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The Gone-Away World


The Gone-Away World Cover



Author Q & A

Q: This is your first book. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

A: I’m 35, married, and unkempt. When I try to dress smart I look sort of like a thatched cottage after a hurricane; you can see what the idea was, but the fine detail is all over the place. I grew up in Cornwall, in the southwest of England. Head west from where I lived, and the first dry land you come to is North America. I once leaned on a tiger cage by accident. In 1993 someone offered me a Russian police permit allowing me to carry a fully automatic weapon. I was so amazed at what a bad idea that was that I said no, and of course now I wish I had it on my wall. I did a philosophy and politics degree at Clare College, Cambridge, in the UK, and then worked in the British film industry, which is considerably less fun than many people would have you believe.

Q: The Gone-Away World has bandits, ninjas, phantoms, and mimes, and this pipe—the Jorgmund Pipe—that’s on fire. So. How in the world did you come up with this wild plot? What was the initial germ of the idea that became this book?

A: I started with the idea of two guys with a problem. That’s basically the beginning of any story. I knew my guys had a truck. I knew the world around them was a mess. And that was about it. The plot actually isn’t that wild, if you strip it down. It’s the characters and the incidentals which make it so insane, and those came by degrees, like embroidering a picture on a pillow. The pillow you can get anywhere. It’s the design which is interesting.

Q: You start the book with our central characters learning that disaster has struck (the Pipe is on fire) and then go back in time and describe our hero’s childhood, especially his high school and college years. Why did you structure the novel this way? What is essential about his childhood and young adulthood?

A: We’re all prisoners of our timeline. Everything we know about the world is framed in the context of who we are and where we grow up, what we understand about the world. All our mistakes and all our brilliant moments are the product of that. I don’t mean that we have no input, just that we’re creatures of our environment. So here’s my guy, and there’s no way that what happens to him can matter if we don’t know him. At the same time, of course, I’m taking you on a ramble through the history of the world (Harkaway style) from the moment the main character is born to the end of the book. A great deal happens, some of it pretty odd, and I don’t want you to run screaming from the room. So I take my time and show you little bits of oddness here and there, and you don’t feel traumatized by the oddness when it comes along big time. That’s important to me, because while the world changes, in fundamental ways it stays the same. This is still our world in a lot of important ways, and I wanted you to feel that, because this isn’t a niche book, it’s for everyone, even (or particularly) people who normally speaking would not be comfortable with a book with ninjas in it.

Q: Our hero learns the Chinese martial art of Gong Fu growing up. (It will come in handy later.) The fight scenes involving Gong Fu are choreographed so well, so precisely, that it made me wonder: Do you practice Gong Fu yourself?

A: I am absolutely the worst martial artist on the face of planet Earth. There actually was a tournament, and I won. I am the Jackie Chan of having no talent at all at kicking ass. I have studied Ju Jitsu, Kick Boxing, Aikido, Escrima, Taiji, Pa Kua, fencing, and a couple of other styles no one’s ever heard of and even the practice dummies threw me on the ground. I once knocked a guy down in a sparring match and I was so worried I went over to help him up. He knocked me out cold from the floor. So when I speak about martial arts, I speak with considerable authority. In Ju Jitsu, they are very keen on saying that Uke (the guy on the receiving end of a technique) learns fastest. That may be so, but in my case what I learned was that I’m a lover, not a fighter.

Q: We get our fair share of fight scenes (mimed and actual) in The Gone-Away World, but this is ultimately a book about friendship, loyalty, love, devotion, camaraderie. Is that what you set out to write about from the start? What was it like while you were writing and having to dig really deep to get to these core emotional elements?

A: This was always about friendship, and about love. (Awww.) But at the same time, it’s about fun. I really, really wanted to have fun. I wanted you to have fun. I did not want at any point for anyone to feel they could be having more fun doing something else. And finally it’s about friendship and heroism, because I’m an optimistic person. I believe in people, singly and collectively. Not that people can’t do appalling things, just that given the opportunity, I think they’d rather do good things. I think evil sneaks up on them, and tries to look like the right thing to do. As to whether I had to dig deep—absolutely. But not just for that; for everything. With something as crazy as this, with as many facets as this, every aspect has to be clear and polished. If you’re confused about something, it has to be because I want you to be, or at least, it has to be okay with me that you don’t get that right now. I cannot afford you to feel ambiguous unless that’s where you’re supposed to be. Even ambiguity has to be made up from really strong feelings, not fuzziness. So I have to know exactly what’s going on, and that knowledge has to be on the page—even if I hide it from you temporarily.

Q: Your father is the writer John le Carré. When you began to write, were you intimidated because of that? Did you feel that you had to try to live up to his reputation at all? How did your father respond to this book?

A: Maybe not intimidated, but I certainly wasn’t going to write something I wasn’t one hundred percent happy with. We don’t have an adversarial relationship, I knew he’d be behind me, I just didn’t want him to have to lie to me. But actually, I was more worried about giving the book to my mother. Fortunately, they both like it.

Q: Have you learned anything about how to write from reading your father’s work or talking to him about the craft of writing?

A: Definitely. I’d have to be made of stone to avoid it, but it’s not something like the D’Artagnan family attack in The Three Musketeers—like (I think it was) Raymond Chandler’s “when you don’t know what to do, have a pretty girl come through the door with a gun.” It’s more like a sense of story. Is that going to work, is that a duff note? Is this character a problem, why am I doing this? Where’s this going? It’s the same kind of knowledge you’d expect a carpenter’s child to have about wood if they sat in the workshop and watched the master at work all day.

Q: The names of characters in this book are quite eclectic. They range from the fairly normal “Sally Culpepper” to stranger ones like “Gonzo Lubitch,” “Humbert Pestle,” and “Jim Hepsobah.” How did you come up with names, and why did you want to make them so varied?

A: Names are pure tone for me. I chose them based on how they sound, what they make you feel—not just about the character, but about the world. These names are outlandish because I want you to know, right away, that we’re in a foreign place. It’s like here, but it’s not here. Most people who read the book assume that it takes place on another continent from the one they live on, and that’s something I wanted.

Q: There are plenty of ninjas in this book. What do you like about ninjas? Did you do research in order to write about them?

A: You can’t have a hero without a villain. More than that: the power of the villain defines how heroic the hero can be. How overmatched are we? Just how damn lucky, brave, skilled and resourceful do we have to be? That’s why people love Batman: because he walks the walk alongside Superman with absolutely no superpowers at all. He is by definition overmatched, and he wins anyway.

So ninjas are great, because they’re incredibly scary. They are sufficiently scary that you can define a character as a hero by the fact that he fights them and does not die. I didn’t do any kind of research at all on ninjas—mostly because almost all the written material on them is sillier than anything I could have come up with. I just took the idea and did my own thing with it.

Q: Often, we find out that people and situations in this book are not what they first seem to be. I’m thinking particularly of the Evangelist, the headmistress of our narrator’s school. Our narrator thinks she’s heartless and a Neanderthal, but realizes later on that she’s observant and wise, and an ally to him. Talk a little bit about the preponderance of incorrect first impressions in the book. Why so many? What do you think they say about the notions of Good and Bad in this strange world?

A: Wow . . . now that is a very, very good question. Hm . . . In the first place, everyone has a story. The guy next to you on the bus, the woman who comes in to a café and orders Champagne at ten-thirty in the morning and weeps into it, the sullen, silent brat on her way to school. . . . They all have something absolutely amazing or awful going on. Get them to talk about it and you find that he’s a neurosurgeon, she’s a prosecuting attorney who just won a case she wanted to lose, the brat’s a prodigy or is looking after her whole family or whatever. Nothing is skin deep. It’s just not. Even the wallet in your pocket has a story which features love, pain, death, money, fear. . . .First impressions lie. Even when they are ninety-nine percent accurate, they lie, because that one percent which remains is crucial. Think of it in terms of DNA: the statistic everyone gets excited about is the one that says we share over ninety percent of our DNA with apes. Yeesh, you think that’s bad? We share around fifty-five with a banana. How depressing is that? So it’s that last one percent, less than that, which makes us who we are. It’s the same with people. Look longer, look harder. There is so much more than we let on.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Book 2! Untitled Nick Harkaway Project ’08! I’m so jazzed. I have to launch this book, and find time to keep the next one bubbling along. And I really like it. It has improbable machines, terrible consequences, spine-chilling enemies, sexy characters, dastardly plots, and one unbelievably magic ingredient I’m not telling you about which is even better than any of those. (Only my wife knows, and she’s sworn to secrecy.)

