Interview by Philipa Coughlan.
- I finished reading ‘Kings of a Dead World’ on Earth Day, which seemed appropriate because of the themes of this novel and your involvement with Climate Fiction Writers. Is climate change a major concern now in your writing as it is in your life?
Yes, absolutely. Surely it’s difficult not to be concerned if you’re an adult with a modicum of awareness about you.
It’s something I struggle with personally as I work in marketing and there is no doubt that consumerism is the root cause of the situation we find ourselves in. To try and mitigate the fact that our livelihood comes from this we try to live as environmentally friendly life as we can as a family. My wife and I are both vegans, we have carbon offset our lives through tree planting and we heat our home through an air source heat pump.
As a parent to a 4-year-old, I’m painfully conscious of the legacy we’re in danger of leaving for future generations. I really hope it’s not too late for us to wake up as a collective society and make some real changes rather than just green washing.
- Noting ‘The Sleep’ as part of the plot, was this an ironic way to show we as humans haven’t woken up yet to the real threat of climate change?
This is exactly why I love it when my writing goes out into the world. Writing is such an insular experience then all of a sudden, your words live and people read and consider them, and have thoughts that surprise you.
This is one of those moments.
I really wish I’d thought of this, because it’s such a great metaphor and works so perfectly but, at least at a conscious level, it hadn’t occurred to me.
Would you mind if I pinched it? Then in every interview from now on I can pretend I’m cleverer than I am!
- Often dystopian novels can be (apologies in advance) a bit ‘blokey’ but you write with emotional tenderness about human relationships. I’m hoping everyone will read this book, but what is your usual readership?
I really appreciate that; it’s something that I was very aware of when I was writing it. I wanted relationships to be the core of the novel; whether it’s Ben and Rose; Peruzzi and Slattery; or Ben and Hassan.
I wanted to explore how relationships stretch and flex in stressful situations and without sounding trite, how love can bring human beings through the worst possible circumstances.
I also wanted Rose to be the purest character in the novel, so that her relationship with Ben and her disease were the poignant centre of the story.
Something reassuring though is that some of the best of recent speculative fiction has been written by women – I’m thinking Station Eleven and The Power particularly – and there’s no denying that some of the titans of the genre are from female authors such as Margaret Atwood.
I didn’t realise until I started recording what I read through the Good Reads Reading Challenges about 6 years ago, that I mostly read female authors. It wasn’t intentional, just worked out that way, but most of the fiction that I find interesting or challenging is written by women. I’m reading Luster by Raven Leilani at the moment and my God, she can write; on a sentence level I’ve not read anything so beautifully constructed in a very long time.
My sincere hope is that lots of different people read my work; I got excellent feedback on The Zoo from both male and female readers; and the early reviews from Kings of a Dead World have all been from female readers. But to be honest, I’m still just really grateful that anyone shows an interest in what I write!
- There is something of the dark fairy tale about the world you describe-especially Rip Van. Why did you include that idea and what was your favourite childhood fairy tale?
I’m really glad you picked up on that, it was something that was conscious and very considered. I was thinking about myth and religion and how we layer beliefs on top of each other, borrowing from what has gone before.
Given the abrupt nature of change described in the book, from one state to a very different one almost immediately, I felt that the established canons would probably collapse quite quickly and people would revert to something much more primal.
Fairy tales talk to us at a very basic level about our innate fears, so it felt like a logical place for people to turn for comfort. I also thought there would be some reaching out towards the more ancient myths, which is where I went with Chronos. Some of the earlier drafts had a much involved and complicated belief system in there for the Janitors which was based on the Roman Gods, but it distracted from the plot, so we trimmed it right down through the editing process.
I was more into the Arthurian legends and Viking lore when I was a child. I was utterly obsessed with King Arthur and many of my first attempts at storytelling as a child were built in that world. I still love Loki though, and if Joanne Harris and Neil Gaiman hadn’t done such an awesome job at revisiting the Viking Myths, I would have been tempted to have a go myself. Giles Kristian has beaten me to King Arthur too with the amazing ‘Lancelot’ and ‘Camelot’.
In terms of classic fairy tales, you really can’t beat The Brothers Grimm, can you? If I had to pick one it would be Hansel and Gretel. It’s monstrous if you think about it. Two lost children. The house made of sweets. A cannibal witch fattening the kids up to eat them. Really horrible and stuff of nightmares. It’s no wonder people come back to fairy tales time and time again as a source of horror and inspiration.
- Escaping and searching are themes through the plot and your characters move around empty streets isolated from families. Has the pandemic influenced this novel with those topical issues?
We edited the novel through the pandemic, but the idea came to me 5 years ago and has taken that long to get to fruition. When I started writing, some of the ideas seemed far-fetched and I wondered whether I was asking too much of the reader. Turns out that I wasn’t!
