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An Interview with Paul McAuley

by Stuart Carter

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuleyStuart Carter: Your earlier books seem to me to have been more sf-nal and 'widescreen' than more recent novels, and Cowboy Angels seems to mark a return to that style; was it a conscious decision to (a) move towards more near-future, Crichton-esque thrillers, and (b) to return to a more sf style/content?

Paul McAuley: I've always been too restless for my own good, I guess. I started out by trying to rewrite and redeem space opera, moved towards more tightly focussed novels with Pasquale's Angel (a noir set in a steampunk version of Renaissance Florence) and Fairyland, briefly returned to 'widescreen' SF with the Confluence trilogy, and then turned back to the near future with The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World, and White Devils. At around that time I was getting more and more interested in thrillers: Whole Wide World is a police procedural set just a little way in the future, after terrorists have attacked the hardware that supports the Internet and the rest of our information-based technology (it was written in 2000). And along the way, I've written two straight non-sf thrillers, Mind's Eye, and Players.

As for Cowboy Angels, and a return to SF, the answer to this involves a little publishing history I'm afraid. Stay with me. There are lessons to be learned about the kind of boxes genre fiction must fit into these days.

White Devils by Paul McAuleyCowboy Angels (or Look For America as it was known then) was supposed to be the second book in a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, the first being White Devils. I had thought that White Devils was near-future SF - it is part of a thematic trilogy that includes Fairyland and The Secret of Life, both published as SF - but S&S decided to market it as a near-future thriller, and I went along with it because all kinds of marketing and publicity was promised. I began Cowboy Angels in 2003, straight after I turned in the final draft of White Devils, but when I submitted Cowboy Angels to S&S in 2004 they weren't too happy because, according to them, my brand was now that of a thriller writer, and as far as they were concerned Cowboy Angels was clearly SF (parenthetically, a synopsis of White Devils had been turned down by my former publisher, HarperCollins, because it was too SFish; it was a very confusing time). So I was persuaded to set Cowboy Angels aside, and wrote another novel for them - Mind's Eye. But I felt that Cowboy Angels was important (if only to me), and didn't want to see it slide out more or less invisibly somewhere down the line, and I also had a couple of SF novels I wanted to write, so I took it back from S&S and sold it, with those two SF novels, to Gollancz.

All of which shows that I don't really pay enough attention to my career, in terms of marketing and sales and 'brand', as my publishers no doubt wish I did. What I'd like to do is write both SF and thrillers, and think that the Only Way Forward is to do that under different names.

SC: Will future books be less 'thriller' and more sf?

PM: The next two books due from Gollancz are set on various moons of the outer planets, and are definitely SF. Hard SF about a war over the direction of human evolution. But (see above) I have ideas for at least two more conventional thrillers, too. We'll see...

SC: How far ahead do you plan your novels, i.e., how many novels are currently queuing up in your head to be written? Can you give us a few 'teaser trailers' for them?

PM: The two novels I'm working on right now are loosely based on a series of stories that began with 'Second Skin', which was published in 1997. So I guess you could say that the novels were ten years in the making. I have plenty of other ideas. Ideas are cheap. It's making them into something useful that's hard. Most of them are too vague to be set down here, and I want to keep the rest to myself for superstitious reasons.

SC: Cowboy Angels is by far the most violent of all your books so far, and in this, as well as in its political edge, has some real similarities to Richard Morgan's novels -- have you read and, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by his books?

PM: Violence is as violence does. What violence there is in Cowboy Angels is certainly up close and personal, so it is perhaps more noticeable than violence in most other novels - my own, and other people's. It was a deliberate aesthetic choice, not only because of the form of the plot and the world the novel inhabits, but because I want the reader to understand the cost to the hero, Adam Stone, and contrast his reaction to that of Tom Waverly, his friend and nemesis. Adam Stone is still affected by death; Tom Waverly pretends not to be. He makes fun of it. He dismisses it. And that's why Stone is the hero, and why, in the end, Tom Waverly is a tragic figure.

Have I been influenced by Richard Morgan's work? No. I think that the fourteen novels and sixty-odd stories I published before writing Cowboy Angels had a far greater influence on it than anything by anyone else. I feel that all of my novels have some kind of political edge, even if it isn't as overt as in Cowboy Angels, White Devils, Fairyland, and some of my short stories. And I think that anyone who reads both White Devils and Cowboy Angels will find that both have the same angle of attack.

However, it occurs to me that there is a kind of six-degrees-of-separation link between me and Richard Morgan. Cowboy Angels is in part about war across a range of alternate histories, so you could say that it has been influenced by, amongst others, Fritz Leiber, Barrington Bayley and Keith Laumer's Imperium series. And one of Keith Laumer's perennial themes was that of supermen, usually loners, able to transcend and manipulate the world of ordinary mortals. From what I recall of Richard Morgan's first novel (the only one I've read, so far), it also featured a loner superman transcending and manipulating ordinary mortals, but of course it is quite possible that he's never read any Laumer - there are only a few strong themes and tropes in SF, which makes the game of 'spotting the influence' both very easy and extremely treacherous.

