Regarding Gnomon

12 January 2017

There’s a press release going out from my UK publisher, William Heinemann, about the new book, but I thought you might like to know a bit about it from my perspective. (That’s authors: we’re infamous for listening and squirreling stories away, but come publication we’re very excited and we assume you want to know what we think about everything. Don’t worry if you don’t, just nod and wander off. We’ll blather at someone else until they give us drinks.) Anyway: this is an attempt to get my head around what’s just happened and what’s about to happen in my writing life.

For the sake of the tender-hearted, I should observe that this discussion involves VERY MILD SPOILERS.

I don’t remember when I began, but I do remember how. Inspiration, for me, arrives as a collision of objects in my head, and the impact this time was hard enough to freeze me in place for ten minutes – a focus so intense it was like paralysis. There were so many trajectories and I couldn’t trace them all, but the gravity of the idea was inexorable. I didn’t intend to write this book. I had something much easier and lighter in mind. Gnomon, though, absolutely intended to be written.

That morning in the firework scatter in my mind, I saw a man sitting in a locksmith’s shop – one of those cubbyhole key-cutters where you can get shoes repaired and buy glue and leather protector. They’re always full of a weird fug of burning from the rotary drill and the acid-drop tang of fixatives. Above his head, on a shelf, were unbranded cans of something called “Universal Solvent.”

Then there was an angel in a prison made of light. A Lucifer-ish entity, quite obviously.

There was a man hanging in the water in front of a huge shark.

There was an alchemist in her study.

A woman in an MRi machine.

And watching them all – wading through them all – a detective, struggling to make it all make sense.

Well, yes. I could sympathise with that last part, at least.

Blame Bill Gibson for what happened next. I never do it this way. I do not, ever, under any circumstances, just dive into a story. Stories are like storms: if you want to derive energy and direction from them, you need to build a sound structure and channel the gale. You do not just strap on a pair of wings and jump off a cliff. Who does that? Who?

Well, some people do. Bill, apparently, does. I wanted to try it.

So I did.

Aaaaaand now it’s 2017.

You do a lot more rewriting. I mean, a lot. Because you have not already fought these battles in your head, so you take a bunch more wrong turns. Sometimes, as the Coen Brothers will tell you, those wrong turns take you down the best side roads. Sometimes they take you to a disused carpark full of telephone directories stacked in rows to make a miniature model of Milan.

No. Stop.

That’s exactly the point. When that happens, it’s fine. Sometimes – alas, much more often – those side roads don’t lead anywhere at all. They just leave you sitting in a puddle by the thoroughfare desperately hoping a bus will come soon and take you home.

This may have been the wrong book – or exactly the right one – to choose for this experiment. It was in any case impossible to plot in advance. I didn’t have just one thread to my new narrative – Tigerman had been wonderful that way, a linear story taking place over a fortnight in a single location – I had lots. I always have a few, but not like this. This was like weaving a tapestry thread by thread while holding the entire design in your head, and my head just wasn’t big enough. Meanings intersected with other meanings, with consequences. I had to go back, again and again, re-work, re-conceive, re-imagine. Sure, yeah, I know: writing is re-writing. I’m familiar with the re-write. This was more like starting a new book every four months or so. The number of plotlines and their interactions meant a kind of exponential multiplication of possibility. I’d made a maze in my own mind and I kept getting lost in it. The book was smarter than I was.

Much smarter. For a while I felt it wasn’t just going slowly, it was winning – and that was a problem because while you want the thing to be itself, there are limits. You cannot let the text be a one-to-one map. There’s not enough time in the world, in a human life. Maybe one day we’ll have AI-assisted narrative experiences which will generate whole worlds for us to wander through, each space filled with threads to explore – but not now. Not this, running on the limited platform of my brain and being transferred by an analogue physical interface (that’s my fingers and a keyboard) to the page for consumption by the venerable method of reading. I had to pick pathways on the fly, shut down entire possible worlds with a stroke of the pen. That’s always the case to some extent, but normally it’s a momentous decision, a fork in the road for your work; here it was happening every hour of every day. I didn’t know if I was waving or drowning, but I had to declare narrative bankruptcy – some possibilities I shut down without ever asking what they were for. They’re still there, dry-walled off. You can smash through and find them, fall down them, daydream yourself to another version of my book. The narrative expands laterally as well as vertically the moment you let it.

