write a word, and getting started often means writing and rewriting the opening scene countless times. I have a similar difficulty when writing short stories. I can procrastinate for ages when I’m still trying to find my way in, to work out what the story is really trying to say. And, of course, if there is admin to do I can procrastinate with the best (or worst) of them!
Did You Have Any Fears Following Your First Publication?
Oh yes, I was terrified! Even though I had been working in publishing myself for several years, I was shocked by how totally exposed and vulnerable I felt. Having spent nearly ten years trying to achieve something, trying to improve and develop and create something worthwhile and valuable – and that someone else loves enough to publish – it’s inevitable that you feel very strongly about it. I remember giving a reading from The Comet Seekers shortly after publication, and I almost cried in the middle! That sounds ridiculous and melodramatic, but there really is so much emotion involved both in the writing of a novel and in that necessity to hand it over to the world.
Aside From Your Scientific Mind, Where did your ideas for The Growing Season First Bloom from?
I was talking with a couple of friends about the fact that its shocking that some women still don’t have equality at work- its inexcusable. What is it going to take to change it? We mentioned joint parental leave and free universal childcare and I started to think that for all men to truly see themselves as having equal responsibility for childcare then perhaps they needed to start experiencing the entire process… from pregnancy on wards.
I imagined the pouch – an artificial womb that could be carried and cared for equally by women and men. And the more I talked about it that evening, the more it seemed to me like an ideal solution.
That is, until I looked up and saw my friend looking completely horrified! Because there are also huge risks and dangers associated with that kind of technology, and almost everyone I’ve spoken to since has different feelings about it. It’s a really emotive idea and the range of points of view people have about it, women and feminists in particular, became as interesting to me as the idea of the technology itself. I wanted to explore those points of view, to write about all the different reactions people have towards the pouch, and all the ways it could change our lives.
Click here to view Helen’s article about Artificial Wombs in The Guardian.
In 2017: Male contraceptive – Yes or No?
I think it’s good to give people choice. But of course, it all depends on the individuals involved and the nature of their relationship. So yes, give people the choice and at the same time remind everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. I would like to see a society where both men and women take equal responsibility for contraception, as well as for everything else in life.
Would you have a baby pouch?
Two years ago I would have said absolutely yes, but now I honestly don’t know. While I was writing the book I did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people The differing opinions opened my eyes to experiences that I didn’t know much about, but I do know that I want the world to have the baby pouch – I think it offers so much to so many. Amazing medical benefits would come about from the research and the existence of the
pouch itself, and for people with fertility problems, older women, gay couples, trans people, and people with a whole range of health issues, the pouch could be life changing. And I do believe that the new choices it would offer women and the new experiences it would offer men could bring about a fundamental change in our society.
Do You have a Daily Writing Routine?
Yes, but it’s not very reliable.
Typically I start as soon as I wake up and write through to lunchtime or beyond. When I’m working on a first draft, I just write – I switch off the editorial side of my brain completely. The result is a very messy first draft, of course! But it’s usually also a first draft with a lot of momentum and energy.
If I’ve had a productive morning, I tend to do something else for the afternoon. That could mean going for a walk or doing some gardening, but I also work as a freelance editor so if I have a job on I’ll do that in the afternoons.
It varies throughout the novel writing process though. Occasionally – particularly when the end of my novel is in sight – I can write for the whole day and late into the night. But when I’m at the start, or if an idea just isn’t working, then any routine disappears completely. Sometimes I just need to do something else for a few weeks and take some time away from it. When the writing won’t flow, I don’t force it. For me, there’s nothing more debilitating than sitting in front of a blank computer screen and feeling stuck. I find it’s much better to go for a long walk and allow my subconscious to untangle itself in the fresh air.
What Book Have You Taken With You From Childhood to Adulthood?
Why Weeps The Brogan? by Hugh Scott had a huge impact on me when I was a child – it completely blew my mind! It still sits on my bookshelf now and I’ve used it when teaching creative writing classes.
What Can We Look Forward to in Terms of Upcoming Work?
Well, I’ve just finished the first draft of something rather unexpected that I’m not ready to talk about yet! It is a new novel, but a very different sort of book from both The Comet Seekers and The Growing Season. I’m also working on a collaborative short story and photography collection. And I now have an idea that I’m happy with for my next literary science novel – though I haven’t yet written a word.
What do you do to relax?
I feel incredibly lucky to live in the Scottish Highlands and much of what I do to relax involves being outside. I love walking and going to the beach, day trips to the north coast, and wandering around the woodland just behind my house. We have amazing skies here, both during the day and at night, and being outside watching the clouds and the aurora puts life in perspective for me. I also love playing and listening to music, and of course there’s nothing quite like reading a really good book.
The Growing Season is now available to order or download through Amazon, Foyles , Hive , Waterstones, and WH Smith
Publisher: Harvill Secker
You can view my review for the The Growing Season here