An Interview with Nick Harkaway

November 21, 2012

Author Nick Harkaway (Photo © Clare Cornwell)

Nick Harkaway is used to answering questions about his dad John le Carré.  “I keep trying to explain that I don’t mind,” the young British novelist wrote in a candid essay for The Telegraph.  “It’s just part of the landscape to me, like my own nose.”  But even if he is willing to talk about his famous father, don’t let your curiosity distract you from the fact that Harkaway is himself one seriously gifted author.  Back in 2009, his sci-fi debut The Gone-Away World earned a Locus nomination for Best First Novel, and now his ambitious follow-up Angelmaker is a shoo-in for 2012 Best Book lists.  A wholly original mix of gangster noir, steampunk, espionage adventure, and picaresque, Angelmaker tells the raucous tale of Joshua Joseph Spork, an antique clock repairman and the son of a legendary London mobster.  Shaken from his quiet life when a 1950’s doomsday machine surfaces in his shop, Spork is forced to embrace his gangster roots as he tangles with an octogenarian super spy, clockwork bees, and an evil South Asian dictator in a mad dash to save the world.  Filled with sharp insights on the nature of truth and free will, Angelmaker has been described by Matt Haig as a book “you finish reading in gape-mouthed awe and breathless admiration, having experienced something very special indeed.”  Mr. Harkaway recently spoke with us via email about Angelmaker and “translit,” the necessity of villains, John Ruskin, the stigma of humor, his nonfiction debut The Blind Giant, and last summer’s Olympic Games.

Evanston Public Library:  Angelmaker has been favorably compared to the work of Charles Dickens, Douglas Adams, Neal Stephenson, and Tom Robbins while also being celebrated as a quintessential example of the new “translit” genre.  How do you react to being compared to such a diverse group of authors, and what do you make of Douglas Coupland’s “translit” tag?  Do you see Angelmaker as fitting into any certain genres?  Do you think it even matters?

Nick Harkaway:  I love the diversity, I’m a bit awestruck by the actual names.  It’s like saying to a musician “Hey, you kinda remind me of Mozart.  And Louis Armstrong.  And maybe a little bit The Rolling Stones.  And…”

The “translit” thing is great because people like to have a sense of what a book will be before they buy it, and like it or not, the easiest way for them to feel they’re getting that is a category name.  I actually didn’t know it was Coupland who coined the term, but it makes sense that he would.  I’ve also seen “existential pulp,” which I love, and I tried to persuade my UK publisher to go with “LitPop,” but they said no one remembers BritPop so it’s not funny anymore.

I sometimes wish we didn’t need that kind of dumb shelving taxonomy, but we do, so I’m glad to have a name for what I do.  Both with Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World it’s been a struggle for booksellers and librarians and festival organizers and pretty much everyone to summarize what’s going on.  On the one hand that’s great because they end up saying “just read it,” but on the other hand it makes for a hard sell.  People have to be feeling adventurous.  When you can just say “translit” and people know what that is, we’ll have an easier time.  On the other hand, by that point I’ll probably be bored with messing with genre and I’ll be doing something incredibly artsy and I’ll want everyone to think of me as a high priest of pure literature or a nihilist poet or something.  (Actual likelihood of my ever taking myself that seriously: next to none.)

But anyway, in the meanwhile, the category puts me in some great company – Ned Beauman, Isaac Marion, Charles Yu, lots of other really exciting people.  It’s great.

EPL:  Could you give us some insight into your inspiration for Angelmaker?  Where did the idea for the book originate, and how did it evolve over time?  Generally speaking, do you tend to start writing with a distinct character in mind, or does a novel’s plot line usually come first?

NH:  The first thing I have to say is that my books happen in lots of layers.  I don’t just go “SHABOOM!” and there’s this huge twisty plot.  I’d go mad trying to fit all that in my head.  So I start with a pretty simple idea with a simple shape – usually a detective story shape: crime, investigation, solution.  And then I mess with it and hang things off it and pretty soon you can’t see that it’s there.  It’s like a tapestry – one thread tells you nothing, all of them together make a carpet, and you don’t see the underlying weave, you see the design.

With Angelmaker, there were a few basic ingredients: I saw this amazing (broken) clockwork toy and it had enormous pathos, as if it was still trying to make you happy even though it was shattered.  It was very sad and very powerful.  And I thought of a machine which could make the world better, an engineer’s way of making people better.  And that collided with the archetype gangster from Robert Warshow, the perfect Man of the City.  I knew they belonged together, but I grew the ideas separately for a while.  Then somewhere along the line Edie arrived and that reshaped the whole thing.  She’s based on the women of Bletchley Park, of course, for whom I have immense admiration.

