Interview with Author Xan van Rooyen

Earlier this month we sat down with author Xan van Rooyen (My Name Is Magic) about their new novel Silver Helix, out this week from Android Press.

Solarpunk Magazine: How would you describe Silver Helix to folks who’ve never heard of it before?

Xan van Rooyen: It’s a fast-paced character-driven novel blending together elements of cyberpunk, dystopia, and Finnish mythology set in an alternate Helsinki where, in the wake of a war with magical beings known as Ethereals, a single mega-corporation has taken over the social welfare system and is now intent on eradicating the last vestiges of magic by any means necessary.

SPM: We just released Issue #11 of Solarpunk Magazine, which is a special “Solarpunk Fantasy” themed issue, and your new book is a great example of how science fiction and fantasy genres can really work well together. How does Silver Helix blend science fiction on the one hand, and magic and fantasy on the other hand, into its narrative?

van Rooyen: The very first iteration of this book was pure fantasy, I then rewrote it to be purely science fiction but I was never happy with it. Several years and rewrites later, I decided to combine both sci-fi and fantasy elements and see where it went. At that time, I had recently done a lot of research about Finnish mythology for My Name is Magic and was still feeling inspired by that. The mythology was the missing piece that finally brought the story together in a way I’d never managed to get right before. I think the story works because it doesn’t attempt to blend high fantasy or secondary world fantasy with sci-fi elements, but rather posits the question: what would our world look like if magic were real? And in this way I think the magical elements become a more believable part of the near-future world-building.

SPM: Silver Helix took quite some time to write, find a home, and reach publication. Can you tell us a bit about the journey this book has taken to get to release day?

van Rooyen: Oh yes! I started writing this book 14 years ago. It was my first real attempt at a YA novel and became a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award back in 2012. It was also the book to land me my first agent and kickstart my journey toward becoming a published novelist. Although it received some positive feedback from editors during that first round of submissions, it ultimately never sold—partially I think because it was far too queer for the times. It was also lacking something I could never put my finger on. I ended up shelving it and writing several other books which did get published and changed agents twice.

Despite all this, I could never get these characters out of my head. Omyn just wouldn’t leave me alone and so, over the years, I attempted to rewrite this book several more times. One iteration even became a companion novel to I Heart Robot set in that universe, but it still wasn’t working. Eventually, I sat down in earnest with the characters and the core themes, determined to do the story justice and figure out what was wrong. I stopped trying to make the story YA, and I decided to ignore genre convention and simply write the story the way it needed to be told, and thus the first version of Silver Helix came to be. Once complete, I sent it off to my agent who immediately fell in love, and with Lindsay’s incredible editorial insights, I was finally able to write a book worthy of Omyn’s story. I’m so glad she never stopped screaming inside my head, demanding I tell her story. And I am even more grateful this strange, queer, genre-mash-up of a book found the perfect home with Android Press.

SPM: What, if anything, does Silver Helix have in common with the solarpunk genre?

van Rooyen: There is definitely a solarpunk thread here in that my world is divided between the technologically advanced humans and the nature-bound, magical Ethereals who cleave to their old ways. In my story, many see magic as a ‘pollutant’ and want to eradicate it, while others understand that something fundamental and intrinsic to the balance of nature would be irrevocably lost were humans to succeed in erasing all magic. The genocidal war which saw Ethereals slaughtered to near extinction has created an environmental disaster the powers-that-be try to ignore and deny, blaming Ethereals for existing rather than taking responsibility for the ecological damage the war caused. One of the major themes of the book includes a faction determined to see humans and Ethereals living in harmony, with magic returned to the world in the hope of restoring the balance, and this idea of nature and tech in concert with each other seems a similarly important theme of solarpunk.

SPM: Is there anything in particular you’d recommend readers keep an eye out for as they’re reading Silver Helix?

van Rooyen: Hm, interesting question. Gaming is an important part of the culture in this book. It’s my way of acknowledging how much gaming has meant to me over the years and how gaming has shaped me as a story-teller, as well as allowed me to participate in a culture among fellow geeks and nerds. So gamers may get some of the more subtle references to a few of my favourite games. There are also loads of references to characters from Finnish mythology, some of which made an appearance in My Name is Magic, so readers of that book may see a familiar creature or two. I also tried to make HelsInc feel Finnish but also different, perhaps as a cautionary tale of what my incredible adopted home could become if capitalism wins over humanitarianism and privatisation takes precedence over social wellbeing—but it’s also a love letter to the city I now call home, drawing from my own experiences of the alleys and architecture, neighborhoods, and forest trails. I hope readers unfamiliar with Finland will become curious enough to find out more about the country and maybe even visit in person.

SPM: You’ve written and published a number of books including My Name is Magic, I Heart Robot, and By the Blood of Rowans. When you aren’t busy writing and crafting your own work, what kind of stuff do you enjoy reading? Do you have any book recommendations for our readers aside from SILVER HELIX?

van Rooyen: Wow, do I!? I am never without a book and am frequently enthralled by several at once provided they’re in different formats such as a novel, graphic novel, nonfiction book, and audiobook! I have a fairly eclectic taste and try to read widely, frequently reading outside my genre although I do love and can’t go long without fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. I honestly don’t know where to begin with recommendations because I have so many, so I’ll try to stick with what I’ve recently read and loved which includes graphic novels Bones Orchard Mythos by Jeff Lemire, Your Wish is my Command by Deena Mohamed, Wynd by James Tynion, Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer, and Home Sick Pilots by Dan Watters. Then there are the novels Their Heart a Hive by Fox N. Locke, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi, and Delicious Monsters by Liselle Sambury. And not to forget my recent non-fiction reads including the excellent collection of poems and essays I Hope We Choose Love by Kai Cheng Thom, and the absolutely incredible autobiography What my Bones Know by Stephanie Foo.

Get your copy of Silver Helix today! And join Xan and Android Press on Tuesday September 19th on Facebook for a livestream of Xan’s Silver Helix book birthday bash!

Published by Solarpunk Magazine

Creating a new and better world through speculative literature.

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