It’s been a strange experience editing it in 2020 and early 2021 – so much of it has come true, at times it’s felt eerily prescient. The themes of the book have come to the forefront of most of our minds: separation from family, isolation, loneliness, people being controlled by things they can’t see, the things that make us human, empathy and/or the lack of it. These are all concerns that have affected every one of us during the last 16 months or so. My concern as a writer is that the world of the novel was a feat of imagination. Now that we’ve experienced something vaguely similar, I can only hope the emotional register of the novel still rings true.
The empty streets in the novel were supposed to be a projected fear. I didn’t expect us to live through it and we can only hope that having done so we can learn from the experience so that the rest of the novel doesn’t come true as well.
- You have partnered with Ecologi to plant a tree for each book sold. Is there more the publishing industry needs to do to be sustainable?
There’s more that all industries need to do!
Publishing isn’t one of the worst offenders by a long stretch, but it’s one that has an almost unique ability to influence the public perception of something.
I think there’s also a really direct correlation between printed books and planting trees that people can understand and could help galvanise action. Climate change can easily be too big for us to understand, too enormous for the individual to have any impact, so seemingly simple things like planting a tree per book can really help to bring things into micro focus and enable people to see how they can make a difference.
It really is a case of every little helps and the more that we all do the more likely it is that we can turn things around.
- I used to live in Nottingham so did laugh when you described it as a port because of the rising seas! I now live in Sussex where cliff erosion is already a serious issue. Now we are isolated politically from Europe are we heading towards a dangerous island scenario climatically and can novels be fun as well as serious?
Strange you say that because this is something my next novel tries to address, so I’ll save going into it too much until then, but yes, I think novels can be fun and serious too.
We’re a little island with ideas above our station and an awful Colonial history. I can’t see that cutting ourselves off can be anything other than a disaster both politically and climatically.
That said, I really didn’t want to write a polemic. It’s a political novel which addresses some serious issues, but above all I wanted it to be a thriller. I wanted it to have pace and be exciting, as well as discussing things which I consider to be important to us as a species.
I find it easier to assimilate ideas when they are presented through storytelling, so I make the assumption that other people do too. I want readers to be swept along by the story and if it makes them think a bit too then I’ll consider it a job well done.
- Have you got another novel planned?
Three, actually, in various stages of gestation!
I’ve got a gothic horror and a Victorian YA novel bubbing away, but the next novel to see the light will be a return to a more present day setting and is a study into toxic masculinity and the equally toxic nationalism we’ve seen grow over the last decade or so in the UK.
It disturbs me that we have to talk about an equal society, both in terms of gender and race, as something that we still need to strive to achieve. How can we still be talking about equal rights for women over 100 years since the Suffragettes? In our supposedly enlightened society, 66 years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, how can there still be a very real need for an organisation like Black Lives Matters?
I don’t want to get all soapbox, but in my mind there is a direct link between the rise of the EDL, the disgraceful way in which some newspapers like the Daily Mail try to stoke hatred against refugees, and the epic societal self-harm of Brexit. So, in part answer to your previous question – yes, I completely believe we are heading towards being a dangerously isolated island.
Our Government ignored the working classes, and the press and right-wing organisations preyed on that disenfranchisement in a way that is both predictable and alarming.
At the same time this rampant nationalism encouraged a brand of toxic masculinity that set itself up as an ‘antidote’ to Woke. I find the #notallmen response to #metoo as problematic as ‘all lives matter’ as a response to ‘black lives matter’. It’s not just a missing of a point, but an almost wilful misinterpretation.
All of this has been playing on my mind and I wanted to explore it along with the male inclination to tribalism, in particular in the context football violence. I wanted to look into expectations of being male in this particular set of conditions and how the cycle can be broken. Personal culpability is a theme I keep returning to, it was core to The Zoo, Kings of a Dead World and is something I’m returning to in this WIP. It’s a heady mix and I hope I can do it justice.
- If the novel is to be an audio book/Radio 4 Book of the Week who would you choose to read it as it needs to be heard as well as read?
The good news is that it is being recorded by Whole Story Audiobooks as an audiobook as we speak!
The narration is by a brilliant actor called Mike Rogers and when Whole Story sent over the samples he’d recorded, I knew immediately they’d found the right person for the job. He captured the nuances of the three narrative strands perfectly, so I’m looking forward to listening to the finished audiobook. Getting it on my phone will be as much of a landmark for me as when the ARC copies arrived and when the final hardback copies were delivered.
I am a massive audiobook fan, I get through at least one a week, so I’m really excited that Kings of a Dead World is being produced. It’s moments like this that make me realise how lucky I am to be a published author.
Kings of a Dead World is out now, published by Sandstone Press