A conversation with Gail Ingram.
A J Fitzwater: Absolutely, writing No Man’s Land was resistance to the received narrative of women’s contribution to the war workforce, and resistance to the hidden histories of queer people in Aotearoa New Zealand. I read a book about the land girls which made me angry that I hadn’t been taught women’s war history better. I had some idea about Rosie the Riveter as a feminist hero, but I didn’t realize until further research she was a real person, not just a caricature, and the massive part women played in the war effort across the globe.
This concept of hidden histories tied into my interest in hidden women SFF writers – they were always there, but the twisty knots of the patriarchy tried to tell us a different story so it felt like we were rebuilding a literary practice from scratch every generation. The deeper you dig, the more intersections of violence – race, class, ability, sexuality – become apparent. How do you make progress when it feels like you have to reinvent the wheel, answer the 101s, and soothe egos? It burns you out.
Removing a people’s history – their access to knowledge, resistance, education, economic power – is systemic violence. I’m part of a literary practice in SFF that is saying Not Today, Satan. There’s too much work to do in a short time. We have always been here, and what we know of ourselves from yesterday can inspire and support us into tomorrow.
AJF: The biggest inspiration for the book is Dianne Bardsley’s The Land Girls: In a Man’s World 1939-1946 (Otago University Press, 2000). Browsing a bookshop, I picked it off a shelf of Aotearoa New Zealand women’s history at random, and was immediately struck by the image on the front cover of a buff woman shearer. The multi-layered title popped into my head, and I knew I had to write this story.
I sought out other books about NZ women in wartime – the Hidden Figures and Bletchley Girls stories were also becoming popular at the time – but Bardsley’s book was the one full of the most detail, from the uniform to the farming kit, wages to community and government attitudes towards the women. There was nothing in the book about queer women out on the farms, but other mid-century research and anecdotes told me they existed – the spinster aunties living together, the boys and their secret clubs, the bars and coffee houses across the Pacific. Safe zones, refuges, found families – they found each other, almost like instinct. Like magic.
I took that instinct/magic and turned it into fantastical magic based on some of Māori living culture – the taniwha, shape-shifters, protectors of the land and its people.
To the Girls,
And the ones who went unseen.
AJF: It’s about respect for sacrifice – for the land girls who didn’t get their due and did the hard slog in obscurity, the trans folx who fought for visibility and survival, and the ones who sought safety in silence.
AJF: I didn’t know that No Man’s Land was going to become a book when I started writing it. It began life as a short story that just kept growing the more I dug into the research and characters. There wasn’t even going to be any romance, but the characters had different ideas. I was mucking around with characters’ pages at one point when it suddenly clicked – Ohhh, Izzy is a butch lesbian. That changed the entire second half in the first rewrite.
The book was my first foray into writing a longer project as I’d positioned myself (in my mind) as a short fiction author, so it was an experiment and exploration of my abilities. In retrospect, the frustration of shaping multiple chapters was a reward in perseverance. Technically, I learned how to plot by trial and error, because I kept telling myself, “I’m not writing a book!”
My writing space is wherever I can grab some time outside the day job. Most often it’s in my office, which I’ve stuffed with all my favourite things (books, comfy chair, artwork, toys). The sunlight comes in at just the right angle mid-afternoon. Quiet, a good cup of tea, and a warm cat nearby is enough to settle the constant noise in my head for a bit so I can squeeze out something meaningful.
AJF: I am constantly delighted whenever I look at the cover art, because Laya captured the essence of the book so beautifully. I originally shared land-girls poster artwork from the era, wanting to capture the colour and style, but it was Laya who came up with the eels. The images embedded in the giant eels do a lot of heavy lifting if you look at the detail – there are the Southern Alps, the river and shale bed, farmland, war trenches, barbed wire, and fighter aircraft. I love the blue vs yellow/brown of the sky vs land divide, surrounded by negative space – that digs deep into my Fury Road-loving heart and the movie’s use of the colours, space, and horizon divides for worldbuilding.
AJF: I set myself a challenge because I’m stubborn, and I wanted to tell different stories to what was being upheld as “good SFF”. That challenge was set ten years ago, when the landscape of queer writers and stories was completely different. I’ve grown as a person and writer since then, and the industry has grown too. In some ways, it’s slightly easier because queer stories and narratives outside the US-centric SFF world are coming in demand. In other ways, I’m just as stubborn as before. I’ve shifted that stubbornness into other areas, like telling NZ stories (took me a lot to get over my cultural cringe), telling trans stories, and taking on the education, understanding, and work of uplift.
Overseas publishers struggle with NZ vernacular and ideas. We are a colonized country, brought up on received narratives of whiteness and language, but they still try to “Americanise” (with an S, not a Z!) us. I’ll fight for my Yeah, Nah and casual use of te reo til my dying breath.
I’m glad we have a few local publishers willing to take a punt of NZ speculative fiction. It’s great this year we have the focus of the world on us because of Worldcon! But, as with all pivots we’ve had to make because of the pandemic, we make the best of the situation.
I’d also like the greater NZ literature scene to be involved in a conversation about speculative inclusion, stretching and growing out of labels and ideas. Usually, a NZ- specific author finds their audience overseas, or has to downplay their kiwiness. It’s very rare for a NZ SFF book to be picked up here on a grand scale outside of YA.
AJF: It is SO. HARD. to read during the pandemic and All Of This. I’ve found it easier to commit to shorter works, so I’ve mostly been reading novellas. Not a bad project, in hindsight, since I want to write more novellas. I want to get a broad feel of what publishers want, and what I can offer. So, that’s been works like Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose The Time War, Wells’ Murderbot series (I. Love. Murderbot), Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby, and Chambers’ To Be Taught If Fortunate.
My influences go in very clear generations: Anne McCaffrey got me started seriously reading science fiction (and made me realize that I could write it), Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr brought me back in (and put me on the path to what I wanted to write about), and N.K. Jemisin constantly sets the bar and makes me want to be a better writer.
You’ll also find me reading a LOT of queer SFF and authors. Like, that’s where my people are at.
AJF: No Man’s Land book party at Scorpio Books, Christchurch, on Wednesday July 15 from 5.30pm! The Scorpios event was the first thing I put down on my promotional Want List, and I’m so happy they’ve kept us pencilled in place all throughout lockdown, even though we’ve been pushed back a month.
I have other things in the works that I can’t talk about right now, but ya know, it’s part of finding one’s joy during the Strange Times I talk about. Having something to look forward to helps keep my feet on the floor every morning, keeps me working, keeps me doing the work of hope.
I had a writing plan for the year, which included having work drafted to pitch to an agent, but it’s all gone up in smoke. I have a trilogy of connected novellas I want to write about a genderqueer brain ship. They’re all plotted, but I’m about six months behind on getting started. I also have a connected set of stories about queer NZ histories/people I want to research and write. I want my writing joy back!
AJF: Nga mihi, e hoa.
No Man’s Land: Links
Paper Road Press link:
Universal e-book purchase link: