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Friday, February 8, 2008

Interview with Felix Gilman

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Back in December, I read this astonishing debut novel called “Thunderer”. It was incredibly imaginative, beautifully written, and has stayed on my mind since then. And frankly, it’s not getting nearly the attention it deserves. So thanks to publicist Anna Crowe, I was able to interview Felix Gilman which I hope will provide a little insight about the author and why “Thunderer” deserves to be in your reading pile:

Q: If readers go to your official website
HERE and read your author bio, they might be in for a little surprise given that the information changes at least six times (that I saw). As fun as it is to speculate, could you just tell us a bit about yourself and outline the journey you went through in finding a publisher and why you went with Bantam Spectra?

Felix: The multiple joke bios are a kind of defense mechanism, like squid ink. It still seems very odd to talk about myself in public. If I thought I could get away with it, I might become a recluse.

Since you asked, though: I'm from London, I went to Oxford where for a long time I wanted to be a historian. I've been in the US for nearly a decade now, in DC, Boston, and New York. I worked in telecommunications journalism for a bit, which explains
this oddity in my publications history. (Run out and buy a copy now!) Then I went to law school. . .

I had six months between jobs, so I sat down to write a novel—no more excuses, you know? I was very, very lucky when it came to finding a publisher—as it happened, I knew people who knew people who gave me good advice, and who knew and were able to get me the attention of a really good agent. Then the book sold, though it was a close thing. (I spent a full week drunk while rejections piled up. . .) I've definitely burned through a couple of lifetimes' worth of karma getting this thing published.

Q: Your debut novel “Thunderer” was recently released December 26, 2007. How does it feel to see your novel in bookstores and did you do anything special to celebrate :)?

Felix: It feels weird—disorientating—like I must have snuck them in there myself, at night, but I don't remember doing it.

It feels like they don't belong there and somehow I'm going to get in trouble.

I now have a bunch of photographs of me standing by bookshelves in stores all over Manhattan, with the book blurrily half-visible in a corner and a sheepish grin on my face.

Q: Focusing on your book, one thing that really stands out is that “Thunderer” is so hard to classify. I mean it’s being marketed as high fantasy, but I also saw elements of weird fiction in there, some Lovecraftian horror, urban/gothic fantasy, references to Peter Pan & Charles Dickens, and even some anime-like influences. In short, how would you describe your book to potential readers?

Felix: The ‘high fantasy’ tag isn’t one I picked, though I can see where it comes from—the book’s certainly fantasy of some kind, it’s set in an invented and impossible world, and the fantastic elements in it aren’t at all low-key, but are brightly-coloured and in-your-face. It has heroes fighting evil monsters and mad gods. It has magic, of a sort. But then there is, as you say, a lot of other stuff in there undercutting and (I hope) complicating the fantastic elements.

I’d probably call it mostly weird fiction, but that’s something of a cop out, because as I understand it, one of the defining characteristics of weird fiction is that it promiscuously combines elements of all sorts of different ‘pulp’ and ‘literary’ genres, for destabilizing or disorientating effect, or just because it’s cool. . . And so that just gets us back to where we started.

Dickens was an explicit influence, also Victor Hugo. Yes to Lovecraft. Anime certainly wasn’t a conscious influence, though you’re not the first person to suggest it, so who knows? I saw in your review you invoked Miyazaki, which is very flattering, I adore his stuff.

Anyway, in answer to your question, when I describe the book to people I explain that it’s a fantasy, it has no proper sword fights, but it does have some knife fights: that seems to get it across OK.

Q: I saw in your interview
HERE with Jeff VanderMeer that you don’t read “a huge amount of fantasy” compared to the other stuff that you read, yet your novel is obviously of the more fantastical variety. Why did you decide to write a ‘fantasy’ novel instead of something else, and what were you hoping to accomplish with “Thunderer”?

Felix: I did say that, didn’t I? I suppose it depends on how broadly you define the genre. At the time I think I’d only recently started talking to people who were heavily involved in the field, and I was becoming very conscious of how big it was and how much I wasn’t familiar with.

I read quite a lot of fantasy, broadly defined, but the stuff I really like tends to be stuff that’s on the periphery of the genre, in form or content—like Jeff VanderMeer’sShriek”, or Susanna Clarke’sJonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”. And a lot of the stuff I like that isn’t really fantasy is nonetheless marked by the fantastic, the weird, the grotesque, the absurd or the surreal.

