Procrastination is surprisingly important. It sets a bar: if what you're writing isn't more fun for you than the things you could be doing instead, it's certainly not going to be more fun for anyone else...
When did you decide to write this novel?
I suppose in early 2006; I had a scriptwriting project collapse, I was getting married and I had no sense of momentum with my film career, and I was exhausted with the gruesome pitch & development process. And I was tired of having to put everything into 100 pages of script. There's more to life than one hour and forty minutes.
Which part set it off?
The very beginning: two guys in a truck, going through a world which is both muddled up with itself and fundamentally damaged.
I am trying not to give away too much, in case someone who hasn't read the book were to stumble across it, so forgive my lack of clarity, but did you start from what the dénouement, as it were?
I knew what would happen at the end from fairly early on. The novel has at base a very simple, solid structure: there's a crime, an investigation, and a delivery of justice. Being a lunatic, however, I decided to tell a story which required 25 years of the main characters' lives and a brief history of the late twentieth / early twenty first century twisted through ninety degrees. So it looks more complicated than it is.
Or did you just want to write a book with ninjas?
Ninjas came a little later. Every adventure needs a bad guy who scares the bejeesus out of you. If he doesn't, the hero's just some guy who can beat down some other guy. Any individual ninja is a one person army. A hero who can take on an army of ninjas is therefore a stupendous badass. And then there's still the ninja master to come... again, it has a shape we automatically understand, and a weight of danger. Very useful.
Or did you just crave a mad Tupperware moment?
That came out of nowhere. I still have no idea how it happened, and it makes me laugh as if I was seeing it in someone else's book. I have no idea where I was in my head that day.
It is a very complex novel -- did you start with a world that shaped the plot, or the other way around?
Well, as I say, it's a simple structure with a huge amount hanging on it, so although there's a lot going on, there's also a spine to hang on to: you just have to trust that it's there. But I knew the shape of the story from early on. The whole plot - no. I layered that in. No one could hold all that in their head at once. At least, I couldn't.
The opening chapter. I know you have commented on your blog that people either love it or hate it. I wouldn't say I hate it, but I found I liked it much better when I went back to read it again once the story had gotten to that point. How did you decide to start with that?
Instinct. And some people think it was wrong. Others say it was vital. I wanted to start late. I did not want to begin with a story about two five-year old kids. That is not how thrillers start.
Are your pirates and ninjas a conscious distancing from the easy stereotypes and the ninja vs pirates internet subculture? Were you aware of your relationship to this subculture in your writing of them?
I think I chose them for the same reasons they became internet tropes, but I wasn't deliberately drawing on an internet culture. Anyway, you can't rely on stuff like that. It comes and goes so fast, which is what it should do. I was aware, but I wasn't specifically looking for that. And I'm never going to be interested in the off-the-shelf version of a figure like that. I want my own version...
You are very political on your blog. Does the semi-anarchistic ideology that seems to permeate the Gone-Away World reflect your own stance? Feel free to rant and go off on a tangent.
I think I ranted enough in the book, although it's interesting that very few people have asked me about that. I thought I'd get a load of trouble for being some kind of mad anti-capitalist, or at least, anti-corporatist. It just hasn't come up. Either people agree or they're too engaged with the story to worry about it. I hope it's the former!
I was looking for an explanation of how good people do bad things. I do think that's often how it happens: that switching off of the self, the need to follow the dictates of an impersonal agenda. We're very social creatures and we're susceptible to the lure of being part of something bigger, to the freedom from responsibility. Ultimately, I believe we have to take that responsibility back.
That said, I think the point at which we could have an actual anarchic society is the point at which it wouldn't matter what system of government we had: it would work because everyone was informed and motivated to do what was necessary. So I'm with Winston Churchill: democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others.
In another interview <a href="http://www.nickharkaway.com/2009/08/the-serbian-connection">posted on your blog</a> you write that it upset you that otherwise quite intellectual people think it perfectly acceptable to claim to know nothing about science. I do, of course, agree. Do you have an academic background in science; or are you one of those of us who devour popular science, but whose brains go weird at the sight of an integral?
My academic background is in sociology and politics, really. I'm interested in science, but I don't have the skill with mathematics which would allow me to grasp it properly. Although even that, I think, is in part about how mathematics was presented to me when I was a kid. I don't do rote learning well. I need to understand things in context, how they connect. And I was often being asked to solve a given problem in a specific way which made no sense to me, when there was another way I understood.
I do also think that it's intolerable that hard science courses often lack an ethical or human dimension. I knew a particle physicist at university who told me proudly that ethics had no place in physics. I just stared at him. But that's more in hand, I think. It's an issue in pop culture, it's out there. The number of people who read Dickens and have no interest in what biotech might achieve over the next few years... yeowch. It's a little bit like the preoccupation with a non-existent pastoral England that you see in writers from the turn of the last century. It's an illusion of what they remember being told was normal when they were kids: a world of Newtonian science, of medicine being doctors in tweed rather than biochemists with protein inhibitors. Never mind that that world was defined by the atom bomb. That wasn't in our street.
If we envisage an extended Bildungs-ideal that also includes a good grasp of science, what should be the criteria of a thoroughly Educated person -- a general understanding of the purpose of the Higgs boson, or must we learn differentiation?
I think completeness is a snark we'll never catch. That ship sailed in the nineteenth century. What's important is interest, and an open mind to the possibilities. You can't know it all, so you should know the limits of your knowledge and be prepared for the good or the bad which could come out of that place beyond you. There's a flurry going on right now over whether nanotech materials are damaging to the human body. People are running around as if it was a tomorrow problem which arrived early. It's not. It's a today problem, but because it has the word 'nano' in it, lawmakers and regulators seem to have assumed it was vapourware.
An educated person has a base of knowledge and an openness to more. They know where to get information and increasingly they know how to chase down a moderately sophisticated disinformation job. I'm thinking of Inhofe's list of 'renowned scientists who disagree with the consensus on global warming'. It took me three tries to find someone he was citing as a major objector who said that she believed the only safe course was to assume the IPCC's worst case, but she wasn't persuaded by all the models. Part of me was stunned, and another part of me was just "Oh, well, that's what I was sort of expecting."
What inspired the cool cover? And by that I mean the UK cover. It is bloody brilliant. Why did you choose to go with a different-looking cover for the US paperback? Is this one of those publishing mysteries that we uninitiated do not get access to?
There's actually a Flickr gallery of the development of the cover. I have no grasp of graphic design, so that was all the art department at William Heinemann. It's great, isn't it?
US jackets are almost always different; there's a different culture there. The pink flock was wonderful, but a bit shocking. Some people loved it and it definitely got talked about, but I fear we may have scared off some male readers (oops)... we're getting them back with the entirely awesome orange neo-retro paperback, though.
What is your take on genre labels? I suppose The Gone-Away World might easily fall into a fantasy/science fiction/speculative fiction gap that a lot of books never emerge from. Did this ever worry you?
I'm not a big fan of labels - I think they're great for bookshops, but they can't possibly do justice books. Then, too, in the UK when you say something is SF, half the population immediately assumes there's something wrong with it. It may be related to that science/literature thing again, or it may not. It doesn't worry me so much as it irks me. There's some really good writing, both present day and historical, which is SF or SF-ish. The older stuff has been 'promoted' to 'literature', but apparently only the sanctification of time can do that. After a few years, what was scarily Sf-ish is apparently tamed. It's ludicrous, really, because what it's saying is that something cutting edge is bad, but something behind the times is good. But to heck with it. That's the world we live in. It's a bit silly. If I have to, I'll make my own genre.
What is the most undervalued book you know?
Bo Fowler's Astrological Diary of God, maybe? Bombardiers, by Po Bronson? Or Night of the Avenging Blowfish, by John Welter? There are lots. I should mention Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. And Beat The Reaper, by Josh Bazell, which is just fantastic... And that's all fiction, I haven't even started on non-fiction yet....
What do you read while sitting next to a lake on a summer's eve?
The back of a wine bottle...
Yeah, all right. P G Wodehouse, maybe? Conan Doyle? Or something brilliant someone's sent me, like Christopher McDougall's Born To Run. Or something by Lois McMaster Bujold. Or Jeanette Winterson. Or...
And finally (and very subtly), this current work in progress. Any hints?
Hmm. If I tell you it's gangster-political with a dash of steampunk you will get exactly the wrong idea, so I shouldn't really do that...