Sour Fruit: Interview with author Eli Allison

I loved Eli Allison’s Sour Fruit when I read it recently; it’s a fantastic eco-dystopia set in the north of England (waves tiny northern flag), in which orphan Onion finds herself kidnapped and sold to the ominous-sounding Toymaker. Left in the charge of Rhea, herself just a hairs-breadth from death at the hands of the gangsters who run Kingston, the pair have three days to figure out which of them, or both, will escape.


My full review can be found here. I was fascinated by the way the novel handles some interesting political points, while also painting a vivid world that’s very different to, and yet a logical extrapolation of, our own world, and Eli very kindly agreed to answer some questions for me.

1. The pace of Sour Fruit is breakneck for long stretches of the story. There’s so much action! How did you manage that level of plotting, and was it tiring to write?

EA: I love a good page-turner and wanted to have that kind of energy for my first novel… But I had no idea what I was doing so Sour Fruit was very much an organic writing process, hence the time it took to write. *Cough* three years and six months and er…*cough* another six months on top of that plus maybe a few more months to make sure. I just wrote until things started to slot together but it did nearly break me. So much had to be cut away.

Writers are so up close to the structure of everything it can be hard to see the plot for the ink so to speak.  So when it came to pacing I listen to my beta readers when they said certain parts were boring or too frenetic. You don’t have to take advice, but better to have suggestions and not need them than to need suggestions and not have them.

2. Rhea is a highly unconventional guardian/mentor figure, and I loved her. Was she always a soft foil to Onion’s furious mardiness? How did their relationship evolve, for you?

EA: Rhea is also one of my utterly favourite characters; I originally wrote Sour Fruit from her point of view. She was far more like Onion and Onion was more like her but I realised switching those personalities around and having Onion defy the young girl in peril stereotype was far more interesting.  It did mean I had to re-write Rhea’s character into something more nuanced and having to dump 60,000 words of that draft wasn’t easy either but it was worth it in the end.  Sometimes you have to let go to make room for better ideas. As for how their relationship developed I always knew I wanted to explore the more unusual bonds we can sometimes find ourselves in. Romance can be great in dystopia but I think we could be missing a trick.  There are so many strange, amazing and scary ways we bond with other human beings, I love delving into those odd corners and see what I can find.

3. Why did you pick Hull as the location? (I love that you picked Hull as the location!)

EA: Well Hull is a brilliant city of course, but I did need a river city that was ‘up north’ so that hedged it. It’s close enough for research purposes I’m a Yorkshire lass and Hull has such iconic buildings and a great layout, the main shopping street of Hull, was perfect for the Light Market. I wanted to explore climate change and the hard choices we’ll be forced to make.  Every small town and city on the coast won’t get a Thames barrier and what will happen to those cities that are left behind? The second book will explore the city after a huge flood which is exciting to write if a little tricky, no dashing off into alleyways and hiding in doorways when the water level is up to your chest.

4. When we were chatting earlier, you joked that you don’t really do subtle, but I think you did a brilliant job of weaving clear messages into your novel without making it one-note or pure didacticism. Would you like to talk a bit about how you managed that?

EA: Brace yourself this is a big one.

First thing I did was create a core statement for my book.

Sour Fruit’s is: ‘Being poor is like being invisible.’ I then built everything from that point. Themes, ideas, questions raised by this statement.   I built my locations to best highlight the point I was making. Trapping people in one place because the government deems them unworthy of help, shows what I’m trying to say without hitting the reader over the head with monologue or info dumps.

I created characters that would also represent either side of the statement. I gave Onion the opinion, poor people deserve to be treated as second class citizens because they’re all criminals or lazy.

I gave her this because;

  1. She can change, gotta love a character arc.
  2. So she can have ‘genuine’ conversations with characters of other views.

I wanted to avoid the moral crusaders agreeing how horrible the government/world dynamic and instead focuses on the grey. Asking questions that don’t always have a right or wrong answer.  People do bad things to survive but does that mean they’re bad? In a world of limited resources, how do you choose who gets what? Is morality a sliding scale or a hard line in the sand?  I tried to make it so Onion faces these questions organically by action and dialog, placing her with characters that think completely differently to each other and to her. Which brings me to…

Characters. I like to flesh out all of my characters. I never just create a flat character to serve a purpose, although they all should have a purpose. Characters should be there to test your core statement for AND against. When you create rich backstories and realistic personalities that will help with interactions that feel honest and fully formed rather than just academic. It also makes it easier to slip by high concepts and ideas because it’s the characters talking and arguing with themselves and the reader figuring out what they think. It’s not the author telling the reader what to think.

(EO: Thank you, Eli, this is such a brilliant answer!)

5. Which came first: plot, character or world?

EA: The main characters first, (even if there were a few missteps, to begin with) then the world. The idea of how to build a place where people survive without rights was fascinating.

