The Offset: Discussing dystopia with authors Natasha Calder and Emma Szewczak

What would you do if you had to choose which of your parents died? That’s what Miri faces in new dystopian thriller The Offset and we sat down with the book’s authors, Natasha Calder and Emma Szewczak, to discuss climate change, reproduction and more…

The Offset is set in a dystopian future where climate control and humanity’s attempts at combatting it have left the world in a barren state. Due to severe overpopulation, procreating is now strictly forbidden. Those who do give birth must make the ultimate sacrifice for their offspring – and it’s their child who has to choose which of their parents must die.

The story follows someone who must make that very choice. Miri must decide which one of her mothers, Jac or Alix, has to be nominated to be Offset and die. Who will she choose? Jac, the director of one of the world’s foremost scientific institutes and working on urgent needs to save the planet but whom Miri hates, or Alix, whom Miri is close to, but is urging Miri to choose herself as Offset, for the greater good..?

We spoke to The Offset authors Natasha Calder and Emma Szewczak about not being constricted into creating likeable female characters, scientific research and an adaptation of their novel…

When did you first start developing the story for The Offset?

Emma Szewczak: [Natasha Calder and I] are close friends, and we both at some point admitted to each other that we wanted to write. So we’ve been dipping in and out of projects, but after I had my first child, me and Natasha were just having all these late night conversations of ‘oh my god what have I done?!’ [haha] and it just kind of came out of that very weirdly naturally!

I think we were very concerned with how much power comes with being a parent, and just grappling with that now in the midst of this climate emergency. It was really interesting to us because I always wanted kids and Natasha doesn’t, so we have this dual perspective. We’ve both had a hard time because of that and Natasha gets a hard time for not wanting to have kids and so it always made sense that we would write something about that.

How does it work writing as a duo?

Natasha Calder: It’s so funny that people keep asking us that because I really actually don’t know [haha!] The process varied quite a lot, but the most important thing was, particularly in the beginning, I was living just nearby, so I would come over once a week and talk everything through.

Emma Szewczak: Yeah we’d have dinner, we’d get drunk, we talk about what the next chapter is going to be, then one of us would send ideas over to the other and it would just kind of sharpen. It was super organic. Somehow we ended up with the first draft and then it got much more organised. We literally don’t know at this point whose sentence is whose and whose word is whose – it’s a total blending, which is really good.

There are a lot of scientific elements in the book, particularly in regards to counter-climate change initiatives. Did you do much research before writing The Offset?

Emma Szewczak: Yeah, quite a lot actually. My partner is a biologist at Cambridge and he works on a lot of the science that we then included in the book. We had long conversations with him over there, where he guided us through what he specifically does and how he works. We wanted a very realistic account of the world falling apart, so we wanted to go quite hard on that.

This year, quite a lot of the science is actually being done in the lab that my husband works out of in Cambridge. So the specific things that the measurements are being made with, the mass spectrometer, that there was a very particular invention that we referenced in the book that was invented in a lab in Cambridge.

I also have to thank God for Natasha because [she’s] much better with the research than me. My eyes were kind of glazing over at certain points and Natasha really got to grips with that.

Each chapter of the book is told by the three main characters – Miri, Alix and Jac – why did you decide to tell the story like this?

Natasha Calder: I think because we’re coming at the issue from different perspectives, we didn’t want to lose any angle on that central issue of whether or not you should have children and what the consequences are.

Emma Szewczak: It was quite key in our conversations. So I might be a mother, but I’m also a child, and your child’s attention will always alter in these different perspectives. You can never really approach this conversation from just one [persepctive]. So it was quite important for us to zoom in and out generationally.

The book focuses on a strained parent/child relationship – why focus on that?

Emma Szewczak: [We] kept saying a lot at the beginning about how when you’ve got an issue, it’s really interesting to take that issue apart. To have this kind of warring family was an easy way of taking that issue apart. Also the gay mums is very important to us and for me, personally, identifying as LGBT. I had my baby with a man, but all of my relationships prior to that have been with women and I always imagined that I would have children in that kind of a family setup. So it was important to portray that. I haven’t read that much [with] lesbian parents being normalised, so it was what we aspired to.

Natasha Calder: Yeah it was very critical to just make that absolutely standard in this.

How did you go about building the world in The Offset?

Emma Szewczak: The world was quite an early thing actually. We had a strong sense of wanting it to be in the UK. We didn’t really want to go further out from that because you want the sense of claustrophobia that comes with climate change disasters – you can’t travel, you can’t get out. You’re here and everyone’s here together. So we mapped out what the [world] would look like.