And then there’s politics.

I spent much of the first two years of this book charting the slow, subtle slide of my version of Britain through a kind of doorway of liberal good intentions into a bleak totalitarianism. I thought I was going to be issuing a timely warning, glossing the bleak midwinter potential of laws like the Snooper’s Charter, which at that time was dead in a Whitehall folder somewhere under Theresa May’s desk. I wanted to talk about the Twitterstorms of those days, but I imagined that they’d have been headed off by now, and laid to rest by a social media company eager to avoid becoming a platform for rage and hate.

Instead, I found on 24th June 2016 that my country had chosen a kind of radical economic organ transplant without any guarantee that a donor would be forthcoming, in the name of a monocultural nationhood I do not recognise, and to the benefit not of those who voted for it but of a vanishingly tiny oligarch nobility owing allegiance mostly to the chequebook. The Brexit road was paved by teasing the lurking monster of Britain’s ugly prejudice, and an MP was murdered in the street. Then in November, apparently inspired by Britain’s choice, America elected Donald Trump, with consequences I cannot begin to anticipate. Suddenly, my decision to give Gnomon a decently if not comprehensively diverse cast of characters was more significant than I’d ever imagined. I had been taxing myself when I made that choice, trying to school myself to do the writer’s job and escape my middle class white male identity, at least a little; now it looks as if I’m throwing my cap into the ring of a much bigger fight, a good one that could be very ugly over these next years.

I had to learn and forget so many things for this book – so many things that I’ve forgotten not only the detail but the index. I briefly knew about the history of cryptography, the life Haile Selassie, the language of flowers, the habits of late Roman syncretism. I read Augustine’s Confessions at speed, ripped out fragments and misappropriated personal notes. I learned how different cultures count the colours of the spectrum. I swallowed Koestler and Hofstadter, listened to Bach and Astatke and Hildegard von Bingen. I fell in love with Ibrahim El-Salahi’s art. I wasn’t just writing a book, I was remaking myself in order to do so. The text is readable at multiple levels and differently by different people: many or most of the sequences contain something that will be invisible to all but a very few, but to those few it will be full of meaning – and in order to do that, I had briefly to join each clade and caucus, and then move on, forgetting everything to make room for the next. As I finished the book, I felt a vast heap of half-melted informational slag crumble away. Then I had to turn back and polish the surfaces of what was there on the page, often without knowing the subtext or intent of what I had written, only that it was necessary that it be just so. Not automatic writing, this, by any means, but more like a sequence of strange conversations with other versions of myself visiting from other worlds. There will be scars across the story where I have mis-edited. There will be places where I have compounded the pattern unintentionally, resulting in something better than I deserve.

It has been a huge journey. I can only hope it was worth it, because for the first time in my life, I do not entirely understand what I have done. I know its mechanisms and its concerns, but I am not sure what lives inside the machine. Ultimately, I am perhaps the only person for whom the book is closed. When I read it now, I read a thousand iterations at once. I no longer remember which of them is actually on the page unless I am looking at it, but at the same time, I cannot forget any of them entirely. Editing GNOMON has been about a frantic local focus, the teasing out of single threads for sense and reference, because I can only work on the corpus through the specific: any attempt to touch the whole leaves me snowblind, spinning in a sea of minutely varied reflections and unable to understand or even phrase the questions I must answer. But I believe – I trust – that the whole is there, and does what it should. I know the architecture is sound, that it flows and follows the contours of the narrative I intend. It’s only in the attempt to change it that the possibilities become explosively malleable.

