The Straw Men
by Michael Marshall
Published by HarperCollins UK
384 pages, 2002
Within the last couple of months, Michael Marshall's debut thriller, The Straw Men, has crawled its way to the top of the British book charts by stealth and strong word-of-mouth. A dark, hypnotic serial-killer yarn, with a panoramic view of the evil that resides in mankind, it has been touted by critics as in the same league with the works of Thomas Harris (Hannibal) and John Connolly (Every Dead Thing). That this book's author isn't quite the neophyte his press might lead you to believe makes The Straw Men's success all the more intriguing.
The novel tips its hat to both Harris and Stephen King with an opening that has Bach's "The Goldberg Variations" playing on a car radio just before a Regulators-style bloodbath breaks out at a McDonald's in Nowhere, USA. From there, Marshall speeds down two fictional tracks. One is written from the first-person perspective of Ward Hopkins, a drunken ex-CIA type with a shady past who, accompanied by an enigmatic sidekick, "Bobby," is investigating the car-accident death of his parents in Montana. It doesn't take long for Hopkins to realize that pretty much everything he has held dear and true about his past may well be a sham. Meanwhile, third-person sections of The Straw Men detail the hunt for a serial killer who has snatched a Los Angeles teenager named Sarah Becker and is keeping her trapped, without food, beneath his floorboards. Summoned back by his FBI ex-mistress to lead this hunt is burnt-out former homicide cop John Zandt, whose own daughter was snatched -- never to be seen again -- by the very same serial killer, nicknamed "The Delivery Boy" by a hardened media. But is there an even more sinister conspiracy in the works here, linked to a figure of the shadows known only as "The Upright Man"? And is there some connection to be made between Hopkins' investigation and the disappearance of Sarah Becker?
Marshall's prose is both gripping and haunting, his story's carefully plotted chills worming their way deep into the reader's mind, to rest there uncomfortably, like broken glass. No conventional serial-killer novel, The Straw Men may be too grim for some tastes. Yet it doesn't shock merely for the sake of shocking.
If the book seems too smoothly executed to be the work of a novice, that's because it isn't. Michael Marshall is really north London resident Michael Marshall Smith, who has been writing novels and short stories for well over 10 years, most of his work being categorized as either science fiction or horror. The Straw Men is his first true crime novel, and in order to escape the pigeonhole he'd found himself in after three previous books, he agreed to abbreviate his byline. "Suddenly, I'm two-thirds the man I used to be," he joked recently in a note to his veteran readers.
Born in Cheshire, England, in 1965, Smith was still an infant when he moved with his family to the United States, settling first in Illinois and then in Florida. His family later relocated again, this time to South Africa and Australia, before returning to England, where Smith studied philosophy, social science and political science at King's College in Cambridge. As an undergraduate, he became involved with the Cambridge Footlights, a comedy revue that had cultivated such talents as the Monty Python players and led Smith to become involved with the BBC Radio 4 show And Now in Color. It was radio that gave him his first taste of writing for a living. He went on to a career in graphic design, scripting corporate vacuum cleaner videos and ultimately organizing a video festival for graphic design professionals. He's since written a number of film scripts.
But the itch to pen his own fiction returned after Smith read The Talisman, a 1984 novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub. He started out writing short stories, some of which met with acclaim. "The Man Who Drew Cats," for instance, won the 1991 British Fantasy Society award for Best Short Story, and "The Dark Land" received that same commendation in the following year. These tales were classified as horror/speculative fiction, so it came as something of a surprise (even to him) when his first novel, Only Forward (1994), turned out to be science fiction. The book is a surreal, very funny and noirish look at one possible future, viewed through the eyes of Stark, a reluctant hero sent out to locate a missing person. Sound like a crime plot? Well, that was only to expected, as Smith is a big fan of crime fiction, and cites Jim Thompson, James Ellroy and James Lee Burke as his pivotal influences. Stark's travels take him through a sprawl of city-size neighborhoods, each catering to a particular variety of resident -- corporate sorts in one neighborhood, deranged criminals in another, etc. The book was well received by readers and critics alike, picking up the August Derleth Award for Best Novel in 1995.
