Meet Lorraine Wilson Author Of This Is Our Undoing

A scientist. A world fracturing under climate change. A dead enemy. That's the premise of Lorraine Wilson's This Is Our Undoing, and she tells Thriller Women this week about her inspiration, her best writing tip and the lure of speculative fiction that doesn't seem too far from where the world is now ...

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Front cover of This Is Our Undoing by Lorraine Wilson

TW: This Is Our Undoing could be described as an original, dystopian mystery thriller with an element of magic realism. Where did the idea for the story come from and did you always plan to mix up the genres?

LW: I intended to write a murder mystery set in a remote research station, but at around the same time I was doing a lot of thinking about global events and my own powerlessness in the face of things like climate change and far-right politics, so those thoughts kind of took over! I wanted to explore the question of what we can do when we feel disempowered and whether our choices still matter, but the seed of the murder mystery was still very present in my mind and I’m always fascinated by subjects like the legacy of trauma and found family … So it all merged into this one big plot centred around a remote location. 

I loved the contrast between the urban dystopia happening ‘offscreen’ and the vast wilderness of the mountains. I didn’t precisely plan to write something that blended genres but I definitely didn’t shy away from it either! I love stories that take us in unexpected directions and span genres, so I quite often end up writing in that sort of vein. 

TW: The idea of bomb attacks, manhunts, wild fires and migrants drowning is not too distant from our own reality. Was it a conscious choice to set your story in an all too conceivable dystopian future?

LW: Yes, it was. I looked at where we are (or were, when I started this), and how we are normalising inaction over climate change and passivity in the face of intolerant politics. I thought about what those trajectories might lead us to if we did nothing to stop them, and it wasn’t a particularly cheerful outlook. I obviously took quite a pessimistic viewpoint for the world in This Is Our Undoing, but everything in that future has its roots in things that are happening now. We are capable of so much goodness, and so much radical change that the future I’ve created isn’t at all a given, but we are also capable of prioritising our own short-term comfort over other people’s, and our children’s lives. Which was kind of what got me thinking in the first place – in our global world, the choices we make seem insignificant, but they really aren’t. They matter so much and there’s a power in realising that, I think.

TW: What made you choose Bulgaria as a location in which to set your novel?

LW: Basically, because that was where I first got the idea. We were staying in a house in the middle of a clearing in the middle of the Rila Mountains, and I thought ‘wouldn’t this make a perfect Agatha Christie setting?’ I’ve lived and worked in the forests of Poland and Western Russia, too, so it’s an ecosystem that I know fairly well both as a tourist and as a research scientist. Setting is really important to me; in fact along with an initial question, it’s the first thing I decide on when I start a new project. That’s because the setting of a novel is such a powerful contributor to the atmosphere of the story, it acts almost as another character and like a character is byzantine in its behaviour and moods. Nature is such a layered, emotionally weighted presence, complete with folklore, real and imagined dangers, beauty and perpetual change that it’s vital to me to write a setting I can feel as well as picture. So there was never any second guessing for me about keeping the Rila Mountains as my setting, or about keeping it as the only setting, with the rest of the world kept in the shadows.

TW: You are a scientist by background. Did that help you define Lina as your protagonist? How did you go about constructing her as a character?

LW: It definitely helped in knowing what research she might be doing, and what it felt like to live and work in that environment. Although I played around a bit with the technology she might be using, every type of fieldwork she does in the book is something I’ve done myself to one degree or another. It also helped slightly less directly, in that as an ecologist I tend to pay attention to the details of the natural world where-ever I am, so I identify (or try to!) the plant & animal species I encounter, I take a million photographs of butterflies and flowers etc etc. Which means that when it comes to writing about Lina’s work, I can imagine the things she’s encountering in enough detail to bring them to life on the page.

I’ve been asked if she’s me, because I stole from my own work experience for her, but she really isn’t! I wanted a character who had been badly bruised by the world and lost sight of her own agency, but was now being forced to confront the power she holds and the strength of her own moral compass. Lina grew out of that, really. She’s someone who fought against ‘the system’ for a long time before it broke her, and now has to find the wherewithal to fight again to protect what she loves. She’s a hell of a lot braver than I am, but also more fearful of losing sight of her own beliefs and becoming like her enemy. I love exploring the psychology of my characters as I’m developing them, looking at the things that shaped their childhood, their ‘fatal flaws’ and conditioned responses – I find all that stuff immense fun and really helpful for making them feel fully realised.

TW: How long did it take you to write a first draft of This Is Our Undoing?

LW: I can’t remember! It usually takes me about six months to get a first draft. Then about a gazillion years of editing! I actually completely rewrote This Is Our Undoing. It was initially written from three points of view, but I decided to focus just on Lina, which meant a thorough replotting as well. So that took another four months, I think. A painful process, but the book ended up much better for it.

