20 November 2009

Blog tour: a conversation with a stranger on a train

Anne Tillyer, author of An A-Z of Possible Worlds, stopped by to answer a few of my questions as part of the Roast Books blog tour. In interviewing Anne, she was quite approachable and friendly with the questions, much like a friendly stranger you might meet and like when riding the train in a foreign city. You can converse, chat, laugh, get some helpful tips and wonder if you'll ever see that stranger again so that you might have time to strike up a friendship. The seat across from us on the train is available, so why not sit down and listen in?

Many of your stories reveal a depth of researched knowledge, such as "Q is for Quayside." What was your strategy for researching as much as you needed for the story, but not spending more time than you wanted to on the research? I find I can spend a lot of time researching and run out of writing time.

I expect that's where writing on trains helps. I can't look anything up, so I just leave a gap or a question mark and carry on. Most things can be checked pretty quickly afterwards. That said, if you're enjoying the research, then why not do loads of it? It might be the start of a whole new interest! The books I read about the history of shipping and navigation for 'The Quayside' were fascinating. I still have a few to go, actually. I also read quite a bit about peat bogs for 'The Bog', even though I knew I wouldn't use much of it but again, they're remarkable places. There were things I found less interesting (road surfaces, golf, ballistics, plastic surgery...), but I only needed a few facts for each so they didn't take long to research. I suppose the trick is to keep your writing time separate from your reading time. You don't have to know everything before you start. But if you find you'd rather research something than write about it, perhaps it's time to ask why. I spent nearly a year reading loads about apothecary shops and plagues for a book I barely started. It was all extremely interesting until I realized I was trying to write something that I probably wouldn't read myself, not being particularly keen on historical fiction. So that was a mistake. I know you should learn from your mistakes, but I wish I'd learnt a bit quicker!

Your title "possible worlds" put me in mind of many alternate worlds stories, such as Neal Stephenson's Anathem and Roger Zelazny's Amber series. What kinds of alternative world stories inspired you? Who would you want to see your stories displayed with in a bookstore featuring a section on possible worlds?

Thank you for that! I've just googled Anathem and it sounds brilliant, but I'm afraid I hadn't heard of it before. Perhaps I should try the Amber stories as well, though their sheer length has always seemed rather daunting to me. I've worked out that I may have time to read just 2,000 more books in my entire life, so I'm very protective of my reading time.

'Nineteen Eighty-Four' had a huge impact on me when I read it in my early teens and I still love it. I think it's the way Orwell thinks through every aspect of his world that makes it so convincing, right down to language, the ownership of history and the effects of a surveillance society on personal psychology. I'm not interested in magic and unicorns, it's worlds that are just one or two twists away from the known that intrigue me. So if you put me on a shelf alongside J G Ballard's 'High-Rise' and 'Concrete Island', Ira Levin's 'Stepford Wives', Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451', Yevgeny Zamyatin's 'We' and, of course, George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz, I'd be pretty happy. Ecstatic, actually!

Some authors have written of struggles they face in writing wonderful characters who experience horrible events - there is an inclination to ease up on the character, to be more gentle and less gruesome. I can tell when an author is pulling their punches, and you don't pull any. Which characters in your stories did you face the most mental resistance in having them face awful events?

Ha! Well, I had a pretty good idea of what was in store for my characters beforehand, so their fate didn't cause me any sleepless nights. There were some that I positively enjoyed tormenting. The Queen in 'The Frontier' is one of those women who delude themselves with romantic ideas and pick the horrible guys to go out with because they think they can redeem them and they can't, they can't. So she gets what's coming to her. Likewise, the people in 'The Straits' have been ostracized by mainstream society but, when they have the chance to be accepted, they deliberately sabotage it because they have much more fun being on the outside. I'm with them on that! I did feel rather sorry for the manager in 'The Youth Hostel', who is too naive to give the tourists the ethnic charm they're looking for, but that's the beauty of short stories. He wouldn't exist at all if he wasn't about to suffer a big disappointment. Hopefully, the readers like him and that's as much as he can expect. I can't imagine changing what I want to say because I sympathize with one of my characters. In fact, if I feel sorry for them, I know I'm doing all right.

Your stories highlight the roles of individuals who are outsiders to the mainstream such as the entrepreneur in "G is for Golf Course" and the historian in "E is for Excavation". In your interview with Andy at Decoding Static you said "to be frank, I don't actually trust the public that much" but the individuals you portray don't seem trustworthy either. Where is the redemption and uplift in your stories? Does an author need to provide some positivity in a tale?

I think the historian does redeem himself in the end. After all, his final act is pretty brave. He's a little guy who doesn't have the courage to stand up against the government, so they trust him. Yet he's prepared to hide a historical fact that would be very useful to the authorities. But you're right, I don't really trust the public that much. I think we all turn a blind eye to certain things for the sake of an easy life, and I include myself in that. The dictator in 'The Holiday Resort' gets away with human rights abuses because people want to believe that he has come round to their way of thinking, so he says what they want to hear and simply changes his tactics. It's a difficult question and, if I think about it, no, I don't think I 'need' to provide positivity in a story if I don't think it's there. At the same time, I think if an author can reveal the mechanics behind a certain situation, then they've done a good job. Maybe I'm just cruel, but I find that watching people get their comeuppance can be very satisfying. In fact, it's nice to be able to construct a world where people do get what's coming to them.

I work as an improv actor, and in that work names are hugely important. Starting a scene as a Ben can give an entirely different characterization than starting it as a Benedict. Yet in your novels, names are conspicuously absent. What fueled your decision to have nameless characters and how do you feel about that writing choice in retrospect?

That was because I wanted the stories to be destinations on a journey around your head, so I decided early on to try to avoid using any specific cultural references and, as you say, names come with their own social baggage. It was quite tricky in places and yup, there were a few times when I regretted that decision. But then, there was always a way around it. I think 'The Peep Show' has the most characters and for a long time, I couldn't see how I could write it without naming the women. But when I realized that they could be referred by their hair colour, it seemed to fit the story rather well, as if there was a 'stable' of women that worked in the club, like horses in a circus. Just think of the freedom you would have if you were told to improvise that little lot!

What's next? Do you have another work on the way, and will you be continuing with non-traditional formats?

I would love to continue with a non-traditional format, but only if it fitted the text. The box set for this collection seemed perfect because each story is a self-contained world and you can read them in any order. But I wouldn't want to do something that was just a gimmick, that would be annoying. I'm working on a full-length piece at the moment which reads like a normal book and to alter the format would feel gratuitous. However, I do have an idea for a series of stories set around a single night's television programmes and it might be interesting to do something a bit different with that...

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