Plot last.  Which now I know more wouldn’t be the way I’d do it again. Re-writes I curse thee! This book has made a plotter out of me.

6. There’s a framing device, but for long stretches of the novel, it’s easy to forget it’s there. Why did you include it?

EA: I liked the intimacy of telling a story by conversation but it also adds another level of mystery to the whole series. What are they doing in that room?  It will also be a way of exploring the world outside of Kingston for the second and third books. (Cheeky little spoiler for you there.)

7. Your writing is really interesting at sentence level. I would imagine you have to write quite slowly to achieve that level of inventiveness – is that true? Any tips for keeping your writing fresh?

EA: You’re making me blush!  Creating Onion’s distinctive voice was one of the hardest parts, but knowing how to balance it was really tricky. Should I go more extreme or tone her down? I was riddled with doubt, until my editor said, ‘go more, go bigger’ so I did. Sometime you need someone to give you a little push. I could have gone with a paired down easier to read voice, but Onion feels real to me because she’s easily distracted, vulgar, flawed. I’ve ‘known’ Onion for nearly six years now and hundreds of thousands of words later writing in her voice feels natural. I struggle to ‘turn her off’ when I write anything else.

Tips for keeping writing fresh… gosh…

1: Be bold, try new things,  you can always take it out later.

2: Avoid stereotypes by going in the opposite direction to your first thought. We’re all guilty of lazy thinking, I created a robust nurse character for the new book, and without thinking I made her a woman but then I realise how much more interesting if the nurse was a robust man. Instantly the nurse is more compelling with a tiny tweak. The same goes for family dynamics, locations, dialogue, outfits, everything!

3: But also play with reader’s preconceptions. Introduce a hard-boiled detective but really he’s a well-adjusted health nut who’s never drunk in his life. Or a plump 60-year-old grandma who’s baking cookies and the house gets shot at, and it turns out she’s really a mafia boss. Or a bond girl who’s actually the main villain all along and used Bond’s lusty behaviour against him to find out all his secrets and he had no idea.

The world is so much more than the tropes we’ve stuffed ourselves into, break free.

Thanks so much for your interesting questions and for listening to my strange rambles!

Please visit Eli’s website for more information about her and the book. Thank you for your fantastic answers, Eli!

April reading round-up

1. Love/Pride – Ellipsis Zine. There are some lovely pieces of flash fiction in here – my favourites were She’s Not There by Rosie Garland Repetitions by Laura Clay and How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbour Reporting You to Child Services by Christopher Allen.

2. The Overstory – Richard Powers. I was daunted by this, and a little frustrated by the stop-start nature of the first hundred pages (essentially around ten short stories about individuals set at various points over the past two hundred years). The writing is gorgeous, though, and the tree theme kept me at it long enough for the stories to start coming together, at which point the novel really took off. A beautiful, compelling book; my only criticism is of the ending, which didn’t, to me, live up to its promise. It also left me feeling worn down about activism/the planet in a way that David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth (March reading) didn’t.

3. America is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo. I enjoyed this lesbian communist Filipino story, and if that summary hooks you in any way, you probably will, too.

4. The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben. For various reasons, I’ve been reading this for months and months, in little snatches. It was especially lovely to finish it alongside The Overstory, since Powers has obviously read work akin to Wohlleben’s. Highly recommended.

5. There There – Tommy Orange. I really, really enjoyed the set-up for this; multiple character narratives that come together in something bigger is exactly my kind of book. IMO it didn’t quite follow through with the ending, but I really want to see what Orange writes next.

6. Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone. The second in his Craft Sequence – enjoyable and thought-provoking, but it didn’t grip me the way the first one did (that may be my fault, as it was my bedtime reading).

7. Speak No Evil – Uzodinma Iweala.

8. Murray Constantine, aka Katherine Burdekin – Swastika Night. Because women have always written prophetic utopias and dystopias, too, and damn, this one is terrifyingly grim. Seven hundred years after Hitler died, he is revered as a god, Germany and Japan have divided the world between them, and women are regarded (and treated) as subhuman. Doughty Englishman Alfred encounters a Knight (named, intriguing, von Hess) who unburdens himself of a secret: not only was Hitler short, dark-haired and dumpy, but women were once beautiful and the equals of men. The book is long on philosophical discussion that’s sometimes utterly chilling, but still very worth reading. Btw, this book was published in 1937! I find it both fascinating and horrifying that Burdekin could extrapolate to that extent – but I also see it as proof that many of the discussions in our public discourse today were also playing out in the 1930s. Hmm.

