Our featured author is Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World and more recently, Angelmaker, which is part of the Waterstones Book Club. In this Q&A Nick talks to Windmill about his favourite things, fantasy dinner party and skiing off a cliff.
Where are you right now?
On my bed. I’ve just got my daughter off to sleep. My wife’s out addressing a group of people about human rights abuses and I’m probably going to have some curry and watch the new Dredd movie.
What do you do to relax?
Writing relaxes me when it’s going well. I get very stressed if I’m not able to do it for one reason or another. I do pilates to stay fit – the aggressive kind which makes you gorgeous, though it’s taking some time to have that effect on me – and I read, watch movies and TV, go for walks, take my daughter to the zoo, buy dinner for my wife… I like to cook. I have a weakness for clothes. I love Twitter.
Approximately how many books do you own?
I’m a text junkie. That’s not even a question I can answer. I just gave away a couple of hundred and it hasn’t even put a dent in the situation. I’ve sworn off paper books for a while unless there’s no alternative. I’m reading digitally so I don’t have to extend the house just to cope with the structural load.
Tell us about a book you own that you’ve never read.
My US publisher sent me War & Peace. I can’t work out how to hold the damn thing upright in a reading position without getting RSI. I need a lectern, with a chain and a padlock.
You are hosting a fantasy dinner party. Who would be your four guests and why?
Douglas Adams: I really wish I’d have a chance to meet him, and Maurice Sendak for the same reason – just wonderful, fascinating characters. Ada Lovelace (either the fabulous fictional one from Sydney Padua’s glorious Lovelace & Babbage stories, or the original). Noor Inayat Khan, the Muslim princess who spied for Britain and died for it. I think she must have been extraordinary.
What were you doing before you became a writer?
It now feels like marking time. I was a runner and occasional fill-in Assistant Director in the film industry. Then I was a screenwriter who did odd jobs like writing brochure copy for a bottlecapping company. And I was going nuts. If my first book hadn’t worked out, I was going to retrain as a lawyer or something and forget about writing until I was a hundred and then write my memoirs.
Who, what or where do you find your inspiration to write?
Everything. Random things which interest me stick in my head – like colony collapse disorder, what happens when you mix wood pulp with water and freeze the mixture (and how Churchill wanted to use that knowledge), the history of British curry houses, the origin of the Duchy of Cornwall and what that entails in the modern world – and something new comes along and collides with them and BONK! There’s a story. Sometimes it’s an awful story, and I take about ten seconds thinking about it and throw it out. And sometimes it’s something which reverberates and accretes and then I have to write it down. I have a stack of them here, and they happen faster than I can turn out books.
Impossible question. Today: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Yesterday: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. Tomorrow: who knows?
Another one nobody can really answer. The first Godfather movie – everyone talks about the second, but it benefits from a three hour prologue in the shape of the first movie! So unfair.
Cats or dogs?
It has to be one or the other? They can’t live in peace?
What have been the landmark moments in your life to date?
See, the danger with asking that question of an author is this: I refuse to tell say “getting engaged to my wife, marrying her, having our first child”. Those are all real and epic moments. But you know all that, or you can assume it. Because I am not a psychopath, and I am married and I have a kid, so those things are presumably important to me. So now I’m thinking… oh, I know! Yes. I ski’d off a cliff once in low visibility. I had this weird internal dialogue as I fell.
Me: I’m in the air.
Also Me: That is really not good.
Also Me: You may just be about to die of stupid. You were so sure there was no cliff around this corner.
Me: Yeah. That feels a bit cocky now.
Also Me: Well, I imagine it does, jackass.
Me: Hang on. There really isn’t a cliff here.
Also Me: And yet you’re falling.
Me: Yeah. But I cannot possibly be falling very far.
Also Me: In that case, you are about to hit the -
And I did. And I was fine. Drop was about ten foot. Tiny. But wow, that was a moment.
Hunter S. Thompson used to type out The Great Gatsby to know what it felt like to write it. What would be your choice?
Not to do that. It’s a weird thing to do. All it tells you is what it’s like to type out someone else’s novel. That’s like lying on the floor with your hands and legs out and claiming you know what it is to be Felix Baumgartner. Thompson was a genius, he didn’t need to type out Gatsby. I’m surprised he didn’t put it in a blender with a bottle of vodka and a donkey’s heart and drink it as a cocktail. You’d get as much communion with the text that way as by typing it. (This is the least obscene version of this answer I came up with. Just putting the words Hunter Thompson into a discussion makes me reach out for his way of thinking.)
How many places have you lived?
Oh, a few. I fall in love with everywhere I go.
If you could be anywhere now, where would it be and who with?
Well, if I was in, say, The Bellagio, I’m afraid it’s unlikely I’d be answering this. So let’s say right here, but with my wife.
Any bad habits?
Deflecting awkward questions with recursive responses.
Who is largely undiscovered and should be read?
The cultural critic Robert Warshow is fascinating and readable – especially good if you’re a writer. Josh Bazell’s Beat The Reaper was a stunning thriller which should have been more celebrated here. Charles Yu and Isaac Marion are superb, seek their stuff out. Anne Michaels’ novel, Fugitive Pieces, has some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. I don’t know that you could call any of them “largely undiscovered” but if you give me a chance to mention them, it’s going to happen. I’m not a good person to ask, though – I’m not usually the guy to come to for the secrets of next year’s hitlist. They sent me Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and I thought it was great, and for about ten days I knew something no one else did, but that’s now just about the worst-kept secret ever.
Where is your favourite place to read?
Anywhere I will not be struck by falling objects. Or run over.