Smith broke new ground with his second novel, Spares (1996), a darkly prophetic tale of human cloning and genetic manipulation that, by fortunate happenstance, was released just as the first cloned animal -- a sheep named Dolly -- made headlines. The story follows Jack Randall and his escape from the "Spares Farm," where clones are kept in case their real "selves" ever need an extra organ or limb. The novel is set in "New Richmond," Virginia, a futuristic city built atop what remained of the former U.S. state capital after two months of riots. It was rumored a few years ago that director Steven Spielberg was interested in filming either Spares or Philip K. Dick's 1956 short story, "Minority Report," as a follow-up to his movie A.I. (I guess you know which production got the green light). Ironically, Smith's Only Forward went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel in 2001 -- the same year it was published in the United States.
After Spares came One of Us (1998), a Dick-type novel about memory and dreams. Its protagonist, Hap Thompson, stumbles upon a conspiracy while working as an REMtemp -- a nocturnal caretaker who looks after other people's bad dreams and remembrances. The plot centers on Hap's search for a missing woman, one of whose dreams involved a real murder that may unlock a far-reaching menace to the history and future of mankind. In the year after this third novel saw print, Smith's award-winning short stories were collected in a volume entitled What You Make It, which was published to much acclaim.
I was fortunate to catch up with Michael Marshall Smith in London, not long after the U.S. paperback-only release of The Straw Men. We talked about his making the leap from science fiction to the crime genre, the death of horror fiction, his often frustrating efforts as a screenwriter, and why in the world he should want to add yet another title to the towering stack of modern serial-killer novels.
Ali Karim: Would you care to describe The Straw Men, for those people who haven't yet read it?
Michael Marshall Smith: I guess it's most obviously my take on the serial-killer phenomenon, both in itself and as regards our reaction to it. But more broadly, it's an attempt to look at wider aspects of human nature and to try to put them in a new context, to view humankind in a longer-range perspective. That may sound kind of heavy, but those elements of the book are subsumed within a story about the kind of things that happen to real people, a story that I hope is exciting and entertaining.
Your book has won some rave reviews, not only from Stephen King in the U.S., but also from Mark Timlin in The Independent, Maxim Jakubowski at The Guardian, and Shots magazine. How do you feel about that reception?
Literally incredible. I genuinely couldn't believe it. King has long been a hero of mine, one of my very favorite authors, and definitely the person whose work started me thinking that writing was a job I wanted for myself. When my agent called to say a quote had come in from him, and went on to read it to me, it felt -- cliché or not -- like a dream coming true. I actually had to e-mail [my agent] later in the evening to get him to confirm that I hadn't imagined the entire conversation. For that to be followed by great reviews from people I respect as much as Jakubowski and Timlin was truly wonderful. Publication can be an anxious time, especially if you've just tried to switch genres. It was very reassuring to get some good early feedback.
Why choose a story about serial killers as your first foray into the crime genre?
I've long nurtured an interest in them. Not so much in recent years, but there was a period back in the early 1990s when I read a lot of non-fiction around the subject, and started to develop some theories about ways in which the minds of serial killers might work. It seemed to me that such murderers were too often being presented either as burlesque monsters or glamorous geniuses -- neither of which is the case. It also struck me that they are part of a collection of things about human behavior which we like to compartmentalize, pretending they can be fenced off as pure "evil," thus having no implication for the rest of us. I wrote a couple of short stories about them, and then largely moved on to other things. But when I started thinking about the themes and issues I was going to be covering in The Straw Men, I realized that this was finally going to be my chance to try to get into the subject in a deeper way. I guess I just think that serial killers say quite a lot about how the human mind works, and how it goes wrong.
The granddaddy of the fictional serial killer subgenre has to be Thomas Harris. What were your feelings on reading Hannibal?
I enjoyed it very much, actually. I'd never read much Harris -- I think I'd read Red Dragon a few years previously, and seen the movies, and that's about it. I liked the pervading sense of dread and melancholy in Hannibal, which I thought Ridley Scott's film captured pretty well, especially through the choice of music. When I read the book, I'd heard in my head Gould's sprightlier rendition of the "Goldberg" theme, but that ultra-slow, mechanical, damaged-sounding version was just perfect. I thought the book as a whole captured a great sense of maniacal calm and wistful fury, a doom-laden sense of winding down. I could have lived without the backstory stuff, but I loved the pedal-to-the-metal darkness of the ending -- and went back and read the previous novels as a result. Dr. Lecter may not be the world's most realistic serial killer, but he certainly captures [one's] attention.