9. Hunger – Roxane Gay. I love Roxane Gay, and this book made me so sad. On one hand, as someone with disordered eating I recognised a lot of her thinking about food and the way she uses it. On the other hand, I’m not a plus-size person, but her beautiful writing made me feel acutely and in many different ways the pain of being in her body. Then there’s the horrific story that precedes her first period of weight gain – and again, I understand why she would be fascinated with the perpetrator of her pain. But the point at which I burst into tears and couldn’t stop for ten minutes came as she related the time her worst fears came true at a literary event in NYC. I don’t know why this upset me so much, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Roxane Gay is a beautiful human and an amazing writer, and this book is well worth your time. Everyone’s time.

10. Strix Issue 6. I ordered this thinking I was getting a little local publication, and was blown away by the first few poems by Jane Burn and others, plus the story Foundations by LC Elliott. Then again, they had a thousand submissions for this issue, so it’s not surprising that the standard is so high.

11. To Love and Be Wise – Josephine Tey. I’ve been gradually picking up Tey’s Alan Grant books (having read The Daughter of Time in my teens as every good Ricardian should), and this one was a gem.

12. Sour Fruit – Eli Allison. I loved this eco-dystopia set in Hull! Onion has been snatched. She wakes up chained to an armpit of a river city, earmarked for a skin-trader called The Toymaker. Surrounded by a creeping rot she has just three days to escape before the sold sticker becomes a brand.

It’s Onion’s anger that propels us through the disorienting opening scenes, as Onion is thrown from one crisis to the next (think out of the frying pan into the fire and then into the volcano, followed possibly by the sun) and the reader tries to figure out what’s going on. Onion’s voice is hugely compelling: furiously teenagerish in its bravado without ever quite hiding the fact that there’s a scared kid underneath.

But a book doesn’t stand on one character alone, and thankfully we also have Rhea, appointed as Onion’s unwilling jailer until she’s handed over to the appropriately ominous-sounding Toymaker, to guide us. Ostensibly a frightened mouse, Rhea takes everything Onion throws at her and basically gets on with doing the best she can in the circumstances. It’s as she leads Onion around the streets of Kingston that we really start to get a sense of the world behind the breakneck action – a world in which people who aren’t deemed worthy of citizenship are dumped in flooded Kingston (upon Hull, for those wondering) and left to fend for themselves.

While the evolving relationship between Rhea and Onion is the true high point of the story (for me), Eli Allison has also done a magnificent job of reimagining Hull as a flooded disaster city in which kindness can still flourish. It’s impossible to miss the fact that we’re in a dystopia, but Onion’s descriptions paint the crowded world in technicolour detail, while also making time for quiet beauty, like “The last of the light had turned the estuary bruise-purple, and the sky blood-red. If I squinted I could just make out the shadow of the bridge. I’ve always loved suspension bridges.”

The writing is always interesting: characters don’t jump, they “jack-in-the-box jump”. The deckchair “looked like a debutante’s fart could do it in” (Onion’s voice is truly a joy!). And I’m delighted to know this is only the first book in a trilogy, because if the first book packs this much in, I can’t wait to see what the next two will do.

13. The Half-God of Rainfall – Inua Ellams. A fun, moving story of clashing gods and a demi-god who just wants to play basketball. Oh, and it’s in verse. Well worth a read!

14. The Secrets of Ghosts – Sarah Painter. I really enjoyed the previous book in this series, The Language of Ghosts, and this was a good follow-up. It took me a while to get into it, but it’s excellent escapism.

15. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. This was such a beguiling, intriguing book. Set during the time at which Leopold of Belgium was ravaging the Congo (the repercussions of which are still felt today),  various disparate groups (Fabian socialists, Black Americans, Congolese natives) attempt to create their own utopia. Told from multiple, often marginalised points of view, we watch Everfair’s progress over twenty or so years, from its inception through the buffets and storms of World War I. While the politics are fascinating, I was most interested in the relationships that ensue and the ways in which these challenge the bigotries and preconceptions of many of the characters, from French Lisette and English Daisy, spurned lovers who become lovers themselves, through Fwendi & Matty and George & Martha (different races, disparate ages), to King Mwenda and his favourite Josina. It’s a hugely interesting book, and I’m looking forward to Shawl’s next full-length outing.

16. The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters. This book took me three goes, unusual given that Waters is one of my favourite novelists. It is a very slow start, full of intricate detail of Frances’s new life of drudgery. She and her mother have been left penniless following her father’s death and in the wake of her brothers’ deaths in World War I. When they are forced to rent out rooms to the paying guests of the title, lower class but more moneyed, Frances forges an unexpected friendship with the female half of the couple. Once the action hots up (er, in more ways than one), I was worried that I could see where the story was headed, but thankfully Waters steers it into more thoughtful, less melodramatic territory over the final hundred pages or so.

Books by people of colour: 6

Books by women: 8

Favourite: The Overstory