Nick Harkaway: A Dynastic Succession of Trouble

June 26th, 2012 | Category: Interviews, Videos

I’ve been away, immersed in Nick Harkaway’s intricately constructed yet sprawlingly seductive second novel, Angelmaker (Knopf, 2012; His first is The Gone-Away World; Knopf, 2008). To wrap a genre around this book is to force it into a jacket that doesn’t fit. It’s noir, it’s science fiction, it’s steampunk, it’s a lot of things — informed by a lot of other things (William Gibson calls it, “The very best sort of odd.”). “We live in a muddled-together age where the past continues to play out in the present,” Harkaway wrote on his site, “…with Angelmaker, I wanted that sense of the storylines of the past rolling on and on through us to the future, and a dynastic succession of trouble.” “Harkaway” isn’t Nick’s real last name, and his father is also a writer who doesn’t use his real name (John le Carré). Even given his own dynastic succession of trouble as such, I’m not sure whom to compare Harkaway to. His writing is more fun than David Mitchell, smarter than Chuck Pahlaniuk, richer than Neal Stephenson, and just plain better put together than most science fiction. He excels at story and style.

Another Nicholas (Negroponte) wrote in 1995, “Machines need to talk easily to one another in order to better serve people” (p.207). In Angelmaker, machines communicating is part of what signals the book’s major crisis. To wit, Harkaway recently wrote an updated version (of sorts) of Negroponte’s Being Digital (Knopf) called The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World (John Murray, 2012).

Roy Christopher: Your dad’s a writer too. Did he have an influence on your becoming a writer and subsequently on you as a writer?

Nick Harkaway: Not so much an influence as an understanding that it was a possible thing. For most people, writing is a mystery, and a career path for lunatics — I still get asked what my day job is. On the other hand, a lot of people think it’s a soft touch, which it most assuredly is not — but I knew from very early on that it was both possible and demanding. That’s a huge factor in determining whether someone takes the plunge or not, I think — just knowing it’s possible. (On that score, of course, I’d also already been a scriptwriter, so I knew I could wrestle with a story, turn out work fast, and respond to pretty robust criticism.)

As to Angelmaker, no doubt about it — I told my own story, of course, but I also slightly teased my dad. His work, after all, transformed the spy novel from high adventure to Cold War commentary; from dashing Bond to self-despising Leamas. And here I come along and take it back to this heightened romp, more like Modesty Blaise or Billion Dollar Brain or something. But there are similar roots, too — we both love Conan Doyle, Wodehouse, Dumas…

RC: I’m almost finished with Angelmaker and am only hoping it doesn’t become a movie because I don’t want my head’s version tampered with. How has your screenwriting experience influenced your novels?

NH: I see things in my mind’s eye very clearly. Not always, but I can’t write action sequences without being a little specific. At the same time, I know that everyone wants to imagine them flowing the way they do on the best movies, so you can’t explain the mechanics of Ippon Seio Nage, say, while you’re having the fight. At the same time it needs to feel as if you just did… It’s sleight of hand, all of it.

And I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.

RC: You mentioned in this year’s Summer Reading List that you and William Gibson approach writing in different ways. As a writer and one interested in other writer’s processes, I wonder if you could elaborate on this.

NH: Gibson has a little piece about how he writes at the beginning of Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012), and it’s amazing. It’s incredibly him. He starts with a sentence, out of nowhere. To me, that’s the hardest thing you can possibly do. To sit there and carve out a piece of writing from nothing, using a beginning to leverage a world inside your head. So here we go:

Abernathy, like a church mouse, craved simplicity and the smell of wood polish above all things; the intrusion of these men, these police men, into his world was like the arrival of a visiting bishop’s cat.

Here’s the thing: that sentence has enough tone to turn into a story. There’s a world buried in there but it is wedged and cracked and fuzzy and difficult. I’m quite tempted by it, but it would be an uphill struggle to bring it out. And it can go wrong. You can go down a blind alley and find that you’re just wrong about everything and you have to start again. The Coen Brothers once said that the best writing comes when you write yourself into a corner and then write out again, and you can see that in their stuff: sometimes they do and you can’t believe your luck, sometimes they don’t and you think “oh, ouch!” I do not like that feeling when it applies to my own work. It makes me feel sad for weeks. I like having a strong sense of the story before I start writing – not a roadmap, but a vibe. Like: “We’re going to Canada!” Okay, cool. Now let’s start the car.

I tend to start with a blinding image or a concept. An idea hits me and it has crackling energy all around it, tensions and balances made in. Basically it’s a fizzing bomb. And then I crank the beginning up and up and up so that it can support this fizzing thing, and the story is basically the position of items so that when the idea explodes they all fly along the right sort of paths and in the right direction.

