Wednesday, 22 December 2010
Interview With Adam Wilson
As promised, an interview with Adam Wilson, author of Mayday and occasional producer of some of the most brilliant short stories I have read. As background, I first met Adam several years ago when he was part of Hull University's fencing club, where a mutual friend of ours happened to mention that the tall bloke with the weird inside-out lunge wrote short stories and occasionally got feedback from friends. I pestered him into being a critique partner, and I have rarely been so happy to read the stuff that has been put in front of me. Anyway, here he is. For the most realistic effect, try arranging your seating position so that you are looking at the screen almost vertically.
First, tell people some stuff about yourself.
Well, I’ve been on this earth for 25 years and I’ve been writing in some form for most of those. Typically I write science fiction or thrillers. I grew up in rural Wales. At age eighteen I started work on Mayday, a thriller novel that I continued to write through my undergrad, working in whatever half-hour scraps of time I could find. No wonder that it took almost two years to write the first draft! (Actually, the final quarter of the book was written in those six ‘missing’ weeks in the summer of 2006, in which I lived like a hermit, speaking with no one and surviving only through endless consumption of tinned soup and the complete series of M*A*S*H.) After that I started writing short fiction. I’m interested in mathematics, language, politics… Right now I live in Edinburgh, where I’m doing a PhD in supramolecular chemistry.
Mayday is one of your earlier pieces, isn’t it? What’s it like going back to that earlier writing self? Is he someone that you would desperately love to give some tips to?
Oddly enough I feel almost no sense of continuity with the person who wrote this book. Rereading it is an odd experience. It’s definitely a product of who I was then: eighteen years old, a country boy fascinated by cities, increasingly horrified by the government’s exploitation of the threat of terrorism but struggling to express it. Writing Mayday was a way of putting my thoughts in order. I think if I could go back and talk to my younger self I’d have a lot to tell him about politics. To make his teeth sharper.
What made you decide to publish it yourself? Given the amount of other stuff you’ve put out without recourse to publishers, is this some sort of deliberate ploy, or is it just an attempt to annoy those of us who have lots of stuff floating around, but know you’re a better writer?
Actually it happened by accident. I was content to leave Mayday as something of a museum piece, but a couple of months ago a friend of mine who’d read it asked for a copy. I’m afraid I didn’t really take her seriously – I thought she was just being polite. But she persisted, and eventually I thought, why not? And it turned out to be cheaper to use a print-on-demand service than to do it myself.
I did try sending Mayday off to publishers, but only half-heartedly. I’m a perfectionist with my writing, and in the time it took to edit and get the book ready, I was already moving on in the direction of short stories. Although I’d love to write another novel, a science fiction piece maybe, I feel I learn more with short stories, can deliver ideas better.
Who are GILA, why should we care about them, and have you just ripped off the People’s Front of Judea?
The Global International Liberation Army is the manifestation of all that frustrates me about anarchist or counter-culture groups. Our hero meets them expecting to find hardcore revolutionaries; instead he finds an odd assortment of bored hairdressers and businessmen who fill their empty lives with the thrill of pretending to be revolutionaries. They use codenames and passwords and the fantasy of being dangerous as a kind of therapy. And this is all fine and lovely, until half of them are killed by a bomb they didn’t know they were carrying. The survivors scatter into the night, with no idea who lived and who died, trying to piece together what went wrong.
In its early stages, Mayday was going to be a much darker book, very serious, about anarchism. The more I read about modern anarchists, however, the more they got on my nerves. I realised that Mayday could never be a serious book: I had to make fun of these people, or at least comment on their foibles. That’s why the scenes with GILA and its members are often comical, even absurd, in the middle of a life-or-death action thriller.
Now that there is a real GILA logo on a scrap of concrete somewhere, is there a faint possibility that a (suitably incompetent) group will form around it by accident? If so, is there anything you would particularly like it to do?
I got my Dad to spraypaint the GILA logo on a paving slab in our garden. I think it’s unlikely to inspire any revolutions from there. If a real GILA did arise, I think my emotions would carve out a trajectory starting with abject horror, passing through mild amusement, then back to the horror.