Were you at all apprehensive about tackling a project as ambitious as The Straw Men?
No, not really. I go wandering off into each book with the vague assumption that this time it will be a piece of cake. It never is, but there's always a lot of fun along the way -- along with the periods where giving it all up and becoming a tap dancer seems like a much better idea. I think that it's reaching for things that helps you do a little more than you thought you were capable of.
Did you believe that this new novel would do as well as it has?
I hoped it would do OK, certainly. I think you have to. It'd be a strange old writer who finished a book and handed it in thinking, Well, that's not much good. Can't see that doing well. Experience has shown that this early bright-eyed optimism is soon dimmed by the realities of fate and the market, but I did hope that with The Straw Men I'd brought the stuff that I do best to a genre where it might be accessible to greater numbers of people. I think there's been a gothic thriller trying to push its way out of me for a long time.
I read that your title, The Straw Men, was inspired by Douglas Winter, the horror enthusiast who released a crime novel a few years back called Run. How did that come about?
I know Doug from the horror field. I was sitting in a pub with him, his wife, Lynn, and Stephen Jones, the horror anthologist. We were talking about gun control in the U.S. -- I have no idea why -- and Doug described the "straw purchase" process by which many illegal handguns are obtained. If you're too young, unlicensed or too self-evidently insane to buy one yourself, you get someone who passes all the required criteria -- the "straw purchaser" -- to go in the store and get it for you. This notion of bad or good being done on behalf of others resonated in my mind, and I soon saw how it fitted with some of the ideas I was playing with for my next novel. It gave me a title, too, which is often the first step towards really believing you know where you're going.
I guess the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., must have occurred while you were working on the last drafts of The Straw Men. How did hearing about those incidents affect you?
The primary effect was visceral, as with most people. I was sitting at my desk, trying to work, and my wife called down that she'd just heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the [World Trade Center]. I thought, Christ!, and tried to get back on with what I was doing. In retrospect, I think somehow the news was so weird that it didn't actually go in properly -- and we'd had a weird few days anyway, for a variety of reasons. Then she shouted something about it having happened again ... and so we ran downstairs and got CNN on. Sat and watched it for the rest of the day. There was a point when the first tower collapsed and I thought, Jesus. There was a nuke on board. This is the end times. It's all over. I called my parents. Several friends called me. It was one of those days when suddenly everything seems utterly different, when you realize that death and disaster are horribly real.
I'd finished The Straw Men several months previously, but when it came to do the final edit, 9/11 was obviously something I had to bear in mind. In a horrible way the event seemed to bear out much of what I'd been trying to express in the novel, and it was strange to read it again and see how close I'd come to the subject. On a practical level, the world will never be quite the same again after that morning, and so I had to tweak a few things here and there to try to reflect this. I don't think 9/11 will always be at the forefront of our minds, and nor should it be, but there's a definite before and after.
It's amusing to see how life works in circles. When John Connolly's debut novel, Every Dead Thing, came out [in 1999], his publishers put a sticker on the cover saying, "As good as Thomas Harris or your money back." Now, The Straw Men has one that says, "As good as John Connolly or your money back." What do you make of that? And have you read Connolly?
I've read John Connolly, yes, and think he's stunning. I was reading quite a lot of crime and thriller material at the time Every Dead Thing came out, preparing myself for trying one of my own, and was largely disappointed. A lot of the big guys don't seem to care about the individual sentences at all, which means their books are of no use to me. If I don't enjoy the language of a book, I just won't read it. Life's too short. I can't remember how I came across Connolly's first one, but within a few chapters I remember thinking, Wow -- this is what I'm talking about. I now wait for a new novel of his with real impatience.
As for the comparison ... well, being mentioned in the same sentence as a great writer is never a hardship. I'd like to make it clear that it's the publisher who gets to give the money back, though. Don't start coming after me waving your copies and demanding cash.
How did your British and American publishers view your jumping over the science fiction "fence" and ending up in the crime thriller camp?
