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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

An evening with Helen Sedgwick

We had a wonderful evening at HighlandLIT last Tuesday at the Glen Mhor Hotel. HighlandLIT member Helen Sedgwick was speaking on ‘Cross-genre writing: stories as subversion.’ (Our deep apologies to those who couldn’t attend the event on Zoom because of a problem with the link we sent out.)

Helen spoke about her folk horror supernatural crime trilogy, The Burrowhead Mysteries, and her current project, a series of science fiction novels exploring possible futures after an environmental apocalypse. She has a PhD in Physics, and brings her fierce intelligence to bear on examining the present and exploring possible future. She is confident in her writing – to critics who say her work is too complex, and therefore difficult to read, she retorts ‘I don’t care.’

Complexity is necessary to accurately depict accurately a complex world she tells us: she views science and science fiction, indeed fiction in general as not in conflict. Both seek understanding.

Helen is an inspiring speaker – you sense the sheer goodness in her, the resolve to be an agent of change through the gift of her literary imagination.

The Burrowhead Mysteries

Helen wrote The Burrowhead Mysteries over five years – the last volume in the trilogy, What doesn’t break us was published this summer. She tells us that the creation of the series was driven by her response at Brexit, and also by the subsequent loss of community through a health issue Helen faced personally, and by the long period of COVID lockdown. Says Helen ‘The world was making me angry, and that’s where these books were coming from.’

Burrowhead, a community oozing sadness and decay, afraid of outsiders, afraid of ‘difference’, is intended as a microcosm of the UK. People there are drawn to the old traditions in seeking to make sense of the present, and they grow to realise that we ‘can’t shape a better future until we acknowledge and make reparation for the faults of the past.’

The use of multiple genres – folk horror, the supernatural, police procedural – allows Helen to view Burrowhead through different lenses. There’s the lens of tradition, the lens of archaeology (another of Helen’s passions), the lens of the supernatural which becomes a way of confronting what we don’t want to face. This capturing of a panorama of perspectives is central to Helen’s vision as a writer, and it also informs her current science fiction writing.

The concept developed as the Burrowhead books were written. It became clear to Helen that she must subvert the tradition of police procedurals where the constabulary arrests the wrongdoer and restores peace and calm to the community. As she was writing, reports of police brutality came into the public domain, and it no longer seemed morally appropriate to depict the police as heroes. The characters in the novels develop their own thinking as the trilogy progresses as they seek ways of strengthening their community, flawed people drawn into participation with one another, and so begin to heal the community.

Science fiction project

In 2021, Helen Sedgwick was awarded the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship, for which she is writing what seems a hugely ambition series of novels set on (at least) four planets. Again, her purpose in creating these texts is one of understanding – understanding the viewpoints and perspectives which drive people’s actions, and seeking to explore possible ways ahead, possible futures. But here she is not dealing with the microcosm of a single community, but the macrocosm of the whole world.

The project is wonderfully imaginative: three novels have been drafted (we heard intriguing readings from them) and there will be a fourth story, or novel, or collection of stories which will map the overarching context. The planets are far-scattered across the universe, yet linked by quantum entanglement. They are populated by humans (not aliens) and each is seeking ways to recover after an environmental apocalypse.

The inhabitants of one planet have chosen to let the planet recover naturally after the disaster, and have eschewed technology. How will they respond when a stranger from another group of survivors whose existence has been hitherto unsuspected arrives with medicine?

On a second planet, the survivors not only use technology, but misuse it to save only certain people. Who will they consider valuable enough to save?

And the third planet has successfully taken the route of technological advance out of the crisis.

Like the Burrowhead books, while these new novels depict character and story, they are inspired by profound questions – such as ‘How to recover after this apocalypse?’; ‘Can we live without hierarchy?’; ‘What would we lose if we chose to live without technology?’; ‘In what ways is technology and medicine a means of power?’; ‘How does what we invent feed into who we are?’; ‘Can we develop the traditional family?’

Helen emphasized three factors key to her writing:

She mentioned once more her desire to use multiple perspectives to help understand complex issues. Hence she creates multiple characters to create multiple viewpoints (or depicts a single character in difference situations or at different points in their life.) She has no desire to present ‘one answer.’ She sees one of our problems as a lack of openness to other views and ideas. ‘Capitalism pitches us against one another, and I want my writing to challenge that mindset.’

She spoke about conflict, and the avoidance of conflict. Writers have been taught that effective storytelling needs conflict. Conflict can be effective, Helen admits, but asks ‘is it ever helpful to use conflict if our aim is to understand the universe?’ She seeks to promote understanding of different beliefs and convictions. While a conflict-driven narrative will privilege one side or another, Helen wants to explore the possibility of building society avoiding conflict. Her characters take steps to prevent conflict, though she acknowledges that sometimes there is an enemy which needs addressed – it is necessary to stand up for what is good.

And finally, Helen addresses complexity. She believes that no-one is wholly good, or wholly evil. People are complex, and we need to understand this complexity. Storytelling fails, she said, if it presents only one point of view – we will, in that case, feel preached at. Storytelling can be born out of anger, but Helen is convinced it must move beyond that, and acknowledge complexity. She tries to write herself into a way of seeing from different points of view. The simplest answer is not necessary right, or most helpful. There is no such thing as an absolute. Hence she does not fear complexity, but gladly embraces it.

Helen doesn’t yet have a contract for the science fiction novels, but we look forward very much to reading them when they appear in a few years’ time. In the meantime, as we shape our futures, we acknowledge Helen Sedgwick as an inspirational guide: her sharply intelligent understanding, her lack of fear, her openness to diverse viewpoints, her heart’s engagement in her work. ‘I write what is calling to me,’ she tells us.


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