Interview – Piers Torday


Why did you choose to write a dystopian

 I didn’t really, it happened by accident. I
wanted to write about the environment, climate change and how humans are
driving other species out of existence but without lecturing or 
 getting bogged down in scientific theory. And crucially I wanted readers
to emotionally engage with the issues as well as intellectually. The joy of
these high concept imagined worlds is you can do just that by creating extreme
situations – whether it is a virus that wiped out all animals or people
watching children fight for entertainment. That said, I didn’t plan it to be as
dystopian as it turned out to be. But when you start writing about a world of
extreme climate change, controlled by powerful special interests, where
children are ignored…that’s what happens! The scary thing is I was just writing
about the real world around us today – only exaggerated a bit. I hope we can
change things before we become actually dystopian.

2.      How do you get your ideas?

From everywhere and anywhere. The main thrust of
the story, a boy on an Island having an adventure with some animals, came from
remembering a walk I had on a remote Scottish island when I was 12, when my
friend and I were followed by a cat, seagull, mouse and rabbit! It must have
stuck in my head as something very unusual, which is partly why I returned to
some of those animals in the book. But I was also inspired by other books –
whether the young, first person narrator of The Knife of Never Letting Go, and
the distinct animal world and language of Watership Down. Other ideas came from
reading non-fiction on the subject. When I learned about the role pigeons had
played in Darwin’s discovery of evolution, saving lives in World War One and
how we had massacred the entire passenger pigeon species in the 19th century, I
knew they had to be characters in the book.

3.      How important is it to have a strong protagonist in a dystopian novel?

It’s important to have protagonists that capture
the imagination in almost any kind of fiction, but as dystopian fiction does
often pit a hero against malign governments, corporations, armies etc, they
often need to be especially tough. That’s part of their appeal, they tap into a
feeling that is so prevalent at the moment, that individuals are increasingly
powerless in the face of unaccountable, globalised actions by multinational
corporations and the governments in their pockets. Also dystopian novels are often
calls for change, so a strong hero who has hope for a better future that they
are prepared to fight and make extreme sacrifices for, ensures that call is as
passionate and rousing as it can be.

What should the opening to a dystopian
novel include?

Ideally you jump straight away into a world which
is strange, new, often a bit frightening but also compelling and easy to
immediately navigate. It’s not like sci-fi or high fantasy where it may take a
while to fully orientate yourself in a complex fictional world of many levels,
but more a heightened version of our world where an easily graspable and
gripping high concept dominates all decisions. Then you want your hero to face
one of those decisions pretty quickly.

5.      What writing tips can you give to our budding writers?

 Read as much as you write and more. Don’t
just read dystopian if you want to write dystopian, read widely, read what you
love and read about your subject. Then you can bring original ideas and thought
to a very popular genre. Try and write every day, even if its just a few words.
Practice makes perfect. Be patient, don’t show your work to anyone till you’re
really happy with it, and then show it only to a few close readers whose
opinions you trust. Only act on notes and criticism you feel you can handle
(which is different to agree with) otherwise you may pull apart what makes your
work different. Never submit to agents or publishers until you feel you have
sweated tears and blood and it is absolutely the very, very best you can do –
because rejection may come unfairly and swiftly. Patience is key and
persistence too. I wrote about 17 drafts of The Last Wild before my agent felt
it was ready to submit to a publisher.

6.      What other dystopian novels have caught your eye?

 This last year I
really loved Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith which I thought was fiercely
original, clever, hilarious, sexy, thrilling, moving and completely bonkers all
at the same time. A very unusual dystopian. I have also been re-reading The
Giver (Lois Lowry) to coincide with the movie coming out, one of the original
dystopian books which hasn’t dated at all.

Here’s where you can find Piers online:



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