Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Nick Harkaway Interview, Conducted by Hannah Johnson-Breimeier, in Celebration of the Release of "Tigerman" (Plus This Afternoon, Celebratory Nick Harkaway Cupcakes from 4-6 PM)

So here's the setup. For the last several years, Boswelian Hannah Johnson-Breimeier has been rocking sales of Nick Harkaway's novels, The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker. We basically did a multi-year pitch to get Harkaway to come to Milwaukee for his next novel, Tigerman. She read the book early and offered this recommendation:

"Lester Ferris is a British diplomat of sorts living a leisurely life on Mancreu, an island slated for destruction. That fact has turned the waters off of the island into a free-for-all of illicit activity by every major world power. Lester's befriended a local kid who learned his English from comic books and movies. Together they float through the days avoiding acknowledging that soon they will have to leave. But when they are both witness to a violent act, they each decide that extreme measures must be taken to regain a sense of justice. With kickass action scenes, reluctant heroism, and characters that break the mold of predictability, Tigerman is 100% full of win." --Hannah Johnson Breimeier

The visit almost happened but then it all fell apart. Mr. Harkaway couldn't make it to Milwaukee and Ms. Johnson-Breimeier wound up leaving the world of Boswell for new adventures, or more specifically, the Milwaukee Film Festival.

But the good news is that we talked to Harkaway's publicist, and came up with a solution. Brittany set up a virtual blog tour, with Hannah asking the question and Nick (yes, we're all on first-name basis here) belting them out of the park. Nick Harkaway's new novel, Tigerman, is now available. And so we bring you, the Nick Harkaway (photo credit Chris Close photography) interview from Hannah Johnson-Breimeier.

HJB: Tigerman is set on Mancreu, an island slated for destruction because it’s too dangerous to the rest of the world. What were any real world inspirations when creating Mancreu?

NH: The most direct is Diego Garcia, which was infamous in the UK a few years ago for having had a rendition flight land on it - the Foreign Secretary in 2006 had assured Parliament that no such flights had ever landed on British soil. Earlier this year, when Tigerman came out in the UK, it was alleged that the island may actually be the site of a secret prison, that it's being used as a hole in the world, just as Mancreu is in the book. (Which almost makes up for my complete failure to anticipate the civil war in Ukraine.)

For landscape, I leaned on the Spanish island of Tenerife (not the beaches, but further inland) and the gorgeous town of Locorotondo in Puglia.

HJB: Your characters are my favorite part! They’re always super passionate about something or someone. I’ve noticed that you’re a fan of comic books and so is the boy in Tigerman. Heck, he even learned English from them which makes for entertaining reading. What was your experience writing him?

NH: I loved it. I love how variations on what I was brought up to think of as "standard English" make the lexicon more beautiful and expressive, how the language expands and grows by being reworked for new places and contexts. The book is built around the quasi-parental friendship between the man and the boy, so the identity of the boy is really important. We have to find him enchanting. This being a novel, the language he uses and the language I use around him define what he is - so I had to make those things appealing. They had to appeal to me, too, so that you could feel my affection for the character. Writing him always made me smile, made me feel emotionally open - and if it didn't, I scrapped the scene and started again.

HJB: There is a strong theme of fatherhood in Tigerman, yet you came up with the idea for the book before you had children. Did becoming a father influence you to vary at all from your original idea, if so, how?

NH:We were already on that journey - I had the idea in January, our daughter was born in October. So I was looking forward - but by the time I came to write the book, I was absolutely submerged in being a dad. I think the sense of fatherhood, of the extremity of emotion and obligation that that entails - at least to me - really just filled in the blanks. But writing is always a little bit about sleight of hand - you leave enough space for people to put themselves into the architecture, lend their own emotional perception to your characters. That way they're invested. So, for example, we really know very little about the Sergeant and his life, or why he feels this way, but it feels - I hope - as if that little implies everything about him, because once I've sold you on the idea you start filling in the blanks for me from your own experience and understanding. It's not a con - it's the gig. It's what you do with real people, too - you can't get inside their heads, so you infer from what you know goes on inside your own, map your feelings onto them.

HJB: Tigerman, the superhero, has key kick-ass action scenes. They read like the beautiful fights by Christian Bale’s Batman and Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. Are you trained in hand-to-hand combat/ are you secretly a ninja?

NH: Well, basically: yeah. I make a big thing about how I was bad at martial arts when I studied them, and in a sense I was - I hate getting hit and I don't feel okay with hurting other people even in the context of sparring, so I'm not your ideal MMA combatant. On the other hand, I studied aikido and fencing when I was a kid, then jujitsu at university, kickboxing for a few months when I was twenty three and couldn't find any other classes, a couple of seminars on escrima and some other less common styles, then nearly a decade of tai chi and soft kung fu. In a fight I'm probably slightly less use than a chocolate kettle, because I haven't trained for that - but I understand how it all works both conceptually and in terms of proprioception. I know what it would feel like - in terms of balance and muscle movement - to throw a perfect roundhouse kick, for example, but I don't have the flexibility to do it. But what I can do is make you feel it too... It's sleight of hand again, too. I tend not to detail fights so much as direct your eye to the exciting bits, the way a fight arranger does in a movie.

HJB: In The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, you treated bureaucrats with a harsh hand. In Tigerman, the protagonist, Lester Ferris, is a bit of a bureaucrat as British consul in Mancreu. Have you softened your opinion towards that profession?

