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Interview - Neal Asher (V.O)

Interview - Neal Asher (V.O)

ActuSF : So you still don't need to "scrub your bollocks with detergent anymore"?
Neal Asher :
Yes, that is one of the pleasures of manual work I can now forgo. That particular set of circumstances arose when I earned some cash delivering coal for the two weeks before Christmas – carrying fifty-kilo sacks of the black stuff on my back, in the pouring rain. I spent a quarter century doing a variety of jobs including operating milling machines and lathes, making boat windows, building, contract grass cutting, tree felling and hedging. Then, in 2001, I moved into the sedentary occupation of writing books full time and like so many people now have to fight the flab rather than see it melt away each spring.

ActuSF : What brought you into writing?
Neal Asher : When I was a child and then teenager my interests were wide-ranging: drawing and painting, chemistry and physics, biology, sculpture, electronics, and I was also an avid reader of SF&F. I hadn’t fixed on one thing; I was a dabbler in each of these. Then, during an English lesson at school a teacher asked us all to just write a short story. I wrote something wholly derivative of the E. C. Tubb Dumarest books I was reading at the time and was surprised to receive some nice compliments about it from my teacher. Thereafter I added writing to my list of interests. Some while later, having left school and being employed in a factory making steel furniture, I decided I must focus on just one interest if I was to get anywhere with it. I excluded art because those at the seeming summit of the artworld produce crap (unmade beds, piles of bricks, whatever) call it art and bullshit their way forwards. I excluded the physical sciences because I understood that I simply did not have the education to, for example, build a ray gun next week. I chose writing (and specifically SFF) because, to some extent, it includes all those other interests.

ActuSF : What influences you the most?
Neal Asher : All those hundreds if not thousands of books written by writers ranging from Asimov to Zelazny; the numerous science magazines and books I’ve read; many excellent films like Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator, Excalibur, Krull, Total Recall; TV stuff like Babylon 5; documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs. Also much outside the genres and the sciences … the easy answer is that what influences me most is what interests me most.

ActuSF : How would you describe Cowl, in a few words?
Neal Asher : Big time-travel fiction. There have been plenty of SF time-travel books but many of them seem to limit themselves to the purely human ages, extending no further back than a few thousand years. I am awed by the sheer immensity of Earth’s prehistory and I wanted a taste of that. As I have noted before: pick up a fossil on a beach and you are likely holding something that was alive 200 million years ago. If that idea doesn’t grab something inside a person, then that person has no imagination.

ActuSF : As you describe the near future of the UK, we feel that there's more backstage, that you've got a very clear idea of this society. How do you work on your background stories?
Neal Asher : My near-future UK was just a forecast from the now. I see increasing regulation, increasing police powers, never-ending EU dictats, increasing surveillance, people being fined for infringing silly rules whose basis lies in political correctness; governments drunk on power and grabbing more and more of it. Orwell got it right; he just got the date wrong.

ActuSF : Is there any temptation of going further in Cowl's universe?
Neal Asher : Of course there is, but I’m very wary of going there. One of the problems with writing a series of books is that you’ve already created a background, a history, that must be referenced. This can get complicated enough in a straight-line chronology, but when you throw time-travel into the mix it all gets even more complicated.

ActuSF : There's a fascination for monstrosity in your books. Where it comes from?
Neal Asher : Damned if I know! As a kid in art class I was drawing monsters whilst everyone else was drawing bottles and roses. The art teacher left me to it either because he liked what I was doing or because he thought I was beyond help. But come on, anyone who was thrilled by the appearance of the mother alien in the film Aliens knows the attraction. And it’s life, real life – we are surrounded by monsters. Some critics of The Skinner commented on the extreme savagery of the ecosystem and its creatures on Spatterjay. Such comments immediately told me that those critics just did not know enough about the life that is around us every day.

ActuSF : You profile yourself as a hedonist, but in your books, people don't really seem to have a lot of fun. So what? No pain, no gain?
Neal Asher : Yup, I guess I am a hedonist but I live by the dictum that the greatest pleasures in life are those we must work hard for. Hey, I am sitting here answering interview questions, prior to turning my attention back to my tenth major book for Macmillan. It took me twenty years to get here and the pleasures involved you don’t get by sitting on your arse moaning about your lot in life. And I don’t have to scrub my bollocks.

ActuSF : There's massive slaughter and extreme violence in your novels. Is it always received the way you planned it at first by your readers?
Neal Asher : Generally, yes. Some readers find my books a bit extreme and have said so, but an increasing number of readers, every year, buy just one of my books, find what they want, and go out to buy the rest. I seem to be hitting the upslope of an exponential curve now with reader numbers increasing by half as much again each year.

ActuSF : Even at their darkest, there's always humor in your books. Why is this so important?
Neal Asher : Humour is one of the most difficult things to write, which is why I so admire writers like Terry Pratchett. In my books I feel it is important to provide a contrast: the black is so much blacker when there is white there to compare it to. Usually it arises naturally whilst I’m writing, though at times I do consciously pursue it. To my mind there are too many books out there full of dismal misery, snot and shit, characters you can feel no sympathy for, and an oppressive dystopian outlook. They seem to be the product of those who are so very serious and yet to develop the maturity to laugh at both themselves and world around them. Lighten up, for fuck’s sake.

ActuSF : Can we say that there's something like a B.Movie flavour in your books?
Neal Asher : You certainly can, however the director knows something about story telling and the sciences, so there will be no monsters there without an ecology to support them and they’ll be Ripley’s aliens rather than The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

ActuSF : Do you feel like being part of a larger British SF&F scene, and do you think there's a British specificity in genre-writing?
Neal Asher : I don’t feel like part of the larger SFF scene. Writing is such a introverted occupation. I write the books I like and they are published and its only later, as I look up from my word processor, that I find I’ve been lumped in with other writers as part of the New British Space Opera or some such. I just say, “Yeah, right,” and get on with what I’m doing. As for British genre writing being specific, that’s just coincidence.

ActuSF : Speaking of his writer job, Iain M.Banks used to say he's "overpaid and underworked". Does it fit for you too?
Neal Asher : Not yet. I still feel I have to keep up the momentum by producing at least one book a year and, recognising what has happened to so many writers in my position, am pushing myself harder so as to avoid producing lazy bloated waffle. Admittedly writing is not delivering coal or working a ten-hour day mixing concrete but there are other stresses, like the responsibility of not disappointing my readers.

ActuSF : What are you working on?
Neal Asher : I’m presently working on a follow-up to The Voyage of the Sable Keech called Orbus. Here’s the initial blurb for you:

"The Old Captain, Orbus takes over the captaincy of the spaceship the Gurnard, a ship aboard which the war drone Sniper is a stowaway. Meanwhile, the Prador Vrell, mutated by the Spatterjay virus into something powerful and dangerous, has seized control of a Prador dreadnought, killing much of its crew, and is intent on heading back to the Prador Third Kingdom to exact vengeance on the King of the Prador, who tried to have him killed. Orbus travels to ‘The Graveyard’ (mentioned in Alien Archaeology – Asimov’s) a buffer zone between the Polity and the Prador Kingdom. He has a few unresolved issues about the Prador, and about Vrell in particular. Vrell is driven into the same area too, where underlying truths about the virus are revealed and an ancient menace to civilization reappears…"

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