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Martin Sketchley

interviewed by Ian R MacLeod

Ian R MacLeod: Describe your writing process. Do you go through lots of drafts? Do you write quickly? Do you go back and revise, or push on and go back when you've got a whole thing finished?The Affinity Trap by Martin Sketchley

Martin Sketchley: I've always had a tendency to polish my drafts as I write. This results in me cutting quite a lot of quite shiny material! It's a habit I'm trying to get out of. With the next book I want to get a first draft down quite quickly then polish it later. I only really feel comfortable when I've got enough text for a book, even if a lot of it's got to change.

If an idea comes to me as I go along I'll type a brief note in case I forget it, then come back to it. Similarly, I won't spend ten minutes trying to think of exactly the right word to use; if I can't come up with it I'll stick in a couple of question marks and come back to it later. Initially I just want to get the gist of what I'm trying to say on the page.

The Affinity Trap by Martin SketchleyIM: I know you've been a musician. Are there any parallels?

MS: Although both are creative processes I'd say there are more contrasts than parallels. As a musician you get an instant reaction from an audience to what you're doing, and in a band you have other people to work off, to react to, in real time. There's none of that with writing. There's also a physical effort and reward in making music. Writing leaves you tired because of the mental effort, but there's no adrenalin rush.

IM: What kind of music (if any) do you listen to when you're writing? What other kinds of things do you like to have around you?

MS: I tend to listen to quite fast, hard stuff. It's good for giving your brain a stimulus when you're trying to write a thousand words at 6am, or 11pm. And it's great for producing action scenes! The Liberty Gun was written to Ian Brown, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine, That Petrol Emotion, The Wedding Present, The Zutons, and in the very final moments, Arctic Monkeys. Most of that is pretty dark, too, and I think my writing can be pretty dark. If not music then I like silence -- or as close to silence as it's possible to get. It kind of depends what mood I'm in.

IM: Why did you choose (or did you choose) to write SF?

MS: Although it's a bit of a cliché to say it, I think it was inevitable. I always read SF, always loved SF films, and have always been fascinated with the possibility of alien life. I'd always fancied the idea of writing, too, but it took a while for the two to come together. I'd been writing for a while when I read Use of Weapons by Iain Banks. A light bulb came on above my head. In the back was an Interzone subscription form. I used it, began writing SF, and didn't look back.

IM: If you had one piece of advice to give to budding writers what would it be? And you can't say, don't!

MS: Write something that's commercial, but distinctive. Oh, and ditch Windows and buy a Mac -- you won't regret it. (I guess that's two -- can I have two?)

IM: Is there a particular writer or performer you'd cite as a key influence?

MS: The subtle turns in Chris Priest's novels have always stimulated me, but I think the most exciting writer to emerge and have an influence on me in more recent times is Jon Courtenay Grimwood. His writing's gripping, exotic, entertaining and supremely economical: he can convey all you need to know about a character in a couple of sentences. His last few novels have been stunning. I bought them in hardcover and have pre-ordered his next -- End of the World Blues -- and I never do either of those things!

I'd say overall, however, that film has had much more of an influence on my work than text. The Coen brothers are a particular influence: there's a scene in The Destiny Mask which is an homage to Fargo, although I don't reckon anyone will spot it. And their superb film The Man Who Wasn't There has a darkness and pace I love. Donnie Darko, Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, and things like the BBC's production The Nightmare Man I love. Looking at the list, they're all relatively quiet, slow pieces with a certain tension. Interesting.

IM: What directions do you see SF heading in? Do you see yourself going the same way?

MS: For several years the books on the Clarke Award short list have all had very mainstream covers, with an undeniably ambiguous positioning. I think SFs heading this way for a couple of reasons. One is market forces. Everyone wants to sell more books -- authors, publishers, booksellers, agents -- and if your novel can be pitched with mainstream as well as SF appeal you'll sell more. People who wouldn't pick up a book with a spaceship on the cover will pick up a book with a face on the cover, for example, even though the content may be the same. Also, and possibly more importantly, SF can continue to evolve by putting mainstream ideas into an unusual context, and visa versa.

IM: As a writer myself, I know that the stupidest question you can possibly be asked is "where do you get your ideas?" But at the same time, your work is full of twisty invention. So -- is there such a thing as a typical Sketchley "aha" moment?

MS: Thanks. I believe inspiration does exist, but you have to turn on the machine. If you have a problem with a novel, or aren't sure where it's going, it needs to be ticking over in the back of your mind. I put little notes here and there to remind me what I'm supposed to be The Liberty Gun by Martin Sketchleythinking about. At the sink is a good place. And between the speedo and the clock in the car.

