Mobile librarian by day writer of heart stomping post-apocalyptic fiction by night GX. Todd has crashed landed into the writing world with an earth shattering bang. Her debut novel Defender is a genre defining success (you can read our review of it here), and we were lucky enough to get the opportunist to sit down with Gemma for a chat about among other things book and her obsession with drawing maps for the books she writes.
Hello Gemma, how does it feel to finally have Defender released upon the World?
It’s actually really, really lovely. Almost the equivalent of sending your kids off to University or something. It’s out in the big world now and all I can hope is that it behaves itself.
I take it you still can't sit back and relax. How much of your time is now dedicated to promoting the book?
A lot of time is spent on emails and admin these days. And I lose entire days to events or visiting somewhere (there aren’t that many big bookish events held in the Midlands for some reason). And once I’ve been out working/travelling for 7 or 8 hours, I find it very difficult to come home and turn the laptop on. I just want my pyjamas and Slanket. It’s a difficult balance between promoting Book 1, editing Book 2, and needing to get Book 3 handed in by the end of August.
Was your decision to set the novel in a version of our world so that you didn't waste so much of your time drawing a map of it instead of writing it?
HA! I’ve still drawn a map! Although it’s not as fancy as my fantasy themed ones. Actually, that’s not quite true – I’ve printed off a blank United States map from the internet and been plotting routes and journeys across most of it. I cheated.
You initially wrote Defender as a stand alone novel, however, on completion, you felt the characters had more to say. Is there anything in particular that you felt you had to explore in the future books?
Man, loads. I have so much in store for the voices, and for the people who hear them. I’m looking forward to you all meeting the Flitting Man and exploring the back stories of some of the characters you’ve already met. You’ll be seeing more glimpses into the events that surrounded the collapse of society and the arrival of the voices. And I have tonnes of shocking moments in store for you all. I’m most interested in taking readers’ expectations and turning them on their heads. The tension caused when you love someone, wholeheartedly, but can’t trust them is going to be an ongoing theme, too.
Defender is a post-apocalyptic novel, why do you think this genre of novel still has such a wide appeal with readers?
Let’s be honest, the world right now is going to hell in a handbasket. Having a projected future explicitly described on the page, especially where people are fractured and torn apart because of their differences, can make us analyse our own behavior and prejudices. And on the flipside, most post-apocalyptic tales throw a beacon of light and hope on terrible situations; the goodness in people shines most brightly when we’re thrown into darkness. It’s important we see that, too.
The novel has a great premise regarding what caused the apocalypse, where did the idea for this come from?
It’d be so easy to say it came from the voice in my head, but I’ll resist. It came from thinking about how a person would cope with being alone for seven years. What kind of mechanisms would they develop to keep their sanity? I thought talking to a “voice” would be one way. And then I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if that very voice, and ones like it, were the exact thing that helped kill so many people to begin with?
And why did you set it in the US?
I’m going to steal Beth Lewis’s answer to this: The UK isn’t big enough for my imagination. Plus, everything that I personally love to read and watch is all set in the States. 90% of all writing I’ve ever done, even since I was a kid, has been set in the U.S. of A. I’ve visited a fair few times, too. Road trips over there are a passion of mine.
The novel deals with some dark issues, such as loneliness and the psychology and ramification of violence. Why are these themes important to you?
I was listing all my hobbies to a journalist the other day and came to the realisation that they’re all solitary pursuits. I quite often choose to be alone. I like my own company. But that’s with the knowledge that my family are a room or phone call away. Would I appreciate the peace and quiet quite so much if there was absolutely no one around? I doubt it. And the violence thing is just my misanthropy coming through. I think we’re a horribly destructive species, in general. Come the end of the world, I strongly suspect most of us would do very violent things in order to protect our ourselves and our loved ones. As a writer, exploring those dark places is endlessly fascinating.
Most of us have that little voice in the back of our minds, what does your voice, and do you ever listen to it?
Oh, all the time. I wish I could ignore it more often. The days I go out in jogging bottoms with my hair tied back are the days I tell it fuck off. All the other days, I feel fat and unattractive and pretty worthless. I think we’re all fighting those insidious little voices all the time. It’s why using voices in this series works so well – we can all relate on some level.
The novel has some rather nasty stuff happen to the female protagonists. In the context of the story, they come across as believable, but rather shocking. Were you ever concerned that they would come across as voyeuristic titillation?