Natasha Calder: If you’re working from the basis that the climate emergency has escalated, there are a certain number of things that have to change. It affects how we travel, it affects the buildings that we live in and how people behave and the technology that they use and have access to. So that directed all those different things. Like the streets are whitewashed and there are lots of parts of the world where they are using reflective paint to try and counterbalance what’s happening. We’re both losers and we’re just fascinated by the technological advances that are happening and the ideas that people keep positing, of things you can do like the whitewashing, which is really cool.

Speaking of climate emergency, why did you have that being the reasoning behind the dystopian world in The Offset?

Emma Szewczak: I think the most realistic thing is the most frightening. I mean it’s the most frightening thing for us. It does feel almost impossible to have a baby now, and not think about what it means to have that baby. So I think the other ways that the world could be destroyed were less interesting to us, simply because they’re not quite as pervasive and right here.

Miri has pretty controversial political opinions. What was it like developing a character whose ideals readers may not agree with?

Emma Szewczak: Families arguing over politics is another thing that we’re seeing a lot of right now and [we wanted] to have her being quite polemical, being a typical teenager and maybe taking the most extreme views, and trying to make sense of them…

Natasha Calder: I’m not sure how much we considered how the characters would be likable. More that they would stay true to the past that had formed them.

Emma Szewczak: Yeah, we weren’t interested in just making women that were likeable. I think another thing we both struggled with is that a lot of the women we encounter in literature, there’s a lot of effort to make them likeable. Then they can’t breathe, they can’t be who they really are. Miri just exists as she does in the world. She’s not advertising people and so we just wouldn’t really care if people didn’t like them – you can still be very interesting without being likeable, I think.

The police force in the book – the Pig Suits – are armoured mechanical monstrosities who have a constant, ominous presence. Where did you begin with that idea?

Emma Szewczak: That moved around a bit and then we kind of landed on it. We always knew we wanted a strong prison state, because that feels like a likely endpoint. So we were quite certain of having a muscular police presence, and we found it interesting to see what we could do with tech.

Natasha Calder: Yeah we developed the imagery of it throughout the course of writing once we knew what we wanted and then the ‘Pig Suit’ term was the masterstroke!

Where in the genre sphere does The Offset fit?

Natasha Calder: If you want to get niche about it, I think it lines up very neatly with grimdark science fiction. But hopefully, given some of the themes, it could definitely be broader. [It would appeal to] anyone looking for a bit of a thrill!

Are you planning on expanding The Offset as a series and what can we expect?

Emma Szewczak: We have a specific big world plan that’s bigger than this book, because we always wanted – if we imagined the series – we didn’t want it to peter out. We wanted the first book to be part of something bigger. So we have big ideas for where it goes next but we’re just not sure how we’re going to handle our characters. I think we have a loose sense of a trilogy but it could become something else.

Natasha Calder: We know themes we want to pick up on and there are a couple of unresolved questions that we definitely need to deal with but we don’t have a solid plan.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Offset?

Emma Szewczak: Just think more about reproduction. I think it’s such a given how reproductive rights are handled. As two women, we’ve been oppressed by this subject, by what people assume we’re going to do, by what we think we should do. I just think it’s important that we’re all thinking more and more about what it means to have children.

Natasha Calder: Of course when it goes out in the world, it won’t really belong to us anymore. It will belong to the readers so they can take from it whatever they want and do what you want with it.

Without going into spoilers, the ending finishes on a shocking cliffhanger – was that always the intention?

Emma Szewczak: We really didn’t want to cop out. The book starts with Miri having to make this choice, and she does make the choice, it’s inevitable. It was always going to happen. She was always going to have to make it. All the way through the book you’re supposed to be thinking, ‘who is she going to pick?’ not necessarily, ‘is she going to get out of it?’. So it was quite a foregone conclusion that she was going to. She’s been manipulated as much as we all are, so it doesn’t matter what she really wants in the end. She’s as much of a pawn as we all are in life.

Natasha Calder: We don’t want there to be any way for the characters to get out of it, for that sense of peril to ever be lost, where you could bring people back from the dead or give them some exception that gets them out of whatever difficulty they’re in, it was very important for it to be real and dangerous.

Emma Szewczak: And how can you write about a world that’s at the end of time, and everything’s fine? You’ve all got to be scared, because that’s what we’re facing.

What’s next for you?

Emma Szewczak: It’s been announced that we are having a TV adaptation of the book! It’s being developed by Howard Overman who did War Of The Worlds. So yeah we’re really, really glad about that. I think they will kind of go in one way with that and we might go in a different way. So yeah we’re very excited about that!

The Offset by Natasha Calder and Emma Szewczak is out now from Angry Robot.