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Interview with Michael Marshall

Interview with Michael Marshall

We have been lucky enough to review the new Michael Marshall novel - We are here - a powerful yet subtle tale that keeps the reader gripped right to the end, currently being published by Gollancz.

We managed to catch up with the author to ask him a few questions about his latest book and other topics of interest. Part one of the interview was published on the Gollancz blog a few days ago.

Ant: What inspired you to write "We are here"?

Michael: The initial impulse for “We Are Here” came from watching my young son as he interacted with the world – starting to learn the boundaries between what (and who) is real, and what’s not. It was a short step from there to exploring the way in which our lives are structured by the people and things we’ve left behind, by our pasts, and by other hidden influences, and also to looking at some of the ways in which the Internet is changing our relationships. What does it mean to ‘follow’ someone? What do our relationships and pasts boil down to, in the end? How can we live in cities where some people have it all, and some have nothing? Who and what do we care about? Who are we, and what makes us real?

Ant: "We are here" is a quite subtle novel, while there are elements of horror it's also got a mainstream feel about it and I see it as one that could reach a much bigger audience - was this intentional?

Michael: It’s not a conscious attempt to write for a wider audience (though a few more readers never hurts); more a reflection of my belief that novels with otherworldly elements don’t have to be written solely to a genre audience. There tends to be this great schism in fiction: crime or fantasy or SF novels skimp on real world matters like relationships and family and what it’s like to live in our societies and cultures and towns; but mainstream fiction too often ignores the subtle strangeness of existence and how often we’re led by the invisible. We open the doors in our real lives all the time — cleaving to superstitions, believing we knew the phone was going to ring just before it did, being scared in the dark even though we know we’re securely locked into our safe house — so why shouldn’t we do it in fiction, too? In “We Are Here” I’m trying to open some of those doors, in a novel that’s hopefully thrilling and a little strange but also feels real.

Having said which, yes, this is probably the most mainstream book I’ve written so far — and that’s a progression that’s going to continue.

Ant: Your stories often seem to generate a good degree of interest in becoming optioned for films or TV series, "We are here" seems the perfect material for a movie, do you think it has the chance?

Michael: I’ve been lucky to have a lot of film interest over the years, though none of it’s come to fruition. There’s two short films in production at the moment, I’m working with a director called Simon Duric on trying to bring “Only Forward” to television, and “The Intruders” is under development by BBC Worldwide in LA, also for TV. There’s a chance for “We Are Here”, either for film or as a basis for a series: Hollywood is very cautious at the moment, however, and errs on the side of safe bets. I tend not to write safe bets. That’s okay. You write a book to be a book, and let fate determine what happens afterward... a novel is not merely a wannabe movie, after all. The novel is the best story-delivery device ever invented.

Ant: One of the things I admire about your work is that it even though they are written in a specific genre much of it can't be easily pigeon-holed, sharing elements of sci-fi, horror and contemporary fiction. Is this a conscious decision?

Michael: Again, not a conscious choice so much as a reflection of the fiction I like, and what I believe books can — and should — do. It’s not an easy road, as many publishers and bookstores and readers like their fiction to be specifically categorizable. This niche-focusing is a fairly recent phenomena, however — our earlier stories, from 19th century novels right back to myths and legends and the first tales told around the campfire — mixed many different elements, and were never in the least concerned with sticking to what’s “true”. They took advantage of a very broad conception of reality to reflect normal life back to us, in the hope of better comprehending it, and that’s all I’m trying to do.

Ant: Most of your books have explored human nature to some extent, including "we are here" - do you see yourself as a student of the human condition?

Michael: Absolutely, and that’s something all books should have at their core. People care about people. You can only read a plot for pleasure once, whereas prose that’s concerned with trying to understand what it’s like to be human can be read again and again, often improving with subsequent visits, and mutating as we grow older. That’s what all our stories are all about, in the end — including religions — an endless ongoing attempt to get to the bottom of what kind of creature we really are.

Ant: So you write sci-fi, horror, contemporary fiction. Do you have a favourite genre you like writing within?

Michael: Not really. I’m not sure I’ve ever written anything that fits wholly in one of those genres, without bleeding out into others... I suppose where I feel most comfortable is in noir, with a touch of the fantastic.

Ant: Some authors who write within different genres make a conscious decision to write in a different style for each, do you see this as a mistake?

