As regular readers know, my blog covers a wide range of topics within my various areas of interest. One theme that has risen to the top lately is literary Science Fiction. It’s a genre I love, and it’s a genre I also dabble in myself in the hopes of getting some work published some day. I’ve taken to reviewing certain books over the past few months, and John Love, author of Faith (see my review) graciously offered to sit down and answer some questions about his debut novel, himself, and his work as a writer. This interview is a first for me, but I hope it won’t be the last.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your novel Faith. This is your first published novel, and this is my first interview with a novelist. You’ve already proven yourself. Hopefully I will be able to convince everyone that I know what I’m doing.
You do, if the way you described my book (see the end of this interview) is anything to go by. But it also reminds me of one of my favourite music industry one-liners, by Keith Richards: “Jesus Christ! These people think I know what I’m doing!”
I’ve read Faith, and I’ve now had some time to digest it. There were parts I loved and others I didn’t, but at the end of the day it was an overwhelmingly enjoyable read, and I think it’s really, in many respects, a work of genius. I hope it becomes a classic of the genre. It’s bursting with a sort of dark and fascinating creativity. At its heart lies a fascinating idea – the notion of just what Faith is and where she comes from. I don’t want to give anything away, but I have to ask: where does an idea like that originate? How long have you been holding on to it?
I can’t answer this as fully as I’d like without the possibility of giving something away. The idea which underlies the ending is something I’ve had since I was a child. Since I first started looking up at the night sky.
The protagonists in your book are…unconventional. They are all people with dark pasts. Criminals. Sociopaths. What made you choose to take this approach, and how did you go about making them relatable?
I didn’t set out to write characters with dark pasts. They sort of grew out of the demands of the story as I was writing.
I set out to describe a battle between two apparently invincible opponents. Two ships, one of human origin and one unknown, locked together in a battle so immense that it almost tears space-time around it. Those in the “human” ship had to be seriously unusual to make them a serious match for the unknown ship which had defeated every other opponent. When I started thinking about how they might become so unusual, it took me down this path: back stories of social or political or sexual deviance, unusually gifted people who are also Outsiders, in the Albert Camus sense. That led me on to some other things which helped thicken the consistency of the book’s universe: how these people were identified and recruited, how their ships were built and named, how the regular military regarded them, how the rest of humanity regarded them, and so on.
Those characters are there because the story demanded them. The natural chemistry between them did the rest. At times I felt they were writing their own dialogue!
I’d like to move away from the narrative a little bit and talk to you as a writer. John Love is an interesting name. It makes Googling your book a bit of a task. Type in the words “Faith” “John” and “Love,” incidentally, and you get lots of unrelated hits, mostly biblical. Is that your given name, or a nom de plume?
Yes, I’ve done that same Google countless times, and come up with the same websites. Some very interesting people out there!
John Love is my real name. My surname is originally Scottish: I think the Loves were a menial subdivision of the McKinnon clan. My publishers originally wanted me to change either the title or my name, as they felt Faith and Love had too many similar resonances. I wasn’t going to change the title, so I offered to change my name if they really thought it was an issue, but I think they sensed my reluctance and they didn’t push it. I never really wanted to write under anything other than my real name.
Over the past year, I’ve discovered an impressive number of new science fiction writers who are producing absolutely fantastic debut work. Are we in a renaissance for science fiction? What influences have helped shape your writing?
About a possible renaissance in SF: yes, some recent novels I’ve read are brilliant. My publishers, Nightshade Books, are responsible for a lot of them; they took a conscious policy decision to showcase new authors. Through Nightshade I discovered Paolo Bacigalupi, Nathan Long and W. G. Marshall. There are others too, but those three are the ones I’ve read so far. I used to be a voracious reader, but one of the unexpected by-products of writing my own novels is that I don’t find so much time to read other people’s.
About influences on my writing: I’ve been asked this before, so I’ve got a prepared list. It covers SF and non-SF authors. It’s long and rather anal-retentive, and I tried editing it down for this interview, but without success. So here it is.
Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of my SF favourites, in all its early forms: the original BBC Radio 4 programme, the equally original BBC TV adaptation, and Douglas Adams’ unequalled “Trilogy of Five Novels.” But not the Hollywood movie. I didn’t like that at all.
Some other SF favourites are:
Alfred Bester: his novels and stories from the fifties.
Ursula LeGuin: almost anything of hers.
Jack Vance: the Demon Princes novels especially (most of his others too, but sometimes he goes on autopilot).
Iain M Banks: almost anything of his.
China Mieville: Perdido Street Station especially.
Brian Aldiss: Hothouse and the Helliconia trilogy especially.
William Gibson: especially Neuromancer, also The Difference Engine and the Bridge trilogy.
Fritz Leiber: most of his stuff.
