7 September 2012 by Dominic Lenton
It's clear from the opening of 'Metal Molly' that this isn't the usual fairies-and-ponies formula that many publishers seem to think is the only thing girls who have grown out of picture books will be interested in reading. Author Ariadne Tampion is convinced, though, that combining a tale of friendships and rivalries with an account of an engineering development project encompassing power, control and computer programming is a winning formula.
A chartered engineer and IET member, Dr Tampion has a solid background in the technology of robotics and artificial intelligence. We talked to her about how she used this, and her experience as the mother of two daughters, to create the story of a little girl robot who goes to school.
Wirebound: Tell us a bit about your background in engineering and how you came to start writing.
AT: I started writing at the age of seven, long before I had any knowledge of engineering. I had an imaginary land and drove my mother nuts by following her around, telling her about the people and happenings in it.
One day she suggested I write it all down instead. In my pre-teen years I progressed to school stories, inspired by Enid Blyton and by Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series. As a teenager I moved on to science fiction. I decided to become an engineer because by the age of 16 I had become very aware of environmental issues. Reading and writing science fiction was crucial in this decision, because it persuaded me that technology was the best way to 'save the world' and that I might be capable of devising some which could do the job.
I chose electrical engineering, having been enthused about rotating electrical machines many years earlier by Eric Laithwaite's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. I imagined myself working on renewable energy. But life does not always go according to plan, and I found myself embarking on a PhD about large turbogenerators! Despite my new identity as an engineer, I still thought of myself as a writer. I took my thesis seriously as a work of literature as well as an account of my research, and felt thoroughly vindicated when my external examiner opened the viva by declaring that it was a rare treat to get a thesis which was actually a pleasure to read. The following three years I spent working in industry, taking as much pride over documentation and reports as over the code I wrote.
I left industry to start my family. Over the years of raising my two daughters I became a volunteer counsellor for the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, and involved in local politics and campaigning.
These interests gave me plentiful opportunities for writing newsletter articles, letters and blurbs, but I knew my life was too busy to sustain the production of anything longer. From time to time characters and plots for novels would invade my mind, but I was always successful in banishing them.
In September 2005 I was again troubled by one such aspiring novel. My elder daughter Sophie had just started at secondary school and my younger daughter Isobel had entered Year 2 of primary school. With their demands on me correspondingly reduced in comparison to previous years, I figured that if I scaled down the novel to a novella, I might just be able to write it. The result, 'Automatic Lover', is a mix of science fiction, satire and fairytale with a storyline about women engineers and artificial intelligence. I published it on the web so that it could be easily spread around my friends and communities.
While I was writing it, programmer Rollo Carpenter won the Loebner Prize with his chatbot 'George'. The Loebner Prize is an annual contest funded by American philanthropist Hugh Loebner in the hope of stimulating the development of software that will pass the Turing Test. Until this is achieved, an annual award is presented to the 'most human-like' of the entries. I struck up a correspondence with Rollo. As a consequence, he asked me to develop a character for the female chatbot 'Joan' which he was planning to enter in the 2006 competition (and which indeed went on to win it).
My experiences with Joan inspired me to write a full-length novel, a sequel to 'Automatic Lover' entitled 'Automatic Lover - Ten Years On'.
What was the aim of writing 'Metal Molly'?
The initial purpose of 'Metal Molly' was to recompense Isobel for the time and attention I had been giving to my writing for adults. It is a robot story because that is the place my mind was in at that point; also, it is in children's nature to want something not too different from what the grown-ups are getting, otherwise they feel they are missing out.
I wanted to make it overtly educational. Professor White, the character who designed the little girl robot Molly, would explain things to the young heroine, named Isobel like my daughter. However, real-life Isobel soon let me know her dim view of that approach! So I settled on a fast-paced tale of little-girl friendships and rivalries, with the engineering content that was integral to the storyline seamlessly embedded and none extra added. Upon reflection, I think Isobel was right, and the end result is better.
The most important aspect of 'Metal Molly' is the same as that of the Automatic Lover stories: a robot character that is a real machine, identifiably operating in accordance with a program. This is actually quite rare in robot fiction, especially in works aimed at children. The story also gives some idea of the challenges involved in designing, building and programming a robot.
Without illustrations 'Metal Molly' was not viable as a book, so once Isobel and a few others had read the initial printout, the manuscript languished on disc until last summer. Then, by chance, I discovered that a contemporary of Sophie's, Laura Buckland, was seriously considering a career in book illustration. A new aim became to kick-start Laura's career. Laura's mother Brenda has been a good friend to me since our children were all small, so I feel really privileged to be in a position to do this.
