Thursday, 22 December 2011

Interview | Adam Christopher

Back in November, I reviewed Adam's now newly-released novel, Empire State - an original and heady mix of superheroes, robots, noir, and not a few double crosses... (Hint: It's really very good). Adam kindly agreed to the following interview, so... Welcome to the blog, Adam!

Empire State mixes subverted superheroes, a detective straight out of noir, and... metaphysics. Was there anything in particular that inspired you to put these elements together?

 Empire State was the result of several different ideas all coming together at once by accident. I think a lot of writers experience that - you're working on different projects and you've got a handful of neat ideas that are in need of a home. Suddenly, a couple can collide in your mind, and you've got something else entirely, something new and unexpected.

That's pretty much what happened with Empire State. I had this idea kicking around for ages about a Prohibition-era city caught in a never-ending Cold War with a nameless enemy, but apart from being a cool setting, it didn't have a story to go with it. Sometime later, a challenge from some friends to write a pulp SF pastiche came up with a story called "Captain Carson and the Case of the Robot Zombie", which was really just a title and a vague idea about a moustachioed polar explorer playing detective in New York, on the hunt for a robot serial killer. The final element came to me on a long-haul flight from Manchester, England, to San Francisco a few years ago. I had with me a copy of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler - it was actually the first time I'd read one of his books, and I wasn't sure what to expect. As it happens, I was completely hooked and fell in love with this hardboiled, noir style. And sometimes on very long flights things go a little loopy - lack of sleep and dehydration probably - and I remember going off to sleep thinking how great it would have been if The Big Sleep was science fiction, but played exactly the same. This idea of "Raymond Chandler with robots" stuck with me, and then I remembered those other ideas about the Prohibition and this character called Captain Carson.

Around the same time, more or less, I was looking for Ray Bradbury books on Amazon and mistyped his name as "Rad" Bradbury. I immediately thought it was a great name for a pulp detective, and suddenly - SHAZAM! - it all came together. Pulp detectives, robots, an endless war, Prohibition - Empire State was born.

The superheroes were introduced later, but again it was a case of the right idea locking into place. I love the idea of period superheroes and I still think Batman Begins would have been amazing if it had been set in the 1930s, when Detective Comics #27 had come out. All of the elements I wanted had a common root in this time period - pulp fiction and hardboiled detectives, the Golden Age of comic books and the emergence of superheroes, Prohibition and the Great Depression. On the face of it, it sounds like a lot of disparate elements, but really they all have a commonality.

Just out of interest here, did you ever write 'Captain Carson and the Case of the Robot Zombie'? :P I mean, not in Empire State form.

No, but I must admit I've been tempted. One of the things about Empire State is that the book is really only about one event - a pivotal event, of course - and there is huge scope for more stories set in the same universe. Before the events of the book, Rad ran his detective agency, and Kane - thanks to his newspaper contacts - helped out. Carson himself is perhaps the most mysterious - he was involved somehow with the Empire State and the Chairman of the City Commissioners at some point. So, Captain Carson investigating the case of the robot zombie? Well, why not. Maybe I will write that. Or maybe someone else will write it, as part of the Worldbuilder!

You've opened
Empire State up to the new Worldbuilder project - but stated you'd prefer stories to avoid the novel's future: does this mean firm plans for a sequel, or just the possibility?

The rule there is that while you can use the characters of the book if you want to - and you don't have to, of course - if you do, don't create anything set concurrently with the novel, or set afterwards. The first restriction is because there are no real pauses in the book, so, for example, writing a short story with Rad set during the events of Empire State would be illogical and would confuse the central narrative.

The second restriction is to keep the possibility of a sequel open - I don't want to be influenced in any way by what someone else writes about Rad or Kane or Carson or anyone. I do have some notes on a possible sequel, but it'll only be written if and when it feels right to do so!

