An interview with Lindsay Duncan

So Scylla & Charybdis by Lindsay Duncan is out now! It’s one of our excellent new Grimbold releases, which I have been looking forward to. It also means that I got to borrow Lindsay (writer, chef, harp-player, puppy-owner…this lady’s talents are limitless!) for a few questions…

Ok, we’ll start with the easy one: tell us something about yourself!

In addition to writing, I’m a chef / pastry chef and a professional harp performer / teacher.  If you think that’s a lot of slashes, you haven’t seen anything yet.  I’m a native of the United States midwest, which is the only region in the world where no one has an accent.  (It’s true!  Look it up.)  It’s just me and two little white puffballs:  my Bichon Frises, Lexi and Peri.  Both names are Greek in origin:  Lexi means “protector,” and Peri means “nymph.”  Both names are also very appropriate.


Scylla & Charybdis is a sci-fi book about a young woman from an isolated space station who escapes to the polar opposite societies left behind in the wake of an alien disease.  What made you want to tell this story?

 The concept started as a short story, and with that version, I was drawn to the open-ended question that ends it:  when presented with two equally unpleasant options, which would you choose?  How do you choose?

The short story never sold.  Multiple editors praised it, but rejected it with the comment that it felt like the opening of a novel.  At the time, I felt the story was complete as it was; the open-ended question, to me, was the point.  I eventually trunked it, but the story and characters remained in the back of my head, kicking around.

Years later, pondering what my next novel would be, Scylla and Charybdis floated up to the surface.  I was taking an online writers’ workshop which included exercises and discussing each other’s ideas, and it seemed like the perfect time.  To write the “next chapters” from the events in the short story, I would need to expand far beyond the glimpse of the two governments seen in the story … and that was the appeal.  I love creating settings, and I intended Scylla and Charybdis to be a milieu novel.

There was never any question that Anaea would still be the main character.  As an outsider to that universe, she was ideally suited to tour it with fresh eyes.  This was actually the first time in a while I’d written a single-POV third person novel – usually, when I go for third person, I take advantage of that flexibility to have multiple viewpoints.  But if this was Anaea’s story, it was about the setting, too, so I didn’t want to dilute that by getting deep into voice considerations of first person.

I never come at my stories with a specific message, though I’m sure every one reflects my subconscious and my world view in some way.  For me, the universe and the story have an existence of their own, and that’s what I’m trying to reveal.


 Did any of your characters or settings have a particular inspiration?

The original short story featured the women of Anaea’s space station with names from Greek myth, and the lone man – Gwydion – with a name from Welsh mythology.  I extended this pattern of names into the planets, cities and landmarks.  I also included some Judeo-Christian references, for reasons apparent in the novel.

Beyond that, there’s one location in the universe of Scylla and Charybdis that had a deliberate inspiration, and that’s Eastwood Mining Colony.  I wanted the colony to consciously pattern itself after an American “Old West” town, from the layout of the streets to the use of equine imagery in their vehicles.  The popular impression of lawlessness and rough, independent living associated with that era was both something the colonists deliberately chose to mimic, and something the writer (me!) used to set the mood.


What interesting research rabbit holes did you go down for Scylla&Charybdis? / have you been down for your writing?

Designing the mining colony mentioned above led me to one of the odder Google searches I’ve ever undertaken:  “names of Gold Rush towns.”  Sadly, it didn’t turn up what I was looking for.  (Brownie points if you can figure out why I ended up with “Eastwood.”)  I still feel the strangest thing I’ve Googled to date was for a short story I’m currently trying to sell:  “foods aliens eat.”

One of the research tangents I took for Scylla and Charybdis was reading about communication between genders.  I wasn’t reading so much for accuracy or set-in-stone “rules” as for tendencies and contrasts that would make for good fiction.  And yes … I did read the famous (and very dated) Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

I’ve had a wide range of research binges over the years, from dream intepretation to Helen of Troy.  My current research topic is synesthesia, which I’m using as a basis for the magic in my next novel.  Synesthesia is the real-world phenomenon where sensory input creates a secondary sensation, often in another sense.  For instance, people who see colors in response to music.  Or days of the week might have color, as in the title of Richard Cytowic’s book, Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

One of the wonderful things about being a writer nowadays is there are books and resources on astronomy, cosmology and the potential for alien life specifically written with worldbuilding and the layman writer in mind.  I will cheerfully admit that I would have been lost without such a starting place.  That said, I felt it was necessary to write down the following fact in my worldbuilding notes:

“You can’t burp in zero gravity.”

This never did come up in the book.


Do you have plans for any other stories in the same universe or with the same characters?

