Burning Questions with Christopher Fowler

 

burningman2Today sees the publication of the new Bryant and May novel by Christopher Fowler. Bryant and May: The Burning Man, has the ageing crimefighting duo up against a serial killer with a ‘break the banks’ agenda. The city of London is in turmoil. Another bank has fallen, and another banker is set to walk away; free to spend his creamed off millions. Demonstrators take to the streets and, in the chaos, a homeless man is killed by a Molotov cocktail. Enter Bryant and May.

If you have never read a Bryant and May novel before, then you have a treat in store. There are eleven preceding novels, including The Water Room, which is one of my all time favourite crime books. Fowler weaves mesmerising tales, filled with folklore and London history. They are fascinating in both content and plot. His latest instalment promises to be an incendiary mystery, invoking the spirit of revolution and Guy Fawkes.

The release of The Burning Man, makes it a glorious dozen for Bryant and May, and to celebrate Christopher Fowler has taken time to answer a few questions.

What book(s) are you reading at the moment?

Thanks to an e-reader I usually have around 4 books on the go at once. At the moment I’m reading Graham Joyce’s ‘The Year Of The Ladybird’, Christopher Priest’s ‘The Adjacent’, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia’, and ‘Vainglory’ by Ronald Firbank, a ‘missing’ novel which has gone straight to e-print.

Which new(ish) writer have you most enjoyed reading recently?

I love Warren Ellis’s forays into crime, and I’ve just discovered Jim Shepard, an amazing US short story writer who should be better known. I’m rather shocked that I’m not reading many new women writers – much of what I choose is from recommendations, and one growing problem is that the gender divide is being courted by publishers so that it’s assumed women only write for women. Thank God, then, for Hilary Mantel, and for crime writers like Val McDermid and Laura Wilson.

‘Desert Island’ films, plays and/or music?

Where to start? Comfort movies like ‘Hair’ and ‘Aliens’ and ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (I explain the reason for that last one in my memoir ‘Paperboy’). I am also the only person in the world who loves Ken Russell’s ‘The Boy Friend’. Plays; Sondheim for wordplay, Charles Wood and Peter Barnes for muscularity of writing, but more recently ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, ‘Mathilda’ and ‘Jerusalem’. Music is insanely eclectic – I have a passion for film soundtracks that borders mental illness, but this morning I was playing Richard Strauss and German jazz funk band De-Phazz. I love minimalists like Michael Nyman and Wim Mertens. And hard house.

A favourite bookshop?

I love my two nearest shops, Foyles in St Pancras and Watermark in King’s Cross. And of course, Forbidden Planet – I’ve been shopping with them since they were just a market stall in Soho’s Berwick Street.

Who or what makes you laugh?

I love very English language-play; Monty Python, Galton & Simpson, Joe Orton, Al Murray, Stewart Lee, Viz, PG Wodehouse, the Ealing Comedies, ‘The Thick Of It’, The Grand Budapest Hotel..

What depresses you most about contemporary Britain?

The gap between rich and poor, which keeps kids uneducated, and the lunacy of television which happily fills children’s heads with unrealistic dreams. People working at TV companies should ask themselves if they’re contributing anything to society instead of shrieking at each other over Soho House drinks. Every era gets the cons it deserves, and our children deserve something better than the Kardashians.

What excites you most about contemporary Britain?

I live in King’s Cross, possible the most polyglot place in the planet, and it’s thrilling just to walk through crowds. I have no truck with the Little England mentality and – from a purely aesthetic point of view – prefer the muezzin’s call to prayer more than church bells on a Sunday. I’ll get punched for saying that.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

Better eyesight and a faster reading speed. I’ve always been a slow reader, and have always suffered from eye-strain. In a way it’s probably what made me a writer – every Friday my mother had to take me to Moorfields Eye Hospital and as a treat we would visit a museum or bookshop afterwards.

The beauty of London, and the Bryant and May novels, is how the old lies side by side with the new. In the ten+ years since Full Dark House, how much has London changed? How has the city in which Bryant and May operate changed since the recession and the government’s introduction of austerity measures? 

I try to be upbeat about the Mayor’s transformation of London into an oligarch moneypit, but sometimes it’s hard. After more cyclists were maimed on London roads last month, the half-hearted new cycle lanes that peter out after a few metres, forcing riders into traffic, feel symptomatic of what happens when government planners step in to change life here. Incredibly, the pace of change seems to be getting even faster. London has always been in flux, but change was largely driven from within. Now it is due to international market forces. Mercifully, the city no longer makes its money from children working in factories, dying of mercuric poisoning so toxic that their skeletons turned green. Now it’s the impossible-to-comprehend world of money-moving. It seems to me that the result of being driven by outside money movement is that it’s now hard to tell why anything at all happens here. Why does a presumably listed building vanish? Why are services suddenly withdrawn? Why are trees removed and emissions limits not met? Is it simply all down to chance now? For a city so well-connected, hard information is scarce. We are now at the mercy of random forces. We can only grab London’s coattails now and hang on.

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I have just finished The Burning Man, and to borrow from a trend popular in the world of cinema, the answer to that final question is something of a teaser trailer. It’s highly illuminating in retrospect. Many thanks to Christopher for taking time to answer those questions for me, and thank you to you for reading.

Bryant and May: the Burning Man is out today (26th March), and my full review will be available from tomorrow.

 

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Gwenda Bond – Author Interview

TheWokenGods-300dpiEarlier this month I reviewed Gwenda Bond’s young adult thriller Woken Gods. Whilst not completely convinced by the novel as a whole, I became fixated with its central premise. – What would happen if the Gods from mythology really walked the Earth? Gwenda kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions.

