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When Readers Demanded a Sequel to ‘The Annual Migration of Clouds,’ Premee Mohamed Delivered

In a Q&A about 'We Speak Through the Mountain,' the author talks about leaving her science career, her post-apocalyptic Alberta setting and the novella's resurgence / BY Rosemary Counter / June 20th, 2024


Just one short year ago, Edmonton scientist Premee Mohamed (who has a pair of degrees in molecular biology and environmental science) had a stable policy gig at Alberta Environment and Parks. Lots of people change careers, but I would think going from a career in science to fiction writing would be a slow evolution. Well, my hypothesis was very wrong. 

Instead, a fast writing process means Mohamed is celebrating the release of  We Speak Through the Mountain – her third book this year, after The Siege of Burning Grass and The Butcher of the Forest –  and, wait for it, there are two more coming out in 2024. I’d be jealous of her superhuman literary output, except that the Indo-Caribbean wordsmith proves as humble as she is sweet – which makes it kind of a trip to realize this pleasant person created a dark, dangerous, post-apocalyptic hellscape from somewhere deep in her mind. 

We Speak Through the Mountain was an unplanned sequel to The Annual Migration of Clouds, and the second of three books in what’s now a planned trilogy. In the first book, Reid Graham receives an acceptance letter from a secretive university, and struggles to decide whether to accept or stay home and help her mother, and her community, struggle for survival. In a post-climate-disaster society, they must grow their own food, hunt for meat and weave their own fabrics from leftover plastics in a world without electricity or technology – plus they are tormented by a fungal disease called Cad. Mohamed’s thought-provoking novella, including its deliberately vague ending, wowed critics and earned the new writer an Aurora Award in 2022.

 

Premee Mohamed

 

We Speak Through the Mountain sees Reid, after she accepts a place at the mysterious Howse University, trek through the Rocky Mountains to get to the mythic utopia, where they have the last remnants of pre-collapse society – including technology, lots of food and a treatment for Cad.  On campus, inside domes and bunkers, the 19-year-old takes classes to prepare for an elevated life as one of the “haves” rather than the “have-nots.” Increasingly uncomfortable with Howse’s resource-hoarding and suspicious of the university’s real purpose, Reid faces her original dilemma in reverse: Should she stay or should she go? 

I can’t tell you much more without ruining it, so we’ll let Mohamed take it from here. Zoomer found her at home in Edmonton. 

Rosemary Counter: You used to be a scientist, but now you’re a full-time writer. 

Premee Mohamed: I’m gonna say part-time writer, because this year I’m the writer-in-residence at the Edmonton Public Library. Up until last year, I was a full-time normal employee and had been for just over 20 years. I have two science degrees, but no writing degree. Nobody wants to give you a job if you don’t have a MFA [Master of Fine Arts]. I’m a bit scared, constantly stressed out and my mom’s always texting me about when I’m going to get a real job. 

RC: You really are a writer then. And you have five books coming out this year? 

PM: Well, two were already out, two are coming in June and there’s another in October. I realize that people think that’s a lot, and they ask why in the world would I do that, to which I say, “Do you think the author chooses the launch date?” 

RC: They definitely do not. Are they all different publishers?

PM: They’re all different genres: fantasy, military sci-fi, environmental fiction, western horror. I actually just gave a talk about this for the Federation of BC Writers’ spring summit. The title was “For the Love of Genres” and I talked about being a cross-genre writer. Maybe this used to be weird, but my readers and my publishers are well aware that I do that, so it’s not an issue. I’m interested in all these genres, which touch and overlap all the time, and I’m not interested in compartmentalizing. There are no rooms or borders in my brain. 

RC: Let’s chat about We Speak Through the Mountain, because that’s the one I read. Nobody told me it was a sequel, by the way.

PM: You’re not the first! It’s a sequel, people, so you should read book one. But if you don’t, here you go: The first book, The Annual Migration of Clouds, tells the story of Reid Graham. She’s a young woman living in what I’d call post-climate-disaster Alberta at the U of A campus, where a lot of people have ended up for safety and security’s sake. She’s been offered the opportunity to attend a prestigious university, which meant leaving her mother and her rural community, which doesn’t have electricity or technology anymore. 

RC: You forgot the part about Cad …

PM: Oh yes, that’s important. Both Reid her mother and have this mysterious progressive disease called Cad, a parasite that causes disability, infertility, skin rashes, limb loss, vertigo. It’s new, so nobody really knows what it does, which is of course terrifying for humans. I was interested in the larger effects of a global pandemic. The book was written in 2019, by the way. I didn’t know what was coming.

RC: How near is the “near-future” where your book is set?

PM: I’m not too specific, but in my imagination, I think it’s maybe about the 2040s. Things have really started to fall apart, but people still remember the before times. It’s not so far from the first book that Reid isn’t still carrying the wounds and anger and trauma from the first book. 

I actually didn’t write that one [The Annual Migration of Clouds] with a sequel in mind, but the ending was so ambiguous that I got angry emails saying, “What happened? What did she do?” So it was a very different and interesting experience to write a book you didn’t plan on writing and having to deal with the things Reid’s dealing with too. 

 RC: And this is actually book two of three, each of them technically a novella. Do people still write novellas anymore? Are you bringing them back?

PM: Ha! I actually did a presentation on this too: “The Resurgence of the Novella.” Cool title, but really novellas have always been around. If anything, and probably thanks to fantasy, those big fat doorstopper books are the trend. Go into any used bookstore and you’ll find a ton of sci-fi-fantasy from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and they’re all novella length, but nobody called them novellas, just “short novels,” if that. 

RC: Dumb question, then: Besides the length, is there any difference to a novella?

PM: Literally none, and it’s mostly about classification for awards. A novella is technically under 40,000 words. A “novelette” is 7,500 to 17,499 words. Where’s the “novelleto”? I’m kidding. These things are all so arbitrary. I say, just look at the book and buy it if it looks good. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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