Of course, none of this prevents people from creating their own characters and sending them off on adventures before, during, and after the events of the novel. I've divided the world up into a number of "realms", the details of which readers can find at the back of the book and on - there is enough scope to create almost anything, and to set things almost anywhere. If someone wanted to write a story with someone's successor set in 2011, for example, that would be cool! I also hope people create new characters and have them interact with the ones I've created. The Worldbuilder is going to be a lot of fun!

I'll be looking out for them! (Ah, Captain Carson was definitely a favourite)

Time for the interrogation: given the choice, ebook or hard copy?

Given the choice? Hard copy, every time. But that's not to say I necessarily prefer hard copies to ebooks - I used to live in a small house which quickly ran out of room, so ebooks were my number one choice. Since moving to a larger house - one that actually has a library! - I've moved back to hard copies. In particular I love hardbacks, and will also try and seek those out over the paperback edition. Someone once said that books are a souvenier of a journey taken - in the same way as you might put a postcard on a noticeboard or a fridge magnet of a holiday destination up to remind you, so you put the book on the shelf once you've read it.

Ebooks, however, are immensely practical - I do a lot of travelling, and nothing beats taking an ereader with you. For me the days of taking giant books (usually paperback for flights!) around while travelling are gone.

The problem though is that this often means buying two copies of everything - it would be great for say hardback editions to come with a code for a download of the ebook, like the codes you get for a digital copy of a film when you buy the Blu-ray, or downloadable content for games consoles - but I think there are a lot of logistical problems to overcome before that becomes commonplace. For a start, Blu-rays and console games are in sealed packaging with the unique download code safe inside, while books (at least the ones on the shelves I browse!) are free to open.

Were there any characters in Empire State you found particularly enjoyable to write? 

There were two that were a real pleasure - Rad himself, and Captain Carson.

Rad is a pulp detective in pulp detective tradition, deliberately so. But while this might sound restrictive, it actually gave me a surprising amount of freedom. Sure, he's going to react in certain ways and have certain behaviours, but the great thing about hardboiled characters is that they can approach situations in quite surprising ways. Rad spends the book searching for a truth which is, really, mostly beyond his understanding. He's the reader's anchor, and as he fights his way through the story, I felt a real connection.

Captain Carson was more fun in the traditional sense - here's this old guy whose connections to the city and events are mysterious and also a little bizarre, and he was frequently hilarious to write.

In any good writing, the characters should come to life and start acting on their own - this is something that non-writers sometimes think is a little weird, because a writer is supposed to be in charge of everything, right? But that's not the case, and once things get going, characters will start to shape the story themselves and take matters into their own hands.

This happened a lot with Captain Carson - I won't spoil anything, but at several points in the book he'd do something that was completely surprising to me and contrary to what he was supposed to be doing, at least as far as I knew. That's the best part of writing, when a character comes to life and you're left trying to keep up with them as they plough onwards, disregarding your outline and synopsis and throwing up hidden plot points and new directions.

I like Captain Carson. I suspect he'll appear again.

Empire State definitely has one of the most original combinations I've seen this year: was this kind of genre blending what you first set out to do as a writer, or did you have a preferred 'subgenre'?

The genre-blending of Empire State was incidental to the story - I had the characters, the setting, the central idea, and I started writing. Of course, as I wrote, I was wondering to myself how the book might be classified. It's science fiction, for sure... but with hardboiled pulp, noir, superheroes, the slightest touch of steampunk, and even a few fantasy elements. Eventually I realised that it was the kind of thing that Angry Robot might be interested in, as they were known for not being worried too much about cross-genre stories. As it happens, they were!

But essentially I had the idea and I wrote it - this is the same for everything I write: I don't worry about genre or classification, if I have a story to tell and the characters to tell it, then that's what I write. Of course everything I write is "genre" of some description, because that's the kind of story I love, but the definitions are pretty loose and it's not something I consciously think about, it just comes naturally from the situation.

Who are your favourite authors? Have any influenced you particularly?

My favourite authors are really split between novelists and comic writers, as my reading tends to be split between these forms. So I'd count Stephen King, Lauren Beukes and HP Lovecraft in the same breath as Kurt Buseik, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker - and, of course, some authors/writers have overlap in both forms.

