Monday 24 October 2022

Interview with Premee Mohamed, author of the Beneath The Rising trilogy

Scientist and author Premee Mohamed photographing
photos of insects in a riparian area of Alberta, Canada.
Her work often reflects environmental impacts and
(Image via the author)
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author based in Edmonton, Alberta. Over the past year, her work has appeared on the ballots for the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and Hugo Awards, as well as earning her a Nebula and an Aurora for best Novella. This spring, she published the capstone to the horror adventure trilogy that started with her debut novel Beneath the Rising. Mohamed spoke with blog contributor Olav Rokne in September.

UHBC Blog: Just earlier today, while prepping for this interview, I read “All That Burns Unseen.” I actually emailed my wife and told her “You have to read this story!”

Every time that we get fire seasons — like the one in the story — I feel like the world is ending. So that story felt very real.

Premee Mohamed: I'm glad … but I'm also horrified, because it feels really really real to me too.

The story came from just this idea of like the year-long fire season with no water left to fight it. And that's barely sci-fi. That's soon. That's going to be happening real, real soon.

UHBC Blog: Do you have any family up north? Because that aspect of the story was particularly true to life.

Premee Mohamed: Not me personally. But for the story, I did uh pick the brains of a friend of mine who works for the air monitoring division [of Alberta Environment and Parks] and he was sent up with very little notice to the Fort Mac fires. And I asked him “Visually what do you remember? What were some things that stood out to you?”

UHBC Blog: So yeah, I was actually planning to bring up the fact that climate change seems like a
In 2022, Premee Mohamed won
the Nebula for best novella, and
the Aurora for best novella ... 
though oddly with different books
earning the awards.
(Image via Goodreads)

recurring theme for you. It informs What Can We Offer You Tonight, Annual Migration of Clouds, and of course that excellent short story. Do you think it's possible to write near-future fiction and not include some time of climate change elements?

Premee Mohamed: Well, anything's possible in fiction.

But suppose I wanted to write a murder mystery set in London in a fancy house in the middle of the city in 1942. In theory, I could write the entire book just about the murder mystery and these friends would have to solve it.

But in practice, if I didn't mention World War II at any point or the Blitz or the bombs or people that they knew that had died in the war … it would feel very weird and I feel like the book would be kind of missing something enormous about the reality of London in 1942.

So I don't think it's possible to write a future on Earth in fiction where we either aren't facing the catastrophic effects of mass climate change, or we have figured out a way to mitigate it.

I'm looking at my Twitter feed and there's disasters happening all over the world that are directly attributable to climate change. All I can picture is a future where eventually those disasters join up temporally and spatially … and everything is bad for everybody pretty much all of the time.

UHBC Blog: I always read the first two Beneath The Rising books as a bit of a climate change metaphor,

Premee Mohamed: I think what I was thinking of was not specifically um climate change per se, but certainly eschatology — end of the world scenarios.

Nuclear was actually what was informing the first one: this world-ending technology that once it started wouldn't stop.

But I don't think that climate change is actually that different from the idea of this nuclear disaster. 

It's something that most of us can't directly affect ... and the people that can affect it, the people who hold all the power seem unable to respond effectively.
The third book in the Beneath The Rising trilogy
hit shelves in April. 
(Image via SciFiNow)

UHBC Blog: One of the aspects that really drew me into those books was what I perceived as a parasitic friendship between Joanna and Nick. Was any aspect of that drawn from real life?

Premee Mohamed: I was quite young when I started writing that first book; I was Nick's age. So my friends were kind of my entire sphere of influence.

I had just realized that some of my friends' families had a lot more money than mine. I didn't really think about it, it wasn't something that one really noticed. Just, you know, their house was nicer, he always had the latest newest gadgets. I was 18 at this point, and it had been years of me noticing this, but not really noticing. And it kind of sank in like, “Oh man, this explains so much about like the last like seven or eight years of my life.” Things that I did not notice.

So Nick is very cognizant that Johnny is a multi-millionaire, or maybe a billionaire. Aware that she owns companies, she's got influence, she's in the media, she's a celebrity.

And at the start Nick's like “I'm extremely ordinary isn't it a miracle that we're friends.” But then you start to see that the person who has the most Johnny is taking the most and the person who has the least — Nick — is giving the most and it's so uneven. When he realizes that, of course he shatters the friendship.

That being said, it wasn't so much that I drew from myself and my friends when crafting the relationship between Johnny and Nick. Their relationship is more of a microcosm of the overarching story as a whole.

The reason disasters keep happening to them is because the old friendship and trust that they shared has been broken.

When their friendship is close and tight, they're able to work together and they can actually accomplish positive things. But when they don't trust each other, the plot falls apart and disasters start happening.

