Everyone over the age of twenty is dead. An undiagnosed malady afflicts the population as it ages leaving the world filled with teenagers. So is the setting of Sandra Newman’s new novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star. The novel relies on an invented patois created to by Newman. She discussed the novel at Greenlight Bookstore with Emily St. John Mandel, author of the equally dark dystopian novel, Station Eleven.
The language is the first thing readers notice. Its broken by comparison to standard twentieth-century English, but there are rules. Newman created a structure and grammar and syntax, but its very evidently not contemporary English.
In her first attempts at writing the novel, Newman relied on standard American English. But she found it hard to believe that eighty or hundred years in the future, when the elders have been wiped out and all that remains are teenagers, that the language would not have changed. She was writing the future.
The language felt artificial and in a day of epiphanies, she settled on inventing something new. She thought of novels like A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess creates a dirty hybrid of Russian and English for the droogs to speak. Newman says she turned to the language of African American teenagers to serve as the base thinking that many teenagers already use the vernacular. She researched grammar and diction, and added in some Russian and French.
“Working in real English is something of a straight jacket,” she says, adding, “you can’t just make up a word.”
The language she invented has rules, enough that the copy editor seemed to have figured it out. Sometimes her husband speaks to her in the language. She even went through the trouble of writing a syntax and grammar guide for potential translators who would have to take the adulterated English and transform it.
The challenge in creating a language is really in deciding how far to stretch words. Every time a word is created, it becomes a challenge for the reader and it stops them, she says. She created a thesaurus to help her manage the words. “I put a lot of work into it and then it never really worked,” she says.
Sometimes inventing language created its own problems in practice. “It was like the characters were losing interest as a I tried to find the word,” she said.
A group of teenagers wandering across a dystopic and broken country would seem ripe for the burgeoning Young Adult market. The novel is not, however, appropriate for teenagers, Newman stresses.
Newman is friends with the author Matt de la Peña who has had success with young adult books. She says de la Peña suggested she could make more money in the genre than in writing literary fiction, and the novel started out focused on teenagers as a result. Very shortly after presenting the novel to a Young Adult agent, it was apparent that The Country of Ice Cream Star would not work in the teen market.
Most of the characters in the novel are people of color. St. John Mandel points out that one of the problems with disaster novels in general is that the world seems whitewashed, that the survivors all end up being white. Not so with Newman’s book.
The choice to focus on characters of color comes from the language, Newman says. She intended the characters to be all black, and thought of it as a nice “fuck you” to the establishment who expected a white hero.
It all comes back to the language. The patois originates with people of color and thus begets characters of color.
When Newman began writing the novel, she knew the characters were all going to be young. What she didn’t know was why. The disease developed over time for her. She began thinking that everyone was young because of pollution, because of a poisoned earth. She didn’t like concept though. “I don’t like working in depressing environments,” she says.