Welcome to Thinking about books. By way of introduction, Max Kinnings is the author of five books, the most recent being Baptism and Sacrifice which feature the character Ed Mallory as a hostage negotiator.
Perhaps I should begin with an apology that I’m very interested in the craft of writing and so, with your indulgence, I’d like to talk a little about how you came to draw up the plot of this, so far, latest duology. Hopefully as one who teaches creative writing, you’ll share some aspects of the process of creating this character. I’m curious about the choice of a disabled protagonist. He seems a paradox. His blindness excludes him from the routine of social interaction which so often depends on the ability to interpret visual signals, e.g. choice of clothing, facial expressions, body language, etc. yet his profession requires him to empathise with others under pressure. I suppose the mechanism of communication with hostage takers levels the playing field — he “hears” more than his sighted colleagues — but it also remains a barrier to his integration into the team. So why pick someone with “limitations”?
Originally, the Ed Mallory character was very different from the one that appears in the published version of Baptism. Firstly, he wasn’t blind. Secondly, he was an alcoholic with relationship issues. This version of Ed Mallory actually appeared in the first published version of Baptism in Holland in 2009. However, when my agent had shopped the manuscript around publishers in the UK, they were lukewarm in their feelings towards the character. My agent suggested that the Ed character was possibly a little too derivative. The big drinking cop with relationship issues is someone that we’ve encountered many times before in crime fiction. He suggested that I revisit the character with a view to changing him possibly quite drastically.
Much of the day-to-day writing of Baptism was carried out at the British Library on Euston Road in central London. I love the learned atmosphere of what is one of the world’s great libraries. I would take the Tube up from my home in south London to Kings Cross station. Very close to the library is the Royal National Institute for the Blind and quite often I would offer an arm to blind people who were leaving the Tube train at Kings Cross to make their way to the RNIB as the escalators and steps up from the station can be quite awkward. Whether there was some subconscious connection between this and my decision to make Ed Mallory blind, I can’t say for certain but almost as soon as I started to rethink Ed’s character, I knew that I wanted to make him blind – and scarred, not just physically but emotionally too. His loss of a sense would make his other senses stronger and for a negotiator who spends the vast majority of his time speaking to people on the other end of a phone line, this might be a very useful attribute. One of the key skills of hostage negotiation is what is known as active listening. To create a character whose abilities as an active listener were sharpened and enhanced appealed to me.
However, when I started to rewrite the book with the new Ed character, I realised that I had created all sorts of complications for myself. So much of what a writer describes from the point of view of a character is visual. But gradually, I came to inhabit Ed’s mindset and enjoyed the challenge of describing the sounds, the smells and the tactile sensations that he experiences. The fiction editors in London certainly shared my enthusiasm for the new character and whereas the original story had been rejected by a number of publishers on its first round of submissions; the new Ed Mallory character proved to be much more popular and Quercus finally bought the rights.
With hindsight, I’m really glad that I made Ed a blind character. While it excludes him from much in terms of the visual signals and body language of his colleagues and the negotiating team in which he operates, when it comes to the negotiation which forms so much of the drama of the book (and its sequel) it makes for some much more intriguing drama. My decision to make him blind brought him alive for me and I found I could inhabit his character much more effectively.
In Bushi no Ichibun (武士の一分), Love and Honor (2006), the samurai warrior loses his sight but, when his honour is at stake, he learns to fight again. This film offers a fairly realistic portrayal of supervening blindness, unlike Daredevil which makes as much sense as you expect from a comic book hero. Have you been tempted to allow your protagonist to learn new physical skills, or to give him the chance to experiment with new technology like screen readers or refreshable Braille displays to give him internet access, or some of the new sensory substitution systems for giving greater mobility?
My reason for asking is my slight uncertainty whether your hero has come to terms with the blindness. While he’s adapted that’s not the same as accepting and moving on.
