Foreign Hopes and Day-Long Gaps
an interview with James Lovegrove
by David Mathew
James Lovegrove has recently published his third and best (so far) solo novel under his own name. It is called The Foreigners - and it is a joy to read.
"The Foreigners took just over a year to write," says the author. "Originally I wrote a short story back in 1995, published in Interzone as 'Giving and Taking', but I didn't get a chance to work the idea up into a novel, as I always intended to do, until 1999. The writing took from January 1999 to February 2000, and I won't lie, it was a bugger of a book to write. I had a hell of a time with it, particularly with the reconciling of its police-procedural plot with the larger ideas I was trying to convey. But it all came together eventually, and I'm pleased with the outcome. I also managed to turn out several short stories during that time, using them as a way of clearing my head whenever I got bogged down in the novel. Short stories can be good that way, like palate-cleansers between courses of a long banquet."
The novel would seem to have strict analogues with the contemporary situation in England - at the very least in England: with the immigrants, the refugees. Says Lovegrove: "I'm not sure The Foreigners is so much about the refugee situation as it is about the interaction between a dominant culture and a subservient one. That's why there are the Xenophobes in the book, a political movement dedicated to reminding everyone that human interests should come before those of the Foreigners. All the Xenophobes are people whose races have at one time or other been enslaved or culturally crushed by an imperial power. The lead Xenophobe, for instance, is a Maori, and into his mouth I put all the arguments against humankind allowing itself to be overtaken by the Foreigners. The fact that he's a bad man doesn't invalidate what he has to say. Sometimes in fiction it's only the villains who tell the truth. The heroes tend to be deluded types, if not downright liars. The good guy in The Foreigners, Parry, is patently such a person. He's unequivocally on the side of good, but he lives in a sort of la-la land and that's why he's a bit crap and doesn't really know what's going on around him - because he doesn't want to know. I suppose that's the horrible truth about life: good people tend to be losers, and the bad guys get away with murder (literally so, in The Foreigners) because they know this. I'm a cheery, optimistic bastard, aren't I?"
Actually, he is. Or he seems so. One is always careful, during the process of interviewing to dissociate throwaway comments from life philosophies. It would seem that Lovegrove is not only on the brink of the sf bigtime, but more importantly, close to outside recognition. "I was at pains to show," Lovegrove points out, "in the shape of the Xenophobes (from The Foreigners), that racism can come even from people who have themselves been racially oppressed. You listen to some of the black extremist leaders in America, Louis Farrakhan for instance, and what they're saying about whites and Jews are in essence the same things that have been said down the years to them about their own race. That kind of tit-for-tat attitude, while understandable, is desperately counterproductive and undermines the advances that other, more progressive and enlightened minority leaders have achieved.
"This is, of course, a thorny and emotionally charged issue, and I was careful to try and present it in such a way that I myself would not be accused, by knee-jerk zombies, of the very defect I am criticising, and if I've managed that successfully, then 'Thank God' is all I can say. In the character of the chief Xenophobe, Toroa MacLeod, I was trying to show up a specific contradiction: that someone can be charming and charismatic and even honest most of the time, and yet still be a bastard. He's the kind of guy who'll happily kick you in but is intelligent enough to need an excuse first, the kind of guy who'll force you to spill his pint so that he can start in on you. In a broader sense the book is also about, as Mr Bowie would have it, loving the alien. The point of every main character coming from a different country is, in part, to demonstrate the obstacles to mutual understanding that need to be surmounted if humankind is ever to achieve any kind of peace with itself. To a certain degree this can be done, but I doubt whether we'll ever really overcome the more fundamental cultural divergences - of language, of philosophy, of outlook - that divide races.
"To give you a personal example, while travelling in Morocco a few years back I was approached time and again by locals who claimed to want to be my friend and just have a chat, but I knew - and they knew I knew - that ultimately all they wanted to do was sell me something. That's just how they are, that's one aspect of their cultural makeup, and I understood that, but at the same time it didn't prevent me from getting increasingly pissed off because I began to feel - as a tourist, a guest in their country - besieged, badgered, bothered. So I was failing to empathise with them, and they, by the same token, were failing to empathise with me. This is the kind of thing I'm talking about, this grinding of interracial cogs at the most basic level, and it's one of the reasons I'm mostly pessimistic about the human race's survival chances. Unless we can all pull together I don't think we're going to make it to the twenty-second century ... and I don't think we can all pull together."
