Interview with Nick HarkawayPosted by Goodreads on July 8, 2014
Nick Harkaway: No connection. In fact, there have been a couple of different characters by that name. It is, as you might say, not the most original of names. There was a tigerman character floating around for a while in one of the mainstream comic book universes. Also, Lavie Tidhar's book The Violent Century has a character named Tigerman. There's even a band. It's one of those things; you can never get away from it. When we published Angelmaker, I suddenly became aware of a band called Angelmaker, of another book that was called Angelmaker, and a bunch of unfortunate translations in different languages of the expression and the various bad things it can mean. There are 7 billion people in the world; we're past the point where it's easy to put two words together and coin a new expression, unless you want to do Concrete Jellybean. Wait, no, because if you Google "Concrete Jellybean" right now, someone's done it. You get to choose between strong names that everyone's used before and crappy names that they haven't. I'll always go with the strong one.
GR: There is a thread of science fiction in your work. In Tigerman there's a backdrop of this toxic, polluted gas cloud. Are you a big reader of sci-fi?
NH: I love science fiction. I love anything that is a little bit hyperreal. I wouldn't limit it to science fiction. I love fantasy, I love magic realism, I love comic books. [Jorge Luis] Borges. I mean, his stuff is absolutely off the wall. He's the guy who wrote the story about an encyclopedia that details the existence of an alternative world, and it kind of sucks you in or it becomes real. There's a whole blurring of signs and fictions and realities that goes on. I just don't feel compelled to stick to what is overtly and obviously real in telling a story. Even if it's quite a serious story. Because I think we are very bad at distinguishing what's actually real from what is just the world as we experienced it yesterday.
There was a woman who used to have lunch down the road at a restaurant that I would occasionally have lunch at when I was working. She was in her 90s and was getting on, but she would tell anybody who was prepared to listen—because I think she was very intelligent and bored out of her mind—about her time at a listening post during the Second World War. And when I say a listening post, I don't mean a sort of spy post with radio masts. She literally sat in a chair in front of a giant concrete parabolic sound mirror listening to the sound of potential German aircraft coming in over the sea toward where she lived. And that was her job, night after night, for five years or something. Enormous amounts of sound...seabirds, wind, shipping, waves, extraordinarily distinct noises she would hear in front of this impossible, absurd object. You think about what that is: It's a 40-foot concrete thing, and she sits at the focus point to listen to everything it can hear. Like a kind of giant ear.
GR: That must be trip-inducing.
NH: Exactly, completely trip-inducing, and vitally, stressfully important. If she doesn't hear the incoming aircraft, even if they're going at a different trajectory, she doesn't radio it in, and they don't hear about it in time, that air raid could bomb London, could kill everybody she knows in a single night. It's that stuff. And that's her life, night after night, during the war. It's totally true. If I wrote that in a book, people would say it was heightened. They would assume that wasn't true. Because it's so iconic, it's ridiculous. Meanwhile, of course, just for an additional twist, all of this was actually irrelevant, because by that stage we'd developed radar, and the only reason she was still sitting there was because we didn't want anyone to know we had radar. So she was redundant.
Here we are on Mancreau in Tigerman, and there's this volcano spewing biotoxic goop. It's a framing device. It's what kicks off the whole thing, but it's barely there at all. And that seems improbable, but I'm old enough to remember Bhopal, where basically that's what happened. The Bhopal chemical plant just went up and killed a bunch of people. It was a completely horrific disaster. Don DeLillo talks about an airborne toxic event in White Noise, and obviously this is the type of thing I was thinking about. I just made it a thing where the natural world has been so thoroughly warped by this chemical pollution that it has become self-propagating. Although Tigerman is, in a sense, my most real book—there are no laws of physics broken, just extremely, elastically stretched—I really didn't feel that I had to worry about that because it clearly isn't a scientific romance. It's a father-son story and an international thriller with this gizmo in the background that is symbolic of the jackass things we seem to do to the biosphere. What's interesting to me is that if you introduce legitimate science into a book, you have done something that is very bewildering to people who read literary fiction and general fiction.
The unwillingness to embrace the reality of the technological society that we live in in fiction is very odd. I actually think it's less unrealistic to make up crazy science stuff that hasn't happened yet, and force people to deal with that, and to deal with the ethical implications of, say, the ability to make cities go away [e.g. with nuclear weapons] than it is to write about a world in which the existence of weapons that could make whole cities go away is not contemplated.
GR: Which books have inspired or influenced you as a writer?
