#LoveOzYA Q&A with Sophie Masson
Sophie Masson first came to Australia when she was five years old, and has had more than 70 novels published here and internationally. Most of these published works are for young adults and children, but also for adults, including the internationally-selling Forest of Dreams, an adult fantasy trilogy based on the life and work of the medieval French writer Marie de France.
Her February 2021 release, THE GHOST SQUAD (MidnightSun), is about a world where two clandestine organisations, the Ghost Squad and the Base, are engaged in a secret battle for control of information so dangerous it could literally change life as humans have always known it.
#LoveOzYA's Alex Patrikios chatted with Sophie about the story behind THE GHOST SQUAD, and her advice for aspiring writers. You can check it out below, or watch clips from the interview on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
What is THE GHOST SQUAD about, and what can readers expect?
(THE GHOST SQUAD) is set in a world that is very much like ours, but with a very big difference: twenty years before the novel starts there was this massive electromagnetic pulse, and it knocked out all computers, all electronics, everything that is connected by electronics — pretty much everything in our society.
Eventually, those things were restored but by the time they were, the government had very strong controls over everything to do with electronic communications. So those things have changed, but that’s not the most important change, because what happened at the time of the electromagnetic ‘pulse’ was that something very unusual was noticed in a little hospital, in a little town, in the intensive care ward.
The Ghost Squad is the name that some people give to a secret operational group that’s a government organisation, kind of like a rapid response group if you like, but not at all what you might think. They’re part of a federal police force in this particular place where (the book is) set, but it’s kind of a secret squad — but everybody knows about it and there’s lots of rumours about it.
The opposition is this group that calls itself the Base, and it is aiming to fight the Ghost Squad and the government agencies around the particular thing that they’re actually concerned with, trying to raise people’s awareness of what is really going on behind the scenes.
But it’s not a ‘normal’ government conspiracy. It’s something much more jarring — that the afterlife actually exists, and people have afterlife markers like genetic markers which code you for your experience ‘post-life’.
This is where the Ghost Squad operates. They will kidnap people with particular post-life markers and do experiments.
What particular question do you think you were exploring, when you created this story?
I guess the question I really started with was: What if there was proof that the afterlife existed? What if there was proof that was actually scientific? What would happen to human society? What would happen to people’s views of life, of death, of everything?
It would throw a massive spanner in the works. A lot religions of course teach about the afterlife, but if you look at it, most of them don’t say very much about (the experience of the afterlife) in much detail. It’s because we don’t know.
So I was thinking, imagine if there was something that did show that, and what would the effect be? How would society function with that?
In (THE GHOST SQUAD), there’s three main afterlife markers: ‘post-embodied’, which means you go off to some afterlife where nobody knows much about it and they disappear off the radar; then there’s much smaller markers which are what they call ‘disembodied’, which are sort of ghosts that get trapped in the dimensions between life and earth; then there’s what they call ‘re-embodied’, which are reincarnated people, and they’re the ones that are most sought after in terms of experimental subjects.
But I had to have some kind of plausible way for this to happen, so that was when I started to thinking about an electromagnetic pulse. It happened once before in the Victorian times, when a thing called the Carrington Event hit — basically a massive solar flare hit the earth, causing a big pulse — and the Victorian ‘internet’, the telegraph system, was quite affected.
Was there a particular moment of inspiration that sparked the idea for THE GHOST SQUAD?
A while back, I went to this little museum in Rome, which is called the Museum of Purgatory. Of course in Catholic doctrine, purgatory is a sort of halfway house between heaven and hell. This particular museum was quite a weird little place, and (I learned) this priest in the 19th Century had tried to show proof that purgatory existed and he did with burned handprints on a piece of fabric, supposedly of people who had tried to send messages from purgatory.
But this is now: people don’t believe a burned handprint on a piece of fabric is proof. So I thought, okay, what would cause a disturbance in the electronic systems — monitoring machines and other things like that in hospitals — so I had a look, and found out about electronic magnetic pulses. I found out about the Carrington Event, and also that a lot of governments actually have contingency plans for when the next one hits. I read stuff from both NASA and the British Government, about what they plan to do in the event of an electromagnetic pulse.
When I saw the Carrington Event had happened around the same time you saw this big interest in seances and spiritualism, in the Victorian times, I thought, okay, this is kind of 'ghosty' stuff — and maybe in my lifetime, it would trigger something similar.
Everything sort of fell into place after that.
Apart from that kind of research — NASA, government documents — did you also look at popular movies or shows that have that speculative flavour, and try to examine the genre itself?
Absolutely! Also the novel came out of a creative practice Phd, so that was the creative part of it, but the academic part of it was all about afterlife fiction for young adults. Really fantastic books, like Neal Shusterman's Everlost trilogy, Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride, and Lynette Lounsbury's Afterworld.
