As a birthday treat to myself, I’ve arranged for some very special blog posts. This is one of them. I think Nick Harkaway is a shining light in the world of science fiction. His books are big, heavy, dense things that I love chewing my way through. Nick published his first novel ‘The Gone-Away World’ in 2009, which was nominated for both the Locus Award for Best First Novel and BSFA Award for Best Novel. Not bad for a debut!
What was more of a thrill for me is that he agreed to do this very special interview for me – and you as well.
So, let me introduce Nick Harkaway.
Who would you like to collaborate with (being living or dead) and why?
I’m not a fan of collaborations – in the sense of being involved in them! I like people and I love messing around with ideas, but in the end I like being in control of the story. Then, too, you have to trust your collaborators not just with the direction of the narrative but also with the business of doing the boring stuff. Someone has to get the book from chapter three to chapter five. Someone has to write the scene before the love scene, someone has to park the hero’s car before the fight. Those things are really important, often difficult and frustrating, and sometimes unrewarding. My experience with collaboration has been that everyone wants to do the fun bit…
So it would have to be someone I trust, whose patterns I know. My wife, for example, would make a great co-conspirator for me on a project.
But if you mean “whose brain is so totally awesome that you want to play in it?” that’s easier. Iain M Banks, maybe. Annie Proulx. William Gibson, Ned Beauman, Lois McMaster Bujold. Laurie Penny, maybe, on a political thing. Ben Hammersley. Lots of people. But it’s more fun to know people and talk to them than actually get into the guts of a working story. It’s tough in there.
What would be the best piece of advice you would offer a new author?
Get cracking. Don’t hang about: write! And ignore that “write what you know” thing. Write what you love, what you are, what you want to read. (It’s the same thing, of course, but too many people take “write what you know” to mean “write what is around you”. The important thing is not to try to be someone or something you’re not. But by all means imagine being something you’re not and write it from being who you are…)
Is routine important to you?
Yes and no. I write fairly regularly, but I don’t get perturbed if I have to write in new environments or at different times. I find that long-distance travel can mess up my writing mood, but I don’t mind writing in hotel rooms and so on, that’s fine. It’s coming back and trying to settle in and so on which I find hard.
What genre would you like to write a book in (that you haven’t yet)?
I don’t really pay a lot of attention to genre when I write. I write the story, and let other people do the classification. But I have this Under Milk Wood-style space opera that I’d love to finish… Plus I’d really like to do a detective novel. In fact, hmmm…
Oh, and I want to do a straightforward political polemic. We really need more books with opinions.
You acknowledge music within your books. Do you listen to music during all processes of writing? Do you listen music you know or new music when writing?
I do listen to music; I often use it to set tone or to wake myself up, or just to drown out roadworks. Music is an atmosphere, which is very useful. On that basis, I tend to listen to stuff I already know, because if a piece of music is good it can be distracting when you listen to it for the first time. That said, with songs and so on, it doesn’t take all that long to get familiar. I’ll hear a song on TV and buy it and feed it into my working playlist.
Have you read a romance novel? Do you think you could write one?
No and probably. But I probably wouldn’t, in the same way that I’m unlikely to do a straightforward war novel or a predictable historical drama. It’s not that I don’t enjoy those things from time to time, they’re just not where my heart is, and I like to bring those elements into a more variegated story.
What sport did you play as a younger person? Were you good at it?
Lots. I went to a school which played football, rugby, cricket, tennis, badminton, hockey… I played all of them. I was a decent badminton player (guess how well that goes over with a bunch of Manchester United-obsessed teens). Mostly I hated sports because I didn’t understand them, didn’t care about the teams everyone was so desperately tribal over, and I just wasn’t very good. I was tall, achingly thin, and not very resilient. School was not, in general, my favourite place.
When you are coming up with an idea, do you look at the market for trends? Or do you write for you?
Oh, hell, no. Never chase the market. The market will do its own thing. So I will not be turning out a 50 Shades of Grey wannabe. It’s like they say in Hollywood: “this isn’t where we figure out what’s cool. This is where we decide what’s cool.” If you get it right, people will read it.
Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole construct?
They sneak up on me. They emerge from conversations and they fall out of the furniture on top of me. Occasionally they ruin romantic meals or sideswipe me while I’m driving. Ideas are like sparks from a bit of flint and iron: you bang stuff together and sooner or later you set your hair on fire.
I use the detective story structure as a quick and dirty analytical tool: crime/investigation/solution. With a bit of elasticity, you can apply it to any situation to see where your story is and what a scene is doing both internally and in the main structure. Having said that, it’s at least partly cypher for a more formal Joseph Campbell Classic Myth. I use those things when I need to, but I don’t stick to them. They’re lenses.
When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?
It’s more that a concept or set of concepts triggers the story and then you have to find a way of talking about it. You need a single term to describe ten or twenty bits of unidentifiable stuff floating in your brainstew. I pick one which feels right, seems to encompass them, but very often it will change. And you have to remember that the name you give something will focus your attention and somewhat alter it, define it in a given direction.
Do you see the future of fantasy and science fiction as bright? If so, which authors are driving it?
It is and will always be bright, though it may change beyond recognition. There will be wobbles and schisms and all the rest, and right now lots of supposedly mainstream novels are actually SF, because we’re living SF. We are at the very beginning of the steep part of an exponential change curve. And we think change is going to be like it was yesterday, and it’s not. Tomorrow’s change will be yesterday’s change cubed.
