In the run up to publication date of our new book NOD by Adrian Barnes (31st October, did we mention that?), Michael Stewart, author of KING CROW talked to Adrian about his influences and what drove him to write NOD. Here it is in full, or you can pop over to Michael’s blog to read it there: When the World Spins Backwards.
We are all going to die. Quite soon. We all know this to be true and yet we fill our lives with trivia, petty trifles and stamp collections. Perhaps this is why we do: the truth is too, well, true. NOD is the latest Bluemoose novel. It is set in an alternative present, where a plague of insomnia sweeps the globe. Within days, society has collapsed. The isolated few who continue to sleep are vilified and hunted down. A madman becomes the leader of the ‘awakened’. It is not a story that shirks from the ugly truth of our mortality. In advance of the novel’s publication, I interviewed Canadian writer Adrian Barnes.
MS: It has often been said that science fiction and speculative fiction, while describing another world, are always addressing the concerns of our own world. Do you agree with this and if so, in what way does NOD do this do you think?
AB: In writing Nod, I was directly inspired by Harlan Ellison, an early hero of mine, who once said in an interview that ‘speculative fiction’ was the only real modern fiction because things change so quickly that novels attempting to capture the present end up as nostalgia by the time they’re published. It’s only by trying to peer a few seconds into the future that we can even hope to understand today. I think Nod addresses a feeling in the air that there is no rest to be had in the 21st century and that what we call order is both temporary and–at heart–insane. All of the indicating curves are exponential; something has to give and it’s probably going to be us.
MS: That’s a very interesting answer Adrian. I haven’t heard of Harlan Ellison. I’d like to read more now though, where’s a good place to start? On the subject of the 21st century, the movement away from order, towards chaos, are you talking about the Western financial institutions, or do you include global politics? JG Ballard said something about society collapsing in a week without basic services such as water, which is very similar to how events transpire in your book. Would you cite Ballard as an influence too?
AB: I haven’t read Ellison in two decades, to be honest, but his black passion and rage at the proverbial machine was a formative influence on me when I was a teenager and I’d get on the bus, head downtown, and troll the used bookstores of Vancouver for his (even then) out-of-print story collections. Check out Paingod and Other Delusions or The Glass Teat (a book of television criticism). He’s still alive and visible on YouTube as a righteously cranky old guy!
As for our collective drive toward chaos, I don’t blame the powerful. Thanatos is embedded in the heart of our entire culture–business people are merely those who are good at doing the sorts of things almost all of us would do if given the chance. We’re collectively willing chaos. Even our religion, Christianity, is apocalyptic. Our most highly-held metaphor is probably that of the open road, but we live in a limited world. The terrible irony is that, as a society, we’ve never even seriously tried to reconcile metaphor and reality. That’s madness–or idiocy.
Interesting that you cite Ballard. I read him during my sci-fi youth, but would have to place him in the same category as Ellison: formative, but in a very deeply-buried way. I can’t really remember his stories or his style. Writing Nod, though, I was aware of all these influences, and of comic books and science fiction films, as ways to fumble past the unreality of ‘reality’ toward something larger and more true than the pervading fictions of malls and media.
MS: I like the sound of The Glass Teat. We are talking about Thanatos, and the propensity towards disorder, another term we could use would be entropy. It’s a very attractive notion I think because it mirrors our own mortal existence, our own goal towards decay and then death. A journey from lightness to darkness. If we look at homo sapiens as a species though, the journey has been the opposite one: out of the caves, into modern cities: a journey from darkness to lightness. We are talking about two forces then, the generative one, and its obverse, destruction. There have always been the doom meisters, the preachers of perdition, who shout ‘the end is nigh’, what stops your book from being part of that tradition?
AB: Maybe nothing! Actually, quite a lot, I hope. I’m an optimist by nature, but I try to be an optimist with wide open eyes. You make a great point that the ant-like march toward darkness is nothing new, and I agree that it’s a mirror of the body’s journey through life toward death. But on a parallel track there’s also the spiritual road or the road of knowledge which tends to go in the exact opposite direction–as you say, from ignorance to wisdom and from darkness to light.
The sun is a huge metaphor in NOD and hope is represented by the mysterious children who live in the park. They’ve made some enormous leap away from the set path. The same goes for Paul, the narrator. He’s been drawn away from the trek toward doom even though he doesn’t know why or how. Who does?