Bond vs. Jaws

And then you need a villain.  He always gives you trouble because in any story which features an actual villain that villain has to be persuasive, capable of winning, terrifying… the villain is the tent pole.  If you watch the Bond movies, you can see that.  The best ones are the ones with bad guys you believe could win.  Goldfinger, Goldeneye, Dr. No, even Moonrakerbecause of Jaws.  It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the story is.  It only matters that the spider in the web is lethal.  People think it’s the hero that matters, but it’s not.  With the right villain, you can make anyone into a hero.  Even a nebbish, even a monster.  Very often that’s what the movie is about: the education of the nebbish, the redemption of the monster.  But the thing which makes all that action credible is the villain.  The desperate need for Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi comes from the presence of Darth Vader.  No Vader?  Well, look what happens: you end up with Jar Jar Binks to fill up the time.

EPL:  Continuing in the same vein, how much did you draw upon your own life for unforgettable characters like Joe Spork, Mercer Cradle, and even Edie Banister?  How much fun was it creating the evil genius Shem Shem Tsien?

NH:  I never use anyone whole, I steal parts from people I know.  And of course, much of the rest comes from me.  For Joe, it was my sense of being lost before I got together with my wife and started writing novels, a sense of being passed by for the good stuff.  For Edie, it was my anger at the way we’ve squandered the geopolitical opportunities of the ’90s, how we’ve ignored the increasingly terrifying issues of climate, how we’ve forsaken pretty much everything that gave us moral standing in the world in the cause of the War On Terror.

With Shem – with any character who is completely wicked – it comes from inverting that same sense.  Shem is my dark mirror.  He doesn’t give a rat’s ass for anyone else.  He rather enjoys watching people suffer, although incidental suffering irritates him because he didn’t personally cause it.  It offends him that the universe doesn’t behave precisely the way he wants it to, that anyone would ever consider disobeying him.  If you read Jon Ronson’s fabulous The Psychopath Test – or something a bit academically meatier like Paul Britton’s The Jigsaw Man – you find that’s pretty much what psychopaths are like.  And of course he was at school here in the UK.  That’s where all the best dangerous bastards go to school.  You know we trained that woman who ran Saddam’s bio-weapons program?  Here.  In the UK.  Under Thatcher.  Nice, huh?

EPL:  Angelmaker is both a very funny book and one that deftly explores complex questions involving truth, free will, and the complicated bonds of family.  What is it about humor that so attracts you as a writer?  At the end of the day, would you rather your readers be entertained or enlightened?

NH:  I think you can do both.  In fact, I think you may have to.  There’s a weird rejection of humor in a lot of literary writing, as if jokes are somehow beneath the form.  Psychologically, humor is mysterious and fascinating, but culturally we have a bit of a jitter about it.  But ask yourself: why do we think sorrow is more profound than joy?  Where does that come from?  It’s very Russian.  It’s in Anna Karenina, this idea that all happy families are happy in the same way, but all unhappy families are unique.  It’s nonsense.  Happiness derives from some totally weird constellations and decisions, and unhappiness can be drably and wretchedly obvious.

Monty Roberts, the man who listens to horses, says you have to own all the cardinal directions when you work with a horse.  You have to control forwards, backwards, left, right, up, down.  It’s the same with writing.  You cannot afford to have a direction in which you will not go.  You have to be able to make your reader feel fear, safety, love, loathing, passion, boredom, and so on and so on.  Comedy and tragedy are there too, of course, and they’re obviously two sides of the same coin.  Here you have Joe, in danger of his life, exposed to some appalling fate.  Here he is rescued, and the rescue is brassy and funny.  He’s safe.  And yet he forsakes that safety, places himself in danger, pays the price.  The price is appalling, and it is the more appalling because we have already laughed about eluding it.  He’s transformed by it and that transformation is credible because of his pain, and it earns him victory which does not feel disproportionate.  There’s no way out of the pattern.  There’s no up without down.

This is a total hobbyhorse for me.  A lot of modern movies do this insane thing where they refuse to have the training sequence.  They head straight for the showdown.  And what does that get you?  Boredom.  No one’s invested.  Why should they be?

John Ruskin

EPL:  How did you come up with the Ada Lovelace train, the Jules Verne-like submarine, and the Apprehension Engine with its bee automata?  Are you personally handy with gadgets and mechanics?  Do you have any sense of nostalgia for pre-digital technology, and how does the Ruskinites’ deep respect for craftsmanship and tradition fit into our modern culture?

NH:  I’m horrible with DIY projects and mechanical stuff.  I can put together a trampoline or a kids’ bike, I can swap out a hard drive, but that’s it.  I’ll never be a von Slatt or a Datamancer.  If I ever have a car crash and lose the ability to write, you should expect me to try to become a mathematician or a maker.  Both of those are languages I don’t speak, and I do feel the lack.  I want a few more lifetimes to be one of those people in…

I don’t feel nostalgic about pre-digital, but that’s partly because I don’t believe it’s gone.  In my non-fiction book, The Blind Giant, I explored that discussion a bit.  I think we’re obsessing about digital right now because it’s the new new thing, but soon that will be biotech and personal genetics.  I suspect my daughter will learn to code her school colors onto the skin of a goldfish rather than – or probably as well as – write basic digital software.  But there are jobs where digital isn’t really ideal.  And there are places where it’s nicer to be out of touch.  That isn’t a retrograde step, that’s an acknowledgement that we’re not just little personalities carried in giant flesh robots.  We are biological.  We need both the digital and the analogue.  And the best digital stuff right now is pushing towards that realization.  Haptics, feedback touchscreens, 3D printers and 3D interfaces… we’re not going to become all digital.  We’re going to drag the digital into contact with the mud.  That’s where we live: at the interface between air and soil, if you like.