Why did you decide to produce it yourself rather than trying to get a publisher interested?
I learned from my experiences with the 'Automatic Lover' stories that C.P. Snow's 'two cultures' present a formidable obstacle to any technologically-themed work of fiction that is not aimed at a niche science fiction readership. With children's fiction there is a further obstacle: the J.K. Rowling effect. Due to the phenomenal success of Harry Potter, publishers of children's fiction are currently swamped by manuscripts from people who see it as a get-rich-quick scheme.
I stopped looking for a publisher for the Automatic Lover stories when I ran out of time. I was absolutely determined to have the two published together as a book ready for launch in conjunction with the 2008 Loebner Prize, as it was to be held in Reading where I grew up. Having self-published that book, I had the knowledge necessary to self-publish another easily, and the disinclination to waste any more of my life corresponding with people who do not want to know about my work because it does not fit their pigeon holes.
What sort of reception has it had?
The very first copy I posted out was to my eight-year-old niece. A few days later I received a thank-you note from her saying she 'absolutely loved it'. That, I think, has to be my most meaningful endorsement! I have since been taking approximately ten copies to any events that I attend. I then beg a few minutes from the Chair to announce that I have free books to give away, and ask anybody who wants one to raise their hand. This generates the necessary head of crowd hysteria to ensure that all the books find homes. The idea is to plant many acorns in the hope that some may grow into mighty oaks.
People have been extremely positive, saying: "What a good idea!" and "What a beautiful book!" This is of course very pleasing, but I am aware that 'Metal Molly' has yet to survive a tough critical review from somebody who really understands the book's purpose. For the Automatic Lover stories, passing this test with flying colours gave me the confidence to keep promoting them despite one set-back after another. It would be nice to have a similar boost for 'Metal Molly'; although if I have bad reviews, I suspect I shall ignore them and carry on regardless.
I am particularly thrilled that the gift shop at Bletchley Park agreed to stock it. If any readers of this interview are interested in buying 'Metal Molly' and are also planning a visit to Bletchley Park, please buy it there and support the Bletchley Park Trust.
How does your writing for children compare to the books you've written for adults?
Writing for children is intrinsically difficult because you have to connect with their partially-formed minds. Successful professional children's authors often seem to spend as much time associating with their readers, for example by visiting schools, as they do actually writing. 'Metal Molly' was easy because I wrote it for my own daughter, but would be hard to repeat because she is a teenager now and our dialogue has moved on.
I set myself high standards in everything I write, but when writing for children I feel more keenly the responsibility to do so. Exposure to beautiful, accurate prose in their early years of reading will make it much easier for them to write beautiful accurate prose themselves in due course. If they are given something ugly and sloppy, they will believe that is OK, to the detriment of their future education and employment prospects.
What are you working on now?
The vast majority of my time is spent cleaning my house and feeding my family. I also do a lot of work in my role as a committee member for the BCS Specialist Group on Artificial Intelligence. Of the small amount of time that remains, most is spent preparing promotional material for my two published books: both 'blurbs' for the public domain and emails to people who might be able to help. This is necessary because neither book is flying by itself yet. I published the Automatic Lover stories four years ago, but I still have to work hard for every single UK sale. (I get spontaneous sales in the States, but they are tiny in number.) As I have so little time for writing, it is important that I get due recognition for what I do manage to produce.
That said, I do have two new ideas for novels, one quite well advanced.
However, I can see no sign of any opportunity to start work, so I am not prepared to make any promises that either will ever get written.
Read all about it...
You can read an extract from Metal Molly and purchase copies at lulu.com. Before ordering, check out the Lulu home page for discount codes and free postage offers. The book is also stocked by Chocolate Alchemy in Churchgate Mews, Loughborough and Bletchley Park gift shop
For any other queries, contact Ariadne via her website. Teachers interested in assessing the suitability of Metal Molly for class reading can request a complimentary pdf of the book (proof of identity may be required).
Ariadne's novella for adults, 'Automatic Lover', is available to read free on its own website, where you can find out more about its novel-length sequel, 'Automatic Lover - Ten Years On', and purchase both in book form.
Edited: 07 September 2012 at 08:48 PM by Dominic Lenton
Posted By: Dominic Lenton @ 07 September 2012 02:34 PM General
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