They took it remarkably well -- the UK publishers, anyway. Jane Johnson, my UK editor, has always been extremely supportive and remarkably relaxed about letting me more or less do what I liked. I think Jane saw the book as I did: part of the same body of work as the earlier novels, merely set in the present day rather than the future. My then-U.S. publishers were a little more confused by it. Both Spares and One of Us had been published as mystery, despite being set in the future. Then they brought out my first novel, Only Forward, which they published as science fiction. Then came The Straw Men, and I think it was like, "Will the author please work out what the fuck he is writing, please ..." Some of the initial response in Europe has been the same. Many of the publishers who'd been with me over the last two or three books have evidently decided that The Straw Men just isn't what they were expecting. It's a great shame, because I think a lot of authors would quite like the chance to mix and match a little, but the publishing industry just isn't set up for it -- not least because most readers aren't either. I guess I'd be the same. If James Lee Burke suddenly brought out some SF, I might not immediately leap for my credit card ... though I'd probably buy it in the end, and almost certainly like it.
Explain to me the reason for truncating your name.
This was mooted by my editor at my new U.S. publisher, Susan Allison. The initial spur came from the discovery that the book Straw Men, by Martin J. Smith, had just been published. The similarity between that and The Straw Men, by a Michael Marshall Smith, was just too close -- and even a little spooky. It was a bit of a pain, to be honest, as I'd gone to the trouble of checking that there was no book of that title before I started mine. Once the idea of changing my name had been mentioned, and I'd got used to the notion, I began to realize that there might be upsides to it. It's far from impossible that I'll want to write a stranger, more "out there" kind of book, or simply a SF novel again, and having the Michael Marshall Smith name to do that under will be very useful. It's evidently just too confusing for readers and publishers for their authors to genre-hop under the same name.
So you will continue in the crime genre as "Michael Marshall"?
I'm here to stay, I'm afraid. I'm just in the process of signing contracts with both Berkley in the U.S. and HarperCollins in the UK for two more Michael Marshall novels.
By the way, did you ever read Martin J. Smith's Straw Men, which has been nominated this year for a Barry Award?
I haven't, actually. I'm not sure it's available in the UK. I've heard good things about it, though.
What are your thoughts on "genre borders" and "classifications," both from a UK and U.S. perspective?
They seem particularly restrictive in the U.S., where the genre of a book is actually stamped on the spine. At least in the UK it's still down to the individual bookstore's discretion -- which means that I still find my previous novels on mainstream, SF, crime or "whatever" shelves. The problem is, that's a good thing from the perspective of an author, who may not think of his or her work as being contained within one particular subdivision. But for the poor reader who just wants to be able to find the damned book, maybe it's not so helpful. The genre classification I like best is simply "noir," because I think it can cover such a wide range of material -- crime, horror, futuristic, even literary fiction. That's where I feel at home.
I've talked to various booksellers about how the horror genre is, for all intents and purposes, dead -- except for King, Dean Koontz and Buffy -- and that "dark crime" is taking off, with works by Mo Hayder, Tess Gerritsen, John Connolly, Mark Billingham and yourself. Do you agree?
I think there's a lot of truth in that. It's interesting to see how crime is finding itself able to make use of some of those gothic conventions -- Lee Burke's done it, too, with the use of the quasi-supernatural in books like In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead -- just at a time when the horror genre is having such a hard time of it. I can't help feeling that many of horror's problems are of its own making. With the exception of writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Kim Newman and a very few others, it allowed itself to wander into the realms of pastiche, incompetence and pointless visceral violence. Not many people really want to read that kind of thing. They want real characters and real story, want some genuine emotional content. Dark crime is providing that at the moment, and horror isn't. That'll change though, I'm sure. There are subtle anthologists like Stephen Jones, Ellen Datlow and Peter Crowther out there, keeping the good stuff alive, along with publishers like Subterranean, Cemetery Dance and Earthling. Horror is a venerable and resilient genre. It'll come back when you least expect it, will suddenly be looming outside your back door in the dead of night.
In One of Us, your lead character was named Hap Thompson and you quoted Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me at the start of Spares. Could you talk about your associations with Jim Thompson and his work?
I discovered Thompson about six years ago, in the most superficial way possible: I saw a beautiful Vintage paperback of one of his novels, and bought it on looks alone. I soon discovered this had been a very happy chance, and have now read just about everything else [by him]. I love his work. There's a sparse and easy, just-the-facts style which pulls you in, hiding for quite a while just how deeply he's getting under your skin -- and some of [his stories] waltz off into some very strange territories by the end. I've actually taken to making sure that I'm reading or re-reading a Thompson for the first book whenever I go away on vacation. They're so much off in a world of their own that it helps ease the transition out of London life into the great unknown.