 I don’t have firm plans to write another novel in this universe, but there are aspects of the setting I’d love to explore, and I would enjoy thrusting Anaea and her companions into the middle of it.  Specifically, there’s the question of what happened to Earth, which fell out of contact during the Y-Poisoning epidemic, and closer contact with the Derithe, the mysterious alien species which created the disease.  In Scylla and Charybdis, the Derithe are only a background element, a catalyst, but they’re still out there … or did they fall prey to their own creation?  Since Scylla and Charybdis is so much about exploration, it makes sense to take Anaea one leap further.

If this sounds like something you want to read, then selling tons of copies of Scylla and Charybdis might induce me to write it.  (Shameless plug over.)


What are you writing at the moment?

 My current writing project is Surgeburnt, which I’ve been describing as post-apocalyptic science fantasy.  As with Scylla and Charybdis, my interest was less the upheaval and immediate fallout of the disaster, and more the later stages of recovery, when the adaptations and accommodations people made to survive have become the new normal.  When some wounds have healed … but not all of them.

My narrator is one of the Afflicted – an individual born into or infused with magic.  She’s a reluctant Cityspeaker, chosen by the city to protect it … when she’d rather keep her head down, serve her criminal sentence, and try to survive for a little while longer.  The novel goes in two directions:  barreling straight forward into the city’s dire warning, and circuitously back over past events that brought her to this point.

One more common element the novels share is that I spent too much time thinking about the fate of printed books.  Surgeburnt has the Order of Librarians, which has acquired wealth and influence over the years.  In fact, certain branches have a retrieval department that use unorthodox methods to acquire texts.  My narrator’s former partners in crime, twins Leya and Mateo, are thieves who worked for that department.


You play the harp. How did you get into that, and what’s your favourite thing about playing? Do you have a favourite composer or piece to play?

I’ve always loved music and played instruments.  I started with everyone’s infamous childhood instrument, the recorder – but unlike those who were dragooned into playing it for school, I continued playing, branched out from the familiar soprano recorder into alto and tenor, and performed as part of a Renaissance song-and-dance troupe.  We played in full costume at Renaissance Faires and did educational programs at schools.  I moved from that to piano, for the sole reason of wanting an instrument that I could sing along with.  I pursued piano for years, but I was never passionate about it.

And then I attended the Cincinnati Celtic Festival, and an “I’ve Always Wanted To Play The Harp” workshop.  One touch of my fingers to the strings, and that was it.

Playing is a kinesthetic, full-body experience, and that’s part of what I love about it.  I also love the deep, rich reverb of the instrument.  In fact, my piano teacher used to take me to task for playing with the sustain pedal down all the time.  The harp is its own accompaniment, which means I don’t need another instrument / player for a full performance.  I arrange almost all of my own music, which is another joy of the harp.  It’s hard to express the rush of delight when left hand (accompaniment) and right (melody) start to come together.

Point of note:  I play the traditional lever harp, sometimes known as the Celtic harp, which is distinct from the orchestral pedal harp.  It’s true that Celtic harps are made in lever style – there are also wire-strung harps, but that’s a whole different discussion and playing technique – but traditional harps cover a lot more regions than the Celtic lands.  For instance, Latin American harps are lighter strung, allowing players to use their pinkie fingers (you can’t on a typical lever harp … trust me …), and the string colors are reversed.  (For what it’s worth, traditional string material was obviously gut as no one had plastic in the fifth century, but a lot of modern players, myself included, prefer nylon.)

I’m going to say all that and then confuse matters by stating that I do specialize in Celtic music.  Most of my favorites are from the Welsh tradition; Welsh music and its melodic themes feel right to me.  But I also enjoy more contemporary pieces, often from musicals.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “All I Ask Of You” is a performance staple.  And after burning out hard on Renaissance music and not being able to touch it for years, I’ve come back to it and rediscovered what I used to love.

On a smaller scale, so much of my creative process for both harp and writing is going away and coming back.  That break, that beat of rest, is sometimes as important as fingers on strings or keys.

 Thank you, Lindsay! (I really want to put something about not burping in a book now…) Scylla & Charybdis is out now, and I definitely recommend it – I’ve read it twice since the original subs and it’s as good on repeat! 🙂

Scylla & Charybdis by Lindsay Duncan

Scylla & Charybdis coverAnaea Carlisle, raised on an isolated space station populated solely by women, believes the rest of the universe has been plunged into anarchy and ruin by an alien-engineered disease known as Y-Poisoning.  On a salvage mission, she helps rescue a hypermental named Gwydion who challenges everything she thought she knew.
Forced to flee the station with Gwydion, Anaea finds herself in an inexplicable, often hostile world, permanently divided between the Galactic Collective and the Pinnacle Empire.  She longs for some place to call home, but first, she’ll have to survive …

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.