Saturday, December 29, 2018

Interview with Tim Major, author of Machineries of Mercy

Today the Speculative Fiction Showcase has great pleasure in interviewing Tim Major, whose new YA novel, Machineries of Mercy, was our featured new release on October 30, 2018; his next novel, Snakeskin, will be published by Titan Books in 2019.

You describe your new novel, Machineries of Mercy, as “a little like a YA Westworld combined with John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos”. That sounds intriguing – and worrying! Can you expand on this a little?

As much as anything, it was a thrill to reference two of my favourite pieces of fiction from back when I was a teenager myself! But I think the claim holds up. The Westworld aspect is because the teenagers in Machineries of Mercy find themselves in a virtual reality which is designed as a self-contained ecosystem… though it’s a prison as opposed to Westworld’s holiday destination. And it just so happens that the virtual reality simulation is a northern English village, in which many of the residents behave in pretty odd ways, which leads to the Midwich Cuckoos comparison. To be honest, every novel I’ve written has a link to one or more novels by John Wyndham, who was absolutely my favourite SF author when I was growing up. His books are hardwired into my writing brain.

You have had several full-length fiction books published, which you list as You Don’t Belong Here (Snowbooks, 2015), Blighters (Abaddon, 2016) and Carus & Mitch (Omnium Gatherum, 2015), as well as a non-fiction book about the 1915 silent film Les Vampires (Electric Dreamhouse Press, 2018). Have you made a deliberate decision to write stand-alone novels, and if so why?

I tend to read standalone novels as opposed to series, so I suppose that’s a big factor. The same goes for films – I don’t avoid sequels and franchises particularly, but they’re rarely my thing. If I want ongoing narratives, I’m happier with TV series. I like novels that involve a complete arc, a neatness or even circularity both in terms of plot and theme. Something about my novel plotting means that a sequel would rarely be possible. If nothing else, my main characters tend not to be in top shape by the end.

What made you choose to write a YA novel, or was that choice dictated by the plot; and what different challenges did this create in terms of writing?

This comes from the same starting point as the Westworld and Wyndham comparisons. These, along with Doctor Who and H. G. Wells, were my gateway to SF. I was keen to write something in the same vein: a novel that I would have relished discovering when I started out reading SF novels. Also, I have nieces and nephews who sometimes ask about my novels, and there’s a chance their parents might actually let them read this one!

Please could you tell us a bit more about your non-fiction book about the silent film Les Vampires? What impelled you to write about the subject?

When Neil Snowdon, the commissioning editor at Electric Dreamhouse Press, asked if there were any films I might like to write about for his Midnight Movie Monographs series, Les Vampires was my first suggestion. It’s a ten-part silent French film serial from 1915 about a criminal gang that terrorises Paris. And it’s amazing. I’d watched it for the first time about five years ago, watching and rewatching each episode before moving on to the next, and at the time I wished I’d written about my response to it, as I found it electrifying. Being allowed to spend months analysing the film and researching its production (it was filmed in Paris as World War I was being fought just outside the city; lead cast members occasionally disappear when the actors were conscripted to fight on the front lines) was an absolute indulgence. It’s become my favourite film. 

Your next book, an SF thriller about spontaneous clones, Snakeskins, will be published by Titan Books in Spring 2019. What are spontaneous clones, and can you tell us a little more about the book?

Maybe I’m not so good at snappy descriptions as I’d hoped! ‘Spontaneous clones’ was my shorthand for the premise of Snakeskins, in which a group of British people have the inexplicable power to shed their skin every seven years, and in doing so rejuvenate. The only problem is that there’s a by-product: at each shedding they produce a Snakeskin, a duplicate that is sentient and has all their memories, hopes and fears. The Snakeskin might last only for a few seconds, or might last much longer… The novel is about one girl’s difficulty in adjusting to life with her unwanted twin. Oh, and it’s a conspiracy thriller, too. The novel will be my first for Titan, and will be published in May 2019. I’m very excited about it.

You have had short stories published in Interzone and Not One of Us, and numerous anthologies including Best of British Science Fiction and The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow. How does writing short fiction differ from writing novels, and do you think it is easier or harder?

I’ve heard writers talk very sensibly about the differences between short fiction and novels, but I’m afraid I can never articulate the difference very well, in terms of my own writing. From a practical standpoint, short fiction is shorter than a novel (!) and it’s wonderful to fit in writing a few stories between longer projects – not quite as a palate cleanser, but more as a way of offloading ideas that may have been backing up. Short fiction is also a good testing ground for ideas, and often I’ll write a story and realise the concept can be developed far more. In fact, all but one of my novels and novellas began life as short stories. 

As co-editor of the British Fantasy Society’s fiction journal, BFS Horizons, I read a lot of short fiction – but to be honest, my response is still usually more about gut instinct than a set of criteria to be fulfilled. I think that writing a good short story is no easier or harder than writing a novel (time investment aside), but it certainly requires different qualities. 

Your fiction crosses several genres. Do you have a favourite, or is that an impossible question?

