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.

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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!

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