And for me, Ruskin is in that space.  He says that something which proceeds from the hand of a crafter has a narrative which asserts humanity and personality and that is valuable.  He wants technology to uplift us, not define and control us.  And he’s right – not just about physical technology, but more importantly about systems, about the technologies of thought we’ve developed to reach this level of industry and commerce.  We’ve slightly forgotten that we make the rules for banks, for economies, for the markets.  We are those things.  They do not exist independently of us.  They exist because we make them, all the time, every day.  And so long as we remember that, we can live like people.  As soon as we forget it, we get pushed around by our own mental machinery and that’s not a good life.  That’s sub-prime territory.

EPL:  Could you tell us a bit more about The Blind Giant?  How did the experience of writing non-fiction compare to working on Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World?  Did you encounter any surprising challenges?

NH:  The most obvious thing about non-fiction – which annoys me constantly – is that you can in fact be wrong.  You can be factually inaccurate.  It’s infuriating.  In The Gone-Away World, I put the entire nation of China in the wrong hemisphere (by implication, at least), and no one noticed or cared if they did.  It was a ridiculous moment of inattention; I was weaving into the narrative a story I’d heard somewhere.  But if I’d done a similar thing in TBG I would look like a total idiot.  It’s nerve-wracking.

It was huge fun to do, and it’s fascinating.  It’s much easier to get on talk shows and stuff with a non-fiction book.  I find it weird.  I’m sitting there like, “Dude, I am the same guy.  I have the same opinions, and they are not more or less valid just because they are in a non-fiction book now rather than the mouths of a bunch of ninjas or clockmakers or cheese salesman.”  But somehow, it changes everything.

People don’t buy non-fiction with the same gusto.  They don’t obsess about it in the same way.  They don’t fall in love.  I’ve had some great notices on TBG, some lovely discussions, met some amazing people through it.  But I’m a novelist.  That’s where my heart is.

EPL:  As both a novelist and a nonfiction author, can you give us a window into what you like to read?  Are your tastes as wide-ranging?  Can you share any good titles you’ve recently enjoyed?

NH:  I read unpredictably, madly, and irreverently.  Last week I was re-reading James Gleick’s The Information.  I got sent Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident and loved it, and I spent my last train journey reading Chris Farnsworth’s merrily deranged Blood Oath.  (That’s a hilariously cheeky bit of writing: a vampire serving the US president must save America from an Al Qaeda zombie attack made possible by Frankenstein.  When he needs fast transportation, he calls Area 51.  It’s insane: you put enough tired old shapes back to back, and it becomes a rollercoaster again.  A brilliant example of writing genre shamelessly and for fun.)  I have a copy of James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason by my bed, and during the run-up to the Olympics I was so furious about the money the UK was spending which we could not afford that I started reading Ulysses, which I have never done before.  It’s amazing.  I’m reading a page or two every so often and just being awestruck.

EPL:  Speaking of the Olympics, what was it like living in London during the Games this summer?  In the spirit of Daniel Spork, what would you say was the lesson, the stricture of the Olympics?

NH:  It was utterly weird: this huge event happening in our city and the mayor says, “Leave town, this will suck if you’re a resident.”  So we did.  Apparently it was a ghost town in the centre, everyone was at the stadium, but I don’t know because we were in Cornwall eating fish and going to the beach.  But what’s the stricture?  There will be several.  Let me see…

Prudence because we took it on in 2005 when money grew on trees, and it cost SO MUCH MONEY.  More than it was ever supposed to.  And that is money we could have spent on libraries and schools and the health service, on police and firemen and all the rest.  Billions of pounds we do not have.  We did not fix the roof while the sun was shining.

Worth because in spite of all that, we actually did have a little moment of nationhood there.  We were all united in loving our team and being proud of them.  Well, I say all.  There were a few a-holes actually, but that’s the same at any family gathering.  But maybe we saw something which was more important than money, at least for a few days.  The stuff which you can’t measure in balance sheets.  I feel that worth is something much of the world has forgotten how to measure at the moment.  We’ve been encouraged to see things in terms of market price, in terms of cheapness.

I don’t know, really.  Time will tell.  But what’s important now, I think, is what happens next.  We have a lot of work to do to fix our country and our world, not least in an environmental context.  I can’t tell you how desperately I feel that right now.  We have to make the shift to a better way of living.  The Olympics are over.  School’s in.  Time to work it out.

Interview by Russell J.


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