An hour-long conversation with British author Gareth L. Powell, exploring the creative process behind his works of science fiction, with a special focus on his latest novel, Embers of War (Titan Books), first in a new trilogy.
Gareth L. Powell’s alternate history thriller Ack-Ack Macaque (Solaris Books) won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel and was a finalist in the best translated novel category for the 2016 Seiun Awards in Japan. In 2018, Indian technology news service Factor Daily hailed his novel Embers of War as a, “contemporary classic.”
Gareth’s other books include Fleet of Knives (Book 2 in the Embers of War trilogy, coming out February 19, 2019 from Titan Books), Light of Impossible Stars (Book 3, due out February, 2020), Hive Monkey, and Macaque Attack (Books 2 and 3 in the trilogy that began with Ack-Ack Macaque), The Recollection, and Silversands, as well as the horror novella Ragged Alice, and the short fiction collections Entropic Angel and The Last Reef.
His novels have been translated into French, German, Japanese, and Czech, and his short stories into many other languages, including Greek, Polish, Portugese and Hebrew. His short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Clarkesworld, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and his story “Ride The Blue Horse” was shortlisted for the 2015 BSFA Award.
Gareth was born and raised in Bristol, UK, and was once fortunate enough to have Diana Wynne Jones critique one of his early short stories over coffee. Later, he went on to study creative writing under Helen Dunmore at the University of Glamorgan.
He has run creative writing workshops and given guest lectures at several UK universities, including Aberystwyth, Bath Spa, Bucks New Uni, and York, as well as at the Arvon Foundation in Shropshire, and the Bristol Literature Festival. Luna Press will publish About Writing, his field guide for aspiring authors, in 2019.
In addition to his fiction, Gareth has written for The Guardian, The Irish Times, 2000 AD, and SFX. He has also written scripts for corporate training videos, and is currently at work on a screenplay.
After noting that Gareth is the first guest on The Worldshapers Ed has never met before, we begin with the usual question of how long Gareth has been interested in writing and the fantastical.
Gareth says he’s always made up stories. He learnd to read before he went to school, and some of his earliest memories are of watching Star Trek as a preschooler. Then came Star Wars in 1977. “There’s just no looking back after that.”
He read his way through the big shelf of science fiction at his local library, from the books for younger readers all the way up to people like Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and Robert Heinlein.
At age ten, he filled three notebooks with a “massive sci-fi epic pretty much ripped off from episodes of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.”
Writing was always in the cards, he says, but he never thought he’d have the stamina or time to write a novel, and certainly didn’t think you could do such things as a real job.
At the turn of the millennium, as hew as about to turn thirty, he decided to make some big resolutions. One was to quit smoking; the other was to seriously start writing a novel. The result was his first novel, Silversands, which he calls “retread of that early stuff I’d read,” with a bit of Niven, a bit of Heinlein, etc. Nevertheless, he notes, “There were sparks in there of what I would write later.”
Then is fiancée (now his wife) gave him a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson, and “that just about changed everything,” because it showed him heroes don’t have to be hyper-capable Star Fleet captain. “This was science fiction at the level of the street,” he says. “It’s like what people say about the first Velvet Underground album, which was that everyone who bought a copy of it started their own band.” He realized he didn’t have to write like the authors he’d grown up reading, he could write the stuff he wanted to write, that was more meaningful to him: in effect, Gibson gave him permission to do what he wanted to do.
Gareth is definitely a science fiction author, not a fantasy author. He notes that he read a lot of Michael Moorcock as a teenager, “and that kind of did fantasy for me…I kind of got my fill of it.” He admits he’s never made it to the end of the Lord of the Rings, either in print or on film.
He says fantasy just doesn’t involve him the way science fiction does, because in SF he can imagine that things could plausibly happen. When he reads fantasy, he says, “the part of my brain that writes stories starts going well, if Gandalf had all these fireworks and Dwarves are so good at metallurgy, surely they could have come up with a howitzer by now.”
He hastens to add he has nothing against fantasy, he just can’t immerse himself in it.
That said, his novella coming out from Tor.com next year, Ragged Alice, does have some supernatural elements. “It’s based around a police officer going back to the small Welsh coastal town where she grew up to investigate a hit-and-run and finding much more sinister goings-on going on,” he says. “There’s definitely a supernatural element there that is utter fantasy.”
The story came about, he notes, because he discussed with his agent writing an airport thriller. What came out was this “slightly whimsical” story about a police detective who can see guilt in people’s souls. “It’s about as far from an airport thriller as you can get.”
Gareth studied creative writing at university. He says he made the decision he wanted to be a writer very early. At around age fourteen, his parents bought him a portable typewriter. “I sat there and would clack out these stories, most of which were really terrible, but I was learning.”
Then he won a competition his English teachers had entered one of his stories in, to have coffee with Diana Wynne Jones. He went into town to a cafe, and “this kind of wild-haired wonderful lady came in and sat there and took me task for a line where the heroine sighed when she saw a spaceship taking off.” He says she opened his eyes to a lot of things, and that was a turning point for him.
