Natasha Calder’s solo debut novel Whether Violent or Natural imagines a near-future world where antibiotics have failed, wiping out most human life on earth. It follows the fortunes of mismatched couple Kit and Crevan, eking out a meagre existence on an isolated island, whose daily routines and darkest secrets are upended by a new arrival. She lifts the lid on her daily routines and literary favourites…

Where are you now?

I’m sitting in a semi-d in Durham, with a view onto a cotoneaster that’s been a bit depleted of birdlife since this last round of avian flu.

Where and when do you do most of your writing?

Where: here in this chair. When: as many hours of the day as possible.

If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?

It varies but there’s always coffee.

How do you relax when you’re writing?

Whether I’m working office hours or 5am to midnight, at some point I’ll make myself get outside for a lengthy walk and a ponder.

How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?

In a world devastated by antimicrobial resistance, two survivors are thrown into crisis when a woman washes ashore on the remote island where they live.

Your previous book, The Offset, was written with Emma Szewczak. How did your writing approach differ going solo?

It was radically different. For instance, I didn’t discuss my work or show it to anyone until it was done. I don’t think I outlined, either – just kept everything in my head.

Can readers expect more from Calder Szweczak?

Hopefully, yes – we certainly have a few narrative ends from The Offset to tie up.

Were thoughts of a deadly pandemic whirring through your mind before Covid, or did this story mostly take shape during lockdown?

The starting point wasn’t so much a pandemic as antibiotic resistance – I’m particularly interested in the way misuse destroys the efficacy of such treatments and what the impact will be on the medical landscape when we no longer have an antibiotic of last resort. It’s a pressing issue and one I’ve been following for many years.

Did the local landscape around Durham inspire Kit’s island? (The castle and causeway of Lindisfarne further up the coast come to mind.)

I actually wrote the manuscript while living in Ireland. But I’d visited Lindisfarne before and it was definitely in my mind – that and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.

I don’t know about ‘favourite’ but here’s the end of ‘Sailing Home From Rapallo’ by Robert Lowell:

The corpse
was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.

Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.

What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?

Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki, Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman and Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart.

Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?

I really must re-read Middlemarch. I didn’t much care for it the first time around but perhaps on a second pass I’ll finally understand what everyone else is so hopped up about.

Which book/s do you treasure the most?

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells saved me once, a long time back. It’s been precious to me ever since.

What is the last work you read in translation?

Anne-Marie the Beauty by Yasmina Reza, translated by Alison L. Strayer.

Which story collections would you particularly recommend?

Of those I’ve read recently: Fen by Daisy Johnson, Building Stories by Chris Ware and Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero.

What are you working on next?

Something different. I haven’t shared it with my agent yet, so – depending on what he says – it may still have to be quietly euthanised.

Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?

Oh, I’d get out of it if I could – I can just about hack one-on-one, but anything more is an ordeal. Especially with strangers, fictional or otherwise.

If you weren’t writing you’d be…?

Still working in cybersecurity, probably.

If you were the last person on Earth, what would you write?

A list of everyone I love and as much about each of them as I can remember.

How can we make peace with our planet?

Leave it alone? I reckon it’ll be fine once we’re all dead.

Natasha Calder studied at Trinity College Dublin for her first degree, and then at Cambridge for an MPhil. Her short fiction has been published in Stinging FlyLackington’s and Curiosities, and she is the co-author with Emma Szewczak of The Offset (Angry Robot, 2021). Whether Violent or Natural is published by Bloomsbury in hardback and eBook.
Read more

Author photo by Alex Krook