My favourite genre is weird SF horror. That’s a cheat answer, but it’s also true! 

Horror or dark fantasy writing seems to be undergoing a renaissance. Is that a correct analysis and is it reflected in bricks and mortar bookshops yet?

I agree. UK weird and horror writers, in particular, are doing incredible work right now. Writers such as Nina Allan, Aliya Whiteley, Naomi Booth and Tade Thompson are producing novels and stories that aren’t particularly bound by genre, but which are centred around strong speculative concepts, and they’re dark and complex and resolutely human. As for bookshops, there are certainly novels that break through to the mainstream but (as has always been the case) buyers and readers that consider themselves uninterested in genre need to be lured in. Or to put it another way, whenever there’s a breakthrough horror novel, people will go out of their way to claim it was a thriller, or literary fiction, all along. People can be daft. 

You mention Westworld, a film that has been remade as a well-reviewed and popular TV series. What is your view of remakes generally, and are they worth pursuing?

I’ve seen the first series of the Westworld TV series, and liked it well enough, though for me it doesn’t recapture the giddy possibilities of the film, instead focusing on plot twists routinely second-guessed by internet critics. Whether it’s a remake is arguable, of course, but I’d definitely agree that the Westworld concept always had plenty of mileage in it and – obviously – I’d love to be allowed to play in that fictional world myself. Almost all remakes, when they’re slavish, are rubbish. We can all name examples of triumphs, but there are countless more that should never have been greenlit. 

 The idea of virtual reality prisons sounds incredibly sinister (to me). What made you choose to write about this topic, and as a young adult novel? 

As well as the novels and films already mentioned, one of the biggest influences on Machineries of Mercy was a 1976 Doctor Who story, ‘The Deadly Assassin’. In the third of four episodes, the Doctor enters a nightmarish virtual-reality world, the Matrix, in order to hunt the Master. In the Matrix the Doctor suffers a series of hallucinations (trapped on train tracks, attacked by a biplane etc) and at one point shouts at the sky “I deny this reality!” I don’t know how old I was when I first saw the story – I was a huge Doctor Who fan when I was growing up, and though ‘my Doctor’ was Sylvester McCoy, I worked my way through every televised story and novel I could get my hands on – but this sequence has stayed with me more than any other. In writing Machineries of Mercy, I wanted to recapture that macabre fascination I experienced on first watching ‘The Deadly Assassin’.

Why do you think so much contemporary science fiction is dystopian or pessimistic? Or was that always the case with writers such as J.G. Ballard or John Wyndham? 

Have you seen the state of the world right now? Being serious, though, I think there’s a world of difference between dystopian fiction and, say, post-apocalyptic fiction – for example, Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, a subgenre which also remains popular. A decade or so ago I read a huge amount of post-apocalyptic novels, and they were comforting. I was stuck in a job I didn’t find fulfilling, and I didn’t feel particularly skilled or useful. The idea of starting afresh in a world wiped clean of bureaucracy and management structures, and with a new imperative to learn practical skills, was very appealing. That doesn’t quite answer your question, though I wonder if dystopias might perform a similar function. Contemporary SF may usefully grapple with real-world horrors like Brexit and Trump, but perhaps there’s also something almost comforting in losing oneself in a different kind of dystopia for a while. I’m not totally convinced by this idea, though. It’s late and I’m quite tired. 

Have you got a current WIP and can you tell us anything about it?

Yes – my second novel for Titan Books will be called Hope Island and is due to be published in May 2020. I’m working on a second draft at the moment, and I’m enjoying myself very much, despite the fact that it’s turning out to be pretty scary and very weird. 

What are you watching on TV at the moment, or reading?

My wife and I are working our way through the Handmaid’s Tale TV series, though were pacing it slowly and interspersing with comedy because each episode feels like a punch in the guts. I’ve finally got around to reading Catriona Ward’s Gothic novel Rawblood, which is wonderful. 

Is there an alternative (or art?) genre cinema, or is it strictly mainstream and emanating from Hollywood?

Absolutely there is! And Hollywood is absolutely not the primary source of interesting genre cinema today. My favourite SF film of the 2010s is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and my favourite horror Berberian Sound Studio – both UK productions. The VVitch is incredible but is unrelated to anything produced by mainstream Hollywood. Alex Garland’s excellent Annihilation didn’t even reach cinemas. I’ll take low-budget genre films from Film4, Warp and Rook Films over Hollywood action spectaculars any day of the week. Though I’ll concede that Gravity was brilliant.

About Tim Major:

Tim Major’s SF novel, Snakeskins, will be published by Titan Books in 2019, followed by his first short story collection, And the House Lights Dim, published by Luna Press. His recent books include YA novel Machineries of Mercy and a non-fiction book about the silent crime film, Les Vampires. Tim’s short stories have been published in Interzone, Not One of Us and numerous anthologies, including Best British Science Fiction 2017 and Best Horror of the Year #10, edited by Ellen Datlow. He is co-editor of the British Fantasy Society’s fiction journal, BFS Horizons

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