Given that I first came across your writing as a critique partner of sorts, how important do you think that kind of feedback is? How do your stories change and evolve over time? (I’m thinking particularly of ‘signal flare’, which if I remember rightly went through a few incarnations before you got something you were happy with)
It’s very important to know what other people think of your work. You’re flying blind otherwise, and ultimately it’s them you’re writing for anyway. It’s all a question of knowing who you’re trying to please. You can’t please everyone. I have a small set of six or seven people whose opinions I trust (they don’t know who they are, and I like to keep it that way for reasons of objectivity!). I don’t consider myself any judge of what’s good and what’s not, so if a story of mine doesn’t get these people’s approval, I’ve been known to scrap it altogether.
The changes over time you mention are usually at the start. It’s the hardest part to write for me: I usually go through several versions before I find something I like. If the start is good, the story writes itself.
We’re almost opposites in terms of speed and length as writers. You are also almost an advert for avoiding that flash fiction ‘get it down right now in no words’ approach. What does your tendency to write fewer, longer pieces do to the work?
My philosophy is never to write something until I’m sure I have something worth saying. A finished story, for me, is a statement on my position on a topic, as carefully thought through as possible. That’s why I often go for long spells in which I write nothing at all: I’m still looking for something worth saying, or working out how I feel about an issue. It’s also why I tend not to go in for very short things. I need to tell a whole story. Flash fiction is very clever and I admire people who can condense their ideas so well. I just can’t.
You’re also quite big on research. In fact, you seem to be incredibly interested in almost everything. Is that a fair comment? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for research?
I think it’s less important to do research for stories than it is to be researching constantly, on all topics, and letting stories be the by-product of your reading. I never know what might be useful to know for a given story, so my policy is to try to know everything, or at least everything that interests me. A favourite story of mine is called Eight Plus Eight, which turns on the idea of trying to establish a shared language without being able to see the person you’re talking to, and what you can and cannot say in that language. It was inspired by a passage in Frankenstein (where the monster learns French by observing a family at mealtimes), but if I hadn’t already been reading about Wittgenstein and the history of mathematics, that germ of an idea wouldn’t have had anything to grow on.
Eight Plus Eight was also the weirdest thing I’ve done for the planning phase of a story. You’ve actually mentioned it in your blog a while ago: I held a ‘conversation’, if you can call it that, in the artificial language developed for the story, with my girlfriend, over MSN messenger. She didn’t understand the language at the start, and as per the requirements of the fictional situation, the only way I could explain the language was in that language itself. There were a couple of concessions made, since we only had an evening, but we managed to make a communications breakthrough.
(An idea for my next story may actually top that level of weirdness. Without giving too much away, it’ll involve buying a second-hand typewriter and writing some parts of it blindfolded… but let’s see how that unfolds.)
Given some of your short stories, I must ask- is the future really as bleak as all that? Honestly?
You base your futures on the world of today, and on what history tells you. As it arises, new technology will always end up first in the hands of the powerful, who will use it to increase their power. Science and progress will afford us increasingly effective ways of expediting our bigotry and aggression. And that’s just the baseline optimism I feel even before I try to Make A Point.
The inevitable writer questions, put in to be annoying. (Feel free to make fun of them. I’ve always been amused by the fact that only Neil Gaiman is ever honest enough to just reply ‘I make things up and write them down’ to the last one) When did you start? Did you always want to be a writer? Who’s your favourite character? Where do you get your ideas from?
I started writing seriously to give me an excuse to use my parents’ computer when we first got one – which gives some idea of how long ago that was! Ever since my innate geekiness has continued to fuel my writing.
My favourite character is a man called Lowe from the story Antique. In a near-future nightmare world of radically increased corporate control, he is an anti-corporate activist who fights for individual freedom – but he is also a psychopathic hardliner, an utterly ruthless absolutist who has no problem killing innocent people if they get in his way. It was a lot of fun getting inside his head. I wanted to address the logical fallacy that I see in a lot of leftie literature: in my mind, whenever there is a battle between Good and Evil, there will always be people on the side of good who are just as evil as the people they’re fighting.
And if I knew where I got my ideas from, I’d have had many more of them.
Where can people get hold of your work? Where can they buy Mayday? Can anyone who doesn’t actually live in Edinburgh get hold of any of your short stories?
You can buy Mayday online at http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/mayday/13667928. I’m toying with the idea of putting a short story collection on there too, if people are interested in me doing that. You can also join my page on Facebook, Adam Wilson’s Short Thrillers, for very irregular updates on what I’m writing.
(You can also find his short story 'Like Killing Mice' Here- Stu. Thanks to Adam for answering, and I'll probably review Mayday once I've had a chance to sit down with it properly.)