Frederik Pohl: The Heechee trilogy, and (with Cyril Kornbluth) The Space Merchants.
R A Lafferty: especially Past Master.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: almost anything of theirs.
Stanislav Lem: known mainly for Solaris, but his output covered a huge range. For example, Imaginary Magnitude and A Perfect Vacuum (reviews of, and forewords to, nonexistent future books); the Pirx the Pilot and Ijon Tichy stories (surreal but perfectly logical political satires); Cyberiad and Futurological Congress (more satires, almost Swiftian); and The Invincible (page-turning hard SF).
Non-SF favourites include:
Giant nineteenth-century novels, especially from England, Russia and France. Great literary works, and great page-turners. Crime and Punishment, for example, works equally well as serious literature about Life, The Universe And Everything, and as a whodunnit. Except that the person who dunnit is known at the outset and has a cat-and-mouse game with the equally clever examining magistrate, wanting both escape and capture.
Jane Austen: How did she do it? No sex or violence, mostly just people having tea, but totally unputdownable.
Metaphysical poets: neutron-star language: ultimate concentration of meaning.
World War 1 poets, especially Wilfred Owen.
James Joyce, especially Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses.
Doctor Johnson, or more precisely Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was a great bear of a man, a pompous High Tory and High Church figure with opinions on everything – always original and sometimes unexpected, like his opposition to slavery. And he liked cats.
Herman Melville: Moby Dick of course, but also Billy Budd and Bartleby The Scrivener.
Richmal Crompton’s William books: children’s books mostly set in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Great children’s books, because Richmal Crompton used unashamedly literary words whose meaning you could figure out by their context. A good way to learn and remember words. Her style was dry and ironic, with absolutely no talking down.
Shakespeare, for all the obvious reasons, and also some of his contemporaries: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe.
Chaucer, for his characterisation.
Cormac McCarthy: everything of his that I’ve read so far.
Elizabeth Bowen: her stories exist on the tipping-point between the everyday and the mysterious. Her famous story The Demon Lover is only six pages long, but hints at immensities.
Mervyn Peake: the Gormenghast trilogy.
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (like Gormenghast, it defies genres).
Any books which manage to be both literary works and page-turners: too many for an exhaustive list, but titles like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
The thing every young writer is told is, “Write what you know.” You’ve written a story about an encounter that is unlike any normal human experience. How do you approach a subject like Faith? How can you “write what you know” when you are writing about the unknown?
After working for so long in the music industry, I have a pretty good feel for extraterrestrials.
But your question deserves a better answer than that. It’s a question I haven’t been asked before, and it set me off in all sorts of directions. After several attempts to answer it I finally decided on this one.
In your review you wondered whether the author of FAITH might be, in your words, a horny teenager. Then you went to my website and found the photo of a grey-haired apparition. But actually, many of the themes of FAITH (and of the second novel I’m writing now, and of future novels and short stories) were conceived when I was a horny teenager. The unidentified ship is described in the book as “the bastard child of Moby Dick and Kafka, invincible and strange”, and some reviewers have picked up on those literary references. I first read Moby Dick and Kafka in my early – and most horny – teens, and I’ve re-read them several times since. So the encounter I describe is one which I’ve carried in my imagination for years.
What is your process for writing? Do you outline your entire story before you begin? Are you a “pantser,” as some writers describe themselves, figuring it out as you go along?
Boring answer, but a bit of both: Pantser and Plotter. I only have experience of one-and-a-bit novels so far – FAITH, and the one I’m currently writing – but it’s been the same both times. The overall idea comes almost fully-formed and is not altered, but the moving parts (details of plotting, characters, back-stories and so on) can alter radically as I’m writing.
A bit like building a three-dimensional engineering construction: while writing I might have an idea for a back-story or a character-trait which strengthens the construction like a strut, passing through it three-dimensionally and reinforcing every bit it touches. I’m fascinated by the process of fitting it into the structure where it could do most good.
Some writers conceive of stories because of some aspect of setting or plot device that they want to work out. They’re very conceptual. Others think in terms of characters, and want to flesh them out and put them in interesting situations. You seem to have given a lot of thought to both. Do you consider your stories to be plot-driven or character driven?
I think the previous answer covers this. The prime mover for me is the idea, which remains largely unchanged, but within that parameter the characters start to strike sparks off each other and move the story in unexpected ways. It always comes out more or less where the original idea says it will, though.
What about your writing habits? Do you write every day? Do you hold yourself to a certain number of words? How is your workspace set up to minimize distractions?
I like to do something every day. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, I’ll turn to housekeeping matters – checking whether characters’ names sound right, making minor grammatical alterations, checking details of plotting for internal consistency, and so on. It’s probably mildly obsessive, but I like to be able to tell myself that I’ve done something on the book almost every day.
I’m not too fussy about my workspace. But I do like to have some malt whisky, and a cat, within easy reach.
