Interviewed by Ruby Cowling
Courttia Newland has published nine works of fiction, including his debut, The Scholar. His latest collection of speculative fiction stories, Cosmogramma, was published in 2021 by Canongate (UK) and Akashic Books (US). Newland’s short stories have appeared in many anthologies, been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and included in Best of British Short Stories 2017. He has been awarded the Tayner Barbers Award for science fiction writing and the Roland Rees Bursary for playwriting. He holds a PhD in creative writing and was previously associate lecturer at the University of Westminster. As a screenwriter he has co-written two feature length films for the Steve McQueen BBC series Small Axe, of which Lovers Rock was jury selected for Cannes, and opened the New York Film Fest 2020. Small Axe won the LA Critics Circle award 2020 for Best Picture. Impact, an original feature, is currently in development with Film Four and The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be, a science fiction short, is part of their science fiction strand, 4sight.
Ruby Cowling was born in Bradford and lives in London. Her short fiction has won awards including The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and her publication credits include Lighthouse, The Lonely Crowd, the Galley Beggar Press Singles Club and numerous print anthologies. Her collection This Paradise (Boiler House Press) was longlisted for the 2020 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and shortlisted for the 2020 Edge Hill Prize. She is the executive editor of Short Fiction.
Courttia and Ruby met in Stratford, London, to talk about Courttia's new short story collection Cosmogramma, and discussed influences, genres, and the joys of the short story form.
Ruby: Cosmogramma is a pretty unambiguously sci-fi collection. You’ve written across many different genres and forms including short stories, novels, screenplays, plays, sci-fi, literary fiction, YA, horror and speculative fiction. Is there any particular form or genre that feels most like “home” to you? Oh, I was going to say historical fiction, too – if you can count the 1980s as historical!
Courttia: Yeah, you can count that! I do have an interest in historical fiction. I want to write a historical novel. I’m looking at historical drama – recent historical, and a really way-back point of view. But it’s just about whether the story is good, to me, in terms of whether I want to write it. I don’t really care much about genre, with what I read or what I write (but especially with what I write – I’m a little less discerning as a writer than as a reader). It doesn’t matter to me, I don’t think “oh, I’m going to try out this genre”. But I’ve always wanted to write science fiction. From before The Scholar, I knew I wanted to write science fiction. That’s my big love.
Ruby: As you build your body of work is there one “seam” that feels as if it contains more richness than any other? Conversely, is there a form or genre that you haven’t yet tried, that’s calling to you?
Courttia: Definitely historical fiction. But the strand that runs all the way through, for me, is Black Britishness. That’s my area, and weirdly I discovered it after The Scholar. So it’s theme, rather than genre. Black Britishness, Black British culture, and how that connects to diaspora culture.
Ruby: The themes I got from this book were so rich and deep – human labour and our exploitation of each other; power and who has it and how it gets wielded; movement of people or peoples; living as a member of a diaspora down through the lines of generations; the pressures in play when a person leaves their family, or the country where they were born, and the subtle ways in which they are changed, as well as what or who gets left behind. These are realist themes, but you give them a speculative treatment, so they’re expressed through Futurism or horror or fantasy or other speculative approaches. I know I love writing speculatively because I feel there’s somehow more room to expand the themes. It gives me permission to look at them from loads of different angles, and I’m not necessarily bounded by total realism. In other words, I guess my question is a very long way of asking why you like sci-fi!
Courttia: I like the idea of being able to really push your imagination, like you said. And I’m just really into space. It was space that really caught my attention – the planets and the stars, and all that stuff – and then ideas of the African diaspora and how we can connect to that, whether it’s the myth of Nommo, or the Egyptians, or Sun Ra. The wealth of cultural connections we have.
My first encounter with sci-fi was actually Dub music. Seeing these album covers from Mad Professor, Scientist – cartoony covers with digital lettering, around banks of computers... I was like, “oh, wow, that’s amazing”, and that was way before I think I encountered say, Star Wars, or maybe around the same time. But that music was my first sci-fi experience. And out of that, I wanted to live in that world.
I think science fiction and Blackness are intrinsically linked. I don’t know if you know, but people say that Maafa, the Great Tragedy, the African Holocaust, is the most sci-fi experience in history. That’s how we term it. People came from somewhere else, and they kidnapped you, and took you to somewhere else, and you became another people. So that’s why people say that people in the African diaspora really connect to science fiction.