I made the conscious decision to not have much sexual violence on the page. The nastiest it gets is that first incident near the start of the book. I infer a lot, to be truthful, but I leave the vast majority up to reader’s imagination, if that’s somewhere they want to go. I think the rest of the violence is pretty non-discriminatory. They all have a shitty ride of it at one point or another.
Do you think that when writing about violence against women, it's for want of a better expression, more justifiable if written by a woman?
I think any writer who wants to write good stories needs to think first and foremost about the authenticity of their story. If the violence is necessary, to further the development of plot, setting or character, then it shouldn’t matter who’s doing the writing. The statistics are troublingly high for women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted in some form. I’d class myself as one of them. Asking how justifiable writing about it is, based on whether you’re a man or woman, is kind of missing the issue.
The book also deals with how ordinary people survive in a post-apocalyptic world. What skills do you have that would be useful in such a world?
I…have none. I just wracked my brains for 5mins and came up empty. I will say I’m unusually calm in emergency situations, though. I’ve been in a few now, and this eerie sense of equanimity settles over me and I feel able to cope with most anything. Maybe that could be useful…
How important are the names in the book? Was Pilgrim always Pilgrim always Pilgrim, or did he have other names?
Pilgrim was Pilgrim before I even wrote the first sentence. Defender was originally titled Pilgrim before I was told it had to be changed. Lacey was always Lacey, too. I don’t remember struggling to find any of the characters’ names. So, I guess their names are extremely important because it’s how they introduced themselves to me.
One of my favourite scenes of the book is the one set in the library, where you namecheck some the genre's finest authors, how long did you spend selecting the names, and is there anyone you wish you had included?
About as much time as I spent trying to think what skills I could bring to a post-apocalyptic world. I suppose it’s my small way of thanking those authors – Defender wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be writing if those guys hadn’t written those books.
There is a shocking moment concerning Pilgrim in the early stages of the book, without giving anything away, was this always planned or did the twist come out of nowhere even for you?
Yep, it was always planned (insofar as I plan anything), and it’s a big nod to Alfred Hitchcock – I can’t say any more than that otherwise we’d be treading in spoiler territory again. It was one of the main reasons I wanted the book to be called Pilgrim.
The book has a great cinematic feel, who would cast in the leading roles?
I spent about two hours yesterday, discussing this with my buddy Stuart. I think someone like Aaron Eckhart or Ethan Hawke (for the blonde Pilgrims), Karl Urban or Hiroyuki Sanada (for the darker haired Pilgrims). But, you know, I think a complete unknown would work best – Pilgrim is such an enigma, it’d be good to have a stranger play him.
I'd love to know more about your day job, what's it like being a mobile librarian?
It’s full of variety, mainly because, when I’m not in the office (or “Base”, as we call it like it’s a superhero lair), I’m out on the road. We stop at over 40 sites every week, in all different locations, so it’s impossible to get bored. And that doesn’t even include the Home Library (housebound service), which I cover, and going out to retirement homes, care homes and schools. I even do story sessions with 4-5 year olds (not stories I’ve written, I hasten to add – the nippers would never sleep again if I told them those).
And now that your book is out, will you be making use of your job and stocking up the van with copies of your book?
Ha! I wish. Unfortunately, what with the local government cuts and reduction of library services, our book budget has been slashed. They’ve only been allowed to buy six copies of my book, so it’s not such a success story in that respect.
How happy are you with the reception to the book?
The reviews I’ve been getting are outstanding. I couldn’t have asked for better. You always fear the reception, because I understand that not all books can be loved by everyone. I’m delighted the vast majority of readers have been enjoying it, though. The only thing that would be even nicer would be to have Stephen King adopt me. I’m still holding out hope on that one.
When can we expect to see the next volume, I for one can't wait to jump back into the world?
Thanks, Jim. Book 2, titled Hunted, will be out January 2018. And the paperback of Defender will be out in August. Just in time for your summer reading!
'So accomplished that it's difficult to believe it's a first novel, Defender is already worthy to take its place alongside The Stand in the canon. An absolute gem of a book' John Connolly
'On the cusp of sleep, have we not all heard a voice call out our name?'
In a world where long drinks are in short supply, a stranger listens to the voice in his head telling him to buy a lemonade from the girl sitting on a dusty road.
The moment locks them together.
Here and now it's dangerous to listen to your inner voice. Those who do, keep it quiet.
These voices have purpose.
And when Pilgrim meets Lacey, there is a reason. He just doesn't know it yet.
Defender pulls you on a wild ride to a place where the voices in your head will save or slaughter you.