The scribblings for The Foreigners go back to a visit to Thailand. "I did a round-the-world trip back in 1990, blowing my advance from The Hope in one fell swoop, and the final destination on my itinerary was Thailand, and of course there I witnessed the Bangkok sex-industry - strictly from a safe distance, I assure you - and also the extraordinary financial disparity between the locals and the tourists like me. I'm not by any stretch of the imagination rich, but compared with the average Thai I'm loaded, and to many of them we visiting Westerners are like human cashpoints, there to dispense money. And that was the germ of The Foreigners right there: Earth as a tourist haven for an alien race, us economically dependent on them. The concept then evolved from that, and the dependence became not so much financial as emotional. In the book, the arrival of an alien race on Earth, the Foreigners, has brought global peace and stability, and many people, especially the central character Jack Parry, believe that the Foreigners are essential to maintaining this state of peace and stability. The Foreigners have to be indulged, kept sweet, coddled, protected. Parry believes this so strongly that it has blinkered him to certain uglier truths about humankind. That's the crux of the novel: Parry's blinkeredness. It's his (if I may lapse into Eng. Lit. pomposity for a moment) tragic flaw..."
I mention Kingsley Amis's comment about a good piece of art's simultaneous immediacy and distance, to which Lovegrove reacts favourably. "'Immediate and distant' - I like the paradox of that. Good old 'Kingers'! Yes, I think, in order to succeed, any kind of fantastic fiction has to have that combination of the familiar and the exotic: the reader needs to be taken by the author to somewhere strange in the company of recognisable, realistic characters. When the characters in an SF or fantasy novel starting behaving in a completely unnatural manner, well, that's either very good writing or very bad, mostly likely the latter.
"I think - I would hope - that 'immediate and distant' also applies to The Foreigners in the sense that there are two distinct perspectives to it. On the one hand, heavily foregrounded, we have Parry, who I hope is an acceptably realistic protagonist, in that he is beset by frailties and yet still strives to maintain a positive outlook, which is a state of being I suspect most people can empathise with. On the other hand, there's the book's setting, New Venice, which at one point I liken to Shangri-La and which is also implicitly a kind of Eden, a Camelot, and there are the Foreigners themselves, who are the very epitome of aloofness and unknowability. So you have that contrast between Parry and his surroundings, and it's a physical parallel to the thematic contrast at the heart of the book, which is between human fallibility and the ideal of perfection. I think what the book's trying to say is that we all would like the world to be a better place, maybe even a perfect place, but human nature is fucked up and gets in the way. That was pretty much the argument of The Hope, and to a lesser extent Days, and I suppose it's the loudest-buzzing bee in my authorial bonnet."
The Foreigners is of course the author's continuing artistic pursuance of the solitary, lonely male. This - shall we say? - obsession, or more mildly, interest - also permeates his shorter work. "Maybe it's because I myself am a lonely male. Well, I'm not any more, of course, seeing as how I'm shacked up with a gorgeous and clever and perhaps best of all tolerant woman, but I am by nature a solitary person and I know, like Larkin says, 'how hard it is to be alone'. The odd thing about the job I do is that it demands solitude and outsiderdom, demands shutting yourself away for long periods of time in order to work - but of course at the same time it demands interaction and gregariousness, because if you don't get out and meet people from time to time you'll find yourself pretty quickly disappearing, pen in hand, up your own backside.
"Men are more prone to being lonely individuals. Some of us claim to prefer it, but few I think actually do. I think we like to be unbothered for long periods of time, we like to be left to tend our thoughts (such thoughts as we have), or just do nothing and not get criticised for it. It's necessary for us. But in the end, company is more important. Parry in The Foreigners does get stuck on his own a lot, isolated like Frank in Days, but whereas Frank's isolation is at least partly deliberate, in that his job requires it, Parry is a victim of the choice he made to move to New Venice and become a Foreign Policy Police officer. His isolation is emphasised by the fact that there are so many foreigners - and Foreigners - around him in New Venice. That makes him, of necessity, an introvert, and that's handy from a literary point of view because a lot of the exposition in the novel takes place inside his head. Parry is one of the first characters I've written whom I've got inside of to such an extent. Thinking about it now, that was probably another reason why the book was hard to write - because inside Parry's skin was not always a comfortable place to be. Perhaps I recognised just a little bit too much of myself in him. Though I'm much taller than him, and have more hair (for now). You describe him as 'heartbreaking', and that's true; all I can say is I never intended to be so unfair on him in the book. That was just how the story panned out. He's basically a good man way out of his depth, and instead of him swimming, the story traces his slow, inexorable drowning. Poor bugger."
