Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Interview with Chris Beckett

Jason Cooper: I read Dark Eden last year after winning it in a Good Reads giveaway. Earlier this year, I read its sequel Mother of Eden. As someone who often (not always) thinks sci-fi privileges philosophical or political reflection over prose that develops images, I was unprepared for how visual and evocative Dark Eden and Mother of Eden proved to be—you have an uncanny knack for putting your readers in whatever environment you’re conjuring, for making them feel the terror and wonder of those environments. What individual books or films most successfully transport you? To what extent, and how, have their examples guided your instincts in writing Eden?

Chris Beckett: I’m really delighted that you found the books visual and evocative. That’s what I want them to be, but it’s an odd thing about being a writer, you can never yourself see the effect your writing creates, rather as a puppeteer can’t see the show he’s performing (can’t not see the strings in his hands, can’t not know that all the voices are his own). I can only write the books and hope.

I think I have quite a vivid visual imagination, and quite a strong impulse to escape from the world, so I was quite readily transported by many different books when I was a child. I loved the Narnia books of C S Lewis, for instance, which are full of lovely little visual details. I was a somewhat solitary child, and spent quite long periods by myself imagining a world of my own. Not sure this was good for me, but I guess it was good training for my books!

Thinking of books written for adults which transported me in that kind of way, I think of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy (Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter), as one which made a big impression on me. There are engaging characters and human stories there, but there’s no doubt that the planet Helliconia itself is the number one attraction. Orbiting a sun which itself is in an eccentric orbit round a much larger star, Helliconia experiences winters which last hundreds of years, during which the whole structure of society changes, and the balance of power between the planet’s two intelligent races tips in favour of the hairy goat-like phagors. But then spring comes, followed by a centuries-long summer, and everything shifts again. The reader is shown all this through the eyes of Helliconia people, and it came alive for me in just the way you describe.

JC: In Mother of Eden, we see tribes across Eden nursing enmities and suspicions that echo the tensions between and within religions in our own world. And while the distinctions between groups in Mother of Eden feel analogous to religious distinctions—especially given Starlight’s stature as a prophet (she recalls Jesus and Moses to me and even put me in mind of Pope Francis at one point)—I wonder if cultural and geographic analogies might be closer. Isobel Coleman’s book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East suggests that the divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for instance, have less to do with discrepancies in theological interpretation than with centuries-old tribalism that has only incidentally to do with religion, if at all. I wonder if we’re too inclined to lay the violence between competing religious interpretations at the doorstep of religion. I wonder if the violence has more to do with cultural habits emerging within geographical pockets. Do you see aggressive tribalism as inevitable among human beings? And whether or not you do, where might humanity’s hope for collaboration and mutual respect lie?

CB: It’s interesting that you mention the rift between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, because that was one of the things I was thinking about when writing about the rift between Johnfolk and Davidfolk in Mother of Eden. As I understand it, the split was originally about a dispute about who was the legitimate heir to the authority of Mohamed. This dispute took place over thirteen hundred years ago, and it fascinates me that it still animates people today, so many generations on from the original quarrel. The split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism would be another example. In both cases there are theological differences, but I’d guess that it was the politics that came first and the theology that followed. In such situations, my feeling is, a theological difference is needed, and so one is found.

Groups of human beings tell themselves stories which justify their position, provide their lives with meaning, and explain why they’re the good guys. (I’m going to write more about this in the third Eden book which I’m now working on.) Religion is often co-opted to provide those stories, it seems to me, either that or those stories become religions.

My assumption would be that aggressive tribalism is part of our nature, not least because all of our closest animal relatives engage in it. That’s not to say we have to give way to it, though. We have lots of instincts that we feel but don’t necessarily give way to.

JC: One of the things I find most interesting about the Eden novels is how you explore the corrosion and re-making of language. Words accrue structure and meaning, and see these become stable, through contexts and points of reference. In your novels, words held over from Earth are now divorced from their contexts and so, over generations, see their structures erode and their meanings jump tracks. To what extent do the aural character of a society’s language and its grammatical tics shape or reflect a society’s sense of itself?

CB: I’ve always been fascinated by the way that words can, as you say, ‘jump tracks’. It’s not just words that jump tracks either, but ideas and institutions. (When I read American history, for instance, it always comes as kind of jolt to remind myself that the Democratic Party was originally the pro-slavery party.) One of the things I’ve tried to do in the Eden books is avoid any conception as a society as a static thing. The world is not divided between good guys and bad guys; events do not have fixed meanings, but are constantly reinterpreted and retold.