1) The Gods that feature heavily in the book are quite obscure. Was this a deliberate choice? To use Enki and Legba, rather than say Hermes and Loki.

It absolutely was a deliberate choice. While I wanted there to be some gods and pantheons people might be more familiar with–as you mention, Hermes and Loki would be good examples of that, and both are in the book–I also very much wanted to mix things up and include some gods and pantheons that are not among the usual suspects that turn up routinely in fiction. The vast body of world mythology is filled with rich and fascinating stories and characters, so why not use more of them? I wanted the gods in the book to feel more alien and less familiar on the whole.

2) Which is your favourite mythological God?

I have a problem with favorites! I’m too greedy to pick. Honestly, I don’t have a favorite, but a slew of favorites instead. I will say it was great fun getting to research the Sumerians for the book. I wasn’t overly familiar with them beforehand, and there were lots of interesting alleys and corners (and ziggurats) to explore in that mythology. But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a mythology I don’t find fascinating or that doesn’t have a god or goddess I’m particularly intrigued by.sumerian-gods

3) The book contains almost no reference to modern deities. Considering the pantheistic nature of Hinduism and the importance of Christianity in the US I found this surprising. Why aren’t they referenced more?

Well, the entire premise of the book is that these are the gods of ancient mythology who have awoken. There’s simply no way I could have fit in all the gods or even all the pantheons directly into the confines of this single story–it’s a difficult proposition, writing a world with all the gods. And I very much knew I wanted this to be an urban fantasy set in D.C., but I did not want to imply that the U.S. would be the only place in the world that mattered or a place all the gods would flock to.

Tricksters have always been my overarching favorites among the gods, and given their traditional and special roles in most much of mythology, it made sense to me that they would be the ones that would be willing to play intermediaries with humans, in this world. Even within that subset, however, I obviously couldn’t use every trickster (and also some tricksters are more “culture heroes” than gods, so those were out), and then I picked the seven that seemed most diverse, defined, and right for this book to me. Likewise, the government has shifted elsewhere, and the main political power as far as dealing with the gods is the Society of the Sun–I didn’t want them tied to any one religion either, because that just doesn’t scan to me. And there are semi-spoilery reasons why the Society uses their U.S. HQ as their main base for dealing with the tricksters, rather than their offices in other parts of the world, that have to do with the architecture of D.C.

All that said, there is a relic in the book that’s discussed called the Babel Stone, and its ties to the Judeo-Christian tradition are obvious. I didn’t want to leave it out entirely. But I think it’s important to know what you want to write about and I was not so much interested in exploring religion and religious issues as in mythology and politics.

4) Do you have any plans to show what happened to the Christian church in light of all the other Gods turning up? (You may be able to tell I’ve been thinking a lot about this!)

Not particularly. There are a few places in the book that address religion and worship in this world–and I believe there’s an outright statement that (in Kyra’s view) in a world filled with gods, all the religions are true and none of them are. I think there would be people who would continue to be strong in their faith from before, be it Christianity or any other religion, and lots of others who might worship or pay tribute to a particular other god or gods, or to all of them. I think there would be plenty of cults that would spring up in certain places or that people would embrace apocalyptic traditions in various faiths (like the church member Kyra meets in the book). But we’re also only five years from the gods’ Awakening at the beginning of this book. That’s not a tremendous time for all these things to shake out. While it may have somewhat settled down and into a new normal, this is still a time of tremendous upheaval and a world that is very different not just on a global scale but on a localized one.

5) Why did you decide to write the novel as a YA book? I could see it working really well as a brick sized American Gods style book. I felt I wanted more depth on the history and politics of the Gods, but maybe that’s just me. I’m probably significantly older than most of your readers!brick

Ha! Well, I’m sorry you wanted more of that than was here–it would have been difficult to justify much more world-building explication on those things when the book’s largely in first-person present POV. As a reader, I tend to like more suggestive world-building that leaves some questions…so that’s the approach I take (though I did try to include everything you need to know to understand this story). I think most fantasy readers tend to fall in one camp or the other, most of the time. And, of course, no book is going to work for everyone.

Anyway, it’s funny, because I was an early reader for American Gods and I do love that book. As I say in the acknowledgements  Neil actually is how I first discovered Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World (he recommended it to me), without which I doubt The Woken Gods would exist. But I had no desire to try and rewrite American Gods myself; I had to write the book I had to write. I wanted a world in which the existence of the gods was very much out in the open, and that had undergone a big shift, and I wanted to tell a specific kind of story within it. I write YA because that’s my natural voice, or at least has been for the stories I’ve been drawn to tell so far, and I really wanted this big, strange world to be centered on one girl, who gets pulled into intrigue far beyond what she would think she could ever deal with. Kyra’s story is the most interesting part to me, and fits in with the larger mythological tradition of humans left to grapple with the games of gods.

Many thanks then to Gwenda for some very thorough answers. The more I think about Woken Gods the more captivated by the central idea. There are countless stories to be told. The possibility of writing some fan fiction is tantalising; for example what does the Pope do these days? I think it would also make brilliant source material for a role-playing game. My final question to Gwenda was whether she would welcome Woken Gods fan fiction.

She replied ‘I very much did want to and try to design the world of the book hoping it would feel that way — filled with possibilities and stories — and that people would want to see other corners of it and possibly make up stories themselves. (And so there’d be lots of room to play in it myself.) So, yes, I encourage it. That would be the coolest ever.’

It is very tempting…

Woken Gods is out now, published by Strange Chemistry.