The Foreigners is science fiction but it is certainly not hard science fiction: and there is no reason at all why it should be, but I ask if Lovegrove is interested in science at all. He answers thus: "I am, have always been and will always be rubbish at science. My brain is just not wired that way. I try to read New Scientist and it all just goes blurp, in-out, nothing sticking. I read popular-science books: the same. I tried Paul Davies's The Mind of God: I finished it and had absolutely no idea what I'd just been reading about. But I do not think science is integral to sf. The term 'science fiction' is a bit of a misnomer, in fact, something we're stuck with just because no one can come up with anything better. And I think some sf authors use science - big weighty concepts, the latest theories, projections of current scientific thought - to cover up a lack of ability with character and dialogue and mood. 'Never mind the fiction, marvel at the wonderful jargonised SCIENCE I'm using.'
"Hard sf is for me exactly that - hard - and so I don't really like it. I certainly don't write it. Can't. For me, using sf-ish techniques presents me with another way of telling a story about what's happening now (and saves me from having to do a lot of research, which I hate). I can skew the world slightly, introduce some mildly futuristic or ectopic element, and use that marginally changed reality to make general points about humanity and the world without having to be answerable to the strictures and dictates of 'real' reality. The world is a big subject. It helps to be able to cordon off a bit of it, create a microcosm, and tell a story set there. That's the main sf technique I use: creating a microcosm and distilling my argument within that microcosm...
"Besides, I don't want to write in any one genre because I don't want to become restricted to any one genre. I just do what I like to do, and if someone else then says, 'Oh, that's sf' or 'Oh, that's horror,' then fine, maybe it is, but ultimately it's just whatever appealed to me at the time and whatever suggested itself to me as suitable material for a story, novel, whatever. The book I'm working on at the moment is nowhere near as science-fictional as The Foreigners, which is probably the closest I'm ever going to get to a 'straight' sf novel. And my next book, if all goes according to plan, won't have any sf elements in it at all, or at least there may be an aspect of it that is about science fiction, but over-all it's going to be mainstream stuff ... although I haven't mentioned this to my editor yet, so let's hope, if he's reading this, he's skipped this section and hasn't noticed. I've no great plan to 'go mainstream', but I think The Foreigners took me as far into one particular genre, sf, as I want to go for the time being. In an earlier interview I described myself as being 'an eccentric cousin' to the genre, and that's something I believe still; I believe also that no author should be confined to writing one sort of fiction if he or she doesn't want to. There is a need among booksellers, and among publishers, and among readers too, I think, the more conservative ones, for an author to be one type of thing and nothing else. Easy to get a fix on. Easy to bracket. But you have to go where you want to go, you have to at least attempt something different, even if only to discover that you don't like it or you're no good at it."
Nor does he have much of a good word to say for himself as an erstwhile book reviewer and critic. "No. I'm a useless critic. When I reviewed for Interzone, I was cantankerous and subjective and irritable and not at all impartial. (The same does not apply to the reviews I did for the Literary Review, and I felt less myself when doing them, forcing myself to take a balanced view and not give vent to my full feelings. But maybe that made for better criticism, I don't know. I certainly think David Pringle, editor of Interzone, was remarkably tolerant of my intolerance.)
"I don't think I'm really made for criticism, and I feel bad whenever I see a book getting a slagging-off in print because I know from experience that a critic's judgement can be coloured by almost anything, from the design of a book's cover to what he or she ate for breakfast that morning. It's a bizarre process, when you think about it: publishers submitting their product for trial-by-opinion. I don't know who came up with the idea, but I'm sure there must be a better one!