NH: Oh, my God. All of them. It could be anything on any given day. I will always cite things like The Count of Monte Cristo. Right now I'm on this massive Borges jag. Jorge Luis Borges, as far as I'm concerned, is an absolutely unequaled writer. I'm reading Stanisław Lem. I'm reading these extraordinary brain-twisting short stories. I need to go and find in my library my copy of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose because that came up in connection with something I want to write, and I need to remind myself what Eco was up to. I follow these kinds of crazy trajectories through things. For a while when I was writing Angelmaker, I was heavily into anything that was about craft and art and how these things work. So James Gaines's Evening in the Palace of Reason I was obsessed about because I found the conflict between J.S. Bach and Frederick [the Great] absolutely fascinating. I was heavily into John Ruskin. It could be at any given moment Mark Leyner, Lois McMaster Bujold, Raymond Chandler; it could be Don DeLillo. There's just no way of telling what I'm going to be drawing on.
GR: I imagine that's how you fill in some of the technical expertise of your characters. Because they seem to have a very clear knowledge of their craft, whether they are watchmakers, soldiers, etc.
NH: That's sleight of hand. That's a cheat. It's an important cheat. You're right, I do read eclectically, and I read wildly, but my knowledge is only ever onionskin deep about things like that. What I tend to do is find something from reality that is tonally telling. If you're a carpenter, there will be something about how you oil your tools when you put them away or how you make a particular kind of joint that is true, and rings true for people who have the skill, and is at the same time descriptive and indicative to people who don't have the skill. And therefore you have both kinds of people nodding at that, and then anything else that you do, broadly speaking, they assume is in line with that level of expertise. And it's particularly relevant when you're trying to write about genius, which is impossible because you aren't one.
I was writing about a math genius in Angelmaker, and actually I'm doing it again right now, I'm writing about someone who has great skill in mathematics, and I have no access to what that's actually like. G.H. Hardy in A Mathematician's Apology wrote about being G.H. Hardy the mathematician, and when I read that, I read an account of a creative life. It doesn't seem to me to be such a different experience of life from the one I have. So what I did with my mathematician in Angelmaker was make her a slightly petulant artist figure, and I told you over and over again in more or less subtle ways that she was a mathematical genius, and when she does something with mathematics, and it is clearly impossible, you believe that the reason that she can do it is because she's a genius.
It's what Conan Doyle does with Sherlock Holmes. It's exactly the same thing. You get told over and over again that Holmes is a genius, he displays the temperament of a genius, the attitude of a genius, and then when he makes some deduction that's actually completely spurious, and he lists his ridiculous [reasons], it sort of superficially holds together. But when you get into it, you realize there are 20 other explanations. If you start finding those explanations, you will also start building an architecture for why those explanations cannot possibly be right, because you believe Holmes is a genius.
So you do the hard work for me, and I just give you the thing. And so it is, it's a piece of sleight of hand, it's a magician's trick done in letters.
GR: Is this mysterious upcoming novel a continuation of Angelmaker?
NH: No, it's just that I have an obsession with different modes of consciousness and experiences that are not my own. I'm very unlikely to write about a writer because I think that's navel gazing, but by the same token I'm very likely to write about a mathematician because that's much more interesting to me.
NH: Twice, yeah, exactly. Although this guy's not really that kind of mathematician. He's a fallen mathematician. He's working in the financial industry. So he has traded in his academic hat for a sharp suit, to his own dismay.
GR: Goodreads member Dave Wheatley asks, "Any chance of The Gone-Away World being made into a movie?"
NH: There's always a chance. The Gone-Away World is still available, so if anybody who is extremely wealthy and works in Hollywood wants to buy it, that's a possibility. At the moment nobody has any plans to do that as far as I know. When I wrote the book, it was almost specifically an antimovie. It's got lots and lots of movie tropes in it, and it has a very movie feel, but I had just been a scriptwriter for nine or ten years, and I was tired of writing 120 pages to a budget, so I wrote 570 pages to the highest budget I could possibly imagine. So, you know, the world explodes twice, there are strange-looking things and monsters, and huge set-piece martial art battle scenes, circuses with animals, and giant machines that crawl across the face of the Earth. I literally could not think of anything more expensive, so they would have to be feeling very confident.
GR: You basically priced out every major Hollywood studio.
NH: Yes. I kind of did. Absolutely.
GR: Goodreads member Chase Willett asks, "Have you ever considered writing a graphic novel?"