What about James Ellroy or Lee Burke?
Thompson turned me onto crime, and so I looked around to see what else there was. I discovered Ellroy through The Black Dahlia and was just stunned by what he'd pulled off in that book: the vertiginous, pounding detail and the pull-you-through-it plot, yet somehow swerving into such a lyric and heartfelt ending. I've since read everything else he's done, several times. I couldn't do what he does, and I'm not actually sure I'd want to, but I sure as hell love reading it. Lee Burke was another happy find, from another part of the spectrum altogether. Superb emotional economy underlying great lyricism. I discovered both of these writers just before I started writing Spares, and I'm sure both had an affect on that novel.
Let's talk about your upbringing for a minute. What affect did it have on you to move between so many different countries?
I think the primary affect it had was to produce a feeling of being a privileged outsider, and also a slight state of homelessness. Basically, what happened was that we left England when I was very young, lived in the U.S. for seven years, then South Africa for a year, Australia for a year and then came back to the UK. In all the time we were away I was aware that I wasn't a native of the country I was in, but at the same time felt very much a part of them -- especially America, which I now regard very much as a second homeland. Noir characters very often have exactly this kind of relationship to their environments, and so it's possible that this element of my writing was at least partly inspired though my upbringing. Such a childhood either tends to make you want to find one home and stick to it, or gives you a bad and permanent case of itchy-footed wanderlust. With me, it's definitely the latter.
I read that as an adult, you spent a year or so traveling the United States. What were your experiences, and how might they have influenced your writing?
It wasn't a whole year, sadly! I'd love to do exactly that, and in fact one of the books I'm intermittently reading -- re-reading, if the truth be known -- is William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, about the author's meanderings along America's less-well-known back roads. I've visited America many, many times, but the longest I've been able to do in a stretch was the month which my wife and I spent driving from Boston to L.A., a couple of years ago. We didn't exactly take the most direct route, but with a country that vast and that fascinating, you need a hell of a lot longer than that to even start getting to know it. The most direct affect that trip had on my writing was that two of the towns in The Straw Men -- Dyersburg and Palmerston -- were loosely based on places we passed through. I think my acquaintance with and love of the country certainly has a long-term affect.
You started writing while at Cambridge. Could you talk about that period?
I listened to a lot of radio comedy as a child, and went up to college intending to do two things: get into the Cambridge Footlights -- the club which spawned Monty Python, amongst others -- and start a band. The comedy ended up taking so much time, I never got around to the band. I wrote revues, pantomimes, stuff like that, and after college had a couple of radio series on the BBC. I didn't start writing genre fiction until the very end of a tour I undertook with the Footlights at the end of my time at college. Theater tours tend to leave you with a lot of time on your hands during the day. I'd just discovered Stephen King, and steadily read everything that was available. The tour ended with three weeks in Edinburgh, and one day I saw a little incident which led to me writing my first short story ["The Man Who Drew Cats"].
What sort of incident was that?
I was sitting in this one particular area of town (I forget what it's called -- Prince's Street, I think) and watching the world go by. There were tourists, actors from plays, street theater people, even someone playing the bagpipes for a while, I think. I was watching some of the goings-on with half an eye, and happened to notice a guy who was doing a big chalk drawing on the ground. It wasn't actually terribly good, as I remember, but then I heard -- from some distance away -- the sound of a young boy crying. The two things just sort of collided in my mind, and half of the short story plopped into my head fully formed. As that story went on to win me the British Fantasy Awards for Best Short Fiction and Best Newcomer, has been reprinted about eight times and probably started the whole thing off, I guess I feel pretty lucky that I happened to be sitting in that square at that particular moment.
You have quite an arsenal of short stories that are not really SF. Could you say a little about them?
I guess they'd be characterized as "horror," though they tend to be tales of unease, weirdness, rather than full-on vampires and monsters. I've actually written very few SF short stories. Of the 50-odd that I've done, I think only about four are set in the future. That's another of the reasons I was keen to write a present-day novel: the bulk of my writing has always been set in the now, and I wanted to try to being the different strands of my stuff -- the novels and the short stories -- closer together.
