Nick Harkaway 2013


Nick Harkaway
Nick Harkaway is awesome.  This is a fact.  You'll have to trust me.  He has a website where he is generally entertaining.  It's located here.  He's also on the Twitter here, where he is also enteretaining and talks to me sometimes, which makes me feel special. He lives in London with his wife and daughter (who occasionally leaves rocks on his bed for reasons known only to her). 
He has written three books; two novels and a non-fiction book about being human in the digital age.

Also, according to Goodreads, he doesn't trust bivalves.  I thought you would want to know.  The very cool photo above was taken by Rory Lindsay who managed to make Nick seem cool and kind of wise.  This is very good photography, but not very accurate as to character.  (He's a bit of a goof, but don't tell him I said so, cause he's also kind of one of my literary heroes.)

Sara:

Why is onomonopia so much fun?
(I kind of love that I misspelled this and he just went with it.)

 

Nick:

Okay, you got me. I don't know what this is! All the online dictionaries default to "onomatopoeia" and the OED doesn't give it. Breaking it down with my questionable etymology skills, it seems to mean "names which refer to possessing only one eye". Which in and of itself is somewhat awesome, but still doesn't help me come up with an answer. I mean, it's true that in the right mood one could probably get a huge amount of satisfaction from the plosives in "cyclops". Have you ever been down that road? You pick a word and say it over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes a series of sounds, and then you begin to realize that all words are like that, that meaning is assigned and not inherent. It can feel a bit like balancing on a slippery log - what if you just lost the knack of interpretation and had to start learning language all over again? Self-induced psychological aphasia.

 

See how I did that? I totally answered a different question from the one you asked. I should run for office.

 


Sara:

Is there an argument to be made (given the existence of Addeh Katir in both novels) that The Gone Away World and The Angelmaker take place in the same world – or even that the events of The Angelmaker make The Gone Away World possible?

 

Nick:

Yes, absolutely, although they actually take place, judging by contemporary history, at around the same time. In fact, if you stick to the strict timeline of the real world, the actual war in TGAW would kick off around 1997 or so, if I remember aright. Fortunately for me, the timeline slips to be "now" in both books. So they don't go out of date... I hope! There's no deeper meaning to be found in connecting them, it was just fun to do it in this vague way, and it was also an acknowledgement of the fact that Joe Spork, the hero in Angelmaker, gets a kind of weird genesis in The Gone-Away World. What actually happened was that I created this mythic gangster, the unstoppable bad man, for the hero's moment of despair in TGAW, and then found myself wanting to tell his story for real. Of course, between idea and page is a huge chasm and what you end up with is something completely different. But "Crazy Joe" is my mental shorthand for an iconic mobster.

 

Given those two things, the connection between the books is more complex for me, but if I could ever be bothered to untangle it and make it manifest: suppose that Zaher Bey and Shem Shem Tsien are basically negative energy twins. Shem is what you get if the attempt to kill the Bey's family is successful. And Angelmaker is the world you get if there isn't a Bey. But I don't insist on that interpretation, because it's only ever been a thought in my head, I've never put pen to paper on it. It may not work. (Does that make Professor Derek a Hakote?)



Sara:

Have you ever written a more fun line than, ‘Ghost Palm of the Voiceless Dragon style, fucker?’
(Gone Away World, page 496, US hard cover edition)

 

Nick:

I've written a bunch of lines which have given me equal pleasure in different ways, some of which have stayed in the books and some of which have been cut. The original ending of Angelmaker was narrated by the baby elephant Edie rescues in Addeh Sikkim, and it was pretty awesome, but I realized I was ruining the book in order to hang on to it and it had to go. But yes, that one has a particular resonance. Although the reveal which happens immediately before (when the cavalry arrives) is up there, too.


Sara:

Rank in order of fondness: comma, semi-colon, parentheses, exclamation point, italics.
(
Image from “The Punctuation is Dying” by Luigi Benozzi.)

 

Nick:

Do you know, I don't think I can? I don't form relationships with punctuation. I use commas a lot because I'm fond of long sentences and I want them punctuated so that you can read them aloud. I don't use actual parentheses very much in fiction, but parenthetical clauses? All the time. Exclamation points (we call the exclamation marks) are for speech only, at least as far as I can manage it. Semi-colons are great and I actually over-use them slightly, giving them a broader meaning - explanatory or qualifying statements with a less solid stop than a full colon might suggest - than they classically have. Italics I used a bit heavy-handedly in TGAW and got spanked for it in some negative reviews, so I try not to now.



Sara:

You write very beautiful, very cinematic fight scenes.  What is your favorite movie fight scene?

 

Nick:

Spoilers coming!

 

There are some amazing fight scenes in the 1997 Le Bossu (On Guard), which is just an amazing movie. Get your local cinema to find a print, it deserves the big screen.
The best recent Hollywood martial arts fight scenes for me are still in the original Matrix movie. For sheer skill, I think you can't go wrong with Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx. But I think it's really hard to separate a good fight scene from a good build-up, and from the effect of messing with the form.


Two of the best cowboy moments I've seen are in Pale Rider and Support Your Local Gunfighter - totally antithetical movies. Pale Rider has this amazing assassin's duel at the end, where the bad guys show up in town and where the hero should be standing there's just a hat. And in Support Your Local Gunfighter, James Garner's shameless faker sees a villain ride into town, knocks him out, and breaks his trigger finger with a flatiron. (Actually, he breaks the wrong finger because the guy's left handed, and then someone points that out, so he breaks the other one, and the badass gunslinger goes through the rest of the movie with two enormous comedy bandages on his useless index fingers. Mildly hilarious.)



Sara:

What mental process do you go through before writing as excruciating a scene as the torture sequence in  Angelmaker?