"As for criticising my own work, there is no one who could be a harsher judge of what I write than me. I rate myself constantly against some highly volatile notion of what constitutes good writing and invariably I find myself wanting. I'm a relentless re-drafter. Even once a book of mine has been through all the stations of editing and copy-editing and galley-proofing and is in print, I can look at any page of it and see a hundred things I could have done better and would like to rewrite if that were possible. That's probably not a bad attribute to have. It means I'll probably never become complacent."
James Lovegrove is a down-to-earth, hard-working young man with his eye, enthusiastically, on the till. He wants, as any writer would want, to be more successful than the status he currently inhabits would imply. For example, his first novel, or short-story collection (depending on who you are talking to) was simpler to quantify. Lovegrove: "I was preparing The Hope recently for its reissue by Orion Books next spring, and I found that the story I liked the most when I wrote the book - eleven years ago! - was not the one I most like now. I thought 'No Man's Land' kicked butt when I wrote it, but now I see it as mere King pastiche, with a bit of Lovecraft thrown in. Good enough, but all its effects are borrowed, someone else's. I also liked 'Reading Habits' back then, mainly because I was so pleased with the quasi-Philip Larkin librarian narrator, with his bilious, dyspeptic views. I gave the book a bit of a polish-up for its new edition, and while doing so I found 'Carnal Appetite', where the girl eats her boyfriend's fingernail clippings, and then her boyfriend, to be a punchy, efficient little shocker, and I also thought 'Perfect Cadence' had stood up well, shot through as it is with Bradburyisms."
And which are the good stories and which are not so?
"A couple of the later stories aren't so hot," Lovegrove replies. "Despite its episodic format, I wrote the book as a novel, all the stories in the order in which they appear, and towards the end I was concentrating as much on unifying all the disparate themes I had come up with as telling good, solid tales. Therefore the later stories don't stand up on their own as well as the earlier ones. They sacrifice inventiveness for the sake of explication. They're integral to the book, but they're its grubby engine-room rather than its glamorous superstructure. They get us to the finish."
And would The Hope be the author's dark moments made print? He replies: "The Hope is as dark and as bleak as I could make it, and if there were any more irony in the title (and the ship's name) then it would have to carry some sort of government irony warning. I banged the book out in six weeks, with the intention of creating the sickest, most depressing, angriest, nastiest vision of humankind that I could. You might well infer from this that I was not a happy camper at the time, and you would be right. I still have that anger, that despairing outrage, in me now, but it's not as intense as it was when I was 22-going-on-23. How could it be? I'd be in the loony-bin by now if it was. The state of the world still rankles with me, but I've learned to modulate my response to it, to be more analytical and not so aimlessly aggrieved. Having a cooler head means you can hit your targets better, that's what I say. It's either that or I'm just getting old."
The Hope says much about contemporary concerns and conundrums. My beief is that it also referes to hubris, but... "I don't feel The Hope is about hubris so much as about human stupidity (of which hubris is, of course, one manifestation). The Philanthropist who built the Hope had this na´ve vision of a better society. Society then proceeds to prove him wrong, by being ignorant and wasteful and vicious and venal. I'm beginning to discover that this is the theme underlying most of what I write: the dream of utopia set against the pigshit-thickness of people which prevents utopia from ever being achievable. It's not a new theme by any means, but it's one that experience time and time again validates. If there's a chance we humans can fuck something up, we will. Whatever we come across - a scientific discovery, a landscape, a work of art, a noble ideal, a good person - you can bet your arse we'll find some way of ruining it. That's just how we are, and perhaps I'm as blinkered a utopian as The Hope's Philanthropist if I think that that'll ever change (or, moreover, that I with my little fictions can change it). Yet you've got to have - here comes that word again - hope, haven't you?"
The Hope represents the disintegration of moral fibre. It describes an existence - however contemporary - in which nothing from the real world matters much. To wit: "The deterioration of the moral fabric of the passengers (not to mention the physical fabric of the ship) was inevitable the moment the Hope was conceived." This is James Lovegrove. "That's why the Philanthropist topped himself. He realised this. At the moment of his triumph, he understood, like Alexander the Great seeing that he had no more worlds to conquer, that it was downhill all the way from here. So he committed suicide, while his creation was still perfect. He saw it was "no good" because, thanks to its passengers and to entropy, it would never be that perfect again. This is what God really should have done after the Creation, if He had had any guts. He should have tied a rope around some celestial light-fitting and kicked the chair away. Maybe the Bible lies. Maybe He did. But, to get back to the question, what went wrong with the Hope is not that it left civilisation behind but rather that it took civilisation on board with it...