What themes are being overused?
It’s only overused if it’s bad. There’s a lot of military SF at the moment, but much of it is really good, so who cares? And some of it is even nuanced and morally grey. It’s like the ‘is steampunk dead?’ discussion which is going on a lot right now. No, of course it isn’t, it’s so alive that it has become a maker culture and a lifestyle and a musical form, and in consequence there’s some really tame writing out there to feed the addiction. But the idea is still incredibly powerful, and you just have to explore it to find cool stuff you can do with it. Off the top of my head: “steam” changes under different atmospheric pressures. It’s like Alan Lightman’s amazing “Einstein’s Dreams” in which Albert is sitting on a bench imagining ways light and time could work and the societies which would emerge from it. Follow the idea as far as you can and you find something strange and new. Write where the other kids are and you’re just treading water.
Are movies of books ruining the book?
I’d worry more if there was a string of really good adaptations. Generally speaking movie adaptations suck, so the book is king… But no. It’s a different experience. Movies don’t kill books – and nor do games or whatever.
Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?
Yes. They have, they do, they will. And traditional publishing is being woefully stick-in-the-mud on various issues. But that doesn’t threaten the novel or the readership. I just had this epiphany the other day: it’s not my job to save the publishing industry from its desire to remain in 1979. My job is to write books and my ability to profit from those books requires that I use the right technology and the right delivery system. And that is what I will do, and so will other writers, and that’s fine. If we’re lucky, publishers will get with the programme and we’ll be able to do that without a lot of effort. If we’re not, we’ll have to make some of the running. That won’t be so bad.
Do you prefer to read established authors or debut authors? How do you choose which ones to read?
Never thought of it like that. I read whatever appeals to me. Recently that’s been Iain M Banks, Ned Beauman, Tan Twan Eng, Tom Pollock, Lauren Beukes, Anne Michaels…
What is it about fantasy that appeals to you?
Focus. You can move the audience’s focus where you want, you can surprise them, you can delight them. If you can do those things you can put them wherever you like: if you’re delighted, you can also be appalled. If you’re surprised, you can also be given something familiar and feel good about it. It’s very important to own the cardinal directions of storytelling – otherwise your reader will drift in a direction you don’t intend and then you lose them.
Can I get an autographed book? (lol)
Sure, we can make that happen, I’m around a lot. Generally I make people buy their own because I only get a few from the publisher – after that I pay pretty much what everyone else does on Amazon.
Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?
A very small one: my wife and my agent in the first instance. After that it changes. Editors, obviously, but other people… it varies. Clare, my wife, has a power which approaches veto. If she really hates an aspect of the story, I think hard about cutting it. I have, in some cases. She’s a really good barometer for how many people will respond, and she wants to indulge me, so if she can’t stand something…
Do you set yourself a word limit for each book?
Heh. No. Clearly… although my third novel is much shorter than the first two.
Do you have a target each day?
No, but I keep an eye on the overall count and make sure I’m making progress. I mean, I could say 2k words per day, and I can do that, but it’s not always helpful to count.
Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?
I have enforced publicity breaks. I’m starting to think I should do less of that stuff because it slows down the next book.
Do you have characters running around your head? Do they dictate events and their histories to you?
Yes, basically. I mean, they’re revisable. I can boss them somewhat, but it’s reciprocal. I create situations which bias how they will respond, but they can surprise me.
After so many books, how do you keep them unique?
It hasn’t been *that* many… but I just keep looking forwards and sideways. I try not to duplicate tricks. It’s hard because writing comes from the self and I’m still the same guy…
What is your biggest (self-imposed) time waster?
In writing terms, my daughter. She’s hell on schedules. But it’s not a waste 🙂
Do you remember the first time you saw your book in a shop?
Wow. I’m not sure. No. But I get that thrill pretty much every time I see one of them peeping out of a shelf.
Do you read other people’s writing?
Yes. Constantly. Although I often have to stop while I’m working because I start writing like them.
Would you read mine?
Quite possibly! Although if you mean will I read and maybe blurb, there’s a queue right now of books I am supposed to read for that kind of thing, and I have put it on hold because a) the book stack is so high that it threatens to fall over and kill me and b) I’m reading the other stack, the one made of books I bought myself because I saw them and coveted their wordy brain-fodder.
There is one last question that I gave Nick the option of skipping if he so wished. – I have found out that you are John le Carré’s son. Is there an additional pressure for you to live up to his reputation? Did you choose to publish under a different name to avoid that stigma?
I think there must be, though it’s not something I’m aware of day to day. I was very confident that I wouldn’t find it problematic when I started writing, and I don’t – although he’s received so many daunting cultural accolades around the world in the last couple of years that I am a bit startled sometimes. Goethe Medal? Check. Order of Arts and Letters? Check. I mean, dude…
But actually I chose this name because my real name is relatively common and there are some very successful writers who already have it – so I would have been squeezed between a string of high-profile detective novels and a slew of historical dramas and never seen again. Plus I am or I was the only living Nick Harkaway Google could find, and in this age, that is hugely helpful when people are looking for me.
Nick’s website is http://www.nickharkaway.com/ and contains all the links to contact him as well as find about his latest goings on.