Other than the enhancement of his listening abilities which his blindness gives him and which he uses to good effect during his hostage negotiations, I didn’t want Ed to come to terms with his blindness, certainly not in the first two books in the series. Much of his alienation from society stems from his refusal to accept his visual impairment. He doesn’t use a dog to help him in his everyday life and wouldn’t ever consider using a white cane. His singularity as a character comes from the fact that despite having been blinded some thirteen years prior to the events that take place in Baptism, he has still not come to terms with his blindness. His job as a police hostage negotiator and subsequently a negotiator-for-hire in Sacrifice, provides him with some validation as a blind person but this doesn’t mean that he is in any way ready to achieve acceptance of his disability. However, in the event that I do write further books in the series, I think it would be interesting to see Ed change his outlook with regards to his condition and start to explore sensory substitution systems, especially if this can form an integral part of the plot.
You also hew to the Aristotelian unities of time and, to a lesser extent, action. This is a further challenge. In addition to a protagonist with physical limitations, you impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours.
As far as my decision to impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours is concerned, this was something that had been my intention right from the very first notes that I made about the story. Many thrillers employ the ticking clock concept as a means of ratcheting up the tension. I wanted to place that at the heart of the novel by having the train tunnel flooding over the space of a few hours so there is a very specific deadline for the authorities to adhere to.
I’m a firm believer in the benefits that creative limitations can bring to a story. As a teacher of creative writing, I’ve seen many writers struggle with the ultimate freedom that fiction writing provides. Often this can cause writer’s block. But as soon as some creative limitations are imposed, often the imagination reacts to them and a story is born. A blind protagonist and a narrative of interconnecting story-lines that plays out over the space of just a few hours are two creative limitations that caused all sorts of problems for me in many respects but were also really quite inspiring. Hopefully Baptism is all the better for them.
Welcome to Thinking about books. Thanks for taking the time to exchange ideas. By way of introduction to readers here, I explored Aidan’s background as well as the inspiration for Irenicon, the first book in The Wave trilogy, in an interview due to run in the June edition of the San Francisco Book Reviews. While we wait for that to appear, I thought we’d change tack and talk more generally about about the “state of the union”. For once, I’m going to leave it to you, Aidan, to set the hare running.
This interview celebrates the (belated) publication of Irenicon in the US so perhaps we should think about whether it’s obvious to the readership where the author of speculative fiction originates. You’re immersed in recent writing: could you take the Pepsi challenge and tell if a writer is American or not?
You’re asking me to get my prejudices out of the closet when you ask whether it’s possible to distinguish American authors, apart from the fact they can’t spell, of course (only joking). At the very top of the art, the question is meaningless. There’s sufficient universality to cross the boundaries of cultures. Quality simply shines through regardless of nationality. But once you come down from the rarified levels, the culture of the writer becomes significant. Through the socialisation process, we’re adapted to the local culture. Think of it as a survival mechanism. So when we take the first steps into the craft of writing, we inevitably evince the attitudes and sensibilities that colour the local readership’s expectations. For this reason, many authors don’t travel across cultures. What they say and how they say it are only acceptable in their local communities.
We pretend the Republic of Letters is borderless, but, speaking for myself, the American speculative writers I’ve read recently are either long dead or people like Ursula K. Le Guin who were in the heyday in the way way back. Put me on the spot and ask me about contemporary speculative writers, and I’d probably stutter something about China Miéville, Joe Abercrombie, Susanna Clarke and Ian Banks. Very different writers, but all drive on the left side. Is this just a consequence of what we’re exposed to in our bookshops, or something deeper?
I’m always interested in authors like Adrian McKinty who began life in one culture, studied in a second and now live in a third. In the fantasy field, Felix Gilman is an outstanding example — if you haven’t already done so, you should get hold of the duology: The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City. These writers produce what I suppose I’m obliged to call a greater cosmopolitan writing style because it’s synthesising elements from different sets of influences.
