#edbookfest: Helen Sedgwick: “I liked looking up at the night sky.”

A meeting of minds
| Two lives. A thousand years. One night sky. Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers sees two people driven to by a desire to explore come together at an Antarctic research station. But that’s just the start (or end?) of their story. She joins Kirsty Logan at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss.

“I liked looking up at the night sky.”
Helen previously worked in science, then as a literary editor and publisher, before she came to writing. “I liked science, I liked looking up at the night sky,” explains Helen. As a teen, being a writer didn’t occur as something you could do. She liked understanding and getting to know things. She worked in science, going part time to do a Masters in Creative Writing in Glasgow – then she handed in her notice and spent the best part of a decade trying to write this novel.

“I was so proud of leaving science that I tried to avoid it,” she continues, on why science didn’t feature in the first two novels she completed. But they lacked the magic and wonder of the field. People can find it quite dry, but it only gets more magical the more microscopic the scale at which you look at it. “I hadn’t been wrong,” she notes, on choosing it originally. “I’d been right.”

the comet seekers“I wanted to explore the humanity behind the science.”
While comets are core to her story, the person at the centre matters more. “I wanted to explore the humanity behind the science,” Helen notes – not the stereotypes. Kirsty questions whether it’s a love story, but in a traditional sense she says no – it’s a love of family and that complex relationship, a love and need to be free and autonomous as a human. “It’s abut love of the night sky. It’s about love of your dreams.”

Her book has those who look for adventure and those who look for home. There’s ghosts (or is there?), family, history, science, a strong sense of place, weaving worldwide, millennium-spanning threads together. It’s been a long journey here, and publishing has (and hasn’t) helped. Having an editorial eye allows her to step back and view what she’s doing, but the day-to-day running in publishing, the business and sales, can very easily make people lose the love of why they joined the industry. That’s not the case for the world of writing – it, like science, is just full of wonder and magic.

The hour looks at Helen’s writing routine, and the challenge of writing a story that spans a thousand years, her favourite types of comets and where to start if you want to begin exploring the night sky. She talks of her route to getting published – she turned down a book deal on a previous book because she felt it wasn’t the right one. People think she did the right thing because it turned out well, but she knows how big a gamble it was that got her here.

That gamble is a stunning book that immerses you in a love and wonder of life and the sky. Your whole life is barely a blink of an eye to a comet, and Helen’s event fills you with her infectious love of the twinkling night sky above us.

(The Comet Seekers is my favourite book of the year and I wholeheartedly recommend you pick it up. You can read my review here too.)

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