On the other hand I still haven’t read a lot of stuff that’s probably at the heart of the genre today—e.g., I’ve never read a word by, e.g., Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin. I know, I know, I should, I hear good things, I mean to when I have the time, but so far I never have. This is a big gap in my reading, and it makes it hard for me to answer the kind of interview questions that ask me to opine on the genre.

I wrote a fantasy because I thought it would be fun, because I wanted to write something really strange, and because a sort of pulp-adventure-narrative seemed like a framework on which to string together the imagery and mood I wanted.

And really, on the most fundamental level, the answer to your question is that I sat down to write something and this is what came out. A lot of it came as a surprise to me, too.

UPDATE: Since giving this interview I have finally purchased a copy of "A Game of Thrones". GRRM will no doubt be relieved to know that I like it a lot so far.

. . . to the question on reading habits. (I ran out and bought it Wednesday, I suddenly felt strangely rude announcing to the world that I'd never bothered to read him).

Q: Interesting… Now because your reading tastes are so diverse, which also extends to your influences, does that give you an advantage in bringing a unique perspective to the genre, and if so, why?

Felix: I imagine it would be very hard to write an interesting fantasy without reading outside the genre. For that matter, I imagine it would be very hard to write an interesting mainstream-literary-novel-about-middle-aged-academics-having-affairs without reading outside that genre, too. Where would you get your ideas from?

Oh, sure, life. Yeah, yeah.

Q: LOL. Besides “Thunderer” being hard to classify, I thought you also did a superb job in worldbuilding, evolving your characters, and writing an unpredictable story. First off, where did you come up with the concept for the seemingly infinite, unmappable and ever-changing city of Ararat?

Felix: First: thank you. Second: not sure. It was partly calculated, partly not. I know I wanted to create a world that’s fundamentally irrational, that resists comprehension, that’s too complex and strange for anyone to have more than a tiny partial perspective on it, a world that’s basically not fair. (cf. William James:Nature is everywhere gothic not classic. She forms a real jungle, where all things are provisional, half-fitted to each other and untidy.”) And I wanted to have characters who are trying to understand their world, and failing. And then it made sense to have the problem be essentially geographical—simple, striking, allows for a lot of stories, makes the actions of the Atlas-makers comprehensibly analogous to explorers and cartographers in the real world.

I do think that if you’re going to make up a fantasy world, it might as well be somewhere where the rules are different. I’m wary of books that use magic to simplify the world.

Q: Secondly, you mention elsewhere on the web that a lot of the characters in the book are loosely based on historical figures like the 18th century London thief Jack Sheppard. Could you give us a few more examples?

Felix: Well, Jack’s sort of inspired not so much by the historical figure himself, but on the myth that accreted around him, the mad fame he acquired—and not because he was a thief, London’s never had a shortage of thieves and he was nothing special in that regard, but because he kept escaping from supposedly inescapable prisons. Four escapes in one glorious year. Two hundred thousand people attended his execution, and mobbed his body like he was a saint. He was probably one of the most famous people in London for the next hundred-plus years. He was escape, personified, and everyone loved him for it, to a degree that’s hard for 21st century people to understand. What does that say about the society he lived in?

Four escapes—they hanged him before he could make it five.

Peter Linebaugh’s "The London Hanged" is very good on Sheppard, if anyone’s interested.

Who else? The Atlas-makers are inspired by the 18th century Encyclopedists. I imagine a page of the Atlas as looking sort of like the Encyclopédie’s famous attempt at a systematic taxonomy of all human knowledge:
. . . only turned into a map. And my character Holbach’s name is a reference to one of the prominent contributors to the Encyclopedia, Paul-Henri Thiry, the baron d'Holbach, but apart from the name and the job and the wig the two of them have nothing in common at all, I just liked the name.

The white-robed fascist/puritan/pyromaniac gang that makes trouble for Jack is inspired loosely by Savonarola’s mobs of boy fanatics, who menaced/purified Florence in the 15th century.

Then there are a characters who drifted so far from their inspiration that there’s really no resemblance left—for instance, the Chairman Cimenti was originally supposed to be based on Cosimo di Medici, but I took out all the material that fleshed out that connection early on, because it was boring and rubbish and I couldn’t make it mesh with the rest of the setting anyway.

Q: Lastly, what do you feel are the keys to writing a great fantasy novel?

Felix: I don’t know that there’s an answer to that question—the genre can do a lot of different things well or badly. I’d quite like to do something very different from “Thunderer” and its sequel next.

Q: Speaking of which, I thought you had signed a two-book deal with
Bantam Spectra, and given the way the book ended, I was pretty sure there would be a follow-up. So what you can you tell us about the sequel?

Felix: The working title is “The Gears of the City”. I emailed in a revised draft to my editor not fifteen minutes ago. Fingers crossed!

Without wanting to give too much away: it follows Arjun as he penetrates further behind the scenes of the city. It tells us more about the Mountain at the city’s heart, and about Shay. It introduces a new cast of characters, including the various madmen, visionaries, obsessives who are Arjun’s companions and rivals in the secret parts of the city; a member of the Atlasmakers, displaced in time and depraved in morals; some policemen, some anarchists; strange birds and an army of ghosts; a terrible creature that is more less my version of a dragon; a malevolent and debatably sentient Hotel; and three sisters haunted by all of the foregoing unpleasantness. . .

Q: Damn, that sounds excellent! Your next book can’t come fast enough. So what about other writing projects? Anything you can talk about?

Felix: A couple of things but nothing I’m really ready to talk about. But if you don’t mind, I’ll take this opportunity to squeeze in a plug for
this new New Weird anthology, because it is incredibly exciting to see my name on the cover alongside some of those other names. Look at it! Everyone must look at it.

Q: Now that “Thunderer” is out and you can look back on the writing process, what was the hardest thing about writing the novel, the easiest, and what have you learned from the experience that has helped you with the new book?

Felix: The hardest thing, hands down, is going back to the manuscript to make the changes one’s agent or editor suggests after months of working on other things. I quite enjoy revisions while the book’s still fresh in my mind, while it still feels alive and plastic. But after a couple of months away it sets, and when you come back to it it’s like trying to chisel away at a monolith with your teeth. At least at first.

I’m trying to get better at outlining, for the sake of my own productivity and sanity, but it doesn’t come easily.

Q: I’m probably jumping the gun here, but has anyone approached you about adapting the novel?

Felix: No. Hah! I wish.

Q: Personally, I think “Thunderer” would make a great anime or graphic novel ☺ In your mind, how would you adapt the book?

Felix: I wouldn’t try to adapt it myself, if that’s what you mean. I think when writers try to adapt their work into other media the result is usually pretty dire—wordy and flat. I don’t know how to write a screenplay or comic book script and I don’t know that I have the time right now to learn. (Or to unlearn the things you learn when writing a novel).

But if anyone else wanted to take a crack at it I’d be delighted and flattered.

I suppose if Miyazaki wanted it, I’d be OK with that. I guess if Guillermo del Toro offered, I wouldn’t say no. Graphic novel—Eddie Campbell, Steve Yeowell?

Q: Besides your website, you also have a blog and there’s even a promotional video for your book. What advantages does the internet offer, especially for a new author like your self, and do you have any other ideas for ways that writers & publishers can use the internet to promote their titles?

Felix: I dunno man, you tell me. I just started running a couple of banner ads last week, I was pretty excited about that.

Q: I didn’t get a chance to ask you to participate in my 2007 Review/2008 Preview
HERE, so I thought I would take the opportunity now. Basically, it’s a three part question, but since we already covered one area we’ll just stick with the following: What were your favorite books that you read in 2007, and what titles are you most looking forward to in 2008?

Felix: 2007 Favorites:
Thomas Pynchon’sAgainst the Day” – I wanted to see this really get taken up by fantasy readers; I wanted to see it win the World Fantasy Award. It is—among other things—a huge and wonderful steampunk epic. It has airships, time travel, ghosts, bilocating shamen, cowboys, an evil mastermind called Scarsdale Vibe, mysterious ancient cities, under-desert tunneling craft, secret societies, terrible laser weapons, etc etc etc. It’s beautiful and magnificent. Downsides: it’s very heavy and the print is small.

Mark Binelli’sSacco and Vanzetti Must Die!” -- The life of the famous anarchists retold as the story of two slapstick silent film stars. One of the strangest and most original books I’ve ever read, brilliant and subversive.

2008 Books:
Jeff VanderMeer’sThe Situation” – Billed as Gormenghast meets Dilbert. Comes out very soon, I think. The bits he’s excerpted on his blog are just great. And I’m dying to know what China Mieville’sKraken” is about—I think that’s due later this year.


Anonymous said...


Since giving this interview I have finally purchased a copy of A Game of Thrones. GRRM will no doubt be relieved to know that I like it a lot so far.

I have begun to attempt to quantify the fantasy/nonfantasy composition of my library here.


catfisht said...

great interview, just finished reading the thunderer myself and it was great, Felix seems like a cool guy also

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