In a way, you’re avoiding the cultural problem because, like Gilman, you’ve chosen to write fantasy. The genre shingle over the door warns those who open the book to suspend their disbelief while exploring the world you’ve created. You don’t face the same credibility constraints as those who set their work in the contemporary world. That doesn’t mean readers can’t tell where people have their cultural roots. As a generalisation, American fantasy writers tend to be plot people and have less interest in the socio-economic and political contexts for the action. There are exceptions like Daniel Abraham and N. K. Jemisin, but nothing like the ranks led by Joe Abercrombie, K J Parker, et al. Europeans tend to be more interested in producing layered fiction with metaphorical, allegorical and, sometimes, satirical intent. So we probably agree that the Republic of Letters has very precisely defined borders. Even within national cultures, there are subcultures which have very different tastes and interests. Not unnaturally, publishers pander to their niche audience.
You say the writers you find interesting are either dead or long-in-the-tooth. You are using time as your filter for universality. Any book that can speak to readers years after it was written has the necessary cultural universality to be a great book — Left Hand of Darkness, for example, is as good today as when it was written. This nicely avoids the task of reading through the mountain of dross as it’s published to find the one or two good books today.
With great age comes great impatience. Reading is such a pleasure that I jealously guard of every minute. It’s a numbers game: since the Hogwarts Express started chugging, there’s been an expansion in Fantasy publishing. With several lifetimes you couldn’t keep up, and a gold rush is a bad time to be looking for gold. It’s churlish to complain – I’ve profited from it as a writer – but I’m sceptical if every reader has. Somebody’s surely done the maths, but I’d wager that a decade ago the average Fantasy was two hundred pages shorter. Sure, there are more books with more pages today. There’s also a lot of more dollars circulating than ten years ago. Are we feeling richer?
The midlist author has been abandoned by the average publishing house. Authors who used to make just enough to survive are now writing part-time and earning enough to live on the rest of the time. It’s not just that authors are expected to write more words for less pay. It’s the focus on the search for the next “blockbuster”.
Call me romantic but I think something was diluted in the explosion. Back when the field of Weird Fiction was a niche netherworld, it attracted folks who were strange – ‘You ought to try Lithum’ strange. The angle they looked at life was, and still is, shocking. Where’s our Olaf Stapledon? People who haven’t read H. G. Wells assume he succeeded because he was first, but the guy was a big thinker. He grabs you by the lapels and shakes. I looked into The Island of Dr Moreau again the other day. When the traumatized Prendick finally returns to London, he sees abominations everywhere, and compares a priest’s sermon to the Ape-man’s “Big Thinks”. It’s terrific. Who’s that bold today?
Of course, this is ancestor-worship. There must be equally original voices working today. It’s just harder to hear them for all the hollering.
Well, our ancestors made do with myths that had a guy chained to a rock with an eagle eating his liver every day. They were into cruelty and immorality in all its forms.
You’re right. What we now call Fantasy has roots in myth and religion. It’s a commonplace, but for me it’s a touchstone of Fantasy. Much that goes by the name is simply medieval costume drama with dragons. How could it be otherwise? The real stuff is hard work. It’s high stakes too: bad Fantasy is flatulent, but when it’s good – oh my! – it’s transcendent. Le Guin, as it happens, has some stern words on this: ‘A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.’
It doesn’t bother me that publishing is a capitalist endeavor – I rather like the idea – but the dispiriting side of it is the ghettoisation. There have always been benighted souls who will proudly announce that they only read one genre, who delight, like toddlers, in repetition. They’re the same people who think a story is Horror as soon as a vampire shows up. Selling books is a difficult game, and getting harder. Even though editors know quality, the accountants know people like the same thing. So you get longer and longer books, and series that go on longer than Vietnam.
Irenicon is mediaeval Italian fantasy without the dragons — can’t think why you left them out. There are quite a number of other authors playing in the same sandbox. Did you find it difficult to find new ground to plough?
The reason I choose classic over contemporary Fantasy is practical: writers have to open themselves to the world for material. The downside to being so impressionable is that you pick up the conventions of the day without knowing it. Twitter is like an experiment in group-think epidemics. Log on and hear the inchoate roar of a mob lost in an echo chamber. It’s too loud to think. I’ve made a good start with Irenicon, and I want each book to be better. In the meantime I have to keep my muse away from authors with pulses. That tramp will sleep with anyone.