"Incidentally, I wrote a thirteenth Hope story called 'The Finite Heart', which never made it into the anthology it was commissioned for, basically because the editor thought it wasn't independent enough of the novel, it didn't stand on its own, but I couldn't see a way of revising it so that it did, not without virtually starting again from scratch, so the whole thing sort of lapsed. It's a good story and I had plans to insert it into the reissue, and I tried and tried to shoehorn it in but it just wouldn't fit. It upset certain symmetries that I (inadvertently, I have to say) installed in the book. So it still awaits publication somewhere. Other than that, I have had, and have, no intention of revisiting The Hope. I'm not hugely into sequels, or for that matter author's universes. When they work, it can be fun. I think King has pulled the concept off well, and I like the way Kim Newman's done it with his short stories, but it's not for me. I'd rather keep doing different things and have them thematically rather than explicitly linked."
The second novel was published in 1997 and is called Days. Concerning a vast - the vastest - shop, it is a novel memorable for many reasons and aspects - not least of which being that it shows an emotional bouyancy not always evident in The Hope: the stratified depths of the leading male, Frank, a security guard therein - but what clings to the memory as much as Frank is the plot-pin of the recurring Days motif. Lovegrove explains:
"The recurring-logo motif throughout Days would seem to indicate that the novel has something to say about homogenisation - the McDonalding, the Disneyfication of the world. But to me that's a side-product, an inevitable one, of the principal theme of the book, which is commerce and the way commercial pressures have taken over almost every aspect of everyday life. It's startling to me how quickly the brand-naming of places and events has become commonplace, how prevalent it is and how little we notice it any more. It's all 'Carling this' and 'Vodaphone that', and those annoying little 'comedy' skits or mini-adverts that bookend TV programmes like Friends and Frasier ... I hate those! Commercial interests have insinuated themselves deeply into everything and we just don't register it any more and that to me is insidious. What next? Will it soon be Virgin London? Microsoft Manchester? 'The Houses of Parliament, brought to you in association with HP Sauce'?
"Here, and more so in America (where I lived for a year and a half), everyone is constantly trying to fuck everyone else over for a profit, and it was this rather obvious but nonetheless pertinent truth that I was attempting to satirise in Days. Not just our obsession with money (and I freely admit, I'm as obsessed with it as the next person) but our utter irrationality where money is concerned; money, and of course its ultimate purpose, which is the buying of stuff. Hence the 'shopping mauls' in Days, where customers go crazy over bargains, fighting tooth-and-nail over some essentially useless item simply because it's there and it can be purchased. When you step back and look at it, yes, we need to obtain certain products to eat, wear, live in and entertain ourselves with, but around these basic necessities a huge quasi-religion has developed, ghastly gargantuan temples have been built, and a whole ugly ethos of customer/retailer has arisen whereby the person of each side of the equation is reduced to nothing more than a vector for money, giver or receiver, as though money is just some virus we infect and re-infect one another with. So that's what Days is really: the foregoing rant, spread out over four hundred pages, with guns and jokes."
But back to Frank, a hollowed rather than hollow man, who is on his last day for the company in the book. "Frank sets out at the beginning of the book with the avowed intention that today is going to be his final day as a store detective at Days, a decision he has arrived at after thirty-three years of working at the place. He stands to lose the prestige and the material wealth his job has brought him. He stands to gain his freedom. But as the day goes on, Frank learns that the armour of anonymity that makes him so good at his job cannot shield him from the incursion of emotions such as loyalty and love. He has spent most of his life in a self-imposed cocoon, and the freedom he is looking for entails the shedding of this cocoon, a willingness to open himself up to the outside world and all the pain it can potentially bring.
