Q&A with Galway Author: Britta Sandqvist’s Power Plant
Book Cover Design by Bernard McGlinchey
Galway-based author Britta Sandqvist, originally from Finland, is a writer/playwright in three languages: Swedish, Danish and English. She has written two books of poetry, two novels and seven plays. The plays have been performed on stage in Ireland, Denmark, Finland and New York. Britta also has a background in graphic design and has been working as a textile designer for interior and fashion for many years.
Power Plant is a story of a plant which invades the earth and sets the political agenda. A group of scientists, based in New Orleans, plan to create a new root vegetable which can grow everywhere and feed a starving world for free. They persevere behind closed doors, in greenhouses and laboratories. However, their plan goes awry when the plant is moved out in free nature where it develops fast growing monstrous roots. A group of amateur gardeners in Galway City accidentally finds a bag of seeds misplaced by one of the scientists. They plant some of the seeds, with disastrous consequences, as the authorities suspect that this is the brainchild of a new group of terrorists.
This week I interviewed Britta about Power Plant (March 2017 by Mirador Publishing).
Britta, congratulations on your recent publication of the thriller Power Plant! Phew, what a page-turner! Can you tell us more about the main characters in the novel?
I did not want to write science fiction. I wanted the story to be credible, like something that could happen to you and me, so I chose Galway as location. As I am into gardening it was easy to create a group of amateur gardeners living here and imagine how they would react. There are seven main characters between 23 and 83 years of age, two foreigners, five Irish. They are environmentalists, and they save seeds in order to prevent local crop extinction and work against corporate-owned seed monopoly, among other issues; and ironically end up getting into big trouble due to a bag of genetically modified seeds. They are nice and decent so-called ordinary people who can make mistakes in extreme situations. I love Galway so it was fun to place the characters in the middle of our town.
How did you get the idea for the story?
I think it is very disturbing that governments spend so much money on arms and war, when there are thousands of starving people on this planet. We all know that there is enough money around to eliminate starvation. The idea behind Power Plant is that a group of idealistic botanical scientists wants to tackle starvation and create a super vegetable, packed with protein and vitamins. I am into gardening and nature and I think plants and trees are incredible, so I love the idea of nature and plants setting the political agenda. And that is what actually happens in the book. I am very interested in global politics, and, in a way, the story is also a political satire at a time when right-wing politicians score votes from promoting fear of terrorism. I wanted to show how this fear can get totally out of proportion; there has always been some kind of terrorism on this planet and it has been used as a tool by those in power. As a gardener, I am fascinated by roots and what is happening underground: that is why I decided that the main character should be a root vegetable. Just think about how big and strong the roots of a tree need to be, to stand up and grow in the same place, for example. Power Plant is a small story but with many symbols and hidden layers.
What environmental issues did you want to explore?
The threat of genetically modified plants that we know so little about. This plant is not exactly dangerous to people. It ends up feeding the world and giving millions of people manual labour that they also need, but I wanted to show that we have absolutely no idea about what is happening when large corporations spread genetically modified crops and create plants in laboratories. It is a new science and we don’t know how it affects nature and our bodies. The plants we already have are so fantastic that we should only spend money and time on taking care of and cultivating what we already have. To me, a flower, for example, is the most incredible piece of art.
Our An Áit Eile contributor Bernard McGlinchey designed the book cover for Power Plant (see image above). When did you first collaborate with Bernard?
I met Bernard a few years ago when Transition Galway´s community garden was a new project. As he is also into graphic design it was obvious that he should design the cover of my book. We have been working together in the garden and the book is just another garden project. The cover of a book is like the dress you choose and put on when you go to an important party. Bernard has managed to make the perfect image for my story, with the power plant and its threatening roots floating over The Long Walk, a street that is like a trademark for Galway.
Do you guys have any gardening projects lined up in the near future?
I have no projects in planning with Bernard for the moment, but I would work with him any time. He is a very pleasant and multi-talented guy, one of the many activists and artists that make this town so special.
President Trump’s Doonbeg golf course in Co. Clare gets a mention in the book – could you tell us more about that?
