The lovely, talented Rachel Fenton tagged me in this blog meme that's doing the rounds at the moment. Rachel is a writer and artist living in New Zealand, she has an enviable list of publications and prize-winning stories to her name, and if you're not already following her blog and Twitter updates, you probably should stop reading this and come back when you've sorted that out.
The Next Big Thing comes with a handy cut-and-paste description of what it's all about:
“The Next Big Thing is a great way to network with fellow writers and to find out a bit more about what they're working on. The idea is fairly simple. You, the writer, answer a standard(ish) set of 10 questions on your blog one week then ask up to five other authors (whose work you like and you think might be The Next Big Thing) to answer the same questions the next week.”
It sounds straightforward enough. The problem is, I'm not actually working on a "Big Thing" at the moment. 2012 was going to be The Year of the Novel - I went on an Arvon course right at the start of the year with a few ideas for different books and an almost-completed first draft of a (sort of) science fiction thriller that I'd started rewriting but had lost confidence in. I finished the course with bags of confidence, feeling like I could write any of the books I had floating around in my head, but without any progress in terms of which one to focus on first. Then work got a bit hectic and I needed to finish the renovation work on my house, and the idea of writing a book suddenly seemed ridiculous. After a fairly 'dry' start to the year, I then got a few short story 'hits' and decided to concentrate on those again. So, it looks like 2013 will have to be The Year of the Novel instead.
But which one? The advice from both tutors on the Arvon course was to finish the book I'd started, whether or not I ended up submitting that one to publishers/agents. I can see the sense in that advice, and so I'm going to answer the questions in relation to that one, in the hope that I can get myself feeling all enthusiastic about it again.
What is the title of your next book?
I guess it's a working title. It's a story of a guy who gets cloned in an accident. So far I've been calling it A Man Repeated, and so far that's stuck. I think it works quite well.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The seed came from a "thought experiment" I heard on Radio Four something like ten years ago. I'm not sure who was presenting it, although it could have been Paul Broks, as there is something very similar in his book, Into the Silent Land. Basically, the question posed was, 'If an exact copy of your body was made, how could anybody tell which was the real you?' The argument was that your mind, your memories, everything that makes you you, is just a matter of the way all the billions of atoms in your body are arranged. One atom of carbon, for instance, is interchangeable with any other, so - in theory - a body made using the same blueprint would be as much "you" as you are.
Whoever it was on the radio used the concept of teleportation as a means of posing this question - the idea being that the passenger's body was mapped and broken down, and the data sent to their destination, where a new version of the body was built according to those instructions. The idea was that if something went wrong at the sending end, and the original wasn't broken down, which of the two resulting versions of the person would have the right to carry on living their life, and which would have to be destroyed?
This question took root in my mind, and a few years later I wrote a short story based on that concept. It was okay, but it didn't feel complete. Not sure what else to do with it, I filed it away. It was much later that I got the jolt I needed to start thinking of using it as the start of a novel.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
My protagonist is not a typical action hero - while I was writing it I always kind of imagined him as a Spaced-era Mark Heap. I still think he'd be a good choice for the role, but if it was a big-budget Hollywood production (ha, ha) maybe Damian Lewis could be persuaded to audition. There's a policeman in the story who I've always imagined as looking like Richard E. Grant. The protagonist's only ally is a grizzled older cop with an early-1990s Harrison Ford-y kind of vibe. I'd pick Sally Phillips to play the protagonist's wife. Rene Russo would be a good match for one of the R&D directors who may or may not be trying to help the protagonist.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
How do you prove you're innocent of murder when the only way to clear your name is to implicate ... yourself?
Will your book be self-published or published by an agency?
I've had fun self-publishing my short stories, but I would like to think that - if it turns out to be a good enough novel - I would be able to get this published via the traditional agent-publisher route.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It feels like I've been writing this book forever! I guess I started it about five years ago. If you take out all the time I've been deliberately not writing it, I've probably only been working on it for seven or eight months. The first draft is about 80% complete, and I've rewritten the first 5-10% in what I hope will be closer to the book's final style. There's a long way to go.
What other books would you compare ‘A Man Repeated’ within the genres?
I'm wary of genre. On the face of it, this book is science fiction, but I don't think of myself as a science fiction author. I think I'm looking for that elusive middle-ground, trying to find readers who are open-minded enough to read a book set in the future, but who aren't demanding "hard" SF, where everything is justified as being theoretically possible. I'm not hugely interested in whether or not teleportation is something that will ever work, I just want to use it to put my central character in an impossible situation and watch him find his way out. This is the approach Philip K. Dick tends to use - he'll just start off with a concept like, everybody has a machine that records their dreams so they can watch them during the day, and then (without explaining how any of it is possible) launch into a story about what happens when the protagonist's dreams are accidentally broadcast to the entire neighbourhood.
I guess I'd like to pull off the same trick as Michael Crichton and a couple of others, of using SF concepts in mainstream novels without finding themselves hidden away in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of the bookshop. Maybe with so much shopping done online these days, that will become less of a problem and the boundaries between genres will become a lot more porous. I was pleased that the last China Miélville book I bought came from the Crime section of Waterstones.
Who or what inspired you to write the book?
The book would never have been anything more than a short story if it wasn't for the American crime writer, Peter Plate. He was one of the tutors on the first Arvon course I went on (about five or six years ago) and was an inspirational enthusiast for all forms of writing. When he read my story, he said it was "Philip K. Dick meets Kafka". At the time, I hadn't read either author, but what little I knew about them merged with the story in my mind and all of a sudden I had a clear view of how the rest of the story was going to unfold.
It's soaked up a lot of influences since then - I've read a lot of PKD and a little Kafka, for a start - and elements of films like Minority Report have played a part, too. I've just finished reading William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms, which I enjoyed a lot and which made me think more positively again about the idea of writing a thriller.
What else about the book might pique a reader's interest?
I hope there'll be a lot about this book that interests people. On the surface, it's a thriller with a familiar set-up - an innocent man is framed for murder and has to find a way to clear his name before the law and the obligatory shadowy corporations catch up with him. But beyond that, there are explorations of identity, the use of personal data by companies, how much of our privacy we're prepared to sacrifice in the name of convenience. There's also this really cool bit where ... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?
"Now it is time to pass the baton and introduce a few writer friends (and great bloggers) who will take part in The Next Big Thing on Wednesday 26th December."
Well, to be honest, I doubt any of them will have time to do anything on Boxing Day, and of course it isn't compulsory, but it would be great to hear what the following writers are up to: