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Monday, March 26, 2007

Interview with Neal Asher

I’ll be honest…the majority of the material that I read is of the fantasy genre, with the occasional foray into horror, suspense or science fiction. So, unless it’s fantasy, I don’t normally make it an effort to try out too many new authors. However, one name seemed to keep jumping out at me from the sci-fi world and I eventually had to check out his work. And boy was I glad I did. England’s Neal Asher writes pulse-pounding science fiction rife with mind-boggling concepts, larger-than-life characters, operatic plots and cyberpunkian attitude. And the best thing, they’re FUN!!! Naturally, I was eager to know more about Neal Asher, (aside from his biography which you can read HERE), and I hope that the following Q&A will provide you with a deeper look into his world:

Q: In the UK your books are published by Pan Macmillan/Tor UK…in the US by Tor. Could you explain how the publishing works for your books, like why there’s a noticeable lag with the U.S. releases and why one book (“The Line Of Polity”) in particular is not even available in the states?

Neal: There’s a lag between the publication of my books here in Britain and in the US simply because Macmillan/Tor UK and Tor US are run as different companies (despite the name and despite being owned by the same overall group). I sell my books to Macmillan, along with foreign rights, and Macmillan then sells my books on to other publishing companies across the world, so Tor US buying and simultaneously publishing one of my Macmillan books is no more likely than Baste Lubb in Germany or Flueve Noir in France doing the same.

I’m told by Tor US that “The Line of Polity”, being my largest book at 175,000 words, apparently falls outside some upper limit that makes it difficult to sell to the book sellers. It seems madness to me, but what do I know? I only write the things.

Q: What are your thoughts on the sci-fi/fantasy book scene in the UK compared to the U.S?

Neal: Well, first off I can’t really comment on the scene in the US because I don’t really know it. I do keep hearing that UK SF is taking over the world, however, in my ‘would you like to comment on this’ capacity I can say that I’ve read some damned good books from the US.

Q: Let’s talk about your forthcoming novel “Hilldiggers”, which will be released July 2007 in the UK. The book is set in your Polity universe. In what timeline does the book exist and how does it relate to past volumes?

Neal: "Hilldiggers" is set in the Polity some years on from the events in “The Skinner”, which in turn were some years on from the events in the Cormac books. It’s only relation to past books is its setting in that future, that the main protagonist was a native of Spatterjay (the setting for "The Skinner") and that there’s a few other references to Polity history readers of my stuff will be familiar with.

Q: Anything else you want to say about the book?

Neal: It’s got a stonking drone in it called Tigger, and exploding spaceships.

Q: How do you feel “Hilldiggers” compares to your earlier novels? What improvements as a writer have you made?

Neal: Well, when I came to writing this book I’d written over a million words and seen them pass under the editorial pencil at Macmillan (my editor is a guy called Peter Lavery who was editing books when I was still toilet training) so if I haven’t learnt anything throughout that process I have to be an idiot. I think “Hilldiggers” is better written, tighter and more complete, but then I would think that. It also has the advantage of not being part of any series (other than its setting) so I didn’t have to deal with so many complications involved in the backstory.

Q: Currently you’re working on “Line War”, supposedly the concluding chapter in the Ian Cormac series. Can you give us a progress report and what you hope to accomplish with the novel?

Neal: I’m presently past the 100,000 word mark with this book and hope to complete the first draft within the next couple of months. It’s time to bring this sequence to an end simply because of the aforementioned backstory. The longer something like this goes on the more of it there is to fill in, the more info-dumping I have to do and the more complications that arise. What do I hope to achieve? I’m going to complete the sequence, but not in a way that disappoints. So often we see a series of books like this coming to an end either on a low note, a fizzle, or the deus ex machina is rolled in to sort everything out. It is my intention to end this with a twist … but I can’t tell you about that.

Q: Fair enough. So what does the future hold for Neal Asher after you complete “Line War”?

Neal Asher: “Line War” completes my third three-book contract with Macmillan and I’ve only had some tentative thoughts about what books to do next. I’ve considered writing a book about what happens to Captain Orbus, from “The Voyage of the Sable Keech”, after he boards the spaceship Gurnard and sets off, perhaps tying this in with the story of the Prador, Vrell. Over the next couple of years Macmillan will also be publishing a British version of "Prador Moon" and a collection of my short stories – in the latter case this will require some editing. I’ve also agreed with Jason Williams of Night Shade Books to write a short novel set in Cormac’s early years – I’ve already got the first chapter of that written and know where I’m going with it. Other books to take into consideration are my fantasy novels which were written before everything mentioned here and remain unpublished. I’d like to give them a thorough going over and maybe submit them. The first three are called “The Staff of Sorrows”, “Assassin Out Of Twilight” and “The Yellow Tower”. I’ve thought about turning them into a single book titled “The Road to the Yellow Tower”.

Q: Can you give us anything more on this fantasy trilogy you’ve written?

Neal: Writing my fantasy trilogy, along with a fourth book called “Creatures of the Staff” which was the first book in another trilogy having the overall title of The Infinite Willows, was basically where I learned my trade – enough to take me from someone who struggled to write a page to someone who regularly produces 130,000 word books. I started writing that fantasy long-hand with a fountain pen, proceeded to a manual typewriter, electric typewriter, green-screen processor then to where I am now. It is something I worked on over many, many years and it has its faults. I certainly did not set out with any intention of shattering fantasy cliches. Let's be kind and say it is a bit of a homage to Zelazny's Amber with a bit of JRRT thrown in. However, even then it was evident that SF was what I really wanted to write because the magic wasn't there, it was super-science, and despite a famous Arthur C. Clarke quote, there was a distinction to make. Hero sets out across a multiverse to exact vengeance upon someone who has attacked him and his family, and yes, the bad guy lives in a big tower. There's a good story there and some wonderfully weird shit, but it definitely needs work. Maybe I'll work on it when it's possible to make a copy of my mind to run a pair of artificial hands.

Q: Speaking of fantasy in general, how different is it writing fantasy compared to sci-fi? What do you feel are the strengths or weaknesses of each genre?

Neal: The two blend together a lot, so perhaps it would be best to look at the extremes. In SF something has to have a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation, but it MUST be explained; it must adhere to some underlying logic. Very often fantasy does do this, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s magic OK, ‘nuff said. As for writing each. Well, with fantasy you can break more rules and let loose your imagination.

Q: Looking at your works, some of the criticisms that I’ve read talked about character development (or lack thereof). What are your thoughts on this?

Neal: It's a tough call. At one extreme you have the all-action book with cardboard cutouts (which my books have been described as) and at the other extreme you have highly developed characters in a book in which nothing much happens (I believe this stuff is called 'literature'). I'm aiming for somewhere in the mid ground with readers coming out the other side of one of my books feeling as they would feel having just watched Terminator.

To this I should also add that over the years I’ve received so many reviews that I can pick up any one of them and refute every point made by referring to others. Some reviewers describe my characters as cardboard, whilst others consider them hugely complicated and wonderful. Of course it is the latter who are right (???).

Q: You tend to write from a multiple point-of-view format that includes the sides of both protagonists/antagonists. Why?

Neal: Hey, I like my heroes but, let’s be honest, villains are more interesting. Part of what has led me into this was the writing of "Gridlinked". Initially that book was only 65,000 words long and … I guess the best word to describe it is ‘skeletal’. Macmillan were interested but wanted it bigger and with more flesh on the bones. I was sent a reader’s report by a guy called Simon Kavanagh (now a literary agent) in which, along with numerous other suggestions he put forward the idea that I might expand the ‘B plotline’ – that of the villain Arian Pelter. I’d also been mulling over this idea because I knew the book was too short and the villain was too simple. I expanded that plotline, also creating in it that favourite Mr Crane of “Brass Man”, found it worked very well, and have been doing the same sort of thing ever since.

Q: One of the trademarks of your books is the unique planets that you’ve created, complete with their own distinctive cultures and fauna. Where do you draw the inspiration for these creations?

Neal: I like monsters – probably something to do with my childhood when all the others in art class were drawing roses and bottles I was drawing dinosaurs and dragons. I like biology, ecology and especially the weird fauna and flora we find here on our world. I’ve read about it a lot and continue to do so. The subject fascinates me so inevitably it ends up in my books. As for the cultures, they are often no more than the civilized (maybe) extension of a made-up ecology. It’s also worth noting that ecologies, life, adheres to rules similar to those used in the writing and plotting process. Um, don’t know why I said that.

Q: LOL. Okay, since 2001 you’ve had eight novels (with the ninth on the way) published as well as various short stories, etc. How have you managed to stay so prolific? Do you ever deal with writer’s block and what helps you to get through it?

Neal: I’ve worked in factories doing engineering, toolmaking, CNC programming, making boat windows, I’ve delivered coal, driven skip lorries, repointed a three-storey building and done other building work, hand-dug foundations, chopped down two-hundred-foot trees, done contract grass cutting and trimmed a total of miles of hedges, and more besides. I’ve actually had to work for a living, so when I sit down in front of my computer in nice clean clothes with a nice cup of coffee beside me, I just get on with it. Writer’s block is for ‘artistes’ who are disappearing up their own backsides. Maybe if an alternative was offered of, say, digging out and repairing a sewer pipe, the writer’s block would go away?

Q: Hehe, nice answer. All right, moving on. In today’s climate there’s a lot of cross-pollination between different mediums: literature and movies, comic books and videogames, TV and animation, etc. Regarding your works, has there been interest or anything optioned for adaptation, and if so, can you give us some details?

Neal: Over the years I’ve received the odd query about turning some of my stuff into a game. I remember quite some while back providing a guy with details of the workings of various weapons etc. from “Africa Zero”, but nothing came of it. Great excitement ensued when Tor US asked about the film rights for “Gridlinked”. Apparently Blue Train Entertainment, who along with Dreamworks produced the Jackie Chan movie The Tuxedo, were showing an interest. Nothing came of that either. I’ve still got my fingers crossed and I’d certainly grab my thirty pieces of silver from Hollywood and run for the hills.

Q: Staying on this subject, let’s fantasize for a bit. What would be your dream adaptation?

Neal: I’ve talked about this a little on my blog. I would love to see “The Skinner” turned into a film simply because I would love to see a CGI sail (the living sails on the sailing ships of Spatterjay). As to who plays the parts: Schwartzenegger as Captain Ambel, Stallone as Captain Drum and Michael Clarke Duncan (the big black guy from The Green Mile) as Captain Ron. And how about Keifer Sutherland as Sable Keech or even Janer. Ach, dreams. As for the Cormac sequence, I think it’s too complicated for film, so personally I’d like to see it made into a TV miniseries of five seasons with about twelve episodes for each book. Not much to ask is it?

Q: You’ve already written TV scripts, fantasy, short stories, etc. Are there any other mediums or genres you would be interested in working with and why?

Neal: Add to that the contemporary novel presently sitting in my files unpublished. Oh I think I might like to work at turning my books into film/TV scripts, but I’d definitely need paying up front for that.

Q: Your book “Cowl” was nominated for a “Philip K. Dick Award”. How did you feel about the nomination? If you had to choose between being an award-winner and a NY Times bestseller, which would it be and why?

Neal: I thought it was interesting that I’d been nominated and thought it might be nice to win if that would mean increased sales. Certainly I would have shouted it from the treetops to that end. But frankly I have a low opinion of awards because so many of them are nepotistic, also because in the SF world they are often controlled by literati plonkers who are so ashamed of their genre they give the awards to non-SF books, and because I’ve often read such boring crap on award shortlists. I think the fact that someone like Terry Pratchett has received so little recognition through ‘awards’ is a testament to their worth. For me it would be the NY Times bestseller every time. An additional simple fact of life here is that though I am earning a living doing what I love, the earning a living bit has to come first.