For you, the difference between writing short stories and novels is ...
Um ... length? Stupid answer, maybe, but that's the heart of it. Novels are such an investment of time and emotional energy. If you're 70,000 words into a book, you've kind of got to stick with it, whereas you can start a short story on a whim and just see if it works. It's no great loss to trash 2,000 words (or at least slip the file into an "In Progress" folder), which gives you the freedom to play with ideas that are too nebulous or out there to frame a novel around. There are also simply many ideas which can be best and most effectively manifested in a short, sharp tale. I believe that most of the best work in horror, for example, is done in the short story. Sometimes that's just the perfect length to get in, tell a story or conjure a notion, and then get back out again before you start outstaying your welcome.
You have won numerous awards early on in your career. What impact has that had on you and your works?
I had an extraordinarily fortunate early run with awards, winning the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 1990, the Best Short Story Award in 1990, 1991 and 1996, and the Best Novel Award -- for Only Forward -- in 1995. There were a few World Fantasy Award nominations in that period, too. Then it all went rather quiet until last year, when I won the Philip K. Dick Award, again for Only Forward -- which had only just come out in paperback in the U.S. Awards are lovely to have, because they in effect say, "There are people out there who like what you do," which can be exactly the boost you need to keep you going, especially at the beginning. But you've also got to accept that they can be related to fashion, and cliques -- the Booker being a very obvious example -- and that not winning awards doesn't mean that you're not any good.
Spares has been your most successful novel to date. Could you tell me a little about its inception and realization?
I think Spares was the novel where I started to marshal what I was doing. A first novel is very often a kind of spasm of creativity, just grabbing what's in your head and getting it down. That was certainly my experience with Only Forward, which came to me very easily. With Spares, I'd just started reading some crime and started to feel myself pulled in that direction. It was also the dreaded second novel, and so very hard work at times. The basic story is about cloning, about the idea that in the future the wealthy might take out an ultimate life insurance [policy] for their children by having them cloned at conception to provide a future spare parts bank. The timing was very fortuitous -- I finished the book about three weeks before the news about Dolly the sheep was announced. Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks optioned the novel. It never made it out the other side of the development process -- or at least, hasn't yet -- but the whole thing certainly put my career on a slightly more solid footing.
Most of your novels, in fact, have been optioned for the movies. Any interest in The Straw Men?
There've been some rumblings, but nothing concrete yet. We'll see.
Didn't you spend a number of years writing screenplays yourself?
I'm still doing it, actually, but I think it's something I'm going to take a little break from soon. I've always loved films, especially horror films, and have been coming up with ideas for them at least as long as I've been writing prose. I've been screenwriting for about nine years, on and off. In that time, I've only written one original script -- something called Where the Children Went, which I'd like to get back to at some stage. The rest have all been adaptations of other people's work. I've worked on Modesty Blaise, Solomon Kane, Robert Faulcon's Nighthunter and Jay Russell's Celestial Dogs, for various clients. Though the script I'm writing at the moment -- Friends For Ever -- is an original, too.
You also worked on a screenplay of Clive Barker's Weaveworld, didn't you?
Weaveworld was the very first screenwriting I ever did, and was a superb introduction to both the good and bad sides of the industry. Clive was great to work with -- extremely supportive and friendly -- and Weaveworld is a modern classic. I was delighted and honored to be working on the project. My adaptation was for an eight-hour miniseries, which is a hell of a lot of script, and the initial whirlwind of trying to reassure people that I was the right guy for the job was very exciting. Problem was, it continued at that pitch for 18 months, the project ran into personality differences so large I'm surprised they weren't featured on the television news, there were too many opinions to be catered to at every step of the process, and I ended up getting royally stiffed on my fee. In the end, everything over-ran so long that I was unable to do the second draft, because I was already late starting a novel. That's the film world, I'm afraid: exciting, certainly, but very often a frustrating pain in the ass.
What differentiates the screenwriting process from etching out a novel?
The jobs are about as dissimilar as two tasks could be, while sharing the same basic activity -- i.e., telling stories by typing. The fact that almost nobody has managed to make a success of writing in both media perhaps tells its own story: even the much-vaunted William Goldman hasn't really been a novelist in a very long time. Just about every single thing is different. The way in which stories are put across, the different tricks and tools which you do -- or don't -- have at your disposal, the process of writing itself ... they're very different disciplines. The key thing, perhaps, is that with books you can tell people things, whereas in movies you generally have to show. Though, of course, it can be very effective to switch the two around, every now and then.