Still, as he noted earlier, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium he actually started coming up with stuff he wanted to write about. “I always wanted to write, but I didn’t always have the subject matter or the ability. It wasn’t until I’d live a bit and read a lot more that I kind of got to the point where everything clicked into place and I felt I could write a novel.”
While his biography notes his creative writing classes at university, he says while there he encountered outright hostility toward genre writing–not from Helen Dunmore, who was a visiting tutor he saw a few times a month, but from the regular tutor, who ran the weekly workshops. “He refused to workshop any science fiction or fantasy, point-blank.”
Gareth admits he used to write to annoy that tutor in a way. He’d make a big pronouncement about not liking poetry without punctuation, so Gareth would submit a completely unpunctuated poem. He used to sneak in science-fictioni “easter eggs” in the background of literary stories.
That tutor, he says, “filled me with this idea that if you’re not trying to write literary fiction, you’re wasting your time,” and adds, “deciding to stop trying to write literary fiction and to write what I love was one of the most freeing decisions I made. Suddenly it wasn’t hard work. Suddenly I was writing what I wanted to write.”
Asked if his university courses in creative writing have benefitted his work, Gareth is definite: “Absolutely not.”
He notes that the classes were run as critiquing workshops, where everyone submitted work anonymously, everyone sat in a circle and commented on the pieces, and then at the end the author would acknowledge it was theirs. He says “it was really unhelpful, because we were the blind leading the blind.”
He says it boiled down to students telling other students how they though their work should be written, which he found “excruciatingly unhelpful.” He wanted authors and editors to tell him how things should be written.
” I don’t think we really learned anything in three years at all,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t recommend it as a pathway to writing for anyone. “In a lot of ways I had to unlearn everything that we were told in those classes.”
That’s one reason he goes out of his way to help aspiring writers–conducting university workshops for example, talking about the brass tucks of writing as a career, and that’s why he’s bringing out his book On Writing, “a field guide for aspiring authors,” next year.
His own first foray into commercial novel writing was Silversands. When he finished it in 2002 it was only 49,000 words. He’d read that 40,000 words made a novel, and didn’t realize most publishers were looking for much more. He shopped it to agents, and didn’t really get anywhere.
He also started writing short stories. A couple were published online, of which one was picked up by Interzone. That led to a now-defunct small press, Elastic Press, asking if they could publish a collection, which became his first “proper book,” The Last Reef and Other Stories, in 2008. Abut the same time Pendragon Press, another small press, asked if he had a novel, and he gave them Silversands, which was published in 2010. Both had very small print runs, he says, “just enough to put me on the radar.”
At the 2010 Eastercon he pitched a longer novel, The Recollection, to a publisher who thought it would better suit another publisher. They introduced him to the editor at Solaris, who commissioned it: it came out in 2011, and became what he considers his first “proper novel.”
What came next was Ack Ack Macaque. His editor at Solaris, John Oliver, asked him if he had another book he wanted to write. “I said yes, he said,’ What is it?’, I said, give me half an hour.”
He’d been toying with the idea of a whodunit set aboard a giant, floating, city-sized zeppelin, and he had the character of Ack-Ack (who is, indeed, a macaque) from a short story, and he found the two slotted together. The result was a murder mystery thriller set in an alternate universe, in which Europe is politically aligned a bit differently than in ours. The cover featured a monkey in a Second World War pilot’s outfit, complete with cigar and massive gun. The cover caught people’s attention, Brett said, and though some thought it must be a one-joke, simplistic kind of story, those who picked it up found something more serious…serious enough to become a trilogy, in fact, although he didn’t intend for it to be one. The first book created so much attention even that the second book was commissioned before it was even published, he says, adding it was a lot of fun to see a character he’d originally created for a short story to go on to star in a huge trilogy.
Gareth likens the process of coming up with the a story idea to dust coming together in space, clumping together more and more “until it reaches a critical mass and undergoes gravitational collapse and becomes a star.”
With Embers of War, he says, the closest thing he had to one big idea behind t was something he read about how the sinking of the Titanic wasn’t the first ocean liner disaster or even the worst, but the first where the ship had radio and could call for help, so that there were survivors who could tell the tale.
“Before, liners just sailed off into North Atlantic never to be seen again,” he notes.
He transferred that to outer space, thinking, “wouldn’t it be great if there was a rescue organization that could go out and rescue these stranded spaceship.” That got him thinking about where these ships would come from, who would crew them, etc., and that brought in the idea of people who had fought on different sides of a war now working together for good. “Once the characters come through, the book’s off and running,” he says.
Gareth doesn’t write a detailed outline. He says he needs to know how a story is going to end, and a few incidents, but how the story will get from incident to incident and then to the ending isn’t clear as he starts. He says it’s the “creative improvisation” that’s the “fun bit.”
For most of his books, there’s not a lot of research involved. He did do some research into European politics of the 1950s for the Macaque books, since it’s based on an alternate history in which the UK and France have merged politically, to the annoyance of the Americans, but for Embers of War, not so much, because “nobody knows how a faster-than-light engine works.” In fact, he says, the main bit of research he did was into the correct method for performing a chest drain on someone who’s been shot in the chest.
