As Mind's Eye is issuing this month in France, it appears that, despite seven previous translated novels, Paul McAuley is still a largely mysterious writer for French readers. It was time to redeem, and introduce the author to the French audience.
ActuSF : As French readers know you mainly through your books, could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Paul McAuley : I’m a science junkie with a Ph.D in plant science. I worked as a research scientist in universities in Britain and the United States of America for twenty years. My special area of interest was plant-animal symbioses; interactions between microalgae and the cells of the host animals in which they live - reef-forming corals are probably the best-known example of this kind of symbiosis. For part of this time I was also writing and publishing short stories and novels, and a little over ten years ago I was able to become a full-time author. Right now I live in North London, just around the corner from Alfie Flowers, the protagonist of Mind’s Eye. Quite literally. I spotted the real life version of the old bus garage and the caravans next to the railway line that runs close to my house, and now, as in the novel, the site is being redeveloped into a block of flats.
ActuSF : Which authors got you into SF&F for the first time?
Paul McAuley : The first proper adult science fiction I remember reading was Jules Verne's Journey To the Centre of the Earth, in a book club edition bound in fake red leather and cheap gilt, at the house of one of my cousins during a family visit. I think I was eight or nine. A couple of years later I read most of H.G. Wells's science fiction in Everyman editions in my school library. After that there was no stopping me. As a teenager, I read any SF I could find, often in Gollancz yellow-jacketed editions from the local library (I was amazed and delighted when my first two novels were published in the those same yellow jackets) . I still admire the novels and stories of Cordwainer Smith, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and other writers, many of them associated with New Worlds magazine, from that period. These days, my reading ranges far and wide, but as far as SF goes, I'm a fan of Alastair Reynolds (I'm currently reading
The Prefect), Robert Reed, Gwyneth Jones, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks…
I'd like to see a new Pat Cadigan novel, and I wish Bruce Sterling would ease back on the journalism and write more fiction.
ActuSF : How did you get the idea of Mind's Eye?
Paul McAuley : I came across the theory of entoptics - the luminous patterns that our visual system generates under the influence of psychoactive drugs or other factors - more than a dozen years ago. One of my earlier novels, Fairyland, touched on the idea. I continued to read about the subject, and the ideas of David Lewis-Williams, Jean Clottes and others about the role of entoptic forms in rock art had a big influence on the shape of the conspiracy theory at the heart of Mind’s Eye. At its most basic - and I’m simplifying hugely here - their thesis is that entoptic images in rock art are records of shamanistic vision quests fueled by psychoactive drugs. I had a lot of fun irresponsibly turning those ideas inside out, pushing them as far as they would go, and interlacing them with Alfie Flowers’s unusual family history.
ActuSF : Why did you make Alfie a photographer?
Paul McAuley : He’s a photographer because his father - who was killed in the Lebanon when Alfie was just ten years old - was a photographer. It makes him pay more attention to the details of the world than most people and ties in with the visual theme of the novel. And it also allows him to wander around odd corners of London, hang out with his disreputable journalist friend, and play detective.
ActuSF : Are you a photographer yourself?
Paul McAuley : I did an awful lot of microphotography in the course of my research, and I used to do quite a bit of conventional black-and-white photography at the same time, but that gave out when I moved jobs and lost exclusive use of a dark room. I’m beginning to seriously play around with a digital camera, documenting forgotten or overlooked corners of my neighbourhood.
ActuSF : Do you think there's a typical McAuley's type of hero?
Paul McAuley : Quite often they’ll be someone who is lives on the edge of the map, an outsider looking in, or someone with an odd talent or history. I suppose that Alfie, who lives in a caravan on a patch of waste ground in the middle of London, who has an atypical form of epilepsy and an odd family history, is a pretty close fit to that template. Having said that, the central character in my most recently published novel, Players, is a straight-arrow police detective who lives with her mother and is entirely free of grudges or strange habits. Although I suppose that her normality does makes her pretty abnormal in the crime genre.
ActuSF : Your style is very precise and detailed. How about your writing techniques? Do you rewrite a lot?
Paul McAuley : I do rewrite an awful lot, and an awful lot of the rewriting process consists of cutting back excess prose, finding the most concise way of conveying an idea or an image or the atmosphere of a scene, and in trying to avoid cliche and banalities as much as possible. The first draft is an attempt to pin down the story; the rest of the work consists of trying to convey character, incident and mood as vividly as possible.