But surely you must have some favorite screenwriting memories.
None to shout about, to be honest. I've enjoyed screenwriting, enjoyed the challenge and some of the people I've met while doing it. I've enjoyed spending time in Hollywood and occasionally getting that "Hey -- it's really going to happen!" feeling. Thing is, it never has actually happened -- and an awful lot of time has spiraled down the screenplay chute in the meantime, with little to show for it except money. Money's important, of course, but it doesn't make something worthwhile and doesn't pay the emotional bills. I'm thinking that I'd rather have a few more live books on the shelf than dead scripts on the hard disk. I'm sure I'll go back to screenwriting, but in my own time, and for my own amusement. And actually, the experience of writing the script I'm on at the moment has been pretty good.
One of the frequent themes of your fiction is how the past shapes the future. You explore that theme at several levels in The Straw Men, both on the micro level, with the secrets of Ward Hopkins' upbringing, and on the macro level, spanning the dawn of Man. Why does the past intrigue you so much?
The past is what we're about, both as individuals and as a species. There's such a modern obsession with what's happened in the last 2,000 years, last century, last year, last five minutes -- and it's getting worse. Creatures exactly like us have been wandering the planet for many tens of thousands of years. Don't you think that the way things were back beyond the dawn of television might still have an impact upon us? Time drops like a curtain of dust, occluding us from much of the information that would help us understand both our culture and the people we meet. I find that process interesting. I want to remove some of that dust -- even if I have to be very speculative to do it.
And yet you left Hopkins' history with the CIA so vague. Why?
I revealed everything I thought was relevant at the time. I'm not a big fan of books which give you the soup-to-nuts on a character straight off the bat. It can feel a little too much like a god POV, reminding you that you're reading a work of fiction in which the author is in charge of everything and can give you the bottom line of a character right away. That's not the way it happens in real life, is it? You meet someone, they reveal what they choose to reveal -- and you make a few intuitive guesses of your own about them. You then deal with them on the basis of what you think you know, gradually learning how much of it is true, and what stuff might be hidden below the surface ... I like books to have something of that flavor about them, and wrote a very unreliable narrator in my very first novel, Only Forward. I don't want everything in a neatly labeled box first time around. People like that are boring. So are characters. Of course, a little bit of "vagueness" also leaves your creative options a little looser, should you wish to return to a character at any time.
Morality is another theme that you often hit, whether it involves Jack Randall in Spares or Hopkins' parents in The Straw Men. Could you comment on your interest in morality issues?
Morality is like a part of the human mind made semi-flesh, a tantalizingly nebulous attempt to say something concrete about how we think we should be able to live with each other. Whenever I write, and whatever the subject, it's human nature that I'm generally most interested in examining. What is morality? Can anything objective be said about it, and should we even try? Do our attempts to do so reflect most upon our good or bad sides? Is it all, ultimately, anything more than something that can be swept aside with a single shot from a handgun? This is what life is about, I think, and in particular what crime fiction is about: the eternal, grubby verities of life. Love, greed, death -- none of which can be considered for long without questions of morality shouldering their way in.
The establishment and role of community plays a notable part in your stories, as well, whether it's the neighborhoods in Only Forward or the millionaires' fortified estates in The Straw Men. Give me your take on the role of community in our lives.
The notion of community is central to The Straw Men, and I think it's going to be a subject which the world confronts in new and strange ways over the coming years. From the loose virtual conglomerations on the Internet, to the increasing compartmentalization of the real world, the changes in the way we use geographical space, and the rising way in which our social or ideological "communities" are being used as rallying calls and battering rams in a post-9/11 world -- the notion of community (in both positive and negative senses) is going to be key.
You use the Internet to good effect in The Straw Men, without resorting to too much techno-terror. Could you share your thoughts about that electronic global forum and its uses? And what's this I hear about your being addicted to webcams?
