Nick Harkaway is a former screenwriter and the author of the very well lauded The Gone Away World. His second novel Angelmaker., was just released, which combines Spy Thrillers, mechanical wonders, and a gonzo sensibility. Harkaway is also a blogger for Futurebook.
MH: Thanks for joining us. Now your latest book Angelmaker seems to be a departure from The Gone Away World in terms of scope yet it still carries on with some themes such as coming of age and war, but is a much more focused story. What is your bar room description of Angelmaker?
HARKAWAY: Oh, wow - my writing is hell on précis... that was part of the point for me when I stopped doing movie script - I didn't have to do back-of-an-envelope pitches... Well, okay: guy switches on doomsday machine, has to break all the rules to save the world. But if there's table service I might get away with a few more lines about how it's about gangsters and spies and elephants, and patrimony and love and self-creation... But in the first place it's an adventure. I want people to have fun.
MH: Angelmaker is many different things. It is a spy thriller, a secret history of the world, and a story of multiple legacies. But what it most reminded me of were old school pulp adventures. What were you reading that led to Angelmaker?
HARKAWAY: Well, I do love the old pulp stories - and some of them are way better than people give them credit for. There's a massive discipline of plotting required if you're going to write at the speed those guys did and turn in a coherent story. And don't forget that Dickens and Conan Doyle both wrote episodically, too - their novels were written for magazines. But what was I reading... it's four years ago at least for me, so it's hard to remember. Rex Stout, I think. Robert Anton Wilson was in my mind, and DeLilo and Chabon, for sure. But it's a cinematic heritage, too - Little Caesar, Maltese Falcon, The Third Man... And obviously some of it is more James Bond. The Bond novies are great because - at least in the good ones - they understand the most important aspect of an adventure: the villain. A good villain makes the hero glorious. An insipid one makes him look weak - because how can it take so long to beat this dummy?
MH: One of the most beautiful aspects of Angelmaker were your descriptions of the devices created by the mechanical artisan group the Rushkinites. Where did your fascination with old mechanical objects begin? Was there one device that fascinated you as a child? Or was your own grandfather perhaps a tinkerer of some sort?
HARKAWAY: My mother's father had a clockwork music thing - there's a technical term but right now I've completely forgotten what it is - which is amazing. Metal punched discs played on a kind of grown-up music box, producing and absolutely beautiful tone. It's a magical object. But I've always loved strange and baroque objects. They have a humour and a joy about them. I fell in love with Jean Tanguely's machines and Rowland Emett's, with Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg. The Ruskinite notion is near to my heart as well: artisan objects, with a personal narrative, affirm humanity in a way machine made products do not. But I have no idea where it all starts - it's been with me as long as I can remember - like telling stories.
MH: Angelmaker does have a Steampunk appeal to it to a degree stemming from the stylized mechanics, but I wouldn't call it Steampunk. I heard one person refer to it as Beepunk. How do you feel about labels in fiction?
HARKAWAY: I think they're almost always going to be inadequate with interesting writing. They're a shelving convention from the days when bookshops were isolated and catalogues weren't online, yet they continue to govern how we talk about stories. There are noble exceptions, books which plot the dead centre of a given label and become iconic as examples of it, but most labels are shorthands within which there are huge and exciting differences. You can't really say that The Difference Engine and The Diamond Age are the same kind of book. Sure, they have some similar architecture, but they take place at far distant ends of the timeline and have completely different feels. In the same way, Goldeneye and Brighton Rock are both spy movies, but liking one really does not guarantee liking another. Or even understanding it.
Which is not to say I don't love BeePunk, or LitPop, or whatever else, as concepts. But seriously, even there you get drift. Why 'punk'? I mean, obviously to make the connection to steampunk, but actually the punk part is missing from the book. Body modding and youth counterculture - which you see in cyberpunk and to a limited extent in some steampunk - are just gone. Angelmaker is a thriller, but it's not a bad boy with a ripped jacket. It's more like Bruce Wayne: garrulous and tipsy and pretending to be kind of a jackass, but it knows Kung Fu.
MH: The US cover for Angelmaker has some sort of puzzle worked in. Was this of your own devising or was the designer Jason Booher the culprit? The cover is quite amazing to behold. Online certainly doesn't do the print version justice.
HARKAWAY: This was Jason's idea. I contributed, but he made it happen. It was weirdly like editorial, only backwards: my publisher had this crazy dream and I complained and advised until it was ready to go... I suppose the US edition, technically, is slightly longer than the UK one... Yeah, I love the design!
