Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Thing About Ninjas: An Interview with Nick Harkaway

Today marks the U.K. release of Nick Harkaway's latest book--Angelmaker--and to celebrate, we have an interview with Nick himself.  In it, he talks about Angelmaker, his first book, The Gone-Away World, and ninjas, of course!  And for our U.S. readers who have to wait until March for Angelmaker, don't worry--the interview is spoiler-free.

Peter McClean: Nick, your first book, The Gone-Away World, has been met with great acclaim across the world. What prompted you to start writing it?

Nick Harkaway: Wow. You make it sound like the Joshua Tree album... Honestly, it was a kind of desperate need to break out of the box I was in. I'd been a screenwriter for a few years and it wasn't working for me, either as a creative thing or as a profession. I'm an out-of-kilter sort of person, I see a dog with a limp and I start designing a sports bandage for different breeds of dog in my head; I see a guy in a tall hat and I know he's the living spirit of one of those old black iron lampposts and not the local coke dealer. I'm not well-suited to the film environment, which is essentially pretty conservative. I did things like write a thriller with a female lead. I kept getting asked if I could please reverse the genders so that it would be conventional, and I kept saying "but why would you want a movie which has the same vibe as a dozen other movies?" That's not a question scriptwriters are supposed to ask. I was getting married and I wanted a new life, and I started writing. And I wrote and I wrote and suddenly... there it was.

Was there a particular message you wanted to present in The Gone-Away World?

Oh! Messages are dangerous things. If you want to send a message, use the postal service. Or blog it. It's true, TGAW is about men and the vexed nature of male roles and friendships. It's about war and how it's stupid and about politics and society and how they accidentally create evil. All good books are about more than just what they appear to be about... BUT mostly they're about the characters and the plot, or you've written a manifesto rather than a novel. And I don't know about you, but I don't wait with bated breath for the next manifesto. In fact, I pretty much have to force myself to read the party manifestos at election time. And note carefully how they are even more fictitious than novels usually are....

A key element of your writing that has kept me waiting for your next publication is your sense of humour.  You describe some very traumatic topics, such as war, in a fashion that enables the reader to consider the issues involved without being put off by the horrors inherent in the subject.  Where does your sense of humour come from, and are you deliberately using it to get your readers to consider the deeper issues involved in your stories?

I think it comes from being sideways in the world, which most writers are. And probably from the same place as stories, the willingness to extend what's there until it becomes unfamiliar, or exciting, or terrible, or funny. Most horrible things have an element of humour to them, which is why stand-up is about the most terrifying thing you can do in the world of entertainment... As to whether I use it to get people to think... hm. Yes, I suppose. More, I use it to lighten things which are appalling enough that you can take them in and be appalled by them. But also, I'm an optimist. I can't be anything else. So in the end, you're standing in a room full of corpses and the world's coming to an end all around you and you're talking to the Angel of the Apocalypse... you KNOW that conversation is going to be interrupted by a call on a dead guy's phone, and his ringtone is going to be Rick Astley, because that's how the universe is. It has no sense of the appropriate.
Having read The Gone-Away World, I can say it operates and works at many levels, the personal, community, national, regional, etc…  I would also say it dealt with very contemporary issues, but those same issues appear to be present at many points in history.  Am I reading too much into it?  What issues did you intend to be brought out in The Gone-Away World, or were you just having fun telling ripping yarn?

Both, for sure. I have trouble doing anything simply (which is probably obvious). I wanted to tell a ripping yarn, because I'm all about the stories - Monte Cristo, 39 Steps, Hound of the Baskvervilles... - but you can't tell a ripping yarn without high stakes. Adventure - tension, really - has some basic ingredients: a villain, a bunch of dreadful conseqiuences, and a hero who's willing to take them both on, but who might in theory not win. That's why the best Bond movie is still Goldfinger, because you can really believe that the bad guy might win. Same with Goldeneye, actually: there's a guy - Sean Bean - who might just be more Bond than Bond is. And the stakes, the world around them, is just as important if you want people to care. It's not really enough any more to say "this will destroy the world", because that's sort of a given. You have to show what that means, why it matters. You have to show pain. We all know about pain on some level. Apocalypse is a gag. Pain is real. Contemporary issues - albeit dressed up and taken sideways - they make you feel. You have a stake in the action. And without that sense of investiture, action is just noise.

