With In Ascension longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Martin MacInnes about the interconnectedness of life – and why arts and sciences belong together 

Read interviews with all the longlisted authors here.

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning the prize mean to you? 

I occasionally have to remind myself that it’s actually real. The main feeling is gratitude – I’m very fortunate to be in this position. As for winning the prize? Honestly, I can’t even think about it. 

How long did it take to write In Ascension, and what does your writing process look like? Are there multiple drafts, long pauses, or sudden bursts of activity?  

I wrote this one pretty quickly compared to earlier novels. I had a reasonably well developed draft about a year in, and then worked on it for another few months. I’ll generally work on something every day – writing in the morning, reading and planning in the afternoon, editing late in the evening. It’ll take me a while to really push through to what I want to do, so a lot of the early material – tens of thousands of words – will be discarded.  

Where exactly do you write? What does your working space look like? 

It really depends on my living conditions at the time. I wrote my first novel in public libraries, my second at my brother’s place in Panama City. In Ascension is the only novel I’ve written from home, at a butcher’s block in the front room from 5-9am every day, wearing ear-plugs and using roller-gel pens on narrow-ruled writing pads, battling either the early glare from the east-facing window or the near-freezing indoor conditions in winter. 

The novel contains elements of science fiction, but is it fair or accurate to call it a sci-fi novel? If not, how should we describe it? How about a climate-change novel, or a philosophical meditation on the meaning of life? 

I’m happy to call In Ascension SF, even if it risks disappointing some readers who might bring narrower expectations to the genre. I see it as an unlimited genre, a platform for going anywhere. Stanislaw Lem, for instance, is a canonical SF writer, but the breadth of experimentation and achievement in his novels is just astonishing, exhilarating. An SF novel can be as high-brow as any other genre, can have strong characters and be filled with beautiful writing. I could go on for ages about SF’s direct links to Woolf and modernism – the subjective and the impersonal, different levels of perspective, a single day in the life of a character and vast deserts of eternity. (Woolf wrote a fan letter to Olaf Stapledon towards the end of her life: ‘You are grasping ideas that I have tried to express… you have gone much further and I can’t help envying you’.) 

I’ve heard people say that they don’t read science fiction, but they read this, and I’m torn about that – I’m obviously happy if they’re reading me, but it’s a pity they thought SF was only one thing. 

I’m also ambivalent on ‘climate-change novel’. I don’t endorse the term, mainly because it suggests that other books written now aren’t climate-change novels, when they clearly are, even if through omission or sublimation. Everything now is a document of this event that we are rolling out and living through, and will be considered as such more broadly in the future. The idea that novels that don’t ignore climate catastrophe deserve a special categorisation, outside of ‘literary fiction’, seems unfortunate to me, and symptomatic of a distressing talent for looking away. But if being called a climate-change novel puts In Ascension anywhere near books like Daisy Hildyard’s Emergency and The Second Body, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, then I’d be very fortunate. 

Martin MacInnes

I don’t want to finish a novel and feel that everything is completed, settled, the experience over. I want to continue living with the books I love most

In Ascension is a book of big questions, but doesn’t provide easy answers. Is it important to you as a writer that loose ends aren’t always tied up? 

I work hard at getting the right balance between mystery and revelation. As a reader, it’s something I prize – an irresolvable quality, a lasting strangeness. I don’t want to finish a novel and feel that everything is completed, settled, the experience over. I want to continue living with the books I love most. 

I appreciate it’s a difficult balance to achieve, and I know I don’t always do so. Of course I want a reader to feel satisfied at the end, and I take this responsibility seriously; you’ve taken them, hopefully, on a journey that they’re invested in, and so the ending matters. But I have to write something that is faithful to my experience of the world, and so the last thing I am going to do is explain it all away. As my protagonist Leigh says in the first part of the book: ‘the world is not reasonable, and can never be made reasonable. It is much more interesting than that’. 

The book is packed with scientific detail - a ‘deep scientific knowledge’, according to the FT. Do you have a scientific background? If not, how did you immerse yourself in and educate yourself on the complex subjects in the book, from microbiology to space travel? 

I don’t have any formal scientific experience at all, but in the last 15 years especially I’ve read widely from natural history, opening up spatial and temporal scales that were a revelation to me. I saw lots of exciting possibilities in this. Daily life is immeasurably richer in the context of deep time and slow animal transformation, and I wanted to try to explore this through fiction.  