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 4 comments:

yanceylebeef, January 2, 2011 (view all comments by yanceylebeef)
Ninjas,Mimes, Old Martial Arts Masters, and completely unclassifiable. this book is one of the few I finished and then turned immediately to the first page to start it again!
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freezin4books, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by freezin4books)
A book both surprising and endlessly entertaining. Nick Harkaway's prose is skillful and descriptive, but constantly tongue-in-cheek.
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Jane Ballard, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Jane Ballard)
I'm nominating this book as the best of the decade, not just because I won a Daily Dose prize for my comments in February 2009, but for the strength it gave me when I needed it so badly. My longtime boyfriend died two months after I wrote this review, and while I knew it was coming - he'd been terminally ill for a couple of years -- reaching back for the ultimate lesson of this book, "the unmistakable stamp of love in its many and varied forms," helped me survive a very difficult time. I know Nick Harkaway didn't write this book with me in mind, but the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Freebooting Company -- not to mention the mimes and ninjas -- sustained me through some very dark days and helped me emerge from my own personal fire along the Jorgmund Pipe. Thank you, Gonzo, and thank you, Nick, for restoring my Livable Zone.
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Product Details

Harkaway, Nick
Fantasy fiction
Science fiction
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.52x6.56x1.60 in. 1.70 lbs.

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Gone-Away World
0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 512 pages Knopf Publishing Group - English 9780307268860 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

This literary debut features the pre- and post-apocalyptic, plenty of kung fu, anti-corporate subplots, and its fair share of mimes. It's an epic that stuns and delights with its absurdities and profundities. Part cautionary tale of apocalyptic war (featuring a new type of bomb that makes things literally "go away") and part buddy adventure, The Gone-Away World is for anyone who enjoys a good romp. It has a tendency to wander a bit, and the author is not afraid to use his words, but it never fails to amuse. Also, ninjas are involved.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "This unclassifiable debut from the son of legendary thriller author John le Carr is simultaneously a cautionary tale about the absurdity of war; a sardonic science fiction romp through Armageddon; a conspiracy-fueled mystery replete with ninjas, mimes and cannibal dogs; and a horrifying glimpse of a Lovecraftian near-future. 'Go Away' bombs have erased entire sections of reality from the face of the Earth. A nameless soldier and his heroic best friend witness firsthand the unimaginable aftermath outside the Livable Zone, finding that the world has 'unraveled' and is home to an assortment of nightmarish mutations. With the fate of humankind in the balance, the pair become involved in an unlikely and potentially catastrophic love triangle. Readers who prefer linear, conventional plotlines may find Harkaway overly verbose and frustratingly tangential, but those intrigued by works that blur genre boundaries will find this wildly original hybrid a challenging and entertaining entry in the post-apocalyptic canon. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "A brilliant, stunning novel, The Gone-Away World is smart and funny and capacious of heart; the writing is fluid, the storytelling utterly fearless. It's the best book I've read in quite some time."
"Review" by , "Nick Harkaway is hot stuff. You'll need asbestos gloves for this one."
"Review" by , "The Gone-Away World grows richer, smarter, and more entertaining with every page. In the weeks after I finished reading it, my mind kept roaming free of other books and dreaming about this one instead."
"Review" by , "A big new book by a big new writer. Harkaway describes The Gone-Away World in words that whiz and ping like bullets ricocheting off the walls of the reader's mind. He's the real thing."
"Review" by , "[A] fast-paced and intelligent work from a writer one needs to watch out for."
"Review" by , "The Gone-Away World is well spiced with side attractions — ninjas, mimes, monster trucks and crawling oil rigs, warrior geese and an outlaw circus — and riffs on Tupperware, martial arts, Middle Eastern village markets and a host of other topics I didn't know were interesting until I read this book."
"Review" by , "[A] multifaceted ride, a mixture of Apocalypse Now and Fight Club."
"Review" by , "Funny, digressive, dark, and possibly optimistic, Harkaways debut displays ingredients of Catch-22, Dr. Strangelove, and The Road Warrior with maybe a pinch of Pynchon and a sprinkling of Vonnegut."
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