Many thanks! That was fun! The second book in the trilogy, The Warring States, was published by Quercus in hardback in 2013 — the paperback edition is due this April. The final volume, Spira Mirabilis, will be published in Britain later this year. Here’s my own review of Irenicon.
This is a short interview with Laird Barron in celebration of the publication of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (Amazon) which has been delayed by the financial troubles of Night Shade Books and its subsequent acquisition by Skyhorse Publishing. Obviously with small armies of lawyers still talking about how to resolve all the contractual problems, the broader picture remains obscure. Suffice it to say, it’s good to see at least one book emerging from the mire. For those of you not familiar with his work, Laird Barron writes what may be classified as “cosmic horror”. Not following directly in the Lovecraft tradition, but on an adjacent path, he’s been very successful, winning Shirley Jackson Awards in 2007 and 2010 for the collections The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Occultation and Other Stories, and for his novella “Mysterium Tremendum”. He’s also been shortlisted for the Crawford Award, International Horror Guild Award, Locus Award, Sturgeon Award, and World Fantasy Award.
Being an old guy, I first met H. P. Lovecraft and the Mythos in the 1950s when stories like “The Dunwich Horror”, “Rats in the Wall” and “Shadow Over Innsmouth” were anthologised. I became a fan and discovered August Derleth and Arkham House. It’s been steadily downhill ever since. Can you remember your first exposure?
We had trunks full of books lying around the homestead. When we moved from the suburbs into the Alaskan wilderness, those books were among the few treasures from our old life that got packed onto the wooden riverboat. I don’t recall the specific story, but I encountered Lovecraft among moldering volumes of anthologized fiction. I was ten or so. A few years later, after reading Fritz Leiber and Michael Shea, I returned to Lovecraft with more intention. That’s when I came across stories such as “The Shadow out of Time” and “The Picture in the House.” The latter remains my favorite of Lovecraft’s, although it’s a close thing.
It’s one thing to enjoy reading an author or works in that universe, and another to start writing your own stories. What persuaded you to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard)?
I’ve written stories of science fiction and fantasy since age five; wrote my first novel between ages nine and eleven or twelve, followed that with two more before I hit seventeen. All lost to time and misfortune. I didn’t turn to horror until my early thirties when I published “Shiva, Open Your Eye” with the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’ve always loved horror. I’ve always possessed a keen interest in the weird and the occult, and I’d spooked family and friends since childhood with sinister tales and anecdotes. Why it took so long for me to submit to dharma and accept that I was born to write horror is a mystery. It simply clicked and the rest is on the page. Lately it’s changing. I feel the floodgates are slipping. Time will tell.
S.T. Joshi invites us to see past the tentacles to find the philosophical and literary substance of Lovecraft’s work (excluding the racism, of course). As an author with some years track record writing in this universe, albeit not necessarily writing explicit Mythos stories, do you now find yourself expanding the substance of the Mythos and seeking to give it philosophical heft? For my own writing, I imagine myself talking to a reader. I try to listen to myself and judge whether I’m making any sense. When you write a Lovecraftian story, is your imaginary reader an existing fan of the Mythos or do you aim for a more general readership?
I’ve tipped my hat to Lovecraft on several occasions, but with the exception of “Hour of the Cyclops” have not written in the old gent’s universe. When I write cosmic horror, or so-called Lovecraftian horror, I go further than Joshi’s prescription. I attempt to look past Lovecraft completely and gaze upon the ineffable dread, the awesome and the numinous visions that inspired his own. His work did not materialize from a vacuum and it’s that provenance that compels me. Obviously, his personality molded what was to come, but I do have access to the canon as he did. It is the tradition of the weird that incites me to creation, and it’s a tradition that goes back to Poe, Shelley, and Bierce, back to the Bible and the Mahabharata, back to petroglyphs and monoliths.
