Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind Explores Past, Present and Future
JULIET WALDRON: Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind was not at all what I expected in the HNS context as it has been primarily marketed as literary science fiction. Your debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2013 and for the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award.
What do you think will motivate those who are primarily readers of historical novels to pick up your latest book?
ANNE CHARNOCK: History is a theme throughout this novel, in all three storylines. In Renaissance Florence, real-life Antonia Uccello takes art lessons from her father Paolo. He uses his famous history painting, The Battle of San Romano, to explain the techniques of composition. In the present day storyline, set in China and London, Toni embarks on a school history project to record her friends’ relatives who have died in wars and natural disasters. In the storyline set one hundred years in the future, Toniah is an art historian who hopes that a newly discovered painting will be attributed to Antonia Uccello. Toniah has a professional mission to revise the historical record to give overdue credit to female painters of the early Renaissance. At the same time, in her personal life, she uncovers a family secret, and she’s forced to revise her own personal history. So I feel there’s plenty of history in this fictional mix!
JW: It occurs that Sleeping Embers is a sort of triptych—past, present and future, as experienced by three talented young women. Did you begin with preliminary sketches?
AC: I did sketch out the individual chapters but not in any detail; they were the equivalent of simple pencil sketches that established only the key features. Although I knew the rough arc of the novel, I wrote each chapter with minimal pre-planning. … I keep the novel’s themes and motifs in mind when I’m writing even the first draft.
I suppose I can regard my research as a sketching phase. I’ve visited Florence several times over the years and I made an additional research trip for this novel when I discovered exactly where Antonia Uccello spent her adult life. In addition, I travelled to Shanghai and Suzhou as research for Toni’s trip to China with her father.
JW: Art, artists, and the history of art—you obviously know your stuff. Could you share a little about your own background for HNS readers? Do you have any special interest—as does your 22nd century character Toniah—in the Quattrocento artists?
AC: I have a degree in painting and a master’s in fine art from the Manchester School of Art in England. There are two periods of art history that have always intrigued me and both occurred at the cusp of major artistic change. In the 14th century, Italian artists of the so-called Quattrocento experimented with perspective in a drive to depict the world in a more realistic way compared to the earlier Byzantine art. Four hundred years later, the French modernists at the end of the 19th century wanted to break away from realism, to find a more emotionally charged way of depicting the world. Several of these artists looked back to the Quattrocento, fascinated by their evident struggles with perspective—those paintings in which the perspective is a bit wonky! The naivety of Quattrocento art seemed more emotional to these French modernists and the influence is very clear in their work.
So I was steeped in this art historical battle with perspective. In my own painting practice, I attempted to merge the two artistic languages—combining realism and naivety.
JW: Freud said that “biology is destiny” and that notion has gone in and out of fashion. I’ve written about women’s lives in which the vagaries of spouses, a succession of births and “female troubles” are a constant. In the future world of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, some women are set free from biological destiny.
AC: It has always struck me as odd that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, women back on Earth were giving birth in a manner unchanged since the year dot. I have two children, now adults, and I often muse if their grandchildren will be born with less physical trauma. With this in mind, in 2012, I went to a book festival to listen to Dr Aarathi Prasad, who had just published her non-fiction book, Like A Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex. In this book she sets out the current state of scientific research in genetics and the current development work in the field of reproductive technologies. I spent several weeks studying this book and considering the possibilities for fictional writing, and then Aarathi kindly agreed to meet me to talk through these fictional possibilities.
For me as a fiction writer this opens up so many interesting questions—how will this affect women’s lives? How will this affect human relationships? Will these new reproductive technologies lead to gender parity? Writing the scene set in a future gestation clinic was a thrilling experience.
JW: Your character Toni, who lives in 2015, is taking her first successful steps toward maturity. She reminded me of my own multi-tasking, artistic Whovian grand-girls. Do you feel optimism for this generation of young women, when, on bad news cycles, a new Dark Age appears to be right around the corner?
AC: I’m optimistic by nature! In many ways, young women have better opportunities now but they face anxieties that earlier generations didn’t have to handle. For example, it’s impossible to navigate the online world without encountering negativity directed towards women. And the relentless pressure to win popularity—to gain Facebook ‘likes’—is profoundly depressing.
JW: Would you like to elaborate upon the title?
AC: I came across this phrase—sleeping embers of an ordinary mind—when I’d written about half the novel. As part of my ongoing research, I read a letter by a 15th century Italian feminist, Laura Cereta. A leading scholar of her day, she writes a letter of complaint to Bibulus Sempronius:
My ears are wearied by your carping. You brashly and publicly not merely wonder but indeed lament that I am said to possess as fine a mind as nature ever bestowed upon the most learned man. You seem to think that so learned a woman has scarcely before been seen in the world. You are wrong on both counts…I am a school girl, possessed of the sleeping embers of an ordinary mind.
– January 13, 1488. From Her Immaculate Hand translated by Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil Jr
I included this extract as an epigraph to the novel. I loved Cereta’s intimation in her letter that many girls could become scholars if they received the stimulation of a good education. It seems some things don’t change!
About the contributor: Juliet Waldron has lived in many US states, in the UK and the West Indies. She earned a B. A. in English, but has worked at jobs ranging from artist’s model to brokerage. Thirty years ago, after her sons left home, she dropped out of 9 to 5 and began to write, hoping to create a genuine time-travel experience for her readers. Her novel, Mozart’s Wife, won the 1st Independent e-book award. She’s a grandmother, a cat person, and a dedicated student of history and archaeology.