Acknowledging some writers do a lot of research and worldbuilding, he says, “for me, that feels too much like work.”
There’s a fairly detailed backstory in Embers of War concerning the aforementioned war, which Gareth says developed “organically.” He’ll mention something a few times as he writes, realize it’s becoming important, fleshes it out, has different characters look at it from their different viewpoints, and so it grows. One specific incident, it became apparent, was really the defining moment of the story. He moved it from a chapter later into the book into the prologue, “so you get the event up front, and then three years later the story starts.” That event, he says, “evolved very organically through the characters, their responses, and their trauma.”
Whereas sometimes he comes up with a character and then builds a story around them, in the case of Embers of War, he came up with the story first, then created characters to provide the viewpoints he needed–although, he says, he tries “not to put characters you would necessarily expect” at those viewpoints. For example, his heroic space captain is “full of self-doubt, very solitary, quite badly traumatized,” and not at all like Captain Kirk, who can “polish off ten Klingon warbirds before breakfast and feel fine about it.”
One of the most interesting characters is Trouble Dog, the sentient ship, “a killing machine that is accidentally developing a conscience.” He notes that a lot of the book is about the ship’s struggle to come to terms with who she is and what she’s done in the past.
He also had a sentient ship in The Recollection. In Embers, the ship is a character because it seemed to him that if he wanted soldiers from this big interstellar war as characters, those soldiers would actually be the ships, which could think faster, act faster, and were thousands of times more powerful than humans. “If they’re sentient, that gives them a chancne to understand what they’ve done and what they’ve been through,” especially since the core of their brains are actually created from cloned stem cells, which are allowing emotions to leak through into Trouble Dog. “It’s as if one of the star destroyers in Star Wars started saying, ‘Hang on a minute, why are we shooting all these rebels down?'” Gareth says.
Another interesting characters is the alien, Nod. “At heart his motivation is just to keep the ship flying,” Gareth says. A spider-like creature, Nod grew up on a planet where there’s just one big tree, the World Tree, and his species evolved to fix the tree and maintain it. As a result, they’ve become the default species for ships’ engineers.
Nod speaks in a very clipped, simple fashion, repeats himself a lot, and mutters to himself, but “in amongst all the muttering and complaining and grumpiness some pearls of wisdom.” In some ways he’s the wisest of the characters, Gareth says, even though the rest of the crew treat him a bit like a piece of furniture.
Gareth says he doesn’t do a lot of rewriting: instead, he edits on the fly as he’s writing, so that he has fairy clean draft when he reaches the end. He’ll go back to check for errors and smooth any clunky writing, then he sends it to his agent, who returns it with suggestions, and then to the publisher, who of course also returns suggestions. “Usually they’re fairly minor,” he says.
Fleet of Knives, out in February 2019, takes what seems to be a good thing at the end of the first book, an event that gets the heroes out of trouble, and makes it clear it’s not as beneficial as they’d expected. He promises new characters and new places to venture, while the consequences of the first book rebound through his universe.
Ed asks Gareth if he agrees with the notion that even those who claim to be writing realistic “literary” fiction are in fact making up worlds as imaginary as those of genre writers.
Gareth does agree. “All our experiences of the world are subjective,” he says. “Your idea of thee real world might different from mine.”
He adds, “I think it was Neil Gaiman who wrote, ‘The world is always ending for someone.’ What we think of as the real world is our internal world, and as a writer that’s what you’re reporting on. if your internal world is expressed through a medium such as science fiction, that’s equally valid to if your view of the world is expressed through a middle aged college professor who has a tempestuous fling with a 16-year-old student. It’s no less fantasy.” Science fiction, he says, “is a lens we use to look at our world and interpret our world and comment on our world.”
He notes one of his recurring themes is what it means to be human, what it means to be intelligent and self-aware and vulnerable. But also, he says, he writes about “what it means to form attachments to other humans and their subjective experiences,” which he likens to “building bridges to other worlds.”
He says he hopes he’s telling emotional truths through his characters, noting that many people respond strongly to his characters because of their flaws and unhappiness: they’re relatable, and not super-heroic types who brush things off. “Everything has left a scar.”
The series he’s planning to follow the Embers series is one he hopes will influence readers. “It’s optimistic, insomuch as it involves humanity going out into the universe and doing good things. I want it to be a novel where there are no evil mega-corporations, no evil empire. People have come together and they’re going out and they’re doing good things. It’s kind of my reaction to the world we’re in at the moment…I want to believe that there is cause for optimism in the future again.”
Why do we write stories? Gareth says he thinks it’s one of the oldest human behaviours, going back to “Ugg” the caveman bragging about his hunting exploits, and embellishing events until “the next thing you know Ugg has walked all the way to Mordor and dropped a ring into Mount Doom.”
Humans are a narrative species, Gareth says. “We all have the narrative of our own lives and we’re all constantly adjusting that narrative. We’re not creatures of the moment, we’re creatures of where we come from and where we’re going. We have a story, it has a beginning and it has an end.”
As for why he, personally, writes stories?
“Because I can’t imagine doing anything else.”