My sights are square upon the uninitiated. I’m not interested in pastiche, nor tie-in novels, nor updating the Mythos. I want to sink into the primary source and, by osmosis, produce something that is reflective of what currently exists, yet entirely my own. Otherwise, I have failed miserably, ignominiously.
One of the features of your work is the strong sense of place. Do you think the realism of the setting helps to make the incredible events seem more credible?
Setting is integral to how I conceive of my work. I rank the particulars of location with characterization and plot. These are primary aspects, or layers, of any given story I create. The desire to make setting a character, if not an antagonist, is probably connected to living off the land in Alaska, and traveling through the wilderness with a team of dogs. Thousands of hours, tens of thousands of miles, with those dogs, a rifle, and a magnesium flint to make fire. In a recent story, one of my characters gazes upon an ancient prairie and remarks that it’s the kind of landscape to deform one’s mind in the fashion of a kid playing with a Slinky. All that vast, primordial space crushes in upon a man, and it leaves its fingerprints.
The other half of the equation is that I was weaned on classic horror, pulp and westerns. Blackwood and Machen possessed a marvelous sense of place as their most famous stories testify. Jack London and Robert E. Howard painted a hell of a canvas of the North and Hyperborea respectively. The core westerns were nothing without their badlands and deserts.
It’s pleasing to see you turn to “straight” crime. Do you have a publisher lined up?
No, as I’m still in the process of completing the manuscript. However, there’s been significant interest in the novel already. I’ll hand it off to my agent in due course and see what happens.
That’s something to look forward to! Many thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
I’d like to start by thanking you for agreeing to answer a few questions about your latest work. It’s been interesting and stimulating to exchange ideas with you. First, a personal question. Like me, you’ve left your home turf for greener pastures elsewhere. Why have you made your home abroad?
That’s an easy one. I met a girl at college and I followed her to New York. It was a crazy, romantic notion because I had no job or any prospects and for my first three years in America I worked as an illegal in bars and various bookshops and at the odd construction site. It was a really happy time though. Leah and I were living on 50 dollars a week in a frightening apartment in ungentrified Harlem, but I was soaking up amazing material every minute of every day: crackheads and car thieves and cops and robbers. . . When I went to write Dead I Well May Be, it was very much a Speak Memory situation: I just let that stuff pour out of me.
In Falling Glass, your hero is one of the Pavee — a man with membership of a moving family. It’s a cultural allegiance and not tied to a single place. Does this also reflect your own view of the world?
I think so yes. Was it Auden who said that specious thing about betraying his country before his friends? Well I wouldn’t betray either. And I have a lot of countries now that I feel attached to: Ireland, England, Israel, America, Australia. I’ve got roots and friendships and deep memories in all those places. I’ve lived in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coventry, Leamington Spa, London, Oxford, New York, Boston, Jerusalem, Denver, Melbourne and now Seattle. My allegiances are all mixed up. Of course I still go for Ireland in the rugby and Liverpool FC in the EPL. That will never change.
In Falling Glass, the hero becomes a defender of the weak and oppressed, prepared to use violence to ensure the safety of others. This would not be necessary if society had a law enforcement process that did not implicitly protect people of status — ironically a higher-profile issue today because of the furore over the apparently untouchable status of Jimmy Savile.
I can’t say I was surprised by either the Jimmy Savile or Lance Armstrong scandals. I think the rich and powerful get away with much much more than we will ever know. Truth is always stranger and more perverse than fiction. If a writer were to make up the Savile story it would be labelled ‘ridiculous’ by every editor in the business and not get published. Fiction writers need to work harder to catch up with reality it seems to me.
In the traditional British crime novel, the appearance of the body is always a shock to the small community on display, i.e. there’s an immediate identification of this as a crime scene where there’s been a breakdown in law and order. But Northern Ireland was a permanent crime scene for decades with an inevitable overlap between policing, politics and the terrorists. In such a society, what makes a good policeman?