NH: Yeah, for sure. I would love to get into comic books. That's a hugely exciting thing. The other thing that I'm really interested in is the overarching plotlines of some of the more sophisticated video games or console games that are coming out now. I think some of these interactive fiction platforms are becoming really stunning storytelling mediums, but it's a difficult, different thing. And I have a deep suspicion of interactive fiction because my experience of interactive fiction derives from those kinds of choose-your-own-adventure books way back when. When you start taking precautions, you're aware of the constraints of the genre. Actually, Randall Munroe had the perfect explanation of this: It's this three-panel cartoon; they kill a zombie in panel one, and then they're just basically sitting there going, "Dum de dum." And that's exactly what happens when you start writing collaborative fictions with large groups of people. Interactive narratives have to be either incredibly flexible or resilient or very tightly policed. I don't know which road people want to go down, but I'm very interested nonetheless by the possibility of telling stories through, in, and around console games and computer games. As far as I'm concerned, bluntly, as long as it's a good way to tell a story and there is a paycheck, I don't care what medium I'm working in. I love working with words, so that's my favorite thing, but I will always consider something else. If someone is going to come around and say, "Would you write a story, which will be encoded on a grain of rice?" Yes, by all means. That's what you want, rice grain books? Fine.
GR: Goodreads member Ramin writes, "I enjoyed the untapped potential of odd skills and interesting knowledge present in the main characters in your first two novels. I'd wondered if the characters came first or were they created to inhabit worlds you had already envisioned."
NH: Oh, good question! That's nice. They grow up organically together. The worlds emerge from the people, the people emerge from the worlds. Like with The Gone-Away World, it was literally two guys in a truck who have to save the world. It was that basic. You start to kind of put things together, and then little by little the story becomes the story that you recognize. And the thing that I always say about writing these books is that being a writer, certainly of this kind of fiction, is like being a stand-up comic, only you get 18 months to be funny for an hour. You come up with this tenuous idea, and then you make a structure, and you hang all the stuff on the structure, and then from that whole thing you evolve characters and a universe and a world, all in tandem so they fit together properly. You pump up the energy level at the beginning and you let them all run downhill to the inevitable conclusion. You do all that, and by the end of it, it looks like this impossibly complex single piece, but it isn't. It's woven together. When someone looks at one of these books and they go, "Well, how did you come up with this?" I came up with a single common thread, and you were looking at the tapestry that got built around it.
GR: Tell us about your writing process.
NH: I have a very straightforward process. My wife goes to work in her office. She leaves the house at about eight o'clock in the morning. I usually take my daughter to school at about 8:30, and then I come back and I sit down at my desk. I work in the living room of my house. At some point maybe I grab some breakfast, and I work until midday, pick up my daughter, give her a hug, go have some lunch, get back to my desk, and keep working until my wife comes home at about six. And so in that sense it's a very standard working day. And people ask you things like, "Does Twitter distract you while you're working?" And of course the answer is, No, I run Twitter in the background all the time, but if I am going to be distracted by something like Twitter or by anything else that I could be doing instead of writing, that's bad news. It's got to be cut. Because if I'm not more interested in my writing than I am Twitter, you're not going to be more interested in my writing than I am in Twitter. So that's a completely standard benchmark.
The ideation process, the inspiration process, is much more mysterious—to me as much as to anybody else. I'm walking down the street, and I see something, and that dovetails with something else that I've been thinking about, and suddenly I have a story about, I don't know, a dinosaur that lives in a tree in my garden.
GR: How do you log those things as you see them?
NH: Literally I will just grab any nearby piece of paper—restaurant menus, napkins, whatever—and I'll just scribble on them with a Sharpie. So I have a small collection of restaurant linen with novel ideas sitting around in a basket somewhere. But I also have a more high-tech solution, which is, I use Evernote, and I can dictate notes in my phone or I can write them down, and they go into my cloud service. The other thing to bear in mind is that although you can't rely on being able to remember them perfectly later, the majority of the ones that disappear are ideas you should probably not pursue. There is an automatic quality check. If something's really awesome, unless someone interrupts you at a really inopportune moment, you will remember it. Whereas if something is a dinosaur in a tree, there's every possibility you might not need that idea for a long-form novel, and it's kind of OK that it fades away.
Interview by Mickey Stanley for Goodreads. Stanley is the assistant to Executive Literary Editor Wayne Lawson at Vanity Fair magazine. He has written about arts and culture for Men's Vogue, C Magazine, ArtWeek, and Vanity Fair.
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