Can we expect The Gone-Away World on screen any time soon?  It would certainly be an epic.

Wouldn't it just? There's nothing happening right now, but I wish, oh, I wish... Actually, I have more hopes in that regard for Angelmaker. TGAW is scary to filmmakers because there's so much of it, not in terms of brute length but time periods, places, story threads... Angelmaker is  more containable.

I recall from a Guest of Honour Interview you did at a convention, you started an answer with the phrase, "The thing about serious literature, is..." Can you tell us something about the special place ninjas have in your heart?

Well, I mentioned that you need a villain. And ninjas are the perfect basic villain. They're scary and capable and no one knows exactly what they can do or why they would do it. And they have that cool factor, but at the same time they're slightly ridiculous. The whole ninja thing in popular culture has its roots in really pretty awful Hong Kong action flicks like the ones I used to watch through my fingers when I was a kid, and when you look at them now you're just not convinced. So the reason I love ninjas is that to deploy them in a serious book, or a halfway serious book, you have to be aware of that. You've got to be able to be playful and to mix funny with serious. And actually, that's very sound. There are some incredibly dangerous people in the real world who are basically a bit ridiculous. Some of the contenders in the Republican primaries recently have been scary and hilarious at the same time. That's how things are. You take off Darth Vader's helment and you find he's just some guy. And I think there's a real fear of comedy in British writing, because if something's too funny then by definition it's not "important". But that's utterly ridiculous. The Thick Of It is hilarious and bitter and very clever about British politics. The West Wing is the same about the US, albeit in a different way. The Wire was funny a lot of the time, but heartbreaking too. But in books for some reason it's taboo. So when I say more books need ninjas in them, I suppose what I really mean is that we should have more stories which aren't scared of being funny and enjoyable as well as sad or frightening. Like The Sisters Brothers. I loved that: a sad, violent western with a lugubrious humour and a whisper of the weird. (Nominated for the Booker, of course, but didn't - couldn't - win.)

Can we expect ninjas, in whatever form, in Angelmaker?

Hmm, not exactly, but I don't think the lack will upset you. There are plenty of other things going on, and some other familiar shapes I've stolen from popular culture and rabidly repurposed. When the book's out, maybe we should talk again about about whether there are any actual ninjas in it...

What is your opinion on the value of pigeon-holing novels into predefined categories?  I ask this because The Gone-Away World was categorised as Science Fiction, but to be honest, the issues involved were real-life issues for individuals and human-kind as a whole.

I think it's a bit daft. When bookshops were single rooms with a shelf for each genre, it made a certain amount of sense. When "scientifiction" was brand new, maybe it was a selling point, a way of distinguishing it from traditional lit. But now first of all you can't write about the modern world without talking about technology. We're about a heartbeat away from being able to grow cloned organs on a polymer frame. When you can do that, you're not in Kansas any more. And then in any case some of the most interesting writing at the moment is in a grey area. I mean, Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies is technically a zombie book. I'm not hugely into zombies and they're about the least interesting kind of undead on the face of it, but here's Isaac making you care about a zombie and then sneaking in a little Bush Administration parable when you're not looking. It's just a great book. Talking about it as a zombie novel is like saying you're not going to listen to The Archers because you aren't into archery. But newspaper book pages often run shy of reviewing anything which might be perceived as science fiction, so publishers are scared of the label. I'm constantly juggling this stuff, because I have a responsibility to Heinemann to help them sell the book. Interviewers say "what made you choose science fiction?" and I have to do this song and dance about it. And, you know, occasionally someone from the genre side will look at what I write and complain that it's not proper SF. But honestly: why does it matter? The question is: "is it good? Do people want to read it?" and if the answer's "yes" you can shelve it wherever you like. My shelves are a mess anyway.

