When Ever Dundas’ critically acclaimed and award-winning debut novel Goblin was published back in 2017 it announced an exciting and arresting new voice to the world of Scottish writing. To say fans have been eagerly awaiting the follow up is a huge understatement, but that wait is nearly over, with HellSans to be published in October of this year. SNACK caught up with Ever Dundas to learn more about it.
What can you tell us about HellSans?
In an alternative dystopian UK, the Inex (a cyborg doll-like personal assistant) has replaced the smartphone, and the population is controlled by its ‘bliss’ reaction to HellSans, the ubiquitous typeface. But there’s a minority who are allergic to the typeface: so-called ‘deviants’ who are forced to live in ghettos. Jane Ward, CEO of the company that develops the Inex, is powerful and in league with the government until she falls ill with the allergy.
Losing her charmed life, she languishes in the ghetto until her story collides with Dr Icho Smith, who has a HellSans allergy cure and is on the run from the government and the Seraphs (the ghetto ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’ depending on your viewpoint), who all have their own agenda for the cure.
HellSans is in three parts: the first two parts can be read in an order of the reader’s choosing, which can affect the reader’s journey with the characters and the story.
It’s been described by some as a sci-fi novel, by others as horror. Do you think of it as a genre novel, or does it avoid easy categorisation? How do you describe it to people?
I describe it as a sci-fi thriller, with lashings of body horror. I’m happy for it to be described as sci-fi or horror, or both. I was speaking with Mairi Campbell-Jack, who runs the True Crime Fiction podcast, about whether HellSans is crime fiction and I said that while there are crimes committed, it doesn’t fit with what readers might consider crime. Her response was: ‘I have a very broad view of crime as genre – I’d love to discuss things like state crimes against disabled people…’. I LOVED that response, the expansiveness of the definition.
What were the inspirations, either personal or otherwise, which led you to write HellSans?
It won’t surprise readers that the name came from a mash-up of Helvetica and the poor, much- maligned Comic Sans. It’s important to point out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Comic Sans; people’s horrified reaction tends to come from its misuse, its presence in places it shouldn’t be. This fascinates me, along with how we can have quite visceral reactions to design and art.
I came home from my office job one day and told my husband that it wasn’t just one of my colleagues using Comic Sans in their emails, but now two.
I said: ‘It’s spreading, like a disease,’ and as soon as I uttered those words, in that very moment, I had the idea for HellSans. I left my husband mid-chat and ran off to write a scene.
I considered whether it would be a disease or if I would riff off Burroughs’ ‘language is a virus’ (I’ve always been interested by language as a virus or weapon and The Flame Alphabet [by Ben Marcus] and the film version of Pontypool are definite influences), but I decided to go for an allergy, partly because of my own experience. I have numerous food allergies as well as chronic illnesses with sensory symptoms (sensitivity to light and noise) and it can sometimes feel like I’m allergic to the world, so I thought – what would that be like? If you were literally allergic to society? Some graffiti also fed into this: ‘Society is making you sick’ and ‘Capitalism is killing you’. I took both those statements and created HellSans.
You’ve said you consider your main characters, Jane Ward and Icho Smith, as anti-heroes. Why do you think of them in that way?
Icho and Jane end up on the run from the government, but they’re not rebels by choice: Jane, in particular, is trying to claw her way back to her previous life, and they both do some pretty nefarious things. Given the kind of story I was writing, it would have been easy to have plucky rebel-hero protagonists, but I was more attracted to writing compromised characters who reflect back on the reader. We all like to imagine ourselves the hero, but the truth is we’re all compromised.
All good anti-heroes have a kind of charm to them, too, and you find yourself rooting for them despite yourself, but I’ll leave it to the readers to decide whether they feel this about Jane and Icho. Some may even consider them villains. I’m much more interested in how readers respond to them than in how I define them.
Fantasy and science fiction are often inspired by, or comment on, events and attitudes in the real world. Is that evident in HellSans?
The minority who are allergic to the typeface are treated the way disabled people are treated now under a Tory government: deviant and marginalised. It’s my way of exploring the dystopia disabled people have been living in for ten-plus years. The Tories were investigated by the UN for human rights violations against disabled people – that can’t be ignored. HellSans is also a reaction to damaging mainstream disability narratives, often written by non-disabled people.
You are also involved with putting together The Inklusion Guide, which aims to help event organisers better understand accessibility for disabled writers, audience members, and others. Can you tell us about that and why it is necessary?
As both a disabled author and disabled audience member at literary events, I know how important it is to have good access in place, and that wasn’t happening. It’s exhausting for disabled people to constantly advocate for themselves every time they simply want to attend or appear at an event. The Inklusion Guide is a practical resource for event providers, with a best practice checklist, further resources, and advice and experience from disabled authors. We hope the guide will help take the burden off disabled people.
And talking of events, what are your plans for launching HellSans once it is published?
Angry Robot have two launch events planned for October and I’m very excited about them. Keep an eye on my social media for announcements.
HellSans is published by Angry Robot Books
Author Picture by Lisa Ferguson