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How to Create a Dystopian Novelist: Add Psychology, Political Unrest, Encouraging Friends, and Stir

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Like many novelists, Jacqui Castle stumbled into fiction through a side door. She mixed a background in psychology, some surrounding social and political upheaval and a few encouraging friends to wind up with “The Seclusion,” her debut novel.

“For years, people have been telling me to try to write fiction, and I just kinda brushed it off,” she said. “I hadn’t really felt a drive to do that, but once I started, I haven’t stopped.”

Castle grew up in Hagerstown, Md., and moved five years ago to Fairview with her husband and two young children. She earned her way here as a freelance journalist, writing food and wellness columns for Mountain Xpress and political opinion pieces for the website Asheville Grit.

Then came the run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

“I started what I thought would be a short story, and I found through that process that writing fiction was cathartic in way that nonfiction didn’t,” she said.

Castle set her novel in the year 2090, in a United States with northern and southern border walls. While he isn’t specifically mentioned in the book, the spectre of Donald Trump looms over the history depicted in “The Seclusion.” Castle wants to steer her readers’ imagination to a dystopian future shaped by the fear, division and distrust spawned by Trump’s policies and rhetoric.

Castle is launching the book by reading and signing copies Sept. 4 at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville.

“I just started to think ‘What would the world look like for a grandchild or great-grandchild growing up in this sort of world?’” she said. “Where would things really lead if we really squash the free press? If all of our information was coming from one source and that source was our government—What could that sort of world look like?”

As many journalists learn when first stepping into fiction, Castle initially struggled to free herself from just the facts to shaping a story with imagined people and events. One of her tricks in developing distinct characters was taking the dialogue out of context and gauging whether she could tell who was speaking.

“As a freelance writer, learning to show not tell was a very big thing for me. I’ll readily admit, the first draft read like a journalistic info dump,” she said. “So I really had to work on getting into my characters’ voices and showing things through dialogue and action. It was a big learning process.”

Castle used an interesting outlet called Inkshares to publish her book. In the first stage of the project, Inkshares operates like any other crowdfunding platform. Authors place their projects online and must attract a minimum number of committed pre-orders. In Castle’s case, it was 750 books. Once she passed that threshold passed, Inkshares brought the editing, designing and marketing power of a traditional publishing house to Castle’s book.

Castle wrote “The Seclusion” for a general adult readership, but she embraced her editors’ urging to market the book for young adults.

“Dystopian is an important genre for young adults. I think it’s important at that stage of life to play around with consequences through a story,” she said. “I did want to make it clear teenagers could pick up this book and maybe grasp onto this little ray of hope that’s present in so many dystopian novels out there, that even when circumstances are dire, there’s always a hope and always a way and always a reason to search for knowledge and truth.”

Castle put her freelance journalism largely on hold while writing “The Seclusion,” and she hopes to make the transition to fiction permanent, as a different way to get people thinking about climate change, the free press and other areas of her concern.

“Fiction authors will continue to explore the ‘what if’ and give us a way to live out certain conclusions to the choices that we make,” she said.


Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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