I will admit, in honesty, that right now I’m incredibly drawn to Abernathy. I will have to try this kind of approach one day soon. I can see in him the beginning of that kind of bomb, but it feels like doing the whole thing in reverse, in the mirror. And you can already see that my instinct is to place him in conflict immediately, in media res, to flag that possibility of cat and mouse pursuit, and so on. I am or I have been so far a busy writer — not that I always produce busy writing – but Gibson has this incredible feeling of restraint, of time enough in the world. Which is deceptive, because he can wallop you with tension and pace whenever he wants. He’s that guy from all the martial arts movies with the wispy hair who sits all day long in stillness — and then you try to pour a glass of water on his head, and you can’t because somehow he already drank it and now he’s holding your shoes. I’m more like a conjuror. I stack the deck.

RC: I can relate. I never start from a blank page. Whom else do you enjoy reading?

NH: Oooooh, so many people. I just read Robin Sloan’s fabulous Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident (Bloomsbury, 2013) — I got sent early copies of both, by editors with great judgement for what I’m going to like — but I love all kinds of things. Jeanette Winterson and Don DeLillo, Lois Mc Master Bujold and Rex Stout… I just finished John Scalzi’s Redshirts (Tor, 2012), and I thought it was stunningly good. It made me cry at the end, although that’s not hard because I’m basically a wuss. But if you want to see something interesting, examine Redshirts alongside Teleportation Accident. There’s a really interesting structural mirroring which I think comes from which of them is writing for which audience, but they’re closing on one another in this really intriguing way.

RC: You’re primarily known as a novelist, so how did The Blind Giant come about?

NH: The short version is that the John Murray imprint came to me and asked me to do it, and I wanted to. The slightly longer answer is that in the UK I was one of the first and loudest objectors to the Google Book Settlement, which I thought took a brilliant idea (a global digital library) and saddled it with the wrong method (a private company making an end run around the legislative process – consider that in the context of, say, BP) and the wrong endgame (a private company being the only entity with the right to display some books and becoming the de facto library of record). From that I ended up talking about digital books and the broader issues of digitisation a lot, and here we are. Well, no, that’s not quite true — I’ve always been a student of politics and society, and their relationship with science, technology and the individual.

RC: Tell me about the book. I’m avoiding reading it right now as I fear it may out-mode my current book-in-progress.

NH: Oh, yes, I know that feeling. I’m binge-reading right now because I’m between books. Well, okay, The Blind Giant is broad by design. That’s to say that it tries not to get into drilldown about specific issues or to “solve” them, but to look at where each issue folds into the next and how they all relate to one another. I realised after finishing the book that the whole discussion is framed in my mind partly as a conflict between our intentional actions and the emergent ones which come from our collective and somewhat undirected or unconsidered choices. We have a chance for the first time to begin to understand, in real time, what world we’re making, and even to change the direction of that making. That’s superb. (Hence the title: imagine for a moment that all your sense data arrived five or ten minutes late: You’d constantly be falling over, misunderstanding conversations, and breaking things. Our body politic has had a delay of ten to fifty years until very recently. No wonder it keeps getting into fights and staggering around like a drunken sailor.)

So the book embraces a little bit of recent history, an overview of the last hundred years, a discussion of deindividuation (the process by which ordinary people can do appalling things to one another, as seen in the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment), some stuff of the science of the brain and the sociology of the digital environment, the politics of us, the connection between copyright and privacy, the jurisprudence of intellectual property… It goes where the digital debate goes, because the thing about digital is that it’s our reflection. It’s not separate. It’s neither specially good nor specially pernicious. It’s us. And I didn’t try to crush opposing positions. The book has some footnotes, but they’re not like “nyah nyah, you are broken on my genius” footnotes, they’re like “this is where I got this idea from, okay?” So it’s a digital book in that sense too: it takes an iterative approach to the right answer – fail, get closer, fail, get closer. Although whether there’ll ever be a revised edition… who knows? The idea was that the iterations would be conversations arising from the text, persisting in the public sphere rather than falling back to paper. Because, you know, less work for me.

RC: What are you working on next?

NH: I have a first draft of a new novel — I’m calling it Tigerman Make Famous Victory, Full of Win, and I can already feel my editors wincing and wondering how to persuade me that’s an appalling title, but I’m really determined about it. It’s about a guy on an island which is about to be destroyed to contain a chemical waste problem. As a consequence, the island has become… Casablanca-ish. It’s a bit different from my first two. After that I have this thriller burning a hole in my pocket, and then there’s my story about cryonics and the other one about cricket and another one about a six thousand year old child… Oh, and there’s one which is basically a crime novel about tortoises which is also about the publishing industry, and… Let’s just say I have a lot of work to do.


Here’s the book trailer for Angelmaker [runtime: 2:01]; highly recommended reading:

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