I adore loving a book I shouldn’t have any business liking. On paper, The Explorer really isn’t a book for me. But it just proves that good story and strong writing transcend genre, so when the very-wise Kim Curran said, “Try it!” I recognized that she was smarter than I am and I did as she suggested. It’s a brilliant book — funny, desperate, desolate, sad, all in equal measure. Here’s Mister Smythe to tell you all about it —
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
I’m James Smythe. I write books, the latest of which is an SF thing called The Explorer. I’ve also worked on video games (doing story, narrative design and level design) and I teach Creative Writing at a university in London.
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH:
Cormac Easton is the first journalist to travel to space. The crew he’s with all die, and he’s left alone, slowly dying. Unless, of course, he can find out how to stop it…
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
A few things. One was me thinking about loneliness and quiet, and wanting to write something set in the loneliest place that I could contemplate. That place turned out to be space (though it could have been the bottom of the ocean – I’ll save that for another time.) The lonely-theme tied in with a life-long love of SF, and a desire to write something that felt like the books I read when I was a kid – or, at least, the way that I remember them.
And I’m getting older. I know it’s a cliché, but I think a lot about age, about what’s happening to my body. I became interested in how the body collapses, and how this thing we generally try to look after only becomes our worst enemy. There’s some of that in the book as well: the nature of time, and how it works with our body to betray us.
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN?
I think there’s a lot of me in Cormac. A lot of his dreams and hopes and fears, they were things that I felt when I was younger; and a lot of how he looks back on his life feels true to my own considerations of who I am and what I have done with my life. I know it’s not the be-all and end-all, but he makes up a lot of who this novel is, and I think that maybe only I could have written him the way that he is.
Also: his obsession with teeth. I have good teeth. All of them, nice a straight, blah blah. I am absolutely fucking terrified of them, and dentist, and of anybody touching my teeth. Or looking at them, even. If I’ve written this book right, there’s teeth-related stuff in there that should make anybody with a similarly odontophobic nature (the fancy word justifies my stupid fear) feel exactly the same. Honestly, I shuddered when I was writing those bits.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING THE EXPLORER?
Getting inside Cormac’s head. He goes to some much darker places than I do, and he contemplates things that – touch wood – I hope I never have to contemplate. Trying to see my way into his situation was tough at times, especially because I did feel a sense of empathy with him. He’s an asshole at times (as we can all be, I think) but he wants to be better. He wants to do what’s right. And when you throw nasty stuff at a person like that, sometimes it’s hard to see how they’ll react. And sometimes, their reactions are the hardest part of all.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING THE EXPLORER?
A lot about space and physics and science that I subsequently ignored. I wanted to write something where the science wasn’t necessarily real science. Instead, it had to serve the narrative. That’s what I remember pre-Space Race SF novels doing: they went to Mars in ships with gravity, and they bounced around on the planet and then they jumped over a mountain. The Explorer never gets to those extremes, but every decision made was informed by a) the reality of the situation and then b) whether that worked with what I wanted to put Cormac through in service to the story.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THE EXPLORER?
I love the rest of the crew. I tried to make them so that it didn’t matter who they were, where they came from, what they did: everybody is equal, and everybody (unfortunately) meets the same fate. How they deal with it is different, of course. We’re all broken, and what I put them through breaks them all further and in different ways. I hope that The Explorer is like novels I love to read most, regardless of genre: a story about people, about humanity, just dressed up on a spaceship to nowhere.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
Well, the nature of the story means that I can sort of explore that in another book. Short answer: everything. (And nothing.)
Process-wise? I would almost definitely make the science correct, or at least explained my decision better through the narrative. A few readers haven’t liked what I did with it – or have thought I just got it wrong – so maybe I didn’t make that clear enough. For most readers, they’ve gone with it. Somebody has described the book as science-fantasy (as Star Trek is) and that’s a label that I absolutely embrace.
GIVE US YOUR FAVORITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY:
“I always said that the thing I was saddest about, when they had pretty much stopped printing paper books, was that I couldn’t tell how long was left until the end. I could find out, but that feel, that sensation of always knowing was gone. I used to love the way that the cluster of pages grew thinner in my hand, how I could squeeze it and guess the time it would take until it ended. I loved endings, when they were done well: I loved knowing that it was finished, because that was how it was meant to be. An ending is a completion: it’s a satisfaction all in itself. “
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER?
My next novel is a very different beast: called The Machine, it’s about a woman whose husband has his mind wiped by the titular Machine, and how she tries to rebuild who he is. The Explorer taught me a valuable lesson when writing it: if you embrace the darkness in your story, it hopefully never feels overwhelming. When I began writing it, I was almost afraid of it, tentative in how I dealt with the darker aspects of the story. But the darkness can be used, and it can enhance, and hopefully I’ve used that lesson in The Machine.
And then, after that, the sequel to The Explorer, this time next year. I love it when a sequel subverts what you expect from a story and takes it to a different place entirely. Hopefully this will do exactly that.