 

Nick:

That sequence is taken mostly from war on terror cases. My wife is a human rights lawyer. She and a bunch of other amazing people work for basically nothing when they could command six figures in the corporate sector, and this is what she brings home. That thing about being more afraid of the music than the physical torture, you can Google that and find the guy. This is stuff our governments either do or get others to do for them. Everyone sort of knows that now, and most of us just sit there and pretend not to notice, or erect these insane justifications for why it's okay. It is not okay. So basically my process was to sit down and write it. It felt as if I was taking a deep breath and diving down below the surface of a very cold, dark pool of water. It's not enough, but it's what I can do. So if you find that sequence upsetting, understand: it's real, and we're the Ruksinites. And once you take that on board, you sort of see why, given the way we are fighting the war on terror right now, it will never, ever end. Because seriously, if that happened to you or someone you loved, in whatever cause, would you ever forgive it?



Sara:

Let’s talk about covers for a moment.  The American and British Gone Away World hardcovers were so radically different from each other and then the American paperback edition was very different from its hardcover.  The two hardcover editions of Angelmaker, on the other hand, are much closer in concept.  Do you have a favorite cover design of all of them?

 

Nick:

I don't have an absolute favourite - it shifts. I love the US TGAW cover because it's bright (and I loved the retro feel of the paperback, too). The Angelmaker covers are amazing. The UK one is just flat out gorgeous, but the US one has an actual coded message on the front which makes the book a hundred words longer AND it's lovely. Then the US paperback meshes with the TGAW paperback a bit, but also references the UK hardcover, blah blah... I just love my covers.


Sara:

What is the perfect sandwich?

 

Nick:

The right sandwich in the right place at the right time. Doesn't matter what's in it. Although personally I rule out any tomato or similarly slushy thing having been placed in the sandwich longer than five minutes before eating. The inner layer of bread turns to slurry, which I dislike. Some authorities assert that a layer of butter of mayo will prevent this from happening. They are in error.

 

But if you make me pick on, the BBQ chicken with cilantro lime mayo at the Diner in Union Square is great. For God's sake, though, sit at a table and don't get caught in the whole Sex And The City thing.



Sara:

You recently recommended several awesome authors to me over on Twitter.  So, what’s on your nightstand these days?   In a sort of follow up to that; what single book most stands out from your childhood?  Good or bad.

 

Nick:

Oh, wow. My nightstand is a mess. I actually have a series of stacks of books on the floor by the bed and I keep promising to move them but I have no shelves to put them on. I've got to the point where I get so many ARCs that I have to do the thing I always swore I'd never do and give them to second hand bookshops. It's that or a bonfire, which feels wrong. I hope publishers will start sending digital ARCs soon. Okay...

 

Right now I'm actually reading The Garden of Evening Mists, which is tipped to win the Booker. It's absolutely great. I'm loving it. Although Peter Stothard recently said that the shortlist was chosen on "the power and depth of prose", on which basis I think Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident was robbed. I think it may be that the list was chosen for "the power and depth of prose [which does not make jokes about Ketamine, obsessional sexual pursuit, and lizards]". I had a discussion on Twitter yesterday with a few people and I was saying I think our literature is getting a bit

impoverished because it's policed - emergently, I think, rather than deliberately - to rule out the odd, and quirky, the weird, and the new. So we get narrower and narrower, deeper and deeper into personal catharsis (real or imagined) and self-exploration. It's a shame.

 

Er, anyway: Evening in the Palace of Reason and Gormenghast are also by the side of the bed, and so is Colin Grant's BageyeAt The Wheel. Michael Chabon's The Final Solution and Jeanette Winterson's ThePassion are never far from my side. Likewise Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. And pretty much anything by William Gibson.


Sara:

This is a weirdly specific question, but one of my favorite moments in Angelmaker is the description of Polly’s toes.  Where on earth did you get the idea for fishnet toenails?

Nick:

Made it up on the spot. What can I tell you? Came as a surprise to me, too.


Sara:

Gone Away World (at least to this American reader) is a fairly universal story – inasmuch as a crazed science-fiction rabble-rouser with mimes and surprise men in the ceiling can be – but Angelmaker is very specifically, almost defiantly British.  Was that on purpose, or did it just happen that way?

 

Nick:

That's interesting - a lot of people think TGAW is very British, too. Well, I didn't do it on purpose, but it makes sense. The heritages are different - TGAW is a trucking story. There is very little more American than trucking. It's also basically a book-version of an action movie. Angelmaker is set in London, specifically, so it has a strong UK vibe. Although of course the gangster image is from Chicago. I'm a Brit who loves the US. I have family over there, and I sometimes feel more at home in New York than I do in London. (Sometimes!)

 There was a moment when Angelmaker was going to include a kind of crazed pursuit around the world, visit Europe and Russia and so on. I wonder if that would have made it European or global or just nuts...?



Sara:

Earlier this year, you published a non-fiction book, The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World.  How different was it to write a non-fiction book after publishing two novels? (Also, my coworker would like to burn down the internet.  Do you have any thoughts on the matter?)

 

Nick:

Non-fiction is hard. You can be objectively wrong about stuff. You have to come off the fence and argue things. And it's weird, too, because the dynamic is so different - people come to your events with a different agenda, to challenge or to put their own case or to find answers. They buy books differently. It's a whole other world. I enjoyed it, but I won't be doing it again any time soon.

 

And your co-worker should read the book! But yeah, I sympathize, but I also think it's not the answer. The thing about the Internet is that it's us. It's not separate. The anger is misplaced. If you think the Net is crappy, what you're really saying is you wish people were better than they are. And that's something we all feel, I think, even about ourselves.

 

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