"All the names in Days, except perhaps those of the walk-on characters, are significant. There's the Day brothers, of course, all named after the days of the week, and their father Septimus, whose name reflects (and is perhaps one of the many contributing factors to) his obsession with the number seven. Frank, as his name would suggest, is sincere, yes, inwardly, but he's also, in his speech, anything but frank - he has trouble communicating and often says everything except what he means. The three what I call B-list characters have names that constitute a little literary in-joke. The action of Days takes place over the course of a single day, and Bloom, Shukhov and Dalloway are the surnames of the main protagonists of three classic novels that also take place over the course of a single day: respectively Ulysses, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Mrs Dalloway. I like little games like that. In The Foreigners, which has a musical leitmotif, every surname I use is the surname of a composer. (And, to underscore the book's central idea of foreignness, every character hails from a different country.) I don't think that it makes any difference whether the reader is aware of these references, but I put them in so as to add another layer to the cake, another level of texture. It helps keep me amused through the writing, too."
James Lovegrove has also worked on several projects with Peter Crowther. The longest and most fully-formed is undoubtedly their collaboration, Escardy Gap: a Bradburyesque, kind-of Twilight Zone-y tale of a muscle of America rarely flexed.
Is the Bradbury connection valid?
"Well, yes, absolutely. Bradbury I first encountered when I was 11, when a teacher read us 'The Veldt' in class one day. This was amazing to me for two reasons: 1) we were being read science fiction at school, and 2) the teacher was, by implication, putting sf on the same level as 'straight' literature. Up until then I'd always been conscious that there were two strata of fiction, literature and 'trash', and sf was definitely in the latter category. And 'The Veldt' is a stonkingly good story, of course. So all at once I had to shift my worldview, pretty seismically. Then, during my teens, I hit a real Bradbury phase, where I charged through every one of his books I could find, then went out and found some more. I knew that the stories are sentimental, sometimes cloyingly so. I knew that, content-wise, some of them are gossamer-thin. It was the language that hooked me. The dance of the words. The ache that Bradbury can conjure up with just a few light simple brushstrokes.
"As with all adolescent passions, it's a past thing now, a burned-out pleasure. I read his new stuff and I like it lots, but, through no fault of Bradbury's and lots of fault of mine, it doesn't sing to me any more. Back then, Bradbury's work seemed almost my exclusive secret, something I owned that no one else could understand or share in. But I also knew that Bradbury was the key to making my liking for sf somehow more acceptable, not just to myself but to other people; to making it not so much of a furtive pleasure. So that's why I wrote a thesis about him, which formed part of my Oxbridge entrance exam (back then you had to sit special exams when applying to Oxford or Cambridge). It was something of a risk, I have to admit. I can't think many dons at Oxford had read Bradbury, or even knew who he was. But I had the encouragement of a schoolteacher who was a Bradbury fan and, for probably quite selfish reasons, I wanted to proselytise about Bradbury. Bradbury had convinced me that sf could be better than 'trash', could aspire to great art. And that's pretty much my take on all genre fiction now. Much of it's crap, but there are jewels amid the junk, opals among the ordure, that are as beautiful and as lasting any of the best that mainstream literature has to offer."
And the aims of the Escardy Gap project were what?
"To make vast sums of money, retire on the proceeds and live the rest of our lives without ever having to work again! But as that didn't work out, I'll have to say that our aim, to begin with, was simply to collaborate on a Bradburyesque short story, since it was through discovering a shared admiration for Bradbury that Pete and I got to know each other and became friends. So we started, and eighteen months and 180,000 words later we had a bloody great novel which we eventually, mainly through Pete's persistence, found a home for at Tor Books in the US and, subsequently, Earthlight here in the UK. During the writing, the book evolved from a tribute to Bradbury, with its explicit echoes of Something Wicked This Way Comes, to more of an exploration of the act of writing fiction and the effects on the writer of his or her imagined creations. Plus it's a big, splurgey horror novel containing some of the nastiest imagery and purplest prose that I certainly - I can't speak for Pete - have ever committed to paper. And, above all, it's meant to be fun. It's not meant to be taken too seriously. The horror is undercut by humour throughout, and I think humour in any genre work, in fact in any kind of fiction, is essential. I've just finished reading Moorcock's Wizardry and Wild Romance, which is an excellent survey of the fantasy genre, and in one chapter he inveighs against the po-facedness of much fantasy fiction, saying, in effect, that it's wit that distinguishes decent writing from dull and that, in his view, it tends to be the most serious and humourless authors who do well during their lifetimes. I don't know if that last bit is true, but as far as I'm concerned it's important for my enjoyment of a book to be amused by it, and that's what I try to do when writing: keep my tongue at least within the vicinity of my cheek. So, while far from bring frivolous, Escardy Gap does have its lighter moments. And some people really love that book. It made SFX's recent reader-voted list of the top fifty sf/fantasy books of all time, which surprised a lot of people, not least me. I'm pleased to have been involved with a book that has had such an effect on people. Perhaps there are a lot more Bradbury fans out there than I realised."