Your bio says that you spent most of your life working in the music industry. Did you always know that you wanted to write if you got the chance? How did you make the transition?
The premise for FAITH came fully-formed, and all at once – I could almost tell you the day it came, what I was doing and where I was. It came years before I sat down to write it, because of the demands of my work.
My work in the music industry involved fighting major legal cases in an abstruse area (copyright) which still had huge financial and precedental risks, and running a £65million, 190-person organisation. I had ideas for FAITH and some other novels and stories while doing this, and I put them on the back burner but never entirely forgot them. The demands of my job meant that the ideas stayed in gestation, although over the years I scribbled things (sometimes only a phrase or sentence, sometimes a few paragraphs) for later use. Those bits of paper are yellow and dog-eared now, but many of the scribblings made it through into the final text.
When I retired I did a few jobs, paid and unpaid, in charities and community organisations. I’m still doing some of them now. Then the ideas came out and wouldn’t be denied.
Music is, in a sense, its own literary world, full of bold and unusual means of expressing themes and concepts. How did your experience with music shape the artistry of your writing?
I have no musical talent whatsoever, and neither does any of my family. I can’t hold a note or play an instrument, but I love music of all kinds and I’m proud to have worked in the music industry. It’s an extraordinary industry, where the business and creative sides are very close to each other. Some people who in more conventional businesses would be regarded as backroom specialists – lawyers, accountants – have bigger egos than performers.
But I was more on the business side than the creative side, and until your question I’d never consciously thought whether any of the music I like had an artistic effect on what I write. Maybe there are features which I’ve admired, as a writer, in some kinds of music. Like a classical symphony, with its combination of soaring emotion and careful construction. Or like the best pop of the Sixties (I was a student then), with its ability to take a well-worn form and transcend it. Or like the first stirrings of punk, an in-your-face political laxative (apologies for mixing anatomical metaphors).
Is there a playlist you listen to while writing, or do you prefer silence?
I don’t have music as background when I’m writing. When I listen to music I like it loud and I like to give it full attention. It’s not something I can relegate to the background while doing something else.
Rumor has it you’re writing another novel. What can you tell us about it?
Yes, I think when I emailed you in response to your review I described it as a near-future political thriller with metaphysical overtones.
I love the SF genre. Whenever I have an idea for a book, SF is the automatic default option for expressing it. The genre gives more freedom to make philosophical or political points – to project features of the present on to the future – and it makes for a good read. It’s not impossible to do this in other genres, but it’s more possible in SF.
Is there anything you’d like people to know about your book, or you as an author, that you haven’t had the chance to talk about in other interviews?
There is something I once wrote in a post for the “Night Bazaar” website run by Nightshade. I don’t think it was picked up in other interviews, and I’d like to quote it again here:
“If FAITH has any political resonances, they’re at best oblique. But I hope it has some other resonances. About identity and free will: what makes us what we are, and what makes us what we do. About love and friendship: what forces bring us together, or keep us apart, and why we don’t recognise them. And about the absence of simple good and evil: the complexities which make each of them part of each other.”
Finally, is there any advice you’d like to offer to amateur writers working in other industries but hoping to be reviewed as promising debut novelists some day?
One quite specific bit of advice: go to the AgentQuery website and get a reputable agent. The website tells you how to do this – it’s full of good tips about how to pitch and how to recognise disreputable agents. It’s also configured so you can access agents by search criteria: their particular genres, obviously, but also whether they take unsolicited work from unpublished authors, whether they accept only electronic or manuscript submissions, and so on. I have no financial or other connection with the website, but when I was unpublished I found it was easily the best resource.
I don’t know if this qualifies as advice, but it’s something which works for me. I tried to imagine what questions I’d most like to ask someone who’d just read my book. I came up with three:
- Did you want to turn the page and find out what happens next?
- Did you care about the characters? (Not Did you like them? Characters don’t have to be nice to be believable and complex and make you want to know what happens to them.)
- Did you think the book tried to be original and different? If you didn’t, what other book or books did you think it most resembled?
For me, the first question is the most important. I’m always asking, Is this page enough to make a reader want to turn to the next page?
I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk to me today. Your work has earned a permanent place on my bookshelves, and I look forward to seeing what will come next.
Thanks Steve. I know it’s rather unusual to quote a review back at the reviewer, but I was struck by this passage: “This is a book that at first resists you. Then it grabs you. Then it appalls and fascinates you. Then it abandons you. Then it grows on you.”
When I first read that it stopped me in my tracks. It describes exactly how I felt when I was writing the book.
I like to think of my book on your shelves, and I hope sometime I can sign it for you.
My thanks again to John Love for taking the time to answer my questions, and to Night Shade Books for providing me a publicity copy of Faith. There are some really fantastic people working in the publishing industry these days, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to get to know and work with them.