Ruby: Yeah, I totally see that in these stories. Another thing that’s really clear when reading them is the amount of craft and work that’s gone into them. And you co-authored a book on craft with Tania Hershman. So as someone with a lot of expertise on craft, can you give us an idea of your process in writing a short story? Or is there a typical process?
Courttia: It’s funny, when I was doing the book with Tania, I think I suggested we break down the evolution of our stories, and put that in there. Then when it came to it I realized I hadn’t been keeping track, in such a linear way, from beginning to end.
I don’t ever replicate the same process, even within the collection – they’ll all be done completely differently, and they’ll all come from different impetuses. So for example, Cirrostratus [about a circus of people with genetic body-modifications] came from reading a magazine article about this guy who managed to genetically grow an ear on his arm, or something, and I thought “I’ve got to write a story about that!” And it was influenced by the Steven Millhauser story The Knife Thrower, because I was really intrigued by it and just wanted to do something like it – I thought, this circus is going to be full of people like him. And that’s all it is, it’s just exploring [ideas like] that. With Cirrostratus I just wanted to do a story that doesn’t have any deeper-reaching themes than that, because, you know, sometimes you just can.
Ruby: Sometimes it’s just really cool to write about a guy with an ear on his arm!
Courttia: Yeah! And you know, the character is Black, but he doesn’t have to say he’s Black, you know, none of that other stuff that you always attribute to Blackness – he’s just living. He’s a human being first, which doesn’t mean it’s not important that he’s Black, it’s just not important to that story. Then with Scarecrow [a type of sophisticated zombie story] it was completely different. I had an idea for a novel, I plotted it all out, and I wanted to write a contradiction – it was going to be in a rural setting with young women, a family unit, and I wanted to do something where this person was isolated from her family and her boyfriend, and in the middle of London, and see if I could do the same. The novel was going to be the beginning of what happened, and the short story was going be [what happens] midway through. And I wanted to talk about domestic violence, but not directly. I wanted to say this is a woman who is going through domestic abuse, but use an allegory for it.
Generally, I get up, I write for three hours, and stop. [Laughs]
And something like Seed [in which mysterious seeds appear on the ground after a storm and begin growing into familiar shapes], took me about five years, I think, in total. Not five years writing it constantly, but about halfway through, I got stuck. Because what was meant to happen in the middle of the story was they were meant to have a big dinner party where all the residents of the street got together to discuss what to do about the seeds. And I couldn’t go any further. That was what was meant to happen in my mental outline, but I couldn’t write it for ages. And then I asked myself, what are you doing?! It’s just completely unnecessary. It has no consequences for the rest of the story! That’s why you can’t write it. The easiest thing was just to make it two people, and get rid of all the people who are unnecessary. And then it serves a purpose. And then I could write the riff.
Ruby: Get the action going.
Courttia: Yeah, get the action going, but also do something that’s within the confines of the characters in the story who already exist, rather than write a whole bunch of new characters who are not going to go anywhere. It’s a short story, so it’s not going to work. Get rid of them.
Ruby: I have to say I smiled more reading this book than I normally would when reading. It was just the sheer imagination, the twists of thought, where I thought “woah, great, he went there!” But also the craft and work that’s gone into it, and the humour and the specific bits of setting that are familiar to me, and from our world.
Courttia: Yeah, I didn’t really [name the setting] in Scarecrow, even though it’s set in Shepherd’s Bush. There’s only a couple of things, like the old Goldhawk pub, which you’ll know if you’re from Bush. “The back streets of Hammersmith”, she [the main character] says once, and that’s it. Oh and when she says “Iffley Road” – if you’re from West (London), Iffley Road is quite well-known. It’s just a residential road, but everyone knows it.
Ruby: I was thinking about the story Link, which is specifically set here in Stratford – and it features the old shopping centre, and how much I enjoyed the local detail in that one. I absolutely loved that bit where the old racist gets his head smashed in on the Amazon lockers – so satisfying, and I just loved the fact that you chose such a specific, horrifying contemporary thing!
Courttia: People have brought that up a lot, but you know what, I didn’t think about it in that way when I did it. It was just where they were in the shopping centre, and I looked around to see what was there and I thought yep, that’s the one. I didn’t do it with any kind of irony, or social commentary or anything.
Ruby: So not, like, “ooh, capitalism”!
Courttia: Yeah, no!
Ruby: In the title story Cosmogramma, the gifted can control the way colour is refracted through light, with their voices. It’s a gorgeous idea and actually there is a lot of colour in this book. It makes it really vivid and also my experience of it is that it brings it a lot of movement. Are you also a visual artist?