SC: You've carefully set Cowboy Angels not just in another universe, but 20 years back in time; is it a deliberate commentary/satire on contemporary (interventionist) US politics and the cult of the 'individual' there?

PM: One of the reasons for setting Cowboy Angels twenty-three years in the past is that the advanced technology of the Real, which has developed a method of travelling between alternate histories, doesn't have to be too different from our own present technological level. I didn't have to introduce all kinds of distracting and pointless futurism. Also, I lived in the US for a couple of years in the early 1980s, so I think that I have a fair idea of the cultural and political feel of that place and time.

Cowboy Angels is certainly influenced by the current situation in America, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (I believe I mentioned that I started writing it in 2003), although it isn't a direct satire on Bush and other inhabitants of the White House Bubble. As my friend Jack Womack has put it more than once, it's currently impossible to either improve on or keep up with reality. American foreign policy since the Second World War, and in particular the role of the CIA in attempts to prop up unsavoury regimes and roll back the Communist Hordes, are equally important in informing the story and atmosphere. I had a lot of fun researching the CIA's Black Ops, and turning that information to my own fell purposes.

SC: Researching CIA Black Ops sounds like a special kind of fun - what are your "favourite" examples of them?

PM: Many of the CIA's Black Ops had tragic outcomes, but quite a few were frankly bizarre. The plan to supply Castro with exploding cigars is well known. There was also a plan to spray Castro with an LSD-like drug before he gave a radio speech, and plans that played on the fact that Castro loved scuba diving: a gift from a friendly attorney of a brand new wet suit, its breathing apparatus dusted with tuberculosis bacilli; planting a specutacular seashell boobytrapped with explosive in a spot where Castro dived. G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA agents working for Nixon's reelection were caught during the Watergate burglary, but the Nixon campaign planned numerous black propaganda operations against the Democrats, including publicising fake Democratic political events to make people angry when they turned up and found no party or free beer, and planting provocateurs with bizarre 'quirks' in anti-Nixon rallies to make it appear that his opponents were crazy Communist freaks.

Don't forget that George W. Bush's father was once head of the CIA...

SC: Bob Dylan regularly crops up in Cowboy Angels -- are you a fan of his? Do you listen to music while you're writing, and if so how much does it shape the final product?

PM: I'm a fan of Dylan and all kinds of music that now falls under the rather artificial rubric of 'Americana', and of the music from the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s. One of the strands of thought that informed Cowboy Angels is Greil Marcus's idea, closely argued in his book Invisible Republic, of a lost, weird America that's chronicled in the music of Bob Dylan, the Band, Dock Boggs, and many others. If you go to the US now, you won't find that weird America any more; everything has been homogenised by mass culture and commerce. There are no hidden corners, no place that isn't connected with all the rest. It's gone. All gone. Exurbia'd, Gap'd and Starbucks'd out of existence. In the early 1980s, it was still there, just, which was another reason for setting the novel in that period. The music of Dylan and others provides a kind of ghostly soundtrack to the novel, a sign of things lost, things that need to be restored.

I listen to music when I need to get a certain rhythm of work going, but beyond that it doesn't have any input to what I actually write; what musical influence there is in Cowboy Angels comes from what I listen to when I'm not working.

SC: Cowboy Angels seems eminently filmable to me: have you had any interest from Hollywood (or elsewhere!) previously?

PM: It's being marketed to various producers in the US right now. Like just about every other novel, of course.

SC: I notice from your blog that you're a fan of Smoke magazine in particular and London in general, so as a London resident myself I'd like to ask: what's the best thing about London?

PM: Its deep history and kaleidoscopic culture. Which sounds like two things, but if you think about it...

SC: Can you recommend something unusual to see or do in the capital?

White Devils by Paul McAuleyPM: Postman's Park in Little Britain (behind St Bartholemew's hospital, which by the way is near one of the oldest surviving churches in London) has a collection of late Victorian plaques memorialising people who died heroic deaths while saving or attempting to save someone else. Every one of them encapsulates a poignant story.

SC: Can you complete Rubik's Cube?

PM: I've done it. Don't know if I could do it again.

SC: Who/what are your current favourite writers/books both in and outside the genre?

PM: Off the top of my head, no special order:

  • Don De Lillo
  • Daniel Woodrell
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Ann Tyler
  • Jack Womack
  • James Gleick
  • Stephen Jay Gould
  • Jared Diamond
  • Christopher Fowler
  • Kim Newman
  • Alastair Reynolds
  • Robert Reed
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Paul Watkins

What else? William Gibson's new novel is one of his best. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's ambition shows no sign of failing. I've just reread several of Stephen Baxter's novels, and deepened my respect for his mastery of science-fictional tropes, and the grand sweep of his future history. Mostly blokes, it seems. Oh dear. Well, I wish Pat Cadigan would write more.

SC: Would you like to write a joint novel? With anyone in particular?

PM: I've written a couple of stories with Kim Newman. The odd thing is that what comes out isn't a hybrid of my stuff and Kim's stuff, but something else. I don't think we could manage a novel, though. The back-and-forth involved in writing a story takes long enough as it is.

