Gareth Powell: The Terribleminds Interview

Gareth Powell is a gentleman and a scholar, and he’s also a fine purveyor of what one might call “ape-pulp,” what with his upcoming novel, Ack-Ack Macaque. As a fan (and writer) of ape-pulp myself, it is only proper that he is here today, submitting to the electrodes. I mean, “interview questions.” You can find Gareth at garethlpowell.com and on the Twitters @garethlpowell.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

After dinner, we bought a bottle of wine and took a taxi back to her flat. The fire escape opened onto a flat section of roof, still warm from the day’s heat.

“Sit down, make yourself comfortable,” Nina said. She smelled of patchouli. She wore a black cocktail dress and had her hair chopped into a platinum Warhol mop. She had a silver pendant around her neck and – when she finally took the dress off – a vertical scar between her breasts. She saw me looking at it and touched it with her fingers. It made her uncomfortable.

“I once lost my heart,” she explained.

Why do you tell stories?

Writing is a compulsion I’ve had for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to fill notebooks with endless, rambling stories. I always loved to read, of course, and would spend my weekends reading novels from the library; so later, writing seemed a very natural way to express myself. After all that reading, I guess my brain was attuned to the rhythm of the words.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

The first draft of your story or novel is likely to be a bit rough and ragged, and that’s okay. You won’t hit perfection first time. Write as well as you possibly can, but don’t get hung up trying to perfect every sentence as you go along. If you do, you won’t get anywhere. Just get the story down as quickly as you can, and then worry about editing it. Do the difficult part first, and then you’ll have something to work with.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t think I’ve ever received a bad piece of advice. Granted, some were less useful than others, but all were (as far as I can tell) meant well, and given with the best of intentions. That said, I did find that when I left education, I had to re-learn how to write. The English courses I’d taken at school seemed to encourage florid, pretentious and verbose language, and it took a while to strip some of that out and concentrate on producing lean, descriptive and active prose.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

For me, a strong character is one who isn’t necessarily strong morally or physically, but one who is presented as a fully-rounded individual, with all the flaws and foibles that make us human. Somebody I can relate to and root for, or despise and wish ill upon. And in order to write somebody like that, you really need to know people, and what makes them tick. Very few people in the real world are exclusively good or evil; very few think of themselves as the bad guy; and they’re all carrying around a lifetime of good and bad memories, and acquired habits and quirks. A strong character is one who stands out as a living, breathing individual, rather than a cookie cutter cipher from central casting.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

My favourite book has long been Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I’ve loved it since I first read it as a teenager. It might not have a particularly structured plot, but it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Here is this writer pouring the experiences of his life onto the page as quickly as he can, drawing us into his world and making us care about the aimless dashing around in which he and his friends indulge in the name of art and kicks.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

My favourite word is “iktsuarpok”, which is an Inuit word describing the type of impatience you feel when waiting for a guest to arrive, which causes you to keep going outside to see if you can see them approaching. As a writer who hates sitting by his inbox awaiting replies to email submissions, this struck a chord. So now, I use iktsuarpok to describe that mood where all I can do is sit there hitting “refresh” every twenty seconds, waiting for an editor to respond.

When it comes to a favourite curse word, I guess the one I use most often is “fuck”, in all its various forms. It’s short, classic, expressive and satisfying, and can be inserted into almost any sentence.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Beer. And lots of it.

Okay, c’mon: what beer? GIVE US DETAILS, MAN.

I like something cold and crisp, like Amstel. As Guinness is to Dublin, so Amstel is to Amsterdam. I’ve been to the city a few times, and they serve it everywhere. You can sit outside almost any café with a tall frosty glass of Amstel and watch the world go by: the trams snaking through the streets; the boats nosing their way up and down the canals, and the locals cutting past on their mopeds, their girls clinging side-saddle to the parcel rack, their tyres going pap pap pap on the cobble stones.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

Technology does seem to have a habit of malfunctioning around me, so perhaps I have this aura of electrical entropy that will slowly render the robot armies useless as they succumb to a thousand annoying little malfunctions.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I’ve just finished the first draft of my next novel, Ack-Ack Macaque, which will be published by Solaris Books in January next year (although you can already pre-order it on Amazon, should you want to); so my next task will be to edit and submit that over the coming weeks. After that, I have ideas for a couple of series, and I’m working with my agent to decide which to concentrate on first.

You’re all over the genre map in terms of writing. What’s your favorite thing to write? And, anything you haven’t written yet that you want to?

My short stories are mostly set in the near-future, whereas my first two novels (Silversands and The Recollection) were both space opera. I don’t know why; I guess maybe it’s a question of length. With a short story, it’s easier to set it close to the present, with only a few obvious changes; whereas with a novel, you have much more room to describe and bring to life a setting far removed from the here-and-now.

My latest novel (Ack-Ack Macaque) is an alt-history cyberpunk romp featuring a cigar-chomping monkey and a whole lot of zeppelins, and it’s set in 2059; so in that respect, it has more in common with my short stories than my first two novels. But then, that’s not so surprising, because it was inspired by one of my short stories, also called Ack-Ack Macaque, which Interzone readers voted as their favourite story of 2007.

When I’ve finished the final edits on Ack-Ack Macaque, I hope to write another space opera. For me, space opera has always been the heart of the genre.

What’s it take to write good pulp?

To write good pulp (although I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that description. “I’m writing art, dah-ling!”), you need three things: an involving, fast-moving plot; a tight, lucid writing style; and larger-than-life characters. Throw them all in the mix, and you’ll come out with something pretty special.

New question: as a writer of “ape pulp” myself, what’s it take to write good pulp featuring gun-toting primates?

For me, when I was writing Ack-Ack Macaque, I tried to bear in mind that the monkey (he is a monkey, not an ape) wasn’t simply a man in a monkey suit. If you’re going to write “ape pulp” or “monkeypunk”, you have to make sure the animal is an animal, and therefore subject to different behaviours and responses, and capable of moving around in different ways, such as through the trees or on all fours. I guess this was especially true in the second chapter of the book, where he warns a new recruit to his squadron to avoid staring at him because, as a male macaque, he’s likely to take eye contact as a direct physical challenge.

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