NH:  I tend to think of Lester as being a human being given a bureaucratic non-job. In reality, of course, many people working in bureaucracies are both compassionate and efficient (and often also frustrated by the limitations of their positions). I don't dislike bureaucrats, I loathe the ethos of "professionalism" - which in this context is used to mean putting your personal perception of morality and humanity on a back burner and doing only what the narrow definition of your job requires - and the wall of "no" that bureaucracies can sometimes become. Anyone who's struggled with a government department or a healthcare provider knows what I'm talking about. Anyone who's worked in those places knows, too.

The negative effect of bureaucracy, be it governmental or corporate, is obvious and awful. It's part deindividuation, part dehumanisation, and Stanley Milgram's work and the Zimbardo "Stanford Prison Experiment" show you what it can do to you, but it happens in everyday life too, often more subtly. And, of course, it happens under dictatorships. Mohammed Bouazizi, who crops up in the book, was probably massively and horrifically deindividuated when he set himself on fire and kicked off the Tunisian revolution in 2011.

HJB: I cried at the end of Tigerman. I understand why you did what you did. But why? (Only answer this if you can manage it without spoilers.)

NH: It's the story. It's the logic, inexorable and undeniable. When I'm writing, I push characters around to make them be as much themselves as possible. I let them play out against the landscape of the idea. I don't mess with actions they take that are inherent in who they are, because you'd feel the cheat and that's no good. I have an extreme negative reaction to that moment - you see it a lot in reset TV shows where for example the format depends on an unconsummated love affair between the two main characters - when someone does something totally and horribly out of whack with who they are in order to avoid a resolution. But I like to think there's happiness in the ending, too.

HJB: We appreciate that your novels have strong women. Would you ever write a book with a female protagonist?

NH: I hope they're just real - or at least, as real as the other characters. My life is full of the most remarkable women. Some of the best bits of the world are driven and run by them, often (though thankfully less and less often) unacknowledged. The book I'm writing now has five narrators claiming to be the real one, of whom two are women, two are men, and one is indeterminate - but one of the women frames and defines the whole thing. I'll leave it to you to decide, when you see it, exactly who the protagonist really is - that's part of the fun. More straightforwardly, the book I think I may write after that, the idea is absolutely about a woman and her relationship with a group of other women, and I suspect it'll be hard as hell for me to get right, which of course is one reason I'm drawn to it.

HJB:With your three novels, you’ve hit many different popular geek-lore topics, the future world and ninjas, spies and evil scientists, and comic books and superheroes, what’s next?

NH: Alchemy, video games, substrate-independent minds, semiotics and sharks.

HJB: What’s your recipe for imagination?

NH: I think imagination is almost a negative quality - by which I mean not that it's bad (of course) but that it happens by the absence of something, in this case: brakes. If you watch Sir Ken Robinson talking about education (he did a great RSAnimate) you'll see him say that kids are incredibly imaginative and unconstrained, but that adults lose that quality. I think imagination is about seeing possibility without brakes. For example: I walk down the street, I see a guy walking with a fern and because I watched Jurassic Park the other day it occurs to me that he's off to feed his dinosaur. That's something a kid might say, and an adult might correct, so the kid learns to think of that sort of possibility as silly. Except some people never do. We don't install the brakes. I very consciously stretch my mind all the time so that not only do I keep open that possibility, I see more than one. Is the fern walking down the street with the man? Is the street moving and he's having to move his legs to stay in one place?

HJB: What genre would be most difficult for you to write?

NH: I ditched a story I was writing which was basically my Stieg Larsson novel. It was just too depressing for me to live with long-term. Anything that is constitutionally not-me would be very hard - and it would change who I am in a direction I might not like, so I don't fancy it. I don't want to become moody, depressed and cynical, which was the mode in which I was writing that story. I felt very at home writing my Doctor Who novella for the David Tenant Doctor. I felt at home writing Lester Ferris for Tigerman. (And I'm loving writing a cosmicidal/archetypal far future intelligence, too. Mmm. Less said about that, the better.)

HJB: I collected some of these interview questions from my friends and family. This last question came up more than once. How’d you get to be so great?

NH: That's not a question! That's a blatant effort to make the British guy blush and swallow his own foot!

Okay, taking the question as if it was about someone else: writing novels is like being a stand-up comic, but you get eighteen months to be funny the first time. I start with something simple, tell the story, and as I go along it gets embroidered and embellished, tightened and tensioned, characters get polished and acquire quirks and identity, emotion gets heightened. So at the end it looks as if I came up with something huge and complex, but I didn't - I grew it.

Let's close with another voice. Hannah passed the baton of Nick Harkaway enthusiasm to our buyer Jason Kennedy, who is also a big fan of Tigerman. He wrote "This book hits all the notes of a great novel; there are hilarious moments, followed by some somber tones, followed by a thrill ride action event, and then just keep repeating till the end. Now the hard part comes--waiting for another Nick Harkaway novel." 

For those of you who've read Harkaway before, Hannah makes the valid point that the author is kick ass. But Jason's argument is also forceful: You only get to read Tigerman before you have to wait for the next one. But for a lot of you, near most of you, you've got three adventures ahead of you - Tigerman, The Gone-Away World, and Angelmaker. There's also The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World and a short story, only available as ebooks. And if you search further, you'll find hiss Dr. Who book, Keeping Up with the Joneses. And here you were trying to figure out what you were going to do this August!

Thank you to Hannah Johnson-Breimeier and Nick Harkaway for this guest post. And come by this afternoon for a copy of Tigerman and a kick-ass cupcake.

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