SC: What's your writing routine? Do you write everyday, rain or shine?

PM: I write most days. I've been trying to take weekends off, but it doesn't always work out. Monday to Friday, I start at 9.00 am and keep going until I'm done.

SC: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?

PM: The contemplation of the ideal that I'm going to muck up as soon as I start writing again.

SC: Have you ever had a beard or moustache? Can we see a picture?

PM: If I ever had grown a beard or moustache you certainly wouldn't be getting a picture.

SC: Do you miss being a working scientist?

PM: I miss having a lab, and the back and forth with like-minded people (although of course I'm now engaged in a different kind of dialog, and I still get invited to science conferences once in a while). I don't miss the paperwork, though, or the endless struggle for funding. Or the responsibility, if I'm frank.

SC: Do you think there will be a Vingean Singularity? If so, when? Are you tempted to write about it?

PM: No, I don't. So no, I'm not.

As far as I can make out, the Vingean Singularity assumes a homogeneity of intelligence and purpose that may pertain only to theoretical rather than actual conditions. If true AI is developed, we'll probably get something more like the internet than the mind of God. And even if we do get the mind of God, She may well be indifferent to us, and vanish with the equivalent of 'So long and thanks for all the fish.'

Whole WIde World by Paul McAuleySC: Are you basically an optimist or a pessimist about the future of humanity? Do you agree that SF tends to be more negative than is strictly necessary about the future because dark futures make better stories?

PM: It's certainly easier to write about dystopias than utopias. But not, I think, because utopias are of limited interest because they embody a personal vision of rightness (although they do) and by definition have no dramatic possibilities (although they don't). The fact is, dystopias offer a wide variety of human experience. They offer debate. They offer drama and conflict. And they offer the possibility of utopia without the need to start making diagrams of the plumbing.

SC: What's your perfect meal? Would you cook it yourself or go to a restaurant? Can you cook?

PM: Oh, I can cook up a storm, but right now lemony chicken and pork with bamboo shoots from Young's would hit the spot.

SC: And what would sir like to drink with that?'

PM: Tiger beer. Or green tea.

SC: What would you really like to see invented?

PM: If you mean actual, fully-working technology, then the ability to manipulate gravity.

SC: Who's your favourite sf writer of out of The Big 3 (Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein)?

PM: All three have different virtues. But I find that I can't reread Asimov, and while Heinlein had far more influence on the shape of the genre than Clarke, Clarke thinks bigger, and has that wistful irony characteristic of British SF.

So Clarke.

SC: Do you have a personal philosophy that you try to live by, or are you making it up as you go along? ;-)

PM: Do as you would be done by. Don't miss deadlines. Don't make promises you can't keep.

There are miles to go before you sleep. Don't follow leaders, watch for parking meters.

SC: If you could do any job you wanted - anything at all (except writing!) - what would it be?

PM: Is there any better job than writing full time? When I was a kid, I wanted to be an engine driver. Or an astronaut. I'm too old to be an engine driver now (and there aren't any mainline steam trains any more). And I can't speak Russian, I'm not an American citizen, and I'm not a millionaire, so being an astronaut is out, too. For now.

SC: Which is your favourite season?

PM: High summer in the northern hemisphere of Mars.

SC: Would you like to be one of the first space tourists?

PM: I'd like to be a space tourist once the technology is as safe as the average ocean liner.

SC: What were the last three DVDs that you watched?

PM: Ace in the Hole, dir Billy Wilder; Right At Your Door, dir Chris Gorak; and a couple of episodes of The Rockford Files, Season Four.

SC: What were the last three CDs that you bought?

PM: The Hissing of Summer Lawns - Joni Mitchell; Winemucca - Richmond Fontaine; and Kentucky Gospel 1927-1928.

SC: Circuses - good or bad?

PM: Never trust a clown.

SC: Does the TV show Big Brother have any value to society whatsoever?

PM: I thought the first season had a look-at-the-humans-in-a-zoo interest, but now, apart from acting as a low-security holding pen for wannabes, no.

SC: Obviously infinity plus is your favourite website, but are there other websites you regularly frequent and recommend -- for whatever reason?

PM: Boing Boing always has something interesting on it. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's website is full of fabulous wonders. And I suppose I should mention my blog, Earth and Other Unlikely Worlds.

SC: Is your wristwatch digital or analogue?

PM: I do still wear a wristwatch as I don't own a mobile phone. It's analogue.

SC: You don't own a mobile phone? But...but...but why not?

PM: I don't own a mobile phone because I work at home, and when I go out I like to go off the grid.

SC: Were you sad to see Concorde retired?

PM: Yes, for two purely selfish reasons. First, I never had the opportunity to fly in one. Second, I used to see the British prototype of Concorde, piloted by the redoubtable Brian Trubshaw, flying over my school. So its retirement is not only part of the end of the hopeful technocratic era of the 1960s (remember the promise that electricity would be so cheap that it wouldn't be worth metering? remember Apollo, and cross-Channel hovercrafts?), but it's also a farewell to a part of my childhood.


© Stuart Carter 2007.

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley
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