Courttia: No. But I always wanted to be one. That’s why so many people are painters in these stories. At first I was a bit like, I’m putting too many painters and artists in, and then I was like oh, it’s what I like, it’s what I’d like to be. And I vibe off it, as an author. I’ve got a lot of paintings like that in my house. So I just thought I might as well do it. And of course that story is based on the Flying Lotus album, Cosmogramma. That’s why [the central gift] is called Ellison Syndrome, for Steven Ellison.
Ruby: Oh, I didn’t pick that up, all that stuff, I didn’t pick it up.
Courttia: It’s okay, I was talking to [novelist] Derek Owusu the other day, he was like “Courtts man, your references are a bit obscure, you know!” [Laughs]. But no, it’s just a nod to [Ellison]. And also I just wanted to do something with music, I thought if I do Cosmogramma it has to be related to music. And he let me have that title. He said on Twitter, you can have it. And then I found out he got the title from his aunt [Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, the musician and spiritual leader]. I didn’t know that. I’d have been a bit more careful! [Laughs] But I think the story still stands up.
Ruby: When I was talking about themes I mentioned power. There’s a drive for these characters to take back their power, where it’s being taken from them. Sometimes they manage it, like in Dark Matters and in Cosmogramma, and maybe in Nommo, too, and sometimes they don’t, like in Control or Seed. I think this is a really difficult line for writers to tread – should I be optimistic, or should I be realistic or pessimistic? What kind of final place should I leave my characters in that isn’t disempowering? Especially when the themes are so big and important, like human exploitation and slavery, and class, and so on. I really admire your handling of it, I think you tread that line masterfully. What sorts of thinking do you do that informs the way you handle your characters? When does that decision to have an upbeat or downbeat ending come?
Courttia: Great question. Again, it’s different with every story, but I generally tend to try not to think like that. I don’t want to dictate the ending, it needs to come out of the characters and the choices that they make. And I’m not really trying to dictate anything by those endings, it’s not like a lot of them are bleak because I’m trying to say the world is bleak. It’s just that, I’ve got quite a dark frame of mind, and I don’t mind a dark ending to a story. A lot of the stories that I was trying to emulate, like Monsters by Robert Sheckley, you know, or The Birds…
Ruby: Oh, one of my favourite ever stories!
Courttia: Yeah, I said to someone – because I wrote this [book] for my PhD as well – and people were talking about the bleakness of the endings but also the abruptness of the endings, and I was like, “yeah, but in The Birds he’s just there, right, he’s just standing there, you don’t see what happens afterwards, do you?” He’s just there. But you know, you have an idea because of everything that’s happened, what’s the last thing that’s going to happen – you know it’s horrible. And I love that feeling. I love that feeling of this is going to be really horrible! But it’s done, it’s over, you don’t need to be told what happens, it’s obvious. I wanted to leave people with that feeling with a lot of the stories. That feeling of “oh my God”. Like in The Lottery, or The Birds, any of those stories.
Ruby: That’s what I came away with, and it’s because you write it from both points of view, it’s not her story or his story. It works. You just had bad readers!
Courttia: [Laughs] You know, I haven’t had any of these stories individually published, not one journal published any of these. Rejected every time, by Black sci-fi journals, mainstream sci-fi journals, all of them. But now they’re published as a collection, I’m getting “oh my God, they’re really good”. And that always happens to me as well [laughs].
Ruby: Really? Is that perhaps because most of the sci-fi/speculative magazines tend to be American? Because most of these journals are American, aren’t they?
Courttia: Yeah, or American-leaning.
Ruby: So maybe there’s, I don’t know, a tonal thing that’s different?
Courttia: Maybe a tonal thing, I don’t know. I think they don’t read in the same way. I think if you’re trying to read them as Afro-Futurism, it’s not going to work, because they don’t behave like Afro-Futurism stories. Same with [A River Called Time], it doesn’t behave as an Afro-Futurist novel. And that’s because it isn’t, in a way! It’s something else, which they haven’t defined yet, and I don’t think they should define. I call it African Futurist stories, just because they don’t fall stylistically into the pocket that Afro-Futurist stories do. Its concerns are not what happened to African-American descendants of slaves in America. I never go there. And why should I?
Ruby: So they’re looking for one thing, and when they don’t see that one thing, they don’t see anything else either.
Courttia: Yeah. And also, I think it’s subversive. I want to subvert the English short story anyway. Even in terms of rhythm. The rhythm of opening paragraphs. I want to write my opening paragraphs differently. Most short stories have the same rhythm, all the time, even ones by different writers.