In England, certainly in rural England, there are very few murders so it should be a shock. I remember the three years I was at Oxford there wasn’t a single murder anywhere in Oxfordshire, but on Inspector Morse (which was filming and playing at the same time) there was usually one, or quite often two or three, in a week. There was a large disconnect between reality and TV reality. In Northern Ireland in the late seventies and early eighties there was too much reality. Certainly too much for impressionable kids. I remember being stuck with my mother in central Belfast the night the Co-op was firebombed. I remember taking my American girlfriend (now wife) to the cinema and coming out to find the city on fire and under the control of masked paramilitaries who had set up burning tyre checkpoints everywhere. I remember the week the SAS assassinated an IRA hit team in Gibraltar and we watched live on TV as a mad man killed three mourners with hand grenades at the funeral; and just two days after that, two off-duty Signals corporals were lynched live in front of our eyes. Stuff like that went on all the time. You never get immune to it, but you do get numb, and I have to say that, in Belfast, the response was often black, very black, humour, some of which I’ve tried to capture in my books. I should emphasise that because I remember as a kid being surrounded by very dour sarcastic grown-ups with a very dry sense of humour. There was also a very strong sense of community in our housing estate that I miss now that I live in middle class suburbia. As kids we could walk into any house we wanted and have dinner there or borrow a book or just sit down with the family and play Monopoly or watch TV. And it was also paradoxically a time of great innocence too. We were always outside playing football or running up into the fields. Yes there was a civil war going on five miles away in Belfast, but we felt safe and loved and happy.
If the police officer is on the side of right, he or she will be pressured to ignore the real perpetrator, or to pin the crime on a false suspect.
So often those attempts at pinning evidence on a person the cops knew was the guilty party backfired because they weren’t guilty at all. In Northern Ireland this happened all the time as did jury tampering. In fact the latter got so bad that juries were abolished for all paramilitary cases and, instead, Continental-style, three judge courts were introduced.
In both Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground, the hero becomes a vigilante. Do you see the search for justice as personal redemption?
It may be an attempt at personal redemption but. . . The temptation to take justice into your hands is so strong that you have to be incredibly strong to resist it. It’s interesting that until very recently in human history murder was always taken care of by the victim’s relatives. Police forces have only been around for a century and a bit, but murder has been around for as long as humans have been walking the plains of Africa. In Ulster and places where Ulster people emigrated to (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, etc.) this tradition still lingers. The police are distrusted and kin are the ones who mete out natural justice.
Ah, but you’ve changed your mind. The heroes in Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground are not family. In Fifty Grand, your heroine is both a cop and family. Which view do you prefer: the blood feud or the dispassionate enforcer?
Oh I prefer to let the police do the solving and the bringing of justice. I wish everyone did but they don’t, at least not in places where there the idea of blood feud is still engrained in the culture. The book to read about this is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer: the section on the folkways of Ulster immigrants to America is eye opening.
The PSNI wants access to interviews given to the Boston College/Belfast Project by former IRA Old Bailey bomber Dolours Price. They claim Price gives a detailed account of how McConville was targeted, abducted from her 10 children, driven across the border, murdered and buried in secret late in 1972. What do you think of such work in an academic context?
It’s a very interesting case. It’s common knowledge in Belfast who gave the order to abduct Mrs McConville. Everyone knows who Delours Price is talking about but, setting aside a suit for libel, naming the man might jeopardize the entire Northern Ireland Peace Process because he is such an important and prominent figure in Republican circles. Once again I feel that Northern Ireland missed a trick by not having a South African style Truth Commission. That would have given a blanket amnesty to everyone involved in a Troubles offence who came forward and told the truth about what happened in the dark days of the seventies and eighties.
I’m not sure South Africa is a better country because it went through a “truth” process. More to the point, I don’t think anyone actively involved in the Troubles on any of the “sides” would have wanted to be honest about what they did.
Perhaps you’re right but at least South Africa drew a line under the whole process. In Northern Ireland these old cases are still lingering, are still a wound that hurts.