I wasn't really doing that consciously so much in the first book, but definitely in the second and the third.

UHBC Blog: So … you mentioned that you started writing the book when you were 18 or so. So that would have been around 1999 or 2000. And it seems to me that's right around the time that the resurgence of Lovecraftian fiction was starting, so you were kind of ahead of the curve.

Premee Mohamed: I actually hadn't read any Lovecraft when I started writing the book.

And in the earliest drafts of the book, it was a pretty straightforward good guys against like … the actual devil, and demons. But as I started writing, it seemed like the devil as a villain had kind of been done. I didn't feel like I could put a fresh spin on it.

I was like “why am I putting Satan in this?” “Is this 12 years of Catholic School speaking?”

Around that time, I started reading Robert E. Howard, and in the back of the book someone had written an essay about a bunch of other similar authors

It was like Lovecraft and Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany and a couple of other names. So I went and looked up Lovecraft collected works in the library and I was like “oh this is some terrible writing and a really good sandbox! Look at all these weird ancient gods and these cults and the possessions and this extremely weird haunted house with tentacles in the basements!”

UHBC Blog: What is it about the current moment that makes these metaphors about secrets that man was not meant to know relevant again?

Premee Mohamed: I suppose part of it must be that with the advent of the internet we don't think there's anything we can't know. There shouldn't be any information that is beyond us because it's somewhere online.

Having just adopted a cat, I think I'm seeing this attitude right now. His attitude is: “Whatever it is you are doing, I have the right — nay, the duty! — to come see what it is.”

I think it's this attitude of entitlement to information is part of it and the idea that there is information out there that someone has that no one else has that we could have.

That's pretty alluring I think and part of it I think must also be the cosmic side of things: This idea that the villain doesn't even notice us unless we somehow attract its attention. The villains are just villainously doing whatever it is they do and humans are so insignificant that all they can think of to do when they encounter us is enslave us or exterminate us or use us as part of their horrible life cycle.

And it all defies understanding and it's supposed to be incomprehensible which in the books that really bugs Johnny. She's a scientist, she wants to understand, and believes she should be able to control magic because to her magic is basically an elementary particle like a photon. If we can understand and measure and control photons why can't she do the same to magical particles?

UHBC Blog: It strikes me that this is somewhat related to a dichotomy in your career. I mean you're a person with two science degrees working in a field that is all about uh metrics and and and facts and and yet a lot of your fiction is entwined with that branch of weird sff in which science cannot save us.

Premee Mohamed: I really enjoy the tension actually.

I like the idea of people encountering things that should be scientifically explicable in some way that just aren't.

For example in And What Can We Offer You Tonight the reason Winfield comes back to life is never given. I don't think there's a point in explaining it, and I don't want somebody to strap her down to a table and vivisect her. I don't know why she did and that's not the point of the story.

If I want to write a story where scientific understanding is the point of the story then I do. For instance my story that's coming out in Life Beyond Us, which is an anthology in association with the European Space Agency. My story is called “The Far Side of the Door,” and it does involve a medical mystery that has to be solved using science.
Among her numerous upcoming works is a short
story in the anthology "Life Beyond Us."
(Image via Kickstarter)

But sometimes I don't want to explain it, and it's actually more satisfying to me not to. You know in These Lifeless Things, readers might ask “How do the statues come to life?” “How come that's never explained when the scientists come to the city 50 years later?”

I'm like: “Because I don't want you to know.” “Because I don't want the reader to have some questions answered.” I want them to ask and I want them to not know at the end deliberately, because it's more fun.

UHBC Blog: Well and speaking of These Lifeless Things, you've had a very successful year in terms of novellas. What appeals to you with the novella as a format?

Premee Mohamed: I really love the length. In the next couple of years I'm gonna have three more out.

So one with and then two are the sequels to The Annual Migration of Clouds.

I've been really trying to put my finger on it, because I just did the Edmonton Expo, and somebody was asking about novellas.

I think what appeals to me about a novella is similar to what appeals to me about a short story is how ruthless you have to be with what part of the character's lives you choose to focus on. What time period you want the story to cover and what events can be allowed to happen in it to kind of illustrate what you want people to go through and how much you have to trust the reader.

In a novel, if I need to explain why this entire city has only subsisted on sardines for the last 50 years, I have room to do that. In a short story I may have a couple of sentences.

The novella is the perfect you know length between I want to explore one idea or one premise with one overarching plot structure and at most one subplot and a limited number of characters.

So when the reader is reading, they are laser focused on this single string of events that is happening and on these few characters' experience of this story. There's no room for tangents, there's no room for digressions.

So it ends up just a really great interesting length to write in terms of both the freedoms and the limitations that it gives you.

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