The Mary Sue Interview: Debut Author Francesca Haig On The Fire Sermon, Female Protagonists And The Post-Apocalypse
This book, guys. This book.
It’s not often that I put down a book and am torn between immediately wanting to re-read it, begging someone for the sequel, and never wanting to read anything else ever again because it was just so good. Set in a post-nuclear winter world where everyone is born with a perfect Alpha twin and a disabled, ostracized Omega twin – and when one twin dies, so does the other – The Fire Sermon tells the story of Cass, an Omega whose ability to see the future leaves her debilitated.
The great thing about The Fire Sermon is that, though it’s an adult novel, it still has the young female protagonist that makes YA books so relatable. But because it’s an adult novel, it also doesn’t fall prey to all the typical YA dystopian tropes we’ve come to expect – and in many cases, dread. The Fire Sermon surprises at every turn, has a romance that isn’t central to the plot, and is so dark it will stay with you for weeks. I got the chance to speak with debut author Francesca Haig about this great achievement.
Sam Maggs (TMS): The Fire Sermon is the best post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read in years – it’s dark, deep, and doesn’t conform to the dystopian tropes we’ve all come to expect. Can you talk a bit about where the idea for the series came from? And Cass?
Francesca Haig: I’m so delighted that you enjoyed the novel so much – thank you!
The whole novel started with just the central idea of twins with a fatal bond: when one twin dies, so does the other. Everything else – the post-apocalyptic setting; the mutations of the Omegas; the oppressive society; Cass and her relationship with her twin, Zach – grew from that initial idea. The novel has sci-fi and fantasy elements, but when you peel those back, the idea for the novel is very universal and simple: it’s about the bond between people. Anybody who’s ever loved anyone (not necessarily a twin – it might be a lover, a parent, a child, a friend) has caught themselves wondering how they could possibly go on if they lost that person. You don’t need to be a twin living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland to have asked yourself that question.
TMS: How did you go about building the world of The Fire Sermon? It’s incredibly rich in detail, to the point where it’s almost gut-churning. Humanity can be pretty horrible.
Haig: I think all the best dystopias get their impact not from how dramatically different they are from current life, but from how familiar they are. The depressing thing is how little imagination is required in depicting the horrors of The Fire Sermon’s world – the terrifying elements of Cass’s world are only extrapolations of the kind of kinds of oppression and exploitation that are going on every day in the world around us. And the devastated landscape that Cass travels through is in many ways just a heightened version of the changes we’re already inflicting on our world through global warming. The thing about the world of The Fire Sermon is that while the nuclear apocalypse has caused one very obvious mutation (the twins who die simultaneously), in the ways that matter, humans haven’t really evolved at all – they still have the same capacity for violence and exploitation.
TMS: You’re an award-winning poet. What different challenges did writing fiction provide you?
Haig: Poetry and prose have their own challenges and rewards. Often I find they’re not as different as people think; my prose style tends to skew towards the poetic anyway – it’s pretty lyrical. But the real struggle for me when I started to write the novel, having published mainly poetry for so long, was to let myself off the hook in terms of not expecting each word, comma and sentence to be full of impact. In a poem, every syllable has to be agonized over. It took me a while to accept that a novel just can’t sustain that kind of intensity – sometimes a section simply needs to accomplish some necessary work in the service of the overall narrative. Obviously novelists work hard to get every page as good as it can be – but you just can’t expect the same word-by-word exactitude in a novel as you’d demand of poetry. When I first started writing The Fire Sermon, that poet’s approach could be paralyzing.
TMS: The Omegas are nuanced, sympathetic portrayals of disabled persons, with both visible disabilities, like Zach’s, and invisible disabilities, like Cass’s. How was this examination of disability important to you?
Haig: I was very keen to ensure that my novel reflected some of the diversity of real life, and that those depictions be realistic, and nuanced. I didn’t want to idealize or minimize the struggles of the novel’s disabled characters, but I also wanted to show how a lot of those challenges arise from the social structures that insist that the disabled people are “other.” It’s not for me, as an able-bodied person, to set myself up as a spokesperson on issues of disability. But I’ll be really happy if The Fire Sermon can be part of the much-needed push for greater diversity in fiction. It must be immensely alienating for readers who aren’t white, able-bodied, straight, or cis, to see themselves only rarely reflected in the fiction available to them.
I’m glad to hear you refer to Cass’s seer visions as a kind of disability, because I really didn’t want it to seem like some magical power – her visions really are a traumatic and painful thing that she has to endure. I wanted to ensure that she didn’t come across as some kind of superhero. She has her own cross to bear, and in some ways it’s a greater burden than that of the other Omegas. The closest parallel to her experience is that of mental illness.
TMS: What is your favorite thing about Cass as a heroine?
Haig: I like that she’s so complex and conflicted – that’s what made her such a challenge and a joy to write. I was very conscious that I wanted her to be strong, but not necessarily in a stereotypical way. She gets glimpses of the future, but it’s not her visions that make her dangerous to the oppressive ruling class. Instead, what’s revolutionary about her is her relationship with her twin, Zach, because she refuses to see the two of them as opposed, despite what society (and Zach himself) keeps telling her. There’s a kind of vulnerability in her faith in Zach – but that weakness is also her strength. I never wanted Cass to be a straightforward, kick-ass heroine (though there’s another character in the book, Zoe, who’s more conventionally tough in that sense, and I had great fun writing her…).
TMS: How would you fare in your post-apocalyptic world?
Haig: I like to think that I’m pretty tough. I grew up in Australia, where almost all of the animals and insects will kill you, given the chance. And I’m a rock climber and a distance runner, so I’d hope I’d be pretty good on the run from the Council’s soldiers. My real problem would be that I’m an irrepressible talker, which would make me a liability to the resistance. I’d be huddled in some cave, with Council soldiers searching nearby, and I’d come up with some anecdote or pun that I just couldn’t resist sharing with my companions, and end up giving us all away (probably by laughing uproariously at my own joke…).
TMS: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the book? Maybe… some sequel hints? (Hehe.)
Haig: I’m hard at work on the sequels, I promise! Book 2 is at the editing stage, and Book 3 is just starting to come to take shape. I can tell you that in Book 2 Cass makes a big discovery that means the stakes get even higher. But if I tell you any more than that, my publishers will kill me before I have the chance to finish writing the books…
The Fire Sermon will be released March 10th by Gallery Books, and I implore you to give it a read.