Madeline Ashby on building worlds, brave characters and muscles

In her sci-fi novel Company Town, Madeline Ashby imagines a city built on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, where the wealth gap is so extreme it often spills over into violence. At the centre of the chaos - often causing it - is Hwa, a reserved, but tough-as-nails bodyguard recruited by the rig's powerful owners to protect the company's heir apparent.

Company Town will be defended on Canada Reads 2017 by actress Tamara Taylor.

Update (March 9, 2017): Due to a scheduling conflict, Tamara Taylor had to step down from Canada Reads. Defending Company Town by Madeline Ashby during the debates March 27-30 will be Measha Brueggergosman.

Below, Ashby describes the genesis of her novel.


Building Hwa's world
The idea for for Hwa came really early. I had this character right from the get go. So it was a task of putting her in her best light and and finding the place where she could do the most damage. The place she could grow the most as a character. I sort of built the world around her.

I think what people forget about world building is that its done in layers, much like our own world, it's created in bits at a time. Very rarely are cities created all in one piece, and whenever they are, it's usually unsuccessful. What attracts people to cities and towns is the layering of history and the layering of experience. Every time I did edits or rewrites, I added more. Every time I was in the place, I discovered more about it. I discover it along with the reader, in a lot of ways. I know a lot of other writers build a wiki and do a lot of pre-writing and note-taking. But for my own process, what is most useful is just spending time in this new world and thinking out the natural conclusions of a particular idea.

Flexing her literary muscles
There's a lot of fiction where someone accomplishes this massive physical feat and and you don't ever see them working out. I was thinking a lot about that and while I was wrapping up the book my husband and I co-edited, a James Bond anthology called License Expired. Ian Fleming talks about the fact that Bond has to train for things, though when you see him on film you rarely see the exercise portion of it. But in the books, he'll spend like three months training for one swim. It was really important to me that I showed Hwa working out, as a person who rooted a lot of her identity in her physical ability.

For specific movements that I needed Hwa to be able to do, I watched YouTube videos of the Korean women's national taekwondo team. I wanted to see specifically how the women on that team fought and what the natural movements were for them. I watched all lot of self-defence training videos too. You learn all these crazy little tips and tricks. One I used in the book - when Hwa breaks somebody's little finger. If someone has covered your mouth or they're trying to get you by the throat, one of the easiest things to do is grab their little finger and pull it violently in the other direction. This usually breaks the little finger away from the hand and causes them enough pain that they let go and you can run away.

Musical accompaniment
I listen to music when I write. I put together playlists for every book that I work on. The first song on the Company Town playlist is "Get Behind The Mule" by Tom Waits and the last song on the playlist is The National's "Fake Empire." There's "Are You Alright?" by Lucinda Williams, some Nine Inch Nails, Beth Orton and Feist.

The playlist helps me put the book in order. It's the soundtrack of the story. The mood of the playlist changes as the mood of the novel changes. The playlist usually takes as long to play as it takes me for to read the book.

Madeline Ashby's comments have been edited and condensed.

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Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
Nostalgia by MG Vassanji
The Break by Katherena Vermette
The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

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