I understand you are particularly interested in Bletchley Park, the United Kingdom’s WWII code decryption centre.  Can you tell us something about your interest in Bletchley Park and why you support the efforts of the museum there to preserve the history of the place?

Bletchley is amazing. It's amazing because of what was done there and because it's so incredibly British. I haven't been for a while, but the last time I went there was a model train exhibition in one of the outer buildings. And that is magnificent. Here is the birthplace of the digital age, the location of one of the most significant aspects of the British WWII experience. In most other countries it would be a huge steel-and-glass museum. But in Britain, it's overgrown and ramshackle and there are model trains. On the one hand that makes me sad, but it's also perfect, because the guys who worked there during the war were exactly those guys: engineers, amateurs, telegraphers and mathematicians. Bletchley should be better funded, but it should also retain that sense of identity, of the amateur boffin, because that's what it was all about. And the other thing about Bletchley is those wonderful women, who worked there and were amazing and never, ever told. They kept the secrets they swore to keep with a loyalty which should make you weep. I was so glad when they were finally recognised by the government. Bletchley should be a beacon for women in the sciences. There should be a Bletchley medal or something. I'm going to take my daughter there when she's old enough and hope she breathes it in.

Tell us how Angelmaker compares to The Gone-Away World?

Oh, wow. I have no idea. I mean, they're different things. There are basic differences, like Angelmaker being written in the third person, and having really two POVs instead of one. On the other hand, there's backstory in Angelmaker as there was in TGAW, although not so much. Angelmaker is less digressive but equally off-the-wall, and the digressions there are more solid. But the most important thing is that if you liked TGAW, you won't feel lost in Angelmaker. It's got a similar vibe, in a way. And yet I think it's also more accessible. Some people found TGAW a bit much.  But really, you should ask someone who isn't me.

Does Angelmaker deal with similar real-life issues as those in The Gone-Away World or does it address a totally new list of wrongs to be righted?

Yes, there are some issues in there. There's a definite war-on-terror aspect, and some other things. But again, it's not about that. It's about a guy with a (serious) problem, and how it all plays out.

Your short story "Edie Investigates" was recently released in Kindle format, and introduces Edie Banister, an octogenarian assassin.  Is Edie based on a real person, an amalgam of individuals, or is she a total fiction? 

Actually, it's on Kobo and the iBook Store as well :) And Edie is her own person. Sometimes I snag bits of people from different places, but with Edie she just arrived and banged on the door of my brain and waited until I was ready to fit her into a story.

The first chapter of Angelmaker is included with “Edie Investigates”.  From this chapter I get the impression that there is a steam-punk theme to the book.  What else is in store for the reader?

Well, it's my own version of steampunk, I suppose. I loved Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, I thought that was a great book. And I love the art, the cultural movement steampunk has become. But steampunk as a literary ethos has been around long enough now that I think at this point if you're going to do it you have to bring something to the table. So this is maybe a dieselpunk/steampunk hybrid with a 60s spy movie gloss... I really had fun with the spy stuff. Once upon a time British spy stories were all Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond: Special Operations Executive stuff. And then in the real world, after WWII, they shut down SOE because they basically felt that it was a lunatic operation run by lunatics, and there was an element of truth in that, but it was also insanely brave and - in the desperate hours - effective. These are the guys who really did parachute into occupied France with a dart gun concealed in a cigar case or whatever. Almost like Steed and Mrs Peel in The Avengers, but in deadly earnest. And I wanted to do some of that. But as with ninjas and steampunk, so with secret agents: you can't do it exactly the way it was in something like The Avengers, because it looks like a repro. So I have a new kind of secret agent in my backstory.

What else? Villains, mad monks, gangsters... there's a lot in there. And basically, the rule was the same as it was for TGAW: the reader has to be having a good time. Otherwise, why are we all here?