MH: You seem to have a bit of fun in naming characters. Billy Friend and Rodney Titwhistle for example. Are names something you struggle with or do they pop into being quickly?
HARKAWAY: Usually they just show up along with the character. Occasionally they have to change, either because I was wrong about who that person is, or because they're out of whack with the tone. I tend to let names be a statement of some sort, which of course in real life they're not. And I try not to look back. Calling Billy "Friend" is an insane thing to do. Because that is his role. He's the friend. I could have called him McGuffin, too, because he's the guy who issues the Hero's Call, albeit sort of without meaning to. So then I thought about changing that, but it worked. It worked for me on the don't mess level of writing, the bit which runs the show and for which writers are pretty much passengers. So I ended up hanging a lantern on it, making jokes about how "he's a friend" is a gag they've done over the years. The Coen brothers say you have to write yourself into a corner so that you can write yourself out again, because that's when you do your best stuff. Names can be corners. Or they can just work.
MH: Just like how Rodney Titwhistle is a bit of tit. Your characters are incredibly rich, and it's usually the small details that make them seem less creations and more translations. How much do you draw from people you know or have met when you're developing characters, and how much is fabricated?
HARKAWAY: It's almost all fabricated. The shape of the story dictates the kind of person needed, and then the characters and their nature strengthens my grip on the world and what goes on. (Rodney, incidentally, got his funny name in part because he's very, very not funny, and I suppose to some extent because it sounds like one of those regretable English names which kick around until someone can't stand it any more and just changes it to something else.)
MH: In the same vein your fiction has such a fractured style and many seemingly loose ends that come into play late in the game. Do you ever lose yourself in the story structure? Also, one thing you're style has been known for are digressions. What do you see as the purpose of digression in a story?
HARKAWAY: Almost all my digressions fill a function, and usually it's to give you information you need without appearing to do so. Exposition is boring, and it can flag what's happening. But if you bury a piece of information in a flood of random detail - and somehow manage to make it stand out just enough - people get to your surprises and go " Oh, of course!" rather than "What the hell?" I don't generally get lost because I know why I'm there - my problem is not holding onto whatever secret it is I'm passing to you, it's burying it deep enough that you don't know you know it.
MH: I wanted to turn a bit of attention on to The Gone Away World while I have you. The narrative in The Gone Away World is essentially circular, mimicking the world-encircling pipe. Is structure a conscious decision when you're writing or do you let it develop naturally?
HARKAWAY: I wasn't deliberately mimicking the pipe, or the snake which eats its own tail I was basically using the classic bookend style. TGAW is a hero story, a straightforward hero's journey dressed up in complexity. Take out the backstory and it's remarkably linear - you just have to know a bunch of things all the characters would already know in order to understand what's going on, so I have to show you those things and yet not let you know you're being told the answers. Hence, indeed, all the digressions.
MH: Who would win in a street fight: Ike Thermite or Bruce Lee?
HARKAWAY: It's like that sequence in Seven Samurai: neither of them would have any interest in a fight. They might well get drunk, though.
MH: Scotch or beer?
HARKAWAY: Scotch in its time and place, but beer with my club sandwich.
MH: You've been surrounded by writerly-types your whole life. What's the best piece of advice you've received?
HARKAWAY: When you're a pro, you work. You work when you're sick or hung over, when you want to sleep in. You keep going when you're heartbroken or scared, when everyone else goes to the pub. You don't give yourself a free pass. And sooner or later, you finish. And go back to the start. It's a stamina game.
MH: Okay, you've pretty much destroyed the world with The Gone Away World and almost destroyed the existence with Angelmaker. What's next? I've heard rumblings of your first non-fiction book.
HARKAWAY: Yeah, I've written a book about digitisation and the individual - The Blind Giant. It comes out in May... Wow, non-fiction is hard! What I hope is that there's enough interesting stuff to make up for whatever mistakes there are. It's about concepts, though I've tried to tie it to real world examples and studies.
But I've also done a draft of a third novel, which I'm itching to get back to. Novels are my thing.
MH: Now on to the important issues. What is your favorite hat?
MH: Very swank. What books are you reading at the moment?
HARKAWAY: Planet Ponzi, The Teleportation Accident, and The English Monster. I also have Isaac Marion's new collection waiting for me.
MH: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Is there anything you'd like to say to close us out?
HARKAWAY: Just that for me it's about telling stories and enjoying them. As long as you're having as much fun as I am, I'm good. Oh, and come and say hello on Twitter - @Harkaway. And thanks for having me :)
Special thanks go out to Adam Callaway for helping out with questions. Watch out for him. He's going to be huge one day.
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