ActuSF : Your writings are very visual. Are movies a source of inspiration?
Paul McAuley : I don’t plan novels in details, but before I start writing I usually have two or three scenes or pictures in my head that I work towards, or from. Long before I began writing White Devils, for instance, I had the picture of several people searching for bodies in a landscape that I knew was African. I couldn’t tell you why that was important at the time, but I could see it very clearly as an African scene. As for movies being an inspiration, well, I do watch a lot of movies, and I write a regular critical column for the magazine Crime Time, but grammar of movie storytelling, and the way in which character is conveyed in movies, is very different from storytelling and characterisation in novels. My novels are mostly told from the point of view of their characters, rather than from a disembodied restless camera’s eye viewpoint
ActuSF : Your dialogs sound very natural. Do you test them? Do you "hunt" them, roaming around London with pen and paper?
Paul McAuley : I read dialog aloud, to make sure that it’s possible to say . How can I expect any of my characters to say something I can’t? Mind’s Eye does contain quite a few ‘found’ phrases and expressions, although they were picked up from all kinds of sources, and I didn’t go looking for them or spend time in places where I might overhear something useful. I’m a great believer in serendipity and bricolage. Every writer worth their salt needs to develop a good filter that picks up useful stuff and discards everything else.
ActuSF : In Mind's Eye's you're quite critical with the British policy in Irak, could you tell us a bit more?
Paul McAuley : The invasion of Iraq by the so-called coalition of the willing was a horrible mistake, done for the wrong reasons, and carried out with reckless ineptitude. I marched against it with a couple of million other people; I continue to be horrified by the mounting casualties and the disintegration of Iraq. The British have ashameful history as far as Iraq goes, and were interfering in the politics of the region long before Bush and his neoconservative friends set their sights on Saddam Hussein. The British ‘liberated’ what was then Mesopotania from the Turks during the First World War, and under the British Mandate created the new nation of Iraq, mainly to protect their oil interests. Sounds familiar? And then there’s the matter of Kurdistan . . . Anyway, in Mind’s Eye this history is intertwined with the history of Alfie Flowers’s family, and their involvement with the matter of the glyphs.
ActuSF : Do you consider yourself as part of some British SF&F scene?
Paul McAuley : Of course! I know or have met most of the writers working in the British science-fiction scene. There aren’t many of us, and we all bump into one another at conventions or award ceremonies or publishers parties sooner or later. I guess that I am most closely associated with the writers whose early stories were published in Interzone in the 1990s, such as Kim Newman, Stephen Baxter, and Alastair Reynolds.
ActuSF : Do you think British SF&F has something very specific?
Paul McAuley : American science fiction is the default mode of modern SF, but British SF - and French SF for that matter - has somewhat different roots, springing from the fiction of the two great masters of the scientific romance, Wells and Verne. So while it deals with identical material as American SF, the British stuff often does so from a different angle. It is more political in that it does not assume that American-style capitalist democracy is the epitome of human destiny, to be carried triumphantly throughout the Galaxy. And because it is not triumphalist, it often takes the point of view of those who inhabit lower levels of society; it lives at the level of the pavement rather than the refined heights of the penthouse. That’s why, I think, the British and French SF writers and readers ‘got’ cyberpunk a lot more readily than their American counterparts.
That’s why it is mainly British SF writers who are adapting and refurbishing space opera to their own ends.
ActuSF : I think you speak and read French, so do you know some French authors ?
Paul McAuley : I speak French badly and read French rather slowly, and I'm afraid that in the past few years I've more or less lost contact with French SF scene. I'd love to see an anthology featuring stories by people like Ayerdahl, Roland Wagner, Serge Lehman, Jean-Claude Dunyach, but I'm all too aware that unfortunately it's still criminally rare for the work of French authors to be translated into English.
ActuSF : What are your projects now?
Paul McAuley : Right now, I’m about to check the proofs of Cowboy Angels, a novel set in several versions of America. It’s a road trip across alternate histories that uncovers a conspiracy to change the history of an alternate America that invented a way of accessing other histories by changing *our* history. And I’m also working on a book about the build-up to an unnecessary war between a deeply conservative society on Earth and a wildly extravagent society on the moons of Saturn. I’ve started the first rewrite in fact - the most enjoyable part, as far as I’m concerned.
Interviewed by Eric Holstein