Q: Of everything that you’ve written so far, what story or book are you most proud of and why?

Neal: Um, difficult question. Which of your children is your favourite? My favourite short story has to be “The Gurnard” (published in the collection The Engineer ReConditioned). Everything fell in place with that one and it included my favourite themes: alien parasites, violence and the opportunity to give religion a kicking. This was also a story that arose from a dream and … it just felt right. Of my books, for me it is a toss-up between "The Skinner" and "Brass Man". Maybe it’s something about the impact of future superscience on primitive regressed worlds. Something of that colour and variety found in Jack Vance’s books? I don’t know. What I do know is that they are the books I most enjoyed writing, and I think that shows.

Q: On the flip side, of your published works is there any thing you wish you could go back to and change?

Neal: Everything. I take the view that I’m constantly improving as a writer therefore, everything I’ve written can be improved. Mostly I’d like to clarify the ending of "Gridlinked" – make it more reader-friendly.

Q: What about a favorite character?

Neal: The war drone Sniper, because he’s the product of super advanced technology, who on the surface has the mouth of a fish-wife and the morals of a streetfighter, but who underneath all that is so much more.

Q: Are there any preconceived notions that you’d like to dispel about being an author?

Neal: That it’s easy. Let’s get this straight, becoming a published author does not involve knowing the right handshake or belonging to the right club. Something else I’d like to add: getting that first book published does not mean you’ve made it, it means that now you’ve got to work harder.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Neal: Read read read, learn learn learn, write write write. Keep a journal, write a blog, keep putting those words down and count the buggers. Do a lot less agonising about what to write and a lot more writing. I cannot emphasise more that A WRITER WRITES. By all means join clubs and get what criticism you can, but bear in mind that while you’re attending your writer’s group you’re just talking, not writing. You know, if you run lots your legs get stronger. Guess what happens if you write lots?

Q: What are some of your personal favorite writers and books?

Neal: Hell, I could do a huge list of favourite writers and books, and it often changes. I’ve got some top tens up on the Internet here and there so Google ‘Neal Asher top ten’. The lists have been subject to change over the years. Here’s a few samples: “Use of Weapons” – Ian M Banks, “Half-Past Human” – T J Bass, “Altered Carbon” – Richard Morgan, Julian May’sSaga of the Exiles”, “The Jesus Incident” – Frank Herbert, and there’s loads more.

Q: Are there any up-and-coming writers that we should check out?

Neal: Yes: Alan Campbell (“Scar Night”) and Peter Watts (“Blindsight”), though I’m not sure if Peter will appreciate being called ‘up-and-coming’.

Q: What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

Neal: Cycling and weight-training (mainly to stop myself turning into a slob), drinking too much, sex, blogging and reading foul-mouthed conservative blogs, reading books and science magazines, eating prawns, going to the cinema, gardening, swimming in warm seas, and travel.

Q: From personal experience, you are very vocal and responsive to your readers on the Internet, be it through your own personal blog, message boards, etc. Why is that?

Neal: Well, maybe I’m as prolific a communicator as I am a writer (though really they’re the same thing). I respond to my readers because they want a response and I feel they deserve a response, so if I have the time, that’s what they’ll get. I’m also not afraid of responding and never put myself above all that. Seriously, I’m not hugely bothered about the impression I give: this is who I am, take it or leave it.

Q: Any last thoughts or comments for your fans?


I just want to personally thank Neal for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions for me and hope that you, the reader, enjoyed the interview. Thanks again to all, and much love & respect…



Narg said...

Nice:) I really wish Tor would publish Line. My HB collection is incomplete!

Robert said...

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