I've also got favourite books, which are a slightly different thing - from recent books like Ready Player One by Ernie Cline, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Five by Robert McCammon, to classics like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.

Whether an author or a book influences me as a writer is an interesting question and difficult to answer. The answer is absolutely yes, but I suspect it's mostly subconscious. I've noticed that if I'm reading a book and really enjoying it, writing comes very easily and I'm happy with the result. If I'm stuck reading a book that isn't so great, then my writing suffers. Unfortunately, although I know this now, it sometimes takes a while to figure out that the reason why I'm a little stuck on a project is because I'm reading a book that isn't quite doing it for me!

Empire State definitely plays around with a few archetypes - so which is your favourite fantasy archetype, and why?
That's a difficult question! Empire State required a set of archetypes for the story to be structured how it was - the hardboiled detective, the dame, the Prohibition setting - but most came from classic detective fiction than SF. I think Empire State is more a meld of that and comic archetypes rather than fantasy.
Apart from Empire State on the 27th, are there any releases you're particularly looking forward to right now?
There are a couple of books out next year that I'm really looking forward to.

One of my favourites from 2011 was My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland. It's a genius piece of urban fantasy that really revitalises the zombie genre in a unique way, and despite the title it's not a comedy or spoof. The next in the series, Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues, is out in July.

Scott Sigler's Nocturnal is due in April. I'm a fan of Scott's from his podcasting, and Nocturnal was the first of his novels I listened to. I still think it's his best too - it's a huge epic that plays out across (and underneath) San Francisco - when I went there in 2009, I had a fun day scouting locations from the book. Crown are doing a brilliant job with Scott's work, so I expect the hardcover release of Nocturnal to be even better.

Plus there's another book called Seven Wonders coming out in August... something about superheroes by that guy who wrote Empire State...
Funny, that one's on my wishlist too. Is there anything you feel you've done better, or differently, in your second novel?
I'm going to have to think about how I answer that - you're right in that Seven Wonders is my second novel. But as it happens, Empire State was actually the third, and they're being released in reverse order! The first one I wrote was an occult steampunk thing called Dark Heart, which is pretty cool but which needs a lot of work before it'll be ready for publication.

Seven Wonders and Empire State are completely different, so a comparison is hard. Seven Wonders is perhaps a little more "widescreen" as there are more characters, and being an all-out superhero novel, with plenty of spandex and laser beams, it's a little more action-oriented. It's also set in the present day, so the whole tone and style is different.

But I like the idea that the two books might be connected - perhaps the world of present-day San Ventura, California, is the same world in which the Science Pirate and the Skyguard protected New York in the 1930s, until they vanished after their famous final battle. And then in the period from 1930 to the early 21st century, the world gradually filled with hundreds of superheroes and supervillains, who waged war against each other until there was just one superteam left, The Seven Wonders, and their arch-nemesis, The Cowl.
Wow - I didn't anticipate Seven Wonders wouldn't be your latest work! Occult steampunk sounds interesting - was it alternate history-ish steampunk or secondary world steampunk?
Alternate history, but set in the present. In 1861, Queen Victoria dies from typhoid fever, and a distraught Prince Albert instigates a coup and takes direct control of the British Empire. His scientists - and magicians - steer the path of progress into a dark place in his quest to bring Victoria back from the dead, and 150 years later he's still in charge, his lifespan extended by steam power and black arts. That's the world, anyway. Dark Heart follows the adventures of an occult detective and his team as they try to prevent the awakening of a voodoo god of death in the jungles of West Africa, while a steam-powered serial killer stalks London.

But... it needs some work. Maybe it'll see the light of day sometime!
Thank you for the interview, Adam - and good luck with the Empire State release!
Adam Christopher's debut novel, Empire State, is now out from Angry Robot in the UK (and naturally, it's really very good - try it). His second novel, Seven Wonders, is due out next summer.


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