I watched a lot of films and TV series — things like The Glitch, and the French series The Returned, and even Lost have examples of (afterlife fiction). That was fun! I had so much fun doing ‘research’, reading all these great books and watching all these terrific TV series and films.
I also read a lot of folklore and (material) from religious and spiritual traditions. I had three years to do the Phd, which was fantastic, because it meant I could really develop the book in the very rich and complex way that I wanted to do.
Were there any tropes of speculative fiction you wanted to avoid with THE GHOST SQUAD, or ones you wanted to play into?
I didn’t want to have a main character find out that they were really the long-lost son of some great prince, or a saviour. So the two teenagers who are in the book, Polly and Swan, come from very different backgrounds. Swan thinks he knows a lot about the world because he operates out of the Base, where he’s a young agent for them. He knows that what people have been told is generally not true, but he doesn’t know as much as he thinks. Polly is the daughter of a homicide detective, and her mother goes missing. She’s not aware of all these things, and thinks people involved in this group called the Hermes group that is associated with the base, and trying to raise awareness — she thinks they’re cuckoo. Then she’s thrust into this world with just no idea, and it’s terrifying.
Both she and Swan in different ways have to learn things, and cope with it, but neither of them really find out that they’re the saviour — which isn’t a spoiler, because life’s never like that.
I like the thing in speculative fiction — a bit like detective fiction — where you get to know more and more and more, until you realise the truth that lies at the heart of things. But I wanted to balance the characters, so that you had a female and a male character, and one wasn’t more important than the other, and that they also had different narrative voices.
I also didn’t want there to be magic in the book. There’s nothing like that. The world is like ours, but not like ours. There’s nothing particularly otherworldly about it, and I haven’t actually tethered it to any real places. Real places did inspire various settings, but I wanted to take bits and pieces all over the world. I wanted to set it in a place so you could get things that make you think, this must be Australia, or this must be New Zealand, and then you get something quite different.
I didn’t want people to feel too comfortable. I wanted to constantly keep you on your toes.
You described THE GHOST SQUAD as almost being like a detective story, with an ongoing intrigue. When it comes to actually plotting a story like that, what advice would you give to writers who are trying to achieve a level of tension in their own stories?
In my case, I did it by having those two narrative voices right from the beginning. That really did help. I found that because I was writing those characters from the two points of view, and one of them knowing more than the other, at least at the beginning, that tension is maintained. You’re actually seeing the action from two different points of view, and people coming from very different angles, and so each chapter is like a mini short story in a sense. So you’re getting different clues scattered in, and different ways of understanding what was going on.
I also break it up with some other narrative formats, because I didn’t want to do ‘info dumps’. You don’t want to tie the action up with (that), so I did things like putting in excerpts from the Hermes papers, and a manuscript from a woman linked to the Base, to give you background.
Because this was a PhD when it started, the other thing I did was meet my principal supervisor every month over Zoom, and every month I had a chunk of story to send her. So having that first reader, and a very good reader, it worked really well. It was this extraordinary luxury of having this beta reader, and I wanted her to feel, ‘oh my god, what happens next?’, which also really helped.
Even if you don’t have a PhD, you can do that. You just need someone you can trust who is a good reader.
You are such a prolific writer. I really just want to know what your best writing advice is?
I think when you start out, you’re so bombarded by so much different information. It’s hard to get a sense of yourself.
The two things I think are really important in the maintenance of a career — because when you start, you think the first book is going to be the be all and end all, and after that, it’s going to be really easy, and it’s not — are integrity and flexibility.
Integrity to your own voice, to your own concepts, but a flexibility to understand that other people who can you trust, like editors and agents, do have a lot of experience and can actually help you improve something innate in you, that can be developed.
I’ve had things where publishers said, I like that, but that doesn’t quite gel. They’ve helped me to rethink something which, in the long run, was actually much better for the book. So you need the flexibility to appreciate the fact that publishers, agents, reviewers, readers, do have experience and opinions that may actually help you.
Also, the flexibility is about looking at what is around at the moment. Don’t stay stuck in one thing that was popular when you were a kid. That doesn’t mean you can’t like that genre, but don’t just get fixated on that. Look at what’s around, and what appeals to you from the contemporary book market. But at the same time, don’t run after trends. So that’s what the integrity is about. Unless that trend is actually something that you love yourself! That’s fantastic (laughs). Don’t try to sort of, jump on the bandwagon because that bandwagon would have gone down the road by the time your book is out.
It also helps a great deal with resilience, because you need an awful lot of it in this world of writing and publishing. It’s a very intimate thing, writing, but you’re exposing it to the world (and) it can be very hard to let go of it, or to understand that other people have a unique point of view.
That’s the thing that for me has been the most important thing, to keep both your integrity and your flexibility, and within that, have an understanding also that publishers are people too, and that they’re not your slaves, they’re not your servants, and they’re also not gods. Having that mutual respect is really important, because on both sides of the publishing table, people are putting their all into it.
So you need to respect that in each other.