Thursday, June 25, 2009

Alastair Reynolds Interview 2003

Great to read that Welsh sci-fi writer, Alastair Reynolds, has just signed a £1million publishing deal with Orion. Here's an (edited) interview I did with him back in 2003 when he was still working for the European Space Agency in Holland:

I read somewhere that your first taste of literary success was at a school Eisteddfod - tell us about that.

Going back a bit now, so the details are a bit fuzzy. There was a writing competition, I think, with a small cash prize. You had to produce a piece of work based around a quote by - I think - Saunders Lewis. The story I wrote won the prize, and was then picked up to appear in a regional schools magazine called Beginnings, of which I have one copy. I heard back from one of my teachers that an academic had read it and compared it to Bradbury, so I went away and read a lot of Bradbury novels.

Has the Welsh landscape in any way permeated, either consciously or unconsciously, your writing?

Definitely: I mean, I'm pretty sure it's permeated my writing consciously, so it's very likely to have permeated it unconsciously as well. It's the industrial landscapes that have left the biggest mark: Barry Docks, near where I was born, was a rusting labyrinth of disused railway lines, cranes and mysterious buildings. Not to mention the rusting hulks of hundreds of dead steam engines. Port Talbot steelworks, too, left a big impression. Whenever my parents would drive back from Swansea in the evening, we'd pass this fantastic night-time metropolis of chimneys and furnaces, stretching as far as the eye could see.

You have a PhD in Astronomy, how did you develop an interest in that particular subject?

It was always there, from the time when I was small. I suppose the thing that really pushed me into thinking about doing it as a job was seeing Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on television when I was in my early teens. But I was also reading a lot of popular science books, and rebelling a little against the advice I was getting from teachers, which was to concentrate on the arts side of things.

You work as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency. I imagine a hive of white-coated, bespectacled boffins pointing heavenwards, planning a brave new tomorrow. Is your job as futuristic and sexy as it sounds?

A lot of the stuff that happens here is futuristic and cool, no getting away from it. There are some amazingly clever and dedicated people working for the Agency. My own job is pretty similar in outline to a lot of other people's: I come in and sit at my desk and do stuff on my computer. Now and then I can get bogged down in details and it doesn't seem so much fun, but I just have to remind myself that - say - the data I'm struggling to interpret is from a quasar millions of light years away, or bizarre binary system like something dreamt up by a space artist on crack.

Would you give up the day job if writing science-fiction became lucrative enough?

I am giving up the day job, as it happens. It's not so much because the writing has become more lucrative, or because I don't enjoy my work (I do, as I hope is obvious from the above) but because I've come to the conclusion that I can't do both things at once. It was seriously hard work writing the last three novels during my spare time, and I decided I'd had enough. I was using all my leave time for writing, for instance, which left no time for holidays.

Your own novels are written on a grand scale, with an epic range of characters and ideas. To what extent is each book pre-planned; and what is the organising principle behind the ongoing series?

I'm not really one of life's great planners, to be honest. I can't put together an Ikea kitchen stool without stopping halfway through and having a re-think. Each of the books has grown from a vague seed of an idea by an organic process during the writing itself. You need some kind of plan to get from chapter to chapter, but I'm not one for outlines and schematics. All I knew when writing the last couple of books was that the Inhibitor threat would be contained, since I'd written a story set after the Inhibitor wars. The same story also made reference to the Nestbuilders, which is why they show up in Absolution Gap.

How difficult is it to balance the science with the need to make the reader turn the page?

I do try hard to find the right balance, although I don't always succeed. The way I write, generally (this isn't true of all the stories I have written) is to flesh out the story and characters first, and then start loading the science into it, when and where it seems appropriate. Whenever I've done it the other way around - taking some scientific conceit and trying to construct a story around it - I've found it much harder, and much less satisfying in the long run. There isn't actually that much foreground science in the books, truth to tell. There's a bit of brane theory in Absolution Gap, but only a few pages out of a 600 page book. I think people pick up on the fact that the background conditions are quite rigorous - no faster than light travel, no artficial gravity, etc - so the books have a sort of hard SF vibe about them, even if the foreground story is fairly traditional intrigue and adventure.

Revelation Space has gothic elements, Chasm City is a crime thriller, Redemption Ark has aspects of horror and Absolution Gap is pure apocalypse fiction. Why such a strong fascination with the dark side of life?

I suppose I've always liked horror, especially gothic horror, and I've always had a soft spot for Noir. It's just a reflection of what I read and watch, really.

With such a wide cast of characters how do you set about individualizing each voice?

It's one of my weaknesses, I think. Some people felt that the characters in Revelation Space were not particularly well differentiated, and I've worked hard since then to put more of my energies into drawing character. Individualising the voice is one approach, but it needs to be done with an incredibly light touch. If I'm having trouble visualising a character, I try and think of an actor portraying them, and then hold that actor in mind whenever they're on the page. Dialogue is a big problem for me: I'm constantly stripping it down, rebuilding it, shuffling it around, until I lose all sense of the rhythm of natural speech. Dialogue, I've noticed, is one of the few things I get more or less right in first draft. It always gets stuffier and less natural with each rewrite, as I've proved to myself by comparing drafts.

It is in such human concerns as revenge, deceit, suffering, sin and redemption that the reader is drawn into your world. Do you agree that this human element is essential in anchoring what might otherwise be pure escapist fantasy and adventure?

Totally. I'm drawn to these themes through my love of crime writing, but in a sense they're just the universal themes of good writing. I'm certainly not interested in reading morally simplistic tales with pure heroes and pure villains.

In your latest book Absolution Gap there are references to genetic engineering, refugees and a charismatic cult. How much do contemporary issues filter into your work?

I don't think they could fail to filter into my work, even though I've an instinctive aversion to fiction based around "issues". Genetic engineering might be the hot topic of the day, of course, but we've had refugees and charismatic cults for thousands of years.

Have you noticed any development in your writing skills between Revelation Space and Absolution Gap? Is the craft of novel writing getting any easier?

Certain things get easier, but in the process you realise there are technical challenges you hadn't even contemplated before, and you're totally crap at them. I've felt the same way since I was about 8. The day I don't feel there's something important I'm crap at is the day it won't be interesting to me. There's no danger of that happening anytime soon, though.

What is your writing routine? Do you have a strict regime or do you lounge around in a smoking jacket waiting for the muse to inspire you?

I do have quite a strict regime, but only because I'm an inherently lazy shite. At the moment most of my writing is done in the evenings, after work. I try and get to the computer by eight, and then knock off around ten. If I've done around a thousand words in that session, I'm a happy bunny. In practise, it can be anywhere between zero and two thousand words. It can feel like a chore, but I know from experience that if I'm prevented from writing for any length of time, I really, really miss it. I'm not one for waiting for the muse - if I'm stuck on one bit of a book, I'll work on another part, or fiddle around with a short story instead. Basically, the muse is an unreliable bastard who never shows up when you need him, so you're best not trusting in him.

You're a music fan. What do you think about Welsh pop - do you listen to any of it?

I'm a diehard fan of the Manics, actually. I heard Motorcycle Emptiness on the car radio during a driving lesson and I was never the same again. I really like all their stuff, even Gold Against the Soul, which everyone else seemed to hate. Here's my Manics anecdote: I was waiting to pay for a record in Cardiff's Virgin records, when I noticed that James Dean Bradfield was standing in the queue next to me. Anyway, the girl behind the counter turns to her mate and says: "You'll never guess who I just saw in the St David's Centre: that Nicky Wire out of the Manics!" It doesn't get any more thrilling than that, does it?

Indeed not.

©Anthony Brockway 2003