I do like webcams, I must admit. I'd like to stress that these aren't the ones where young -- or not so young -- ladies take their clothes off. I like those which show some unimportant street corner, or patch of road, or a small corner of a not very attractive pond somewhere. I respond to these vistas in the same way as the kind of views you see on a train journey, where you see the backs of things, the bits no one's bothered to beautify or frame, little bits of the world without any attempt to contextualize, explain or smarten up. It's just there. I don't know why, but I like that.
I find the Internet useful primarily for grabbing endless bits of software I don't need, tracking down the occasional book, checking out potential hotels and keeping in contact with far-flung people. I've yet to find it much use for anything else. ... There was a lot of brave talk at the beginning about "information wanting to be free." I haven't seen much evidence of that. I see a lot of spam, a lot of self-interested misinformation and a lot of nonsense being talked. I see a lot of people reveling in "having their say," without the editorial constraints of peer review or having to prove that they have any idea what they're talking about. Sometimes the Internet seems like a vast room full of narrow-minded people all shouting at once.
But I'm also beginning to see some real publications of quality emerging, free from the often random constraints of commerciality, and there are sites related to specific subjects which can be life-savers to people going through particular kinds of experiences. We're still in a Wild West period, where the shysters and snake-oil merchants outnumber the steady citizens. But that will change, and the world will never be the same again. We are going to have to be careful, though: As I try to suggest in The Straw Men, people with like interests being able to congregate in virtual communities ain't always going to be a good thing. I also think [the Web] has the potential to breed a kind of relationship-without-moral-responsibility, which I don't think is entirely positive.
You pepper your works with conspiracy theories, like that involving The Upright Man in The Straw Men. Are you a "Grassy Knoll" type of guy?
Like a lot of people, I often find conspiracy theories rather seductive. There's something very attractive about the idea that everything about the world -- particularly the bits you find confusing or frightening or objectionable -- has an easy explanation. It's the search for the mythic bad guy, the men in the black hats, the devil in disguise. It's also an attempt, fundamentally, to reduce the world's complexity to something the paranoid can understand. I actually don't believe very many [such theories], but enjoy them as fiction -- they appeal to the "what if?" instinct in me. I will always take any piece of paper that a nutter tries to hand me in the street. I find them fascinating. I've got a great one on the fridge at the moment, from some guy who claims that he basically wrote all of the music there is -- from ABBA to march music, jazz to classical -- but is being stiffed on royalties by The Government. And again, I just think, "Well, what if ...?"
Speaking of conspiracy theories, where did you get the idea for the "Straw Man Manifesto" you use in this latest novel?
I was sitting wondering one day why humankind might have started farming, and an idea came into my head. That manifesto -- a short portion in the middle of the book, where the bad guys' philosophy is laid out -- was one of the main reasons I started writing the novel in the first place. The more I thought about it, the more fun the ideas seemed to be. It was from this small and apparently tangential area that much of the main underlying material of the book started to flow. I'm not saying the ideas are in the least bit true, of course, but you never know ... I've got a good friend who's currently studying to be an archaeologist, and toeing the party line, and I also enjoy making this stuff up just to annoy him.
So what are you working on currently?
I'm writing the second draft of this original horror movie, Friends For Ever. I'm writing that for an English production company called Shine, and for the director Nick Hamm, and the experience has been very good so far. I've also been working this year with the BBC on an idea of mine called CityScape, which would be for a six-part television series based around a 2,000-year conspiracy at the heart of London. There're a couple of short stories under way, and as soon as this movie draft is done, I'm going to be starting on the next Michael Marshall book.
I know this may be premature, but can you say a little about what the next Michael Marshall novel will entail?
I could -- but I'm afraid I'm not going to! I'm more superstitious about upcoming work than you'd believe. I just won't talk about it. I can tell you that the next book is going to involve some of the same characters as The Straw Men, and that it will take the ideas both deeper and wider. Also, that if I get it right, it could turn quite a few notions on their head ... but we'll see.
Finally, if I was to check out your reading pile right now, what would I find?
I'm dividing my time between re-reading The Cold Six Thousand, by James Ellroy, The Fields Beneath, by Gillian Trindall, and Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard. | October 2002
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist and freelance journalist living in England. He contributes to Shots and the Deadly Pleasures Web site, and is currently working on his latest novel, Wreaths, a very violent techno-thriller set in the world of plant viruses and out-of-work espionage agents. He is also, incidentally, looking for a publisher.