I don’t know, but I’d guess that the character of a language does reflect a society’s sense of itself to some extent. I notice for instance that both in British and US English, the speech of rural areas characteristically has a slow drawn-out quality (in the UK, a West Country accent, or the slow, flat speech of the flat Fens near where I live in East Anglia; in the US, a Texas drawl) while big cities are characterised by a rapid fire, clipped way of speaking (London, New York).

You don’t get much more rural backwater than Eden, and it’s also a society which has a largely oral culture, so I imagined a slow way of speaking in which words are repeated and savoured.

JC: When I was in graduate school, we read Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love. My classmates and I discussed at length the power of the eidetic image—how a reader or a reading experience can be jarred or shaken with an image like the hot air balloon accident opening that book. Mother of Eden explores the phenomenon, too, with its scenes at the Rock. In both McEwan’s novel and your own novel, the anxieties that readers might feel—about heights, about helplessness—are exploited to breathtaking effect. When writing scenes with that eidetic force, how do you prevent them overshadowing the narrative as a whole?

CB: It’s tricky with things like that scene at the Rock. I think you’re right, they can overshadow the whole book, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The horrific balloon scene does hang over the whole of Enduring Love, but doesn’t the power of the book derive from that shadow? I needed Starlight to be confronted directly by the violence on which the powerful in New Earth rely, and it should be shocking, because she is shocked by it, and it is a decisive moment for her.

Even in our world, we can be fairly sure, that somewhere, at any given moment, someone is doing something very scary and painful to someone else in the name of the society we would think of as our own.

JC: I used to work for Barnes and Noble, and I once had a customer come through my line with a stack of non-fiction about the Vietnam War. I tried chatting with him about Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, and he would have nothing to do with fiction. He told me that he had no interest in reading stories that weren’t true. I told him (antagonistic little bookseller that I was) that, as I see it, non-fiction traffics in facts, while great fiction traffics in truth. I realize it isn’t always that simple, and I doubt that I turned him on to reading fiction in that instant—but what would you to say to someone who looks down his or her nose at reading fiction? Why should someone read fiction?

CB: Sometimes I have moments when I feel the same as your customer. Why make stuff up –people, situations, societies – when there are real people and real societies out there to explore? But I’d answer it like this. Making stuff up is one thing, imagination is another. Imagination is not an optional extra. You need imagination, for instance, to put yourself in the position of another human being (since there is never direct access to another person’s mind). You need imagination to move forward from a familiar present into an as yet unknown future. I’ll bet that your customer’s stack of Vietnam books did not just contain facts, but used a range of techniques and devices to engage the reader’s imagination and bring the story alive.

Of course it is possible, and useful, to write books about real people, and real events like the Vietnam war, but as soon as you try and enter into what it was like to be there, you have to use imagination, particularly so if you want to try and put yourself into the mind of someone quite different to yourself, or someone in a situation you’ve never had to deal with personally: a Viet Cong fighter, a child running from a napalmed building, a GI caught in a boobytrap... In a sense you can’t know, you can only guess.

It can be inhibiting, when writing, to try to put yourself behind the eyes of real people (how can I speak for that fighter, or that child, or that GI? How can I really know? Do I even have the right to try and speak for them?). Even so-called non-fiction really is fiction as soon as it gets down to the level of subjective experience. And should we write fiction about other people’s real experiences?

That being so it can be very freeing, both for a reader or a writer to write fiction: to be able to say, in effect, “I know this stuff is made up, I know these aren’t real people, but they are my attempt to understand the wider world, by imagining people and situations beyond my own experience.”

It is also freeing in the sense that you are not attempt to capture a particular moment in history (like the Vietnam war) but rather to enter imaginatively into processes and dynamics that perhaps occur over and over again in lots of different situations. Using fiction is a way of avoiding your work being read as journalism, or as biography or history, but rather as an more general exploration of being human.

That’s my justification anyway. Wonder if it would have impressed that customer of yours?

(I’d be interested to ask him why he was so interested in that particular time in particular. Why do people go over and over, with such apparent pleasure, the detail of historical wars? Are they really confronting reality? Or are they escaping from it, as surely as any fiction reader?)

JC: Lastly, what was the single most memorable reading experience of your life? What was the book, and what was the context?

CB: Good Lord, that’s a hard one. You could ask me that question many times and get a different answer on each occasion: I could list a dozen books or more that opened up whole new possibilities as to what a book was and what it could do: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (even though I find it completely unreadable now!), Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?... I could go on!

But if I’ve got to pick one, I’ll plump this time for Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I first read this aged 19, and was amazed that something so rich and absorbing could be made out of such ordinary and everyday events. For some time I thought that was what I wanted to try and do myself. It’s not the kind of writing I ended up doing, but, who knows, maybe I learnt something about world-building from it?

Jason, thanks so much for your interest in my work, and for these really interesting and different questions.

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