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Surviving climate change

Surviving climate change

Award-winning writer NICKY SINGER's THE SURVIVAL GAME explores a near future in which the world is in the grip of climate change and hundreds of thousands of migrants are searching for a new home.

THE SURVIVAL GAME follows teenage girl, Mhairi, and a young African boy during their arduous journey to Scotland and their confrontations with borders and bureaucracy; how, the novel asks, will a future world manage these shifting populations?

We asked author NICKY SINGER to tell us more about how THE SURVIVAL GAME developed:

Q: In The Survival Game, you explore questions around migrants and the hostility the West has shown towards immigrants. Why did you want to write this book?

A: Many moons ago, I asked my friend Tom Burke (then director of Friends of the Earth) what he really thought would happen if we failed to get to grips with increasing global temperatures. 'Well,' he replied, 'you'd better be prepared to go to Scotland and take a gun'.

The image stayed with me - but I didn't know how to write the book he was telling me needed to be written. The subject was too big, too disempowering - people's eyes glazed over when you mentioned it. Years passed. Then came the migrant crisis and the hardening of attitudes and borders.

The girl with the gun began whispering in my ear. Might her story intersect with this new anxiety? And why were we so anxious anyway, so lacking in empathy? I began to think it might be because for those of us in relatively politically/climate stable countries the migrant is almost always 'other'; we are not the displaced, the ones forced to travel.

So here was my challenge: could I finally bring this story 'home'? Write about a very near future where one of those displaced people could truthfully be you - or me?

Q: How did you decide on its timing - slightly in the future but in a changed world?

A: Is this world so very changed? OK - I pushed the envelope a bit, but not much. And for the record, the basic scenario in the book is one that my aforementioned friend Tom Burke (who now heads up the independent climate change think-tank E3G) thinks could actually be upon us in 30 years if we don't change our ways.

I wanted Mhairi's world to feel as close as it actually might be. That's one of the reasons I think people call the book 'terrifying' - because actually some deep part of us knows it could be for real.

Q: Why have you focused this story on a half Scottish teenage girl, Mhairi, and a young Sudanese boy who she names Mohammed?

A: There are different sorts of truths in books. Scotland is the land of my foremothers and I have a very strong feeling for the landscape, even though I've never actually lived in there myself. That keyed into some of the book's themes about 'home'. There is also something very rugged, very powerful about some of the Scottish people I have known - especially island people and that played well for Mhairi and also her grandmother.

It's interesting that you think of the boy as Sudanese. That is never said. Mhairi describes him only as looking like a Berber, and Berber people come from all over Africa. This is another kind of truth - ie climate change will disproportionally displace people who live in equatorial regions, and this includes not just one African country but many, many African countries.

I deliberately left the boy's country of origin unknown/unknowable in the narrative hope that he might gain a kind of 'everyman' quality - or rather, 'everychild' quality. That he could stand for any displaced child of the world for whom we have (or should have) responsibility.

Q: Most of the book is concerned with Mhairi's journey back to Scotland; why did you choose to make the journey such a strong focus of Mhairi's story?

A: A journey is always narratively exciting: will they/won't they get to their destination? Will they/won't they find what they expect if they do get there?

A journey also raises the stakes; what will these characters be prepared to risk - or sacrifice - to get where they're heading?

Q: Why is it written in the first person?

A: First person is very good for a driving narrative. There is quite a lot of 'backstory' in The Survival Game, and even moments, if you like, of pause and poetry, so it was important to me to keep the main narrative thread moving very fast.

Q: How did you research the survival details in the story?

A: From the internet but also from my brother in law - Phil, who crept into the story as Fireflint Phil...

Phil has always been an eco-activist and he has made sure to teach his children the things he thinks will be important for the world they are going to inherit. Everything from being able to grow their own food to fire-making. ie not stuff you learn in school!

I've joined him on various excursions, including one into a wood to identify the best sort of bark for fire-making and how to construct a 'tinder-nest'.

Q: Where did you go to research the issues around being a migrant - how they are treated, their preoccupations, why they decide to make their journeys etc?

A: I read a lot of first-hand accounts - especially from those travelling from Sudan, where I knew Mhairi's journey would begin.

If you're interested - and I think we probably all need to be interested - there are many refugee organisations with websites where you can find (often harrowing) real life tales. But for a writer, it's always the tiny details, the ones you can't make-up (the forgetting to say 'thank you', the being able to sustain miles of walking more easily if you know where you're heading) that lay the surest foundation for your story.

Q: The focus of the Western populations in your book are around protecting their own. Do you feel the organisation, bureaucracy and security details you use to flesh this out could describe a real-world scenario; or indeed already is for many?

A: It's already happening. I put migrant children in cages in my imagination a scant 18 months before Donald Trump started doing it for real on the Mexican border. For the record, I didn't actually separate migrant children from their parents. President Trump was ahead of me there.

Meanwhile, here in Europe, of course, we have been busy closing borders as a response to a few hundred thousand Syrians fleeing war. And in the UK we've been asking members of the Windrush generation to go 'home' to countries they left over 60 years ago.

I really didn't have to make much up. I just did a small fast-forward to ask - if this is what it's like now, what will it be like when climate change displaces people in their millions? And what exactly are we going to do about it? The Survival Game is my attempt to spark that conversation. Especially with young people - because, finally, it's their future that's on the line.

Q: How do you feel future generations will judge ours around the issue of migrants and immigration?

A: Badly! Unless we begin to step up to the plate and realise that actually, we're all in this together. That finally, we belong to just one race - the human race. That's pretty much what Mhairi has to learn - ie her journey is not just about the miles she travels on her feet but also about the distance she travels in her heart.

Q: How has writing this book compared with your earlier books? Was it a tough book to write?

A: I know why you'd think it was tough, but actually it wasn't. Mhairi just exploded on the page. Though I did do something I've never done before - set off on the journey with her not having tacked absolutely everything down in advance, which is what I normally do. So, I really felt I was on the rollercoaster with her and stuff was unfolding in front of us simultaneously.

Q: Where and when do you write?

A: I pretty much keep business hours! 10am to 6pm each day with a lunch break if the work allows. Of course, when I'm deep in, I'm subconsciously on the job 24/7 and often solve things when I'm out walking or doing the washing-up rather than when I'm at my desk.

Q: What kinds of books do you enjoy reading?

A: When I'm writing, I tend only to read non-fiction, because a strong narrative voice in someone else's fiction can sometimes influence what comes out of the mouths of my characters... When I'm at the start of a book, researching or planning, then I read fiction. Bliss.

Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing?

A: I don't really want to escape from writing. It's like breathing, if I don't do it I die a little.

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