Ruby: Yeah, that’s why I smiled so much reading these, because I was like “thank God, something fresh”. And then every time I turned to a new story it was something fresh again. Sometimes with collections you get halfway through and you feel like you’ve read it.
I’ve got one more main question. I wanted to talk to you about Dark Matters in particular. I think that’s probably my favourite - I found it really moving. It’s a Stephen King-style horror story but then you completely subvert it into this embrace of “blackness” for the young male character Max. It’s really beautiful.
So I wanted to ask you about your young characters. In this one and Link, and Control, young people are the focus, which brings even more emotional rawness to the situations and, for me, raises the stakes for them in terms of their vulnerability in a society that’s hostile to people who look like them. You’re really compassionate with your characters and these young ones in particular, which brings a lot of warmth to the page, even when things are bleak. I wondered whether young characters in particular provoke a kind of empathy trigger in you.
Courttia: I do. I do. And I realized how many of my stories are about teenagers. You know I started off writing about teenagers –I was 21 when I wrote my first novel, and I felt very close to them. Obviously I care a lot about kids. My son is 13, so I’m always thinking about that. And I’m talking about myself as a kid as well – Max in that story is definitely me, man. He lives in my old house, where I grew up, with the train tracks running at the back of it. It’s an image and location that’s in River, as well – that’s my old house with the Central Line running at the bottom of the garden. And he goes to the warehouse –basically, you come out my house, underneath the Westway, go down Wood Lane, past BBC Television Centre, with White City train station on the left, and where Westfields is now, when I was growing up that was all warehouses and derelict land, and that’s where we used to go and play, and so that’s where it happens. Even the little park is the little park by my house, and the people who saw him and thought he was taking drugs – on my road there was a load of elderly people who’d lived in these houses for years and years and they would always gossip to my mum about “I saw him smoking, I saw him with his friends, I saw him with a girl”. [Laughs]
So yeah, [Dark Matters], that was definitely about me, and I was trying to riff on my own feelings growing up. Also, I was trying to subvert this idea of blackness being evil, which you’re always seeing in these sci-fi stories, you know? It’s always like “Argh, the darkness, it’s too much!”
Ruby: Yeah, like Black Spider-man and all that.
Courttia: Yeah. And I was just like, how can I subvert that? I think I was originally doing that, and then halfway through the story I realised, oh it’d be really cool if actually, he [the black form the teenagers meet] wasn’t evil, but was a friend to them. So that was fairly simple, then, to write. Although it was simple to write in terms of structure; it wasn’t simple in terms of the actual story. I wrote so many drafts of that. And it took me ages, I’m talking years, to get it right.
With Control, I wanted to talk about a white dude who has empathy, but also his epiphany is that he thinks the world’s fucked, but then he realises it actually really is, racially. That guy’s going to go off and be a mad activist, later. That’s when he has the “right, that’s it, I’m gonna fight this.” But it has to get that bad, for him to go “that’s it”. I wanted to write from a white perspective with that one. And with Link, I wanted to talk about Brexit, but not really. I’m not really sure what that one’s about, I have to say!
I’ve done a TV series version, when everything happens after Brexit Day, although actually there is no Brexit Day, it’s completely different. It’s more alien takeover, and they never have a reason why.
Ruby: That’s the nice thing about the short story, you can take an idea really far, and you don’t have to justify yourself with loads of backstory.
Courttia: Yeah. People ask that – why would they do that? – and there’s no why, we just don’t know. It’s like The Birds, you know. Why did the birds turn on people? You don’t know.
Ruby: Yeah. Who cares – just run!
Courttia: Yeah, exactly!
Ruby: To finish, can you tell us what you’re working on next?
Courttia: I have the TV series of Link. But also another collection of stories. It’s going to be called Conversations with the Unseen, which is an album by Soweto Kinch, a British jazz artist. Every collection is going to be themed around music, every single one – Music for the Off-Key, Book of Blues, Cosmogramma, Conversations with the Unseen, and I dunno after that. [Laughs] And the theme is going to be Black masculinity; Black British masculinity. It’s going to be twelve stories, and I have nine, and I know what the rest are supposed to be, but who knows, there might be some arbitrary ones. And lots of feature films. I’m working on two features, and two TV series, a writers’ room, and pitch documents. Absolutely loads!
Ruby: Amazing. You sound incredibly busy and it’s all super interesting. Thanks so much Courttia!
You can read an extract from 'Control', taken from Courttia's most recent (and brilliant) collection, Cosmogramma, here.