Friday, 14 August 2009

Interview - Kirsty Murray

On Monday, Kirsty Murray answered my fluffy questions about her reading tastes but today you get the whole literary enchilada. Keep reading to hear about the fantastic concept of Vulture's Gate...the prevalence of the XX chromosome...and how much input she had into my favourite cover art of 2009. My review is here.

What is Vulture's Gate ? One girl - could she be the last girl alive? One boy, pursued by reckless men who have kidnapped him from his fathers.Bo and Callum go in search of a safe haven, a place to call home. But where can they turn and who can they trust? When every stranger is a threat, does their only hope lie in reaching Vulture's Gate?

Following a journey that takes them across barren deserts and lost valleys, Bo and Callum must discover how to survive alongside runaway boys and crazed religious terrorists, in a world with an uncertain future.

And what is the disturbing secret at the ruined city's core?

What was the inspiration for the events that wipe out the XX chromosomes in Vulture's Gate?Is there a back story of how this one virus targeted females?
Novels never spring from a single event or inspiration and ‘Vulture’s Gate’ grew from a range of ideas and information that I’d stumbled across in my reading of popular science and current affairs as well as conversations with kids and adults. One book that was seriously influential in my coming up with the idea of a world without women was‘Bare Branches - The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population’ by Hudson and den Boer. It explored the potential ramifications of the fact that the world currently has more than 50 million ‘excess’ men.

Nature ordains that there are slightly more boys born than girls but by adulthood there should be roughly equal numbers of both genders (as boys are more accident prone!) and then in old age there are slightly more women. Yet that’s not the current state of world affairs. Dueto offspring sex selection, female abortion and infanticide and inadequate nurturing of girl children, we have a global problem where millions of girl children are ‘missing’. So I started to think about what would happen if nature began imitating culture. What if nature followed our lead and generated a virus that resulted in all female fetuses spontaneously aborting?

Take a deep breath here and brace yourself for a brief note on biology. The average human is born with 23 pairs of chromosomes (which carry our genetic inheritance), for a total of 46. Twenty-two of these pairs, called autosomes, look the same in both males and females. The 23rd pair, the sex chromosomes, differ depending on your gender. Occasionally, people are born with variations but ordinarily, girls have two copies of the X chromosome (XX), while boys have one X and one Y chromosome (XY).

Men determine the gender of a baby depending on whether their sperm is carrying an X or Y chromosome. Mothers contribute an X chromosome to their babies and fathers contribute either X or Y depending on which sperm fertilizes the mother’s ovum. So in ‘Vulture’s Gate’ the presence of the Y chromosome protects the fetus from destruction (as is the case in many cultures).

The premise of ‘Vulture’s Gate’ is that a world pandemic of bird (avian) flu results in a lethal side affect. Unlike Swine Flu, Bird Flu still hasn’t successfully crossed the species barrier. Humans can catch it from birds but humans don’t transmit the virus to each other. Accordingly, it hasn’t spread through the human population. In ‘Vulture’s Gate’, Bird Flu has finally mutated effectively and spread like wildfire. Not only does the virus kill millions when it finally crosses the species barrier, but a side effect is that it stimulates the production of an antibody that causes a mutation in cell division affecting the sex chromosomes soon after conception. But the antibody only attacks the XX chromosomes, not XY. All female fetuses die in the early weeks of pregnancy so a generation of males only is born.

A pandemic on this scale would wreak havoc, no matter which gender was affected but in ‘Vulture’s Gate’ I used it as a device with which to explore more complex ideas about the world and the way we relate to each other.

Yet despite the ‘back story’, it was the creation of the characters of Bo and Callum that really compelled me to write the novel. There is always a lot of argument in fiction writing workshops about whether stories are plot driven or character driven but for me it’s always the strength of the central characters that makes it possible to bring a story to life, irrespective of how action-packed you make the plot.

Callum came to me first, over a year before I started work on the novel. One afternoon, when I was in the offices of Allen &Unwin with my publisher Rosalind Price, sifting through images for the cover of the reissue of my first novel Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish, Ros showed me a fabulous photograph of a boy acrobat flying through the air between two Harley Davidson motorcycles in a small circus ring. It didn’t connect with ‘Zarconi’s’ but both Ros and I were intrigued by the image – the boy’s body arched and lithe, the two powerful motorbikes and their burly drivers. As soon as I saw it, I knew there was a story attached to the image. Ros jokingly said if I wrote a book about the boy, she’d publish it. Later that night, I wrote a vignette entitled ‘Motorcycle Boy’ and tucked it away in a file of scrappy ideas. Interestingly, when we tried to find the image later, it had disappeared from every photo library on the internet.

On a summer evening some months later, I sat on my front verandah with an old friend talking about the sort of world our children would inherit. My thirteen-year-old goddaughter, Roxane came out onto the verandah, the light behind her. I love that mixture of strength and sweetness that adolescent girls encapsulate. She looked like a young Amazonian. Later that evening, Roxane and the Motorcycle Boy became inextricably linked to a story of the future and I scribbled down the first outline of ‘Vulture’s Gate’.

Bo and Callum encounter many people that exemplify some of the worst traits in humanity, how difficult was it to depict these characters realistically without creating a furor about its appropriateness in YA?
Young people don’t live in a parallel universe populated by socially acceptable characters. They live in our world and they bear witness to it no less than we do. I think we often underestimate young readers’ ability to contextualise evil. Writing historical fiction has taught me a lot about exploring human darkness and still creating a story that is both accessible and appropriate for younger readers. In the past ten years of writing fiction I’ve wrestled with much darker demons – true characters and events from history - than the ones in ‘Vulture’s Gate’.

What would you imagine this society would be like had the XY chromosomes being wiped out?
There is already plenty of fiction around that imagines a future world without men. I do imagine it would be less violent but there would be less innovation, less exuberance, and a lot less fun.

How much involvement did you have in the concept for the cover art?
I’m fairly opinionated about covers and would find it difficult to ‘own’ a book if I felt unhappy about its cover design. So I’m lucky that Allen &Unwin took my suggestions on board. I still find Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds’ very freaky and I wanted the cover to capture that same sense of brooding threat that massing birds convey. Ruth Gruener, the designer, had to put up with a lot of chopping and changing as the marketing department weren’t excited about my early ideas but I’m stoked Ruth managed to marry so many elements and make everyone happy in the end.

Big thanks to Kirsty for taking time to answer all my questions! Vulture's Gate is a fascinating read and sure to capture your interest. If you are interested in purchasing your own copy, you can do so through Australian booksellers or via the link Buying OZYA at the top of this page.


The Book Owl said...

Nice interview! Sounds like a heavy book and a great read. :)

Rebs @ Book-Rants said...

interesting, kind of reminds me of the movie children of men

Unknown said...

Wow. This sounds like a fantastic read. I'm going to forward this along to my parents, too; they're both scientists and would probably find the premise fascinating.