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Writers' Room: Nick Harkaway

  • By Sam Sedgman
  • 28th February 2013
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Last Tuesday's Kitschies Awards saw Nick Harkaway's novel "Angelmaker" win the coveted Red Tentacle for being the most "intelligent, progressive and entertaining" novel containing elements of the speculative or fantastic. We caught up with Nick to ask about the novel, what he thinks of the 'genre fiction' label, and the future of literature itself.

How does it feel to win the red tentacle at the Kitschies

It's a great prize with a great idea behind it – speculative fiction which is intelligent, progressive and entertaining. To be nominated is already an acknowledgement that smart, nice people have found those qualities in your writing, which is a great compliment. Those are qualities to aspire to. Winning the tentacle itself is seriously being first among equals – which is obvious when you look at the list. So all in all, it's a tremendous feeling.

Could you humour the uninitiated by telling us a little about the book?

Angelmaker is a great big, loud adventure story wrapped around philosophical core. It's about Joe, a guy who doesn't want to turn into his gangster dad – whom he loved, but who was a giant pain in the arse in many ways. So Joe has become a clockmaker, like his grandfather, and then accidentally turns on a doomsday machine. Suddenly his whole carefully-constructed refuge from the world is in tatters and he has to be a hero, which is the last thing he ever wanted.

And it's about Edie Banister, who is ninety when we meet her, a retired wartime and Cold War secret agent who has begun to realise that the world she fought to preserve isn't delivering on its promises, and that she has a way to change that. 

And it's about Edie's old nemesis – a profoundly evil man – and her former lover, whose impossible machine is intended to change the world for the better and may just destroy it instead. It's about mad monks, Arts & Crafts submarines and mechanical bees. It's about gangsters and spies, lawyers, elephants and epistemological threats to the survival of the human race. It's a dynastic story, a love story, and an action story. 

Because I like to keep things simple… 

Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway

The Kitschies celebrate progressive, intelligent and entertaining 'genre' literature – how aware when you were writing the book were you of it being a 'genre' book? 

I dance around the edges of genre and what is conventionally termed “literary” writing, although that distinction is increasingly meaningless. “Literature” tends to follow the Virginia Woolf mode: the ordinary mind on an ordinary day. It's about depicting the human experience with as little in the way of distraction as possible. Sometimes you can even see the layers of life being peeled away to expose the essence of humanity. And, with the greatest of respect, that is a mystical perspective on what it means to be a person, which belongs to another century. It's an inheritance of Romanticism.

Humans exist in the interaction of the interior and the exterior worlds. Technology and science and fantasy and possibility and so on are all part of that. Stripping them away is a delusion, a quest for an authenticity which does not exist. Any writing which refuses to engage with science and technology runs the risk of exiling itself to a fictional 1992. Look: if you live in a world where you can print human organs on a polymer frame but you won't acknowledge the existence of email in your fiction, what are you really doing? You're not talking about the ordinary day. And someone who doesn't use email in professional life is not an ordinary person any more.

I saw a mention the other day of a project to create direct brain-to-brain communication. If you could touch the mind of someone else, see through their eyes, would that not be worth discussing in fiction simply because it sounded too H G Wells? If it happens, will literary culture ignore it because it's too sciency? If so, it will to my mind have failed appallingly, and it will be replaced – but you can see the change beginning.

And then, too, since we're being honest: what constitutes an “ordinary day”? On any given ordinary day, something insane happens: a beloved sports star with prosthetic feet is accused of the horrific murder of his girlfriend; a wedding in Helmand is blown apart by missiles from the sky; someone wins the lottery; an asteroid hits Russia; a former hairdresser invents a material which remains mysterious, but which seems completely resistant to heat. All these things are real, and they happened on ordinary days. Woolf's secret is that she's screening her days, making a judgment about what is “real”, but as we grow more aware of other countries and other tiers of society, so it becomes apparent that the things we talk about casually as ordinary are massively specific to class, wealth, nationality and location. The literary canon can be a little limited in its assessment of what is normal.

So I'm aware of the notional boundary, but I think it's fabricated, a cultural artefact. I write stories, and people read them. I'm not terribly concerned which side of the line I'm on, and I'm content that people should have differing opinions about it. The American Library Association called Angelmaker “translit”; io9 called it “existential pulp”. Now it's “progressive, intelligent, and entertaining”. Any writer who wasn't thrilled with that would be an ungrateful lunatic.

Everyone in the book business seems to be panicking about technology. What's it going to do to the book, and to the novelist?

The book is durable, not just because it's actually a clever, advanced technology in its paper form, but also because its real identity lies in being a narrative couched as text, and text isn't going anywhere unless and until we have something resembling (artificial) telepathy. Before you consign me to the nuthouse, that isn't entirely out of the question – there's some pretty remarkable stuff happening with brain-to-digital interfaces – but even then, stored codified compressed narrative and identity (a good enough definition of a book) might survive. That sounds a bit crazy, but you did ask, and my job is to think into the impossible. The easily imaginable you can get from anyone.

How do you write? 

I've been using Scrivener for my latest book, which I heartily recommend – with the proviso that you should be aware that different writing tools alter the product. Nothing is neutral. So I use Penultimate, Evernote, and Paper (and an iCrayon stylus, sometimes) on the iPad mini. I use ordinary paper and pen. I use Word, Pages, and WriteRoom. Someday I'll use a typewriter or God help me I'll handwrite a novel and pay some unhappy student to transcribe the whole thing.

I don't care about noise as long as it's relatively constant. Uneven rhythm can be a problem – if there's building work going on I tend to shove my headphones in and listen to the same piece of music or playlist over and over.

I try to work anywhere, at any time. There's a picture of me doing editing on Angelmaker in the hospital where my wife had just given birth to our daughter. (I should point out that they were both asleep at this point.)

How did you start? And is there anything you've learned in writing two novels that you wished you'd known/realised/discovered earlier?

I started, I think, pathologically. I suspect that's true for a lot of writers. I tell stories because the idea that I might not is as alien as the idea that I might stop talking or stop using my left leg. It's absurd. The natural exercise of that for me was writing, although more than one person I know is of the opinion that I missed being a barrister by the narrowest of margins and that the world should in general feel pretty grateful for that because I would have been utterly without compunction in creating plausible narratives for ruinously awful people.

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

What are you reading at the moment?

There are more and more great books which express the seeming unreality of our world, either directly or figuratively – read Charles Yu, Michael Chabon, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Isaac Marion, Erin Morgenstern, Susannah Clarke, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson – or Karen Lord, whose Redemption in Indigo won the Golden Tentacle. Myself, I'm about to sit down with Madelaine Ashby's VN or Adam Roberts' Jack Glass, depending on which suits me when the bath is ready, and I know I'm going to learn something. 

If you weren't a writer, what would you like to be? 

A mathematician. Mathematics is, in absolute seriousness, the language of the universe. It's a stunning thing to which I have no access. I would love that as an alternative. I've promised myself if I get brain damaged somehow and I can't write, that's what I'm going to do. On the other hand, I've also sworn that if I start to lose my hair I'll shave my head and backcomb my eyebrows. Life is full of pledges we make about things we don't really understand until they happen, and we have to reassess.

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