We caught up with Greg Chivers* to talk about his novel The Crying Machine (HarperVoyager) which is coming out on April 4th. He wrote it while participating in our 3-month London-based course with Charlotte Mendelson.
Tell us about your novel in a way that looks like it’s imparting valuable knowledge to all the aspiring authors who’ll be reading this.
What if I don’t have any valuable knowledge?
Please, you know what those guys are going through. They need the comfort of the idea that published authors actually know what they’re doing.
OK, I’ll do my best. The truth is, I accidentally wrote a science fiction story. It came as something of a shock, I can tell you. There I was, minding my own business, writing what I thought was a heist thriller with supernatural elements, but by the time the words hit the page, the action was happening two hundred years in the future. Europe was in flames, refugees were fleeing to the middle east, new religions were fighting for their existence. Writing’s a dangerous business.
So how did that happen?
Honestly, I don’t know, and that’s probably why I got away with it. The one thing I didn’t do was sit down and build a world. I had a character and a place, Jerusalem, and a sense of how she felt about this place. My world took form only as and when she saw it. When I started writing, the parts of it beyond her gaze didn’t really exist. This approach has one big advantage, and one big disadvantage. The advantage is immediacy – your reader is right there. The disadvantage is, they probably have no idea what’s going on. That’s OK though.
What?! How can it possibly be OK?
I think it’s because this approach replicates the human experience – we’re all blundering around, seeing only a fraction of the world, and understanding even less of it. Eventually, we might build a coherent picture, which we will subsequently discover is wrong.
Was that a philosophical justification for the popularity of plot twists?
It might be.
Stick to the point please. Surely a reader’s going to lose interest if they don’t understand what’s going on?
Absolutely. There has to be a thread to follow, or ‘story’, as we sometimes call it in the trade. BUT, and I’m going to stick my neck out here, if your story relies on readers understanding specific details of your world – whether it’s the governmental system of the Venusian star people, or the wedding traditions of Mongolian yak traders – it’s not going to grab people. My protagonist, Clementine, is on the run. She wants to disappear. There are no pre-requisites to understanding that. You get it. As long as the reader has absolute clarity on everything that pertains to that core story, you’re golden.
That’s all very well, but at some point you ARE going to have to do some world-building.
Yes and no. Clementine’s world already exists; Jerusalem is a real place, so I didn’t have to build it. All I had to do was tweak it so the version I portrayed two hundred years in the future made sense. The whole reason my run-of-the-mill heist story ended up two hundred years in the future was that political and logistical realities in present-day Jerusalem presented massive obstacles to the plot. Setting the story in the future allowed me to bypass them.
A lot can happen in two hundred years…
Yes, but as the writer you’re in control, and you can mould that future history to make the setting your story needs. The real history of Jerusalem gave me everything I could ask for. I picked bits from biblical times, from the crusades, from the Arab-Israeli wars – when I needed a weird cult, it was easy to pluck out a real-life story of nineteenth century American missionaries who devoted their lives to bringing Christianity to the Holy Land. The disparate elements work because Jerusalem is, and probably always will be, a mish-mash of a place with ancient traditions sitting uncomfortably side by side with modern life. Building the future from pieces of the past seems the most obvious way to do it, because that’s what happens in the real world.
You were supposed to be writing a blog-piece about world-building, but basically you’re saying you haven’t built anything, just cobbled something together from bits and pieces, as and when it was necessary for character and plot?
That’s about the size of it.
I suppose I should have expected something like this…
Given that this isn’t even a real conversation, you really should have seen this one coming.
Still, there might be a couple of useful bits for writers in there.
I hope so. It’s a hell of a job, and I wish them well.
*We caught up with Greg, asked him to write something sensible about science fiction. He did this instead. The following interview is with himself.
If you’re interested in taking an intensive 3-month novel-writing course in London taught by Greg’s former tutor Charlotte Mendelson applications are open now for our spring 2019 course – there is also one HW Fisher Scholarship place available for a talented writer of limited financial means.
Or, check out all of our creative-writing courses – online or in London – currently open for applications or enrolment.