Springboard: Rosa Rankin-Gee, Dreamland

Springboard: Rosa Rankin-Gee, Dreamland

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Speculative or dystopian stories and ideas are on people’s minds right now. How did you come to this genre?
I have always been fascinated by close futures, grounded in realism. We are living at a time when world and political events feel stranger than fiction. In a sense, nothing feels impossible any more. I started the book seven years ago—before Brexit; before Trump—so it’s been terrifying to watch certain things I had imagined in the book (with distant horror) actually happen in real life. I think we can feel a confusing attraction to dystopia—hope, and lack of hope, is all bundled together. It can be a form of stoicism: confronting things that you don’t want to happen happening, so you work through fears and feel more able to cope with them. Dystopia can be a form of relief: the world we live in is terrible, but at least it’s not that bad yet. And it’s a form of protest—this is what might happen, but we can’t let it.

Dreamland takes place in Margate in a near, bleak future that is—chillingly—perfectly plausible. Is there any hope for Britain?
Hope comes and goes. There are days when one can look at the news and hope is very hard to summon. I’ll be clear—I don’t want this to happen. And it’s not a prediction. When it comes to Margate, when I see a new gallery, or restaurant, or huge party of blissed-out day-trippers on the beach, I feel relieved, excited, hopeful. Though of course, even things going “well” for places like Margate can have a dystopian effect for the most vulnerable people there—with rents rising and new waves of displacement taking place. In sum, there are lots of different dystopian possibilities, but also utopian ones, if we are willing to do the work to fight for them.

Was freeing the protagonist Chance’s sexuality from labels and stereotypes important to you?
Much less so now, because we live in an extraordinarily changed world from even 10 years ago, but the majority of the (very few) gay stories we had growing up were defined by a coming-out narrative: coming out and struggling with acceptance was so often the key (and sometimes only) conflict. I wanted the tension in Chance’s relationship to come from a different angle; to have the breadth of possibilities that straight love stories are afforded. Sexuality is not an issue in Chance’s Margate, which isn’t meant to be a stand-out utopian element, by the way... it simply feels realistic in terms of where we are now, and where young people are leading us.

You’re really good at writing sex scenes, which many authors are terrible at. What are your tips for getting them right?
Practise, practise, practise! No, I’m kidding. I think falling in love or into sexual obsession are the most extraordinary things that can happen to someone. I tried to approach it without nerves or embarrassment, or a smoke machine. I think obfuscating and euphemising is maybe where the greatest danger lies. An earlier version of this book had too much sex. I remember a friend reading it and trying to say, as nicely as she could, “Maybe you could take some of that stuff out and turn it into a separate Kindle Single?!” She was right! I hope it has the right balance now. [Fictional drug] Kem sounds horrendous.

What did you envisage the experience of being on it was like?
I’m really not a drug taker. I haven’t even smoked weed, which I always say as if it’s a party trick... obviously, no-one cares. I’ve always been really interested in drugs though. I pestered all my friends as a teenager for descriptions. “When you say the ketamine was like your head was trapped in a small room that’s getting smaller—can you expand on that please?” Kem was interesting to imagine. I would say it’s a kind of rough, ad-libbed British meth. It’s also got out-of-date legal highs and old e-cigarette liquid in it to bulk it out. In terms of its effect and basic make-up (methamphetamine plus filler), it took inspiration from a psychoactive Greek drug called Sisa, which was particularly prevalent during austerity.

I think you are a writer who is really interested in place. What is inspirational about Margate and Thanet?
Certain places just make sense—your body and your eyes say “Yes, this is the place.” I feel that in Thanet. I really do think it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. At the same time, writing about a difficult future makes one particularly sensitive to difficult or dark elements of a place. The British seaside offers a lot to see.
We associate dystopia with the future, but if it’s “a state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice”, it is already upon us. I spent the first lockdown alone, because my girlfriend had been in the US with her family when all travel stopped. It was a bare time. But I can’t tell you how thankful I was for the sea. For the light on it. For its skies. For the way it changed when nothing else could.

Dreamland (9781471193811) by Rosa Rankin-Gee is published on 15th April by Scribner. The hardback costs £14.99.