I can’t say that I’ve ever actually “met” Sarah Zama, but we have been something of Twitter pen pals for a couple of years now. She and I share a love of historical science fiction – specifically, “dieselpunk” or “decopunk” – science fiction set in the interwar years and WWII (the 20s, 30s and 40s). Naturally (since we dieselpunk fans are so hard to find), I had to pick her brains about the subgenre.
Sarah’s currently looking for representation for her Ghost Trilogy, set in 1920s Chicago.
9DW: Why do you think historical SF is so appealing to some readers?
Sarah Zama: Well, I can tell you why historical stories with any kind of speculative elements appeal to me.
I think the speculative element – whether fantasy, SF or horror – is a powerful storytelling tool. Fantasy – and I mean this in the broadest way possible – has the power to manipulate and morph the reality we know, to the point that some characteristics that are subtle or hidden in our everyday life become apparent in a fantasy reality. In this sense, fantasy has a habit of making us question what we know or think we know. I have never believed that fantasy is an escape from reality.
History is us, of course. It’s what we are and why we are what we are.
Put them together, and you have an explosive recipe for trying to learn our history, who we are, and try to do it in a questioning way, without taking anything for granted. History and fantasy together have the potential to rock the world as we know it. To make us think, question.
And questioning is the heart of storytelling.
9DW: What are some ways a writer can really draw you into their world?
SZ: Characters, most definitely. If I can see, smell, hear, feel and taste a world the same way characters do, I’m there with them.
Setting is definitely important, but I will always experience that world through the characters. They are my guide, and so without them there cannot be any journey.
9DW: How much historical accuracy do you think a book needs?
SZ: Since you’re asking me, I’ll say: as much as humanly possible.
But this is a very tricky part of writing historicals and every author has his/her own idea about it.
To me, history is people (it isn’t merely about people) and so it should always be treated with respect. This means you have to know it, first of all. You have to know history and social history well enough to take a reader back in time.
I don’t mean you can’t play with history. If you are using any speculative elements, you will do it. But I mean there should be a reason for any tweaking you do, there should be a message attached to any manipulation. Only then, the mix of history and fantasy will release all its potentialities. If you don’t respect history even in the moment you manipulate it, there is a solid risk you’ll end up doing a mess.
9DW: And how many historical details do you think a book needs?
SZ: Well, you’ll guess the answer: as much as possible.
Apart from what I’ve said above, I think details are the secret weapon of any storyteller. Where there aren’t details, there is only a general idea and I’ve never known a generic story which involves more than a detailed one.
Details is what turns characters into persons. What turns backstory into memory. Details is what helps a reader experience a fictional world through the characters to the point that world become real to the reader as it is to the characters… if only for the time of reading a story, of watching a film, or listening to a storyteller.
As I like to say, details belong to the devil and to storytellers.
9DW: What are some of the books that inspired you to write?
SZ: I can tell you exactly what book it was that inspired me to write. I was eight, my teacher was very much into turning us into readers, so at the end of the school day she would save twenty minutes to read a story aloud to us.
The first one she read was a fellow teacher’s project. Its title was The Magic Mountain. This teacher wrote a fantasy story together with her class of children the same age we were, where every student managed a character.
I enjoyed the story immensely (I still remember a lot of it in spite of… err… what little time has intervened), but above all it made me think, hey, if these kids could write a story, I can too!
Can’t say whether that was a brilliant idea or a terrible one… but I’m still writing fantasy stories today. Thank you, teacher.
Sarah Zama was born and raised in Verona, Italy. A long-time fan of fantasy in all its manifestations, Sarah is also very much into history and anthropology, a lover of myths and folktales. She is currently seeking representation for the first novel in her Ghost Trilogy, set in Roaring Twenties Chicago. She’s worked for QuiEdit publisher/bookshop for ten years.
(Keep at it, Sarah. I need an excuse to come to Italy. A book launch is as good a reason as any, so good luck and get working!)