MS: Although I’m a fan of Ballard’s imagination, I find his characters merely sock-puppets for his message. This is perhaps true of lots of writers who are interested primarily in ideas. What strikes me about NOD is the complexity of your characterisation, particularly the protagonist Paul and his girlfriend Tanya, who feel flesh and blood. I like their inconsistencies and their idiosyncrasies, although Paul is a self-confessed misanthrope. He’s not, on the surface a ‘likeable’ character. There has been a lot of discussion recently amongst the literati about how important it is to have sympathetic characters driving a story. How do you feel about that?
AB: I’d make a distinction between ‘like’ and ‘find sympathetic’. When we like people it’s generally because we find them unproblematic–or because their particular shortcomings sync with our own in some way. In fact, I find ‘like’ a pretty milky word. On the other hand, we sometimes sympathize with difficult people when we can see the integrity they bring to their struggle. Who really ‘likes’ Hamlet or Raskolnikov or would want to go to dinner at their place (well, more than once)? But, equally, who can’t relate? I see Paul as someone who’s trying his best in a completely impossible, overwhelming situation–the end of the world! I don’t expect the reader to cosy up to him, but I do hope they take him to task and even wrestle alongside him as he tries to cope. What’s not to sympathize with?
If you ask me, there’s far too much emphasis on niceness and happiness and fun in our brave new world. And it hasn’t ended up being a particularly nice, happy or fun place despite our best Disney-fied, Facebook-ized efforts. I prefer to hash things out–or have my characters do it for me!
MS: To what extent is Paul you?
AB: Given my previous, somewhat Spock-like answer, I’m not surprised you’re asking! I do share many of Paul’s concerns about the species and–like him–I do tend to step back and analyze things fairly dispassionately, but I’m glad to report that I’m also an engaged, friendly, and befriended mammal! The more I realize what we’re all up against, the more I’m amazed by how the vast majority of us maintain our humanity in the face of corporate and state onslaught.
MS: I was reading in the paper yesterday about the mania surrounding the release of the new iPhone. One man in the queue said, and I quote, ‘Apple is my church. This is my Sunday worship.’ Is it these types of experiences that inspired you to conceive, ironically, of the ‘awakened’?
AB: Let’s hope your man in the queue was being at least a little ironic! But, yes–religion based around technology, religion based around money, religion based around sex, religion based around imaginary old men in the sky. What I find less than inspiring about the species is our propensity toward looking elsewhere for salvation. It draws us away from reality, which is really what Nod is about: the choice we all must make between what’s actually here in front of us and various seductive forms of fantasy.
I suppose the choice for me is between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, as they say. Religion pretends to offer you answers while spirituality helps you explore questions. At least that’s how I break it down. Some religions have spiritual aspects, of course–and some spiritual quests harden into religious dogma.
MS: In the book, those ‘awakened’ – the vast majority of the population who are unable to sleep at all – go mad after six days and die after twenty-eight. To what extent is this based on scientific evidence?
AB: I did research this subject and the longest a person has ever been kept awake–totally awake–in a controlled scientific environment, has been six days. By that time the test subject is indeed suffering from ‘sleep deprivation psychosis’ which reverses quickly once they are allowed a nap. The idea of death at twenty-eight days has been posited but is speculative. However it’s well known that, without adequate restorative sleep, people’s health declines very quickly. It’s also worth noting that ‘totally awake’ means something very specific. All insomniacs actually doze a little every night, even if they don’t remember afterwards.
MS: It has been fascinating to chat with you Adrian. The book is brilliant on both the micro-level: each carefully crafted sentence, the care you have taken in your choice of language; and the macro-level: the overall design of the book, the characters and structure. It’s also a book that isn’t afraid to explore lofty themes. I’m deeply impressed. I know you did an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University (as I did). How do you feel about the teaching of Creative Writing?
AB: Thanks so much for your interest and kind words, Michael. I’ve just begun teaching Creative Writing this fall, actually, so it’s a little soon to say as I’m just getting into it now. I come from more of a composition/rhetoric/journalism background. Certainly my Creative Writing students are an inspiration. People who are willing to take time and spend money to learn to do something as ‘useless’ as learning to express themselves are individuals we should all treasure. And I do.
MS: You are coming over to England in November to promote the novel. How do you think Canada differs from England? Is there anything you’d like to say as a final word?
AB: In terms of Canada versus the UK, what I’ve found is that the British are a little more open to edgy ideas and dark humour than Canadians. There’s more of an emphasis on politeness over here, certainly in the publishing world. It’s not a bad or a good thing, just different. Working on Nod with Brits has felt natural and has been extremely rewarding. A sort of coming home, in a funny way.
I always enjoy my visits to the UK and am greatly looking forward to launching Nod in the town where I was born… Blackpool!