Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Q&A with Susanna Hislop

Susanna Hislop is the author of the new book Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Junket and The Sunday Times, and she also works as an actor, director, and theater maker. She lives in London.

Q: How long have you been interested in the constellations, and how did you get the idea for this book?

A: My background is in making theatre and storytelling as well as in writing and acting, so when Sarah Rigby (my editor at Hutchinson) had the idea that she wanted to make a book about the constellations, she was looking for someone who liked messing around with narrative, and having read some of my work in The Junket (the online literary quarterly I am an editor of) she approached me about the project and it all started there. 

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I spent a very happy time roaming around libraries and the internet and children's books hunting down as many constellation stories as I could find from across the world.

It was easy enough to find the classical myths - in all their many and mad Greek and Roman versions - and the Ancient Egyptian and even Mesopotamian stories are similarly relatively easy to find.

But trying to track down more esoteric or non-Western narratives was pretty tricky. And of course not all cultures even map the stars into the same constellations (Chinese astronomy in particular has a completely different set of constellations).

But what was both surprising, and hearteningly human, was how how much overlap there was between all the varying constellation myths - how many cultures saw dogs or dragons in the same places, and how these ancient stories had morphed over oceans and time into strange amalgamations of something essential we all know and recognise.

Q: Do you have a favorite constellation or favorite story about one of the constellations?

A: You've got to love Ursa Major - the Great Bear - because it's the one that easiest to spot (the handle of the Plough / Big Dipper's saucepan forms its tail) and it's one of the very few constellations that actually looks the most like the thing it's supposed to look like.

But I loved making up stories about some of the more recently discovered constellations that don't even officially have any myths attached to them - like the Telescope and other scientific instruments added to the firmament by the 18th century astronomer Nicholas de Lacaille.

And I especially enjoyed writing Leo Minor about the story of Catherina Elisabetha Koopman, the wife of Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, who, barred from being a scientist on account of being a 17th century woman, worked tirelessly alongside her husband and is now often considered as the first female astronomer.

Q: How did you, illustrator Hannah Waldron, and designer Will Webb coordinate your work on this project?

A: I was very lucky as it was a truly collaborative process - and it was a great pleasure to work with such talented artists who made the book far more beautiful than its words.

Hannah and I would discuss various ideas I was having or she was having with our editor Sarah Rigby, and then I would go away and write, and Hannah would respond to my drafts and one by one - there are, exhaustingly, 88 constellations - the constellations appeared (with just a bit of panic approaching various deadlines...).

Hannah, Will and Sarah then spent a huge amount of time trying to work out how to map each page in a way that was both scientifically accurate and aesthetically satisfying - a process that I think was very tricky and that I was blissfully unaware of.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished developing a show called How Does a Snake shed its Skin? with my theatre company Slip of Steel - it's a one-woman show about Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Thatcher and Virginia Woolf, and in the run up to Christmas I am doing a lot of storytelling in schools - horrifying 8-year-olds with gruesome details about Cetus the sea beast about to eat poor Andromeda, chained to the rocks. But I'm working on a new book, which I hope will emerge into the daylight sometime in 2016.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: After much deliberation, we put the constellation stories in alphabetical order, but there are hidden links between them if you find out how to join the stellar dots...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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