And as for the mooted sequel? "Well," says Lovegrove, "we've written about 20,000 words of one, but there are several reasons why it might not see the light of day for a while. First off, I'm not sure how Pete feels about this, but I wonder whether Escardy Gap actually needs a sequel. Secondly, we're both of us pretty busy with our own projects. Pete's a prolific short-story writer, as I'm sure you're aware, and has had two collections out recently, The Longest Single Note and Lonesome Roads, both of which I don't need to recommend to anyone who loves well-written scary stuff, plus there's a third collection on its way and he's been commissioned to write two novels (at least two - it may be three) so he's going to be a busy bunny for a while.
"As for me, well, I'm always thinking at least one novel ahead, so I've got the one I'm working on now, Untied Kingdom, plus the one after that, which I think is going to be called Play, and that'll take me to the end of 2001 if things go according to plan. And thirdly, Pete and I collaborated on a chapbook called The Hand That Feeds which was nominated for a Stoker Award, although didn't make the short-list, and we have plans for the characters from that - an occult group known as the Six who live and operate in post-WW2 San Francisco - to feature in at least another five stories that will together constitute a full-length novel. So if anything's going to happen any time soon, it won't be an Escardy Gap sequel, it'll be a Six novel. And I doubt I can be any vaguer than that, but I can try if you want."
Now that we have discussed the various projects to which James Lovegrove has given his name - and time, and effort, and expertise - it seems time to ask him to judge a beauty contest and beauty context winner.
"I hope you're not asking me to rank my novels in order of preference," he says, "since that's a bit like asking a father to say which of his children he likes best and which least. All the books I've done so far have different and distinct resonances for me. The Hope I wrote without really having a clue what I was doing. It's my least self-conscious, most unpremeditated work, and therefore probably the purest piece of right-brain creativity I can lay claim to. Like most first-time novelists I didn't know the rules and the boundaries, and what came out was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. It's a strange, stunted little fellow, but in spite of its many peculiarities, and in fact because of them, I have great affection for it.
"Escardy Gap is a curious chimera, and I'm still not sure whether many of the parts of it that I like, or any of them, are by me or by Pete. I do know that writing it was the most fun I've had on paper, although some of it was arse-achingly tough to get right, especially the ending. Pete has a much better handle than I do on writing stuff that is aimed squarely at reader-enjoyment. He's also got a much darker sensibility than me, but then I do have this tendency to get a little sententious and moralistic in my fiction - a bit of the old Victorian 'this can't just be fun, this has to be educative and improving too' - and in Escardy Gap, thanks to Pete's influence, there's very little of that.
"Days came at a crucial time for me, since I was close to giving up on writing as a career. I was at the point where I felt that if I didn't get something right, and get it right soon, then I ought to give thought to opportunities in, I don't know, taxidermy or investment banking or something. I wrote the book while I was living in Chicago, away from all that was familiar, and I think that sense of dislocation helped. It jump-started the old creative juices. Certainly I felt that with Days it was shit or get off the pot, and I'm glad - and relieved! - that it worked. If it hadn't, I wouldn't be talking to you now.
"As for The Foreigners, it was an act of consolidation for me. I felt the pressure was on after Days was so well-received, and I decided I wanted to do something a bit different, both more conventional and at the same time tampering with convention. I also wanted to do something very like Bester and Dick. I think its one drawback is that it's quite lengthy. I have this desire to produce concise, pithy little novels, 250 pages at most, but it seems - probably the influence of King rearing its head here - that I can't do that. The Foreigners is far from being a Stand-like bloater, but it's way longer than I anticipated.
"I'm finding the same with the book I'm currently working on, Untied Kingdom. At the outset I swore to God I would make it 300 pages tops, but now I'm a quarter of the way in and it looks like I'm going to overshoot that target considerably. Still, that's what editors were put on this Earth for, eh?"
This interview first appeared in TTA.
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