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Debut Novelist Stephanie Saulter Talks Facts & Fiction

Stephanie Saulter author of Gemsigns at the Jamaican launch at Bookophilia

Stephanie Saulter’s debut novel Gemsigns isn’t a fairytale, but it’s journey from manuscript to novel seems like one. Gemsigns, which recently had its Jamaican launch, had a gestation of several years, however, Saulter wrote the story in a few months and landed an agent and a publishing deal about three months after completion.  With another revelation sure to make thwarted writers the world over throw down their pens and grab pitchforks, Saulter explains that although she has written two screenplays, she has done little prose writing.  

“I feel as though I’ve cheated slightly, though I haven’t.” Saulter says with a laugh noting that her experience is not typical of the average writer's. “I feel a bit guilty. I’m slightly embarrassed.”

Saulter, Jamaican by birth, migrated to Britain over twenty years ago bur regularly returns to the island. When not putting fingers to keyboard create new worlds, Saulter is a freelance public policy consultant.

Gemsigns could be described as either science fiction or speculative fiction, and Saulter explains that she is happy to allow the novel to live free of the labeling, although she sees the benefits and uses both.

“I’ve always loved speculative fiction. I’ve always loved fiction that makes the point of positing an alternative reality, that lets you think about things that you would struggle to articulate,” she says. “And science fiction is one of the forms that let you do that.”

“I don’t want to reject the term science fiction but when you say science fiction it conjures up ideas that are not true to Gemsigns.” She noted that speculative fiction is a far less loaded term.

“I am a science geek so I love the stuff,” she says. However, she was interested in creating a novel a reader can enter without any love or understanding of science.

“If we ask of our readers, that to enjoy our work, they must themselves be geeks, be techheads then you’re putting up a barrier immediately,”  she explains. “You sort of build a wall for the reader to climb over before they can enjoy your story.”

Gemsigns builds a dystopian world where genetic modification has become normal as humanity tries to claw its way back from near extinction after being ravaged by ‘The Syndrome’ a neurological disease.

Saulter explains how her foray into fiction is indeed built on facts. She reveals a longstanding fascinating with genetic modification and during her undergraduate years had been on a track to working as a geneticist. But she also chose the topic because it is current, though many are only casually aware of the developments, in areas such as agriculture.

“Ive realized that the things that are most impactfull are the ones that sneak up on you,” she says. “The ones that aren’t in the public mind, that people don’t clearly see coming. So I’m fascinated by the potential of that.”

Saulter says that many significant events in human history have been incremental, even when they seemed to have come out of a singular big bang, and that although many don’t think about it development in biotechnology is happening at an incredible pace.

“What fascinates me is ‘where could that potentially go” and “what would it take to remove the inhibitions we think we have against certain types of genetic modification in humans,” she says. “You think there are things you’d never do until it’s your only choice.”

The Saulters show their support for the Gemsigns launchSaulter explains that she has received a tremendous amount of attention for the novel locally and admits to being gobsmacked at the level of interest. She also admits that some of this local attention comes from what she describes as the “contact glamour” from her younger brother, director Storm Saulter (Better Must Come).

She says Gemsigns has much Caribbean people can identify with. The novel deals with displacement, otherness, normalcy, family, and post-emancipation. She also argues that the book does bear the influence of her coming from a Jamaican “palate”, it reflects interests that go beyond that, defying the notion that artists from developing countries must limit their interests to those countries.

“Gemsigns in a way was me writing a book that I wanted to read but couldn’t find,” she says. “I want people to come to it open armed and open eyed and open hearted, though not everyone will love it.”