I also make an effort to give the reader the unexpected. The end of The Affinity Trap is a great example. I love the ending to that book. In fact, I love the endings to all three Structure novels. My wife's just finished reading The Destiny Mask and cried for the last ten pages! The ending to The Liberty Gun is also a burster. I guess I'm good at endings. Although that's bit ironic, as in my life ending things hasn't been a strong point.

IM: Thinking of the Structure novels, a key point of what drives your writing seems to me to be relatives and family relationships. Why do you think this is? You also seem to be very interested in people not knowing who or what they really are. Does that throw any light on the Sketchley psyche?

MS: That's an interesting one. Someone once said (I'm afraid I can't remember who) that when two people meet there are always six people present: the person each perceives themselves to be, the people they perceive each other to be, and the people they actually are. I think a person's personality is in a constant state of flux; we just check different boxes for different situations.

The Liberty Gun is definitely about relationships: between people and the things they create. I'm an only child, so maybe that's in there somewhere. But in truth the one of the biggest influences on what we do in life is the people around us, and I write books that are about people rather than ideas. For example, it would be possible to put Delgado into a present-day context without his story being much different.

IM: Another recurring theme is time -- both through travelling in time and The Destiny Mask by Martin Sketchleyprediction. How and why did you develop The Destiny Mask's characteristics in the second book of your series?

MS: I'm very interested in time. Knowing the future is dangerous, but people still seem to yearn for it. For example, we're at the point now where it's possible for parents to know the sex of their unborn children, and whether they have any health problems. People are then able to make a choice as to whether they still want that child. I'm an atheist, but that just doesn't feel right to me.

I'm also fascinated with what the future holds for the human race, and for Earth. If you look back 1,000 years and consider how the world has changed since then, and consider how the world may change over the next 1,000 years, I'm certain the difference will be even greater, and that's a pretty big difference to comprehend.

We're rapidly approaching a tipping point in terms of the growth of the human race, our consumption of the world's resources, and the power we bestow upon ourselves. Indeed, it may already be too late for us to maintain in the long term something that even approaches the lifestyle we currently enjoy in the developed world.

The idea I'm developing for my next novel is set in the present day, with a link to the far future -- 200,000 years hence. The future I'm seeing in my head, although somewhat orange, isn't particularly bright. And looking at my notes in light of your previous questions, I can see that relationships and personal identity are there again.

IM: Rightly or wrongly, I detect traces of Greek and Norse myth -- family rivalries, saviours, oracles, wars -- in your work. Is this something you'd agree with, or are aware of?

The Destiny Mask by Martin SketchleyMS: I've got a book called Dictionary of World Myth -- An A-Z reference guide to gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines and fabulous beasts. I love all that stuff, and pore over this book quite a lot when I'm developing a new idea. There's evidence of this in the chapter titles in The Affinity Trap and The Destiny Mask. Cerberus was a three-headed dog that guarded the underworld -- that's fantastic! (And I think he might have appeared in one of the Harry Potter films…) And I love the Labours of Herakles. My Favourite is the Stymphalian Birds, which is the title of the first chapter in The Destiny Mask. Herakles has to get rid of vicious man-eating birds with iron claws, wings and beaks that infested lake Stymphalios in Arcadia. He scared them out of the trees with his bronze castanets, then shot them down individually with his bow and arrow. I love anything with bronze castanets.

IM: Action and entertainment, things going on, a strong narrative, are clearly important to you. How does that translate into how you see your work and your readership?

MS: People don't read as much as they used to because there are so many alternatives. In order to remain at least moderately popular, books have to compete. While there is undoubtedly a market for deep, meaningful works that'll stand critical analysis, I believe a lot of people just want good escapist entertainment. That might seem cheap, but there's a lot to be said for escapist entertainment. If I can give people the opportunity to escape for a few minutes while reading one of my books, and also examine a few of the issues that niggle me, that's great.

The first two novels in Martin Sketchley's Structure series, The Affinity Trap and The Destiny Mask, are currently available from Pyr in the US and Canada, and Simon & Schuster in the UK. The third -- The Liberty Gun -- will be published by Pyr in November 2006, and in February 2007 by Simon & Schuster.

The Affinity Trap by Martin SketchleyThe Affinity Trap by Martin Sketchley
The Destiny Mask by Martin SketchleyThe Destiny Mask by Martin SketchleyThe Liberty Gun by Martin Sketchley

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Ian R MacLeod's novel The House of Storms is currently available in paperback from Pocket. A new short story collection -- Past Magic -- is also imminent from PS Publishing, with an introduction by Jack Dann. His novel The Summer Isles, published in the US by Aio Publishing, has been shortlisted for both the John W. Campbell and Sidewise Awards.

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