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.)