Interview Swap: Ian Hocking

With new publisher Unsung Stories about to launch their first titles any day now this seems like a good time to ask a few questions of Déjà Vu author Ian Hocking on this blog, and answer a few in return over at his blog.

You know a good book by the amount of times you think about it, and compare other books to it, favourably or otherwise. Deja Vu establishes a universe of doubts in the face of implacable technology. It merges cyber stories with human fallibilities. I’ve seen it done since, but rarely done as well.

Here’s a conversation I recently had with Ian about his book:

This is a new edition of Deja Vu, and it’s so well-paced and absolutely focused. What’s changed for this edition?

Déjà Vu is one of those books that just won’t go away. It’s strange to keep coming back to it; the person who wrote the first edition was twenty-three years old (or thereabouts), and it still contains a lot of enthusiastic energy. What I’ve tried to do in this quintessential (and final, I hope!) edition is tidy up the motivations, make certain things clearer, and sharpen the story. One of my writerly traits–which I like to think is a lesson from poetry, but it probably just laziness–is to hold back from explaining everything that happens in a novel. My preference would to have about 60% of the mysteries/puzzles tidied up by the end (just enough for the reader to have faith that I’ve got an answer for all of them) and then have some mysteries left to the reader. I think that’s a much more literary experience, and it gives a story much more power. But, frankly, this makes the work less commercial. So the major change between this edition and the first one is surface clarity; I make it much easier on the reader.

I think you’ve got the way the technology integrates with the plot without overshadowing it down to a fine art. It doesn’t feel unrealistic at any point. How difficult was it to write the tech? Just the thought of writing that aspect well fills me with dread…

I’m relieved that you think so. My general rule with technology–be it a time machine or a chip in a brain–is that the reader is much more interested in the effect of it than how it works. On the other hand, you’ve got to pay your dues as a writer by giving the impression that you understand what you’re talking about. I know little about physics, but I know enough, I think, to give the impression that I know more–and fiction is all about impression. Artificial intelligence, by contrast, is actually something I’ve studied, taught and researched (there’s an introductory text out there called ‘Down to the Wire’, where I write briefly about some of the issues). On that basis, I can tell you that I’m more confident in a time machine being invented than an AI like Ego! But the main thing is: if I find the technology interesting, I should be able to make 99% of my readership feel interested by writing about it properly, otherwise I’m not doing my job.

How did you feel about revisiting the book?

It’s a strange feeling. The story is fast paced, and there’s lots going on, which helps when revisiting prose for perhaps the fiftieth time. I guess it’s a testament that it’s a book I would enjoy reading myself if I weren’t the author. It’s still hard, though; and I say that as a person who enjoys editing for the most part. The overriding feeling, if I’m honest, is anxiety. Déjà Vu sold a large number of copies in its previous edition and I was wary of screwing it up. Any one of my editorial changes might have done that.

The issue of identity is a key part of the novel for me – father, daughter, genius, victim, killer – was that an issue you wanted to address right from the word go, or did the themes of the novel sneak up on you?

It’s fashionable for writers to say their books are about identity–really, they should be if they’re about humanity at all. I would say that mine is, but only consciously with regard to the identity of Saskia Brandt. There is a sense in which we are all creatures of our experience–our memories–but that we imagine ourselves to be largely independent of those memories. People suffering from temporary memory loss after a blow to the head, for instance, are still basically themselves even if they can’t remember any episodic memories. What if you found yourself in that state but confronted with episodic memories that tell you you’re a bad person? That’s the crack that runs through the psyche of Saskia Brandt, at least for much of this novel.

How well do you know Saskia Brandt?

A very interesting question! I find her easy to write in the sense that, given a situation, I’m confident about how she would behave. I rarely change her dialogue, and I enjoy any scene in which she’s present. A scene with Saskia going to the supermarket would be interesting to write simply because she sees the world differently (I won’t say why, to avoid spoilers), and that creates a background hum of conflict and interest. I don’t really know what she looks like, either; there’s no clear photorealistic image in my head. I have a strong sense that she’s based, physically, on someone I saw in real life or on the TV when I was growing up, and that one day I’ll come across a picture of the person or actress and think, ‘Aha! There she is!’.

There are elements of her back story that I’ve deliberately avoided making explicit to myself. That goes back to a comment I heard from Chris Carter, the guy who created The X-Files. A journalist asked him if he kept a ‘bible’ with detailed backstories on Mulder and Scully–things like their marital status, high school, favourite pet, and all the events of the series so far. Carter said he did not because he thought it would stifle the creativity of the writing team. I think there’s a lot to that. The way The X-Files worked in terms of its arc was quite surprising and always (in my opinion) fresh. I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m working out ways to drip feed a reader information about a character; the story must always serve itself, and if the reader finds out things along the way, all well and good.

I was really glad to read on Twitter that you’re writing again. Does your heart belong to science fiction or will you be exploring other genres?

It’s funny, when I gave up writing for a few months I was the happiest I’d ever been. It felt like such a weight off. The problem is that I try to take it professionally, and that’s difficult to do when you already have a profession. Not that I’m complaining about my profession (academic). In terms of my genre allegiance, I love books that take me places, and while the literary fiction genre is great to read–I’ve been reading Chekhov, Mansfield, Lessing and others on my Creative Writing MA–books function as escapist, cool vehicles of thought for me. Though I’ve written some comedy fiction too, I’m very proud to be called a science fiction author.

Thanks Ian.

You can pre-order both Déjà Vu and my novella, The Beauty, at the usual places, include the Unsung Stories store.

My interview with Ian about The Beauty can be found at his blog.


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