I didn’t necessarily undertake specific research for this book – I was interested in all of this anyway, and so it was more a case of refreshing and rereading old favourites. I did read some surprisingly speculative NASA and ESA journal articles on long-range space travel, as well as book-length histories of the space suit, etc, but at a certain point you have to step back and appreciate the limits of research. It’s simply not possible to give, for example, a comprehensive account of cell biology in a novel. But I do believe strongly that there is space in fiction for more of this, and that sectioning off the arts and sciences is ludicrous, and is implicated in generations of complacency about the material world. Lynn Margulis had an imagination as rich and generous as any post-war writer; why shouldn’t she be as big an influence on me as Clarice Lispector is? 

The Guardian says that the book was written ‘by hand on the coast of east Scotland’. Did your research for the book take you anywhere else? Did you visit Ascension Island, for instance?  

I wrote In Ascension during a period when travel wasn’t possible, which was bound to influence the novel both positively and inversely: from the claustrophobia and regulation of domestic space in the novel’s ships, to the dramatic and expansive voyages they sail on. I did travel to Ascension Island, and then by ship to the Cape Verde islands, a little over 15 years ago. I always knew I’d write about Ascension, it was just about finding the right project and the right time.  

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes

To what extent would you say In Ascension should be read as a novel about relationships and connections - humanity’s relationship with the natural world; family relationships that can’t be broken, however far we travel; the interconnectedness of all things? And what made you want to explore such connections? 

That’s 100% true. You could argue the whole novel is about symbiosis, the theory that life thrives amid other life (and which has been underplayed in many popular and more aggressive accounts of evolution). And yet Leigh spends most of her time alone. That’s one of the ironies of the novel, and one of its driving energies. She can’t be other than she is – she’s not going to suddenly go around hugging people – and so she seeks out integration and satisfaction and recognition in other ways. Ideally the sense of wonder she feels from the natural world should not be a dead end, but rather lead to empathy, care, alertness. Communication. Leigh grapples with this; other people have caused her pain, and the single-mindedness of her interest in the natural world has kept her alive – should she risk upturning this? 

I’m exploring interconnectedness because it’s vital and relatively absent from English language fiction, too much of which draws a world in which humanity is walled off from the rest of creation, as if we were entirely self-involved, made from some other, more rarefied kind of stuff. This echoes and reinforces climate change complacency, and is dangerous. Addressing this in fiction is not just, for me, a moral imperative, it’s an artistic opportunity and a source of humility and joy. 

Leigh is a solitary figure, and her work takes her to places of isolation. Would you say there’s a sense of remoteness in your work generally, with characters separated from wider society? And if so, where does that come from?  

If characters begin at least partly as an aspect of self, the hope is that they very much become something else as the project moves onwards. But certainly there were times in writing In Ascension that I identified with Leigh quite a bit. Her problems in communicating. Her devotion to work at the expense of almost all else – this is something I’ve been guilty of, and which I’ve tried to change. Her need for wonder, her determination to find it, to always be curious and interested, is something I share. I’m a quiet person and I’ve spent probably an unusual amount of time alone – most of it very happily – so yes, separation is always going to come through in the work.  

Which book or books are you reading at the moment? 

The central essay in Jacqueline Rose’s The Plague, ‘To Die One’s Own Death – Thinking With Freud in a Time of Pandemic’, really deserves to be read several times. I’ve also been enjoying So Mayer’s thrillingly new collection Truth & Dare, and Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital. 

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why? 

I encountered In a Free State (V.S Naipaul) as a teenager, and it’s the best of the winning titles that I’ve read. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood), Swimming Home (Deborah Levy), How Late it Was, How Late (James Kelman) are favourites. But the book I press on people probably more than any other is The Kills (Richard House), which was longlisted in 2013. The first of its four books is the best espionage thriller in decades. I’ve read House’s novel three times – it’s an amazing achievement, comparable to Bolaño’s 2666 in how it uses genre fiction to pursue nightmarish historical reality. I’m beyond excited that he’s got something new coming out soon. 

What are you working on next? 

I’ve made the mistake in the past of talking too much about a project in its early stages, rendering the idea inflexible and static. It’s useful for me to have things amorphous and inchoate for quite a long period. I would say I’m moving out of that period in my next novel at the moment. 

Martin MacInnes