I had no idea that Trump would become president when I wrote the story. The idea of a plant messing up his golf links was funny because he is such a ridiculous character, plus from the start he already wanted to build a wall to protect his course from the sea. Apart from that, I honestly think that a lot of golf courses occupy beautiful places that should be used with more important purposes like gardening, for example, or recreation places with undisturbed nature. We have a golf course here in Galway, and every time I pass it I think how nice it would be if I just could take a walk there, and how nice it would be to remove those artificial grass lawns… sorry, golfers. But now that Trump is the president of the US it is great to have him in the story.
The book encourages readers to think more about sustainability, food waste and conservation issues – what more could we do in Galway, as a community, to help the environment?
I think Galway is very up-to-date. Here there are a lot of people involved in these issues, and we are very lucky to have a great farmer’s market, and access to locally grown vegetables. But I think it would be nice if more people took interest in community gardening. Transition Galway´s garden is in the middle of the city and that is really something special. The vegetables you can collect in a garden taste so much better than the ones packed in plastic in the supermarket. For the moment I think traffic is the worst environmental problem here. There are too many cars and if you take a look there usually is only one person in each car. Galway needs more public transport and less cars, to live up to being a decent city of culture in 2020. It is a city that should only have buses, trams and bikes on the narrow streets.
Would you recommend any local environmental groups to our readers?
The book has been categorized in the ecological thriller genre – a relatively new genre – have you read any other titles in this genre recently?
No. But I read a lot of non-fiction and stuff about it online and I think we need more stories – films and books – about what is happening with our beautiful nature. Just think of all the plastic in the sea, for example. Pollution and climate change are on a par with starvation. It should be a top priority for all governments on the planet, rather than greed for oil, money and fame.
What message do you aim to convey to readers?
Nature is so sophisticated and advanced that it should not be something that we try to copy. The story shows that when we start dealing with genetic manipulation we may have gone too far. But this is mainly a positive story. The plant will end up feeding the world, and, by taming and cultivating it, millions of people will get manual labour that is also needed very badly. There are some victims and losers in the story, but that is life. Progress and change always has its victims and losers. There is both black and white in every character. Those in power usually get away with cheating, while innocent people often become victims (like in real life). The point is that we should understand what is going on, and not believe the propaganda orchestrated by politicians and the media.
Is it a cautionary tale about how humans are destroying the ecosystem, how we take our privileges for granted, and ignore our responsibilities and duties for our creations in the planet?
Yes, but I do hope that the story will make people think about how we can change. We should focus on nature and our precious life. The Power Plant is a positive life force, it is not a death force like war and starvation. Can you imagine how it would be if all the news channels on TV and all the newspapers took a month when they only focused on the good things happening on our planet? I have travelled a lot and discovered that the Earth is such a friendly place, not dangerous at all, and full of nice, helpful people. We should focus and cultivate that idea.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about the book, or any other projects in the future?
Power Plant is just a small book, 250 pages, easy to read, good summer entertainment. And I want to point out that Ireland has so many fantastic writers. I cannot compete with the locals when it comes to poetry and incredible writing. But I like writing, and I am well into another book which is also set in Galway City. This is a completely different story, and as long as I am in the writing process I am not allowed to talk about it. That will spoil the magic. I started to write the new book a few months ago as I wanted to be far into a new story when Power Plant would be published. If a new book is not appreciated it can be depressing, so it is important to have new projects cooking. Creativity is like surfing. When you are on top of the wave you should stay up there and just keep on creating.
Where can readers purchase your book? How can readers get in contact with you?
Good question. I have been wondering about that myself for the last month. So far the book is available online at waterstones.com and amazon.co.uk. I think Waterstones has the shortest delivery time. It is also available as an e-book: that is the fastest and cheapest option. It is published in the UK and it takes time before the Irish bookshops discover it. I have been told that the buyers for bookshops are in Dublin, not here in Galway, where this book probably could sell quite well. I know that the library here has bought several copies, but it is not in stores yet. But it can be ordered in bookshops like Dubray´s and Charlie Byrne´s in Galway, or any bookshop. I am not sure, but it may be faster to order the book directly through a local shop.