Michael: Writing’s hard, and people should do whatever helps them to get it done — up to a point. There are those who whole-heartedly love crime or SF or horror, and enjoy writing snugly within the boundaries of a particular genre — and some great books come about as a result. There are also people like me, who plough sideways across the genres each time. To deliberately jump back and forth between genres for each book strikes me as counter-productive, though — and a little arrogant. Writing a good horror or crime novel is easily as tough as writing a good ‘literary’ novel. Thinking you can nail it first time, and then skip off to ‘conquer’ another genre, smacks of someone who thinking of their reputation and profile, rather than story and characters and ideas.

Ant: Your voice is quite different to anything I have read before, the closest I can imagine being Stephen King - who do you see as being your biggest influence?

Michael: King was definitely an influence, especially in the early days — there’s simply no-one better at grabbing a reader and dragging them into a story. I was also influenced by Jack Finney, especially the easy-going voice of books like “The Night People”, and perhaps mixed in a little from Ray Bradbury too, and Jim Thompson, and Raymond Chandler. I like clear, direct voices in fiction, people who care about language but don’t beat you over the head with it. Reading should never be hard work. It should be like a friend telling you a story, leading you step by step via things and people you can believe in and care about. If you happen to carve an attractive sentence every now and then, all to the good, but that should be a secondary motive. Get the story told. Make the people in it real. Encourage readers to forget everything but the page in front of them, and get them to the last line. That’s what counts. An author is the medium, not the message.

Ant: When you aren't writing, who do you like to read?

Michael: Right now I’m enjoying Richard Ford’s “Canada”, but like a lot of novelists I find myself mainly steering clear of fiction when I’m in the middle of a project — probably a reflection of having used up a ton of imagination during the day and being in the mood for stuff that’s ‘true’ in my downtime. I’m reading a lot of local history at the moment, as my next novel’s set in California, specifically around where I now live - Santa Cruz, Big Sur, the Sierra Nevada mountains. I’m also re-reading some early Bill Bryson, like “Made In America” and “Mother Tongue” — I find his cultural stuff both fascinating and very relaxing. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, I’m always drawn to people with an evident love of language... but who also get the telling done.

Ant: A lot of your work is published as "e-fiction", you seem to have grasped the digital publishing arena more effectively than many authors - how do you see Digital affecting the literary landscape in the next few years?

Michael: Many people are turning to digital as their reading format of choice, and so you’re missing out if you’re not ensuring your work is available there. The digital revolution also puts interesting new opportunities in authors’ hands. I’m making some of my short fiction available as e-books at www.ememess.com, for example — simply because it’s a way of giving the work an additional lease of life in a world where publishers tend not to see short stories as a commercially-viable format. I’d be devastated to see real bookstores die out, however, and the fact remains that fiction is always improved through collaboration, honed by the input of an editor and through reference to people who know what they’re talking about when it comes to sales and marketing... so I don’t see traditional publishing fading away any day soon.

Ant: Your very first published story "The Man Who Drew Cats" won the British Fantasy Award and then your first novel "Only Forward" won the August Derleth Award and the PKD - does this put you under any pressure to keep delivering the goods?

Michael: I was fortunate to win a couple of awards early in my career, and still score one every now and then. It’s always nice. Receiving an award is a wonderful piece of validation, of course, especially when you’re starting out: it reassures you that you’re saying things people want to hear, and that they enjoy reading. The real competition is never with other writers, however: it’s with yourself and the blank page. You have to write for your audience, and for yourself, and try to be true to the book and its characters and ideas. That’s more than enough pressure without worrying about awards!

Ant: What are you working on now?

Michael: I’ve just finished putting together a new short story collection. It’s called “Everything You Need”, and will be coming out later this year from Earthling Publications. I’m also wrapping up a personal project called “The Gist”, in which a story of mine was translated into French and then back to English, to see what would happen in the meantime — to see if ‘the gist’ survived. That’ll be published in a limited edition by Subterranean Press.

And so I’m now cautiously setting off into the foothills of a new novel... and to me the start of a book really does feel like setting off into the wilderness, armed with only a cursory map of where you’re going: not knowing whether you’ll have a relatively straightforward journey to the promised land, with tons of great scenery and picaresque adventures... or instead wind up in thirty feet of snow on the Donner Pass in the dead of winter, eating your own shoelaces. I’m not a big planner. I prefer the book to come and find me. It feels great when it does, like a cat jumping up to sit on your lap.

When it doesn’t... the snow rains down.

When asked, "How do you write?" I invariably answer, "one word at a time."
- Stephen King

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The Man who never was