TW: Tell us about your writing career to date and your route to publication.

LW: Well, how long have you got? I started writing about seven or eight years ago when I had to stop work due to chronic illness. I wrote one novel that will never see the light of day again, and then another which gained me an agent. Just as that novel was out on submission to editors, my agent left publishing, so I was back to square one! Then came a book called The Way The Light Bends, which is actually coming out next year. It had a couple of very near misses, the second of which made me lose faith in it so I set it aside to focus on This Is Our Undoing. I knew that the genre-blending style of this book would make it a hard sell to the bigger publishers, so I went more or less straight to the independent presses with it, as they are where to look for fiction that pushes the boundaries more. I loved the global scope of Luna Press’ list, and from the moment I first spoke to them I’ve not looked back. They are such a supportive, inclusive, positive publishers, they’ve made my debut year an absolute joy.

I also write short fiction which has been published in various places, and I love that as an artform that is very different to novel writing. I’ve toyed with the idea of pulling together a collection of short stories, but really I just like turning to them when I need a break from longer projects, or when I want to experiment with style and voice. So I think I’ll stick with sending them out individually.

TW: What are you working on next?

LW: I mentioned my next novel above – The Way The Light Bends, which is more folkloric/magical realism suspense than This Is Our Undoing, set in present day Scotland and following a woman’s search for her estranged sister who vanishes a year after the death of her twin. That’s out with copyeditors at the moment, so the next stage for me will be seeing the cover design and checking proofs. I’m editing another novel which is again in a future eastern Europe, full of distrust, forests, hedgewitchery and digital ghosts. It’s a bit more whimsical than anything I’ve written before, but I’m loving it.

TW: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given about writing fiction?

LW: Read widely. I think that’s absolutely invaluable. Many people only really read within the genre they write, and I think you lose so much if you do that. It’s like travel. You can stay within the UK your whole life and have a certain perspective on it, but if you travel the world, your view of the UK is broadened, deepened, made richer.

In terms of writing technique, I absolutely fell in love with Dara Mark’s Transformational Arc model of character psychology. Different writing models work for different people, but when I was introduced to that, I felt like it pushed my writing onto a whole new level.

TW: Which genres and authors do you read for pleasure?

LW: It’s easier to say which don’t I read. I’m not a fan of pure horror, although I love gothic horror like Laura Purcell’s books. I also, these days, read very few detective/procedural books or books with loooooooong battle/fight scenes. I love books that are, I guess, towards the more bookclub end of genre fiction, so there might be fantastical or thriller elements but they are deeply character-driven and atmospheric. I love Bridget Collins for that, Stacey Halls and Natasha Pulley. I also love myth or weird historical like Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne or Guy Gavriel Kay’s books. I also love YA (or books kind of marketed as YA even though they aren’t) because there are a lot more diverse voices being published in that field than in traditionally adult fiction. I’ve just finished Chloe Gong’s Our Violent Ends and Nicole Glover’s The Undertakers which were both fabulous.

Quick fire questions: 

TW: Favourite book(s) to read?                  

LW: My pure escapism comfort re-reads are the murder mysteries by M. M. Kaye. They’re ‘of their time’ but they feel like a hug. Favourite book this year is probably Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms.

TW: Favourite place(s) to write?                 

LW: My desk! It’s in the dining room with a view of the bird feeders so I can watch the goldfinches fight over the sunflower seeds as I daydream! 

TW: Favourite place(s) to eat?          

LW: The street market in Antsiranana, Madagascar. That was awesome. 

TW: Favourite place(s) to travel?                

LW: Argentina. I love Latin America (because hummingbirds!), and Argentina is such a big country it has everything from a bit of the Amazon rainforest to icebergs. 

TW: Favourite place(s) to relax?                 

LW: My bed, with my kindle and a cup of tea. And a cat as long as it’s not trying to attack my feet.

Thanks Lorraine!
Black and white photograph of Lorraine Wilson, author if This Is Our Undoing

More about This Is Our Undoing

Could you condemn one child to save another?

In a near-future Europe fracturing under climate change and far-right politics, biologist Lina Stephenson works in the remote Rila Mountains, safely away from London State. When an old enemy dies, Lina's dangerous past resurfaces, putting her family's lives at risk.

Trapped with her vulnerable sister alongside the dead man's family, Lina is facing pressure from all sides: her enemy's eldest son is determined to destroy her in his search for vengeance, whilst his youngest carries a sinister secret...

But the forest is hiding its own threats and as a catastrophic storm closes in, Lina realises that if she is to save her family, she must become a monster.


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