Interview: Gareth L. Powell on writing

Gareth PowellWho and what inspired you to become a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer, and I was always interested in science fiction, so it was inevitable that I would become a writer of science fiction. My local library had a good selection of classic science fiction hardbacks and paperbacks, from Brian Earnshaw’s Dragonfall 5 series, through to the short stories of Arthur C. Clarke, the juveniles of Robert Heinlein, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels, and I read them all.

I studied creative writing at University, but then spent a few years “in the wilderness”, writing poetry and dodgy short stories. I only decided to get really serious about my writing around the turn of the Millennium. We were entering a new century, and I was leaving the last years of my twenties and embarking on the first years of my thirties. It seemed like the right time to “put up, or shut up”.

This new phase started with a novel called Silversands. I spent a couple of years writing it while working a full-time job, and I poured most of my influences into it. Looking back on it now, I can see traces of those books I used to read at the library; but at the same time, I had begun to find a “voice” that had been lacking from my earlier efforts.

At the same time, I was discovering authors whose work would have a big influence on my later writing: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Ken MacLeod, Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson…

Silversands would eventually be published as a hardback by Pendragon Press in 2010, and then reissued as an e-book by Anarchy Books in 2012 – but when I finished writing it in 2002, I put it aside and started writing short stories.

Writing short stories really helped me to hone my craft. I started submitting them to online genre magazines and, when I felt I had a story that was good enough, I sent one to Interzone, Britain’s long-running science fiction and fantasy magazine. The story was called ‘The Last Reef’, and it attracted some interest from readers and reviewers.

After that, I continued submitting, and eventually came to the attention of Andrew Hook at Elastic Press—a respected independent outfit specialising in single author collections of short fiction. Andrew published my collection, The Last Reef and Other Stories in 2008 (and it was also reissued as an e-book by Anarchy Books in 2012).

Since then, I have written two further novels for Solaris Books: The Recollection (2011) is my love letter to science fiction, and the archetypal spacers embodied by characters such as Han Solo, Lorq Von Ray, Mal Reynolds, and Captain John Truck.

Ack-Ack Macaque (2013) is something else: an alternate world saga featuring a WWII Spitfire pilot who also happens to be a cigar-chomping monkey, and a runaway prince of the realm, who uncovers the dirty secret at the heart of the British monarchy.

What attracted you to the genre that you write in?

I grew up with the Moon landings, Skylab, and the Viking probes. Not to mention Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. When the first space shuttle launched in 1980, we thought we’d all be living on the Moon by the year 2000.

Mired as we were in the depths of the Cold War, science fiction offered a future of bright, boundless adventure. Even the post-apocalyptic stuff held the promise that somebody somewhere would live through any holocaust that might befall us, and that humanity would rise again, all the way to the stars.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

I admire lots of writers, for lots of reasons. Some I admire because of their style; others because of their life stories and the difficulties they’ve overcome; and others because I’ve met them, and liked them. If pushed, I’d have to list the following as writers who have had a profound effect on me: Raymond Chandler; Ernest Hemingway; William Gibson; Jack Kerouac; Hunter S. Thompson; Arthur C. Clarke; Iain M. Banks; Douglas Coupland; M. John Harrison; Aliette de Bodard; Colin Harvey; JG Ballard; Leonard Cohen; Samuel Delany; Philip K. Dick; Frederik Pohl; Cordwainer Smith; Alastair Reynolds; Jon Courtenay Grimwood; Kurt Vonnegut; Bruce Sterling… (the list goes on and on)

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Being able to finish what they start. I have known many people who have started novels but, for one reason or another, never finished them. You have to finish what you write. You have to write a lot in order to learn your craft. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect to win a marathon without training, you can’t expect to write a masterpiece without practicing.

Talent, style and imagination are all important attributes, but if you never finish your book, no-one will ever read it.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

Read as much as you can; write as much as you can. The two are inextricably linked.

The RecollectionWhat is the worst aspect of writing?

For me, the worst part is the waiting; whether it’s waiting for a reply from an editor on a submission I’ve made; waiting for the publication date of a novel or story; or waiting for the reviews to come in. There’s a lot of waiting in this business, and it can drive you nuts. The best thing you can do is distract yourself by starting work on something new. There are always more stories to be written.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

If I had to recommend a science fiction book to someone who’d never read any science fiction, I wouldn’t point them at one of the ‘classics’. Asimov and Clarke may be acknowledged as pioneers in the genre, but their writing is awfully dated now, and likely to turn-off the new reader. Better, I think, to start with something which addresses our current concerns and sensibilities, such as Moxyland by Lauren Beukes: the story of four characters in a near-future South Africa, doing what they can to survive in a culture dominated by corporate wealth and political corruption.

As far as non-science fiction books are concerned, for many years my favourite book has been Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road. I know a lot of people who hate it, but the luminosity of the writing gets me every time; every sentence sings with sheer enthusiasm and a naked lust for experience and meaning. And, at the end, that’s what makes it such a sad book: because none of the characters (nor their real life counterparts) ever finds what they’re looking for. It’s a book about life, and it’s a book about failure and death; and as such, it has a lot to tell us about who we are and where we’re going in this crazy, sad world.

DAN HOWARTH

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Gareth L. Powell fiction (UK)
Gareth L. Powell fiction (US)