From those vague but bright beginnings came this book: Neith and Lönnrot; Kyriakos; Athenaïs; Bekele; and – inevitably – Gnomon. Riddles, illusions and games. Hints of transcendence and unreality. A book bigger than the mind it came out of. I’m not sure if I personally have won or lost, or how I would recognise the difference in this process, but here we are, at the end of it, and now the only thing to do is set it loose.

Over to you.

On Pretending

04 November 2014

[Note: as of now, a superior and updated version of this piece with fewer repetitions and better metaphors is available on the Independent website. It’ll be in i on Thursday 13th Nov if you are in desperate need of a paper copy, and features among other things an image of me in which I look like Rhys Ifans as Mycroft Holmes. Which is either cool or really, really alarming.


Also, I’ve just noticed that even in the updated version I somehow failed to namecheck Ian McEwan, which is unforgivably goofy of me. Sorry, sir.


No, he doesn’t read this blog.]


TigermanChipKiddRyanHeshkaI do a lot of pretending. I’m a novelist: I spend a great part of my day pretending to myself that I’m in a different world, being a different person, faced with decisions I pretend I haven’t created. I pretend I don’t know about the traps and disasters lying in wait for that person, dangers I’ve imagined for them to drag them through the narrative I pretend I’m not creating to the place I want them, often in despite of their own good sense and to their considerable disadvantage.


But more than that I pretend I don’t care.


Perhaps that’s about being a Brit, some kind of cultural aversion to taking things seriously. If you take something seriously, after all, you might have to defend it, fight for it, be rude to someone about it. David Niven, in 55 Days At Peking, makes the perfect British statement of self: having refused to flee the city and thereby compelled the ambassadors of the other national powers to remain also, he is asked how the minutes of the meeting can possibly reflect the situation without causing great embarrassment to his fellows. Simple, he replies. We shall record that in the initial vote on the matter one person was at odds with the others, but that – after some debate – unanimity was achieved.


It’s a posture we love, and one that we share with the Hagakure: matters of great significance should be treated lightly. You can see it in the way we approach sport, at least sometimes. It almost seems as if trying too hard is cheating. It begins young: I remember going on a school sport trip to Holland. The team there practiced every night of the week for at least two hours. We had perhaps four hours a week. We lost, of course, but we just about made it look even, and counted ourselves moral victors because we didn’t practice sport as a religion, but a hobby.


We pretended we didn’t care.


I still wish we could have won that last game – but I also don’t. It would have been glorious, but it would also have been a shame. It would have made a mockery of the hard work of a group of people who cared more than we did. They deserved that victory. Hard work, ironically, is the other virtue the Brits are supposed to respect. In fact, “sweat of the brow” is the basis of copyright here, rather than the US argument from utilitarianism or the German one that proceeds from identity.


And so to the stage. I do public appearances. I’m bluff, hearty, goofy. I wear loud clothes and I read the funny bits. I occasionally get taken to task for one thing or another, and I acknowledge my fault, my flaw, my failure, and I move on. Usually I mock myself to grease the wheels. Part of the job, the show. Prize lists are out and you’re not on them? Nature of the world, means nothing, prizes are a lottery. It’s a problem for your publisher, who needs to sell more copies, not for the artist (and never mind the commercial corollaries, the reflection in the size of your advance, for the moment). Review in some paper or other is negative? That happens. People can respond badly to a book, even a book others like, just a shame it had to be the critic chosen to write about you. Other papers will be positive. Amazon, Goodreads, book blogs. The local paper. Friends.


I never engage negatively with reviewers. If someone says something that enrages me – and they do – I do what I do on stage. I make a joke about myself and move on. Sometimes people say things that are manifestly wrong or even apparently malicious. That’s fine, too. It’s a response. Don’t read it, measure the column inches. Love the controversy. My skin is thick with various forms of privilege, after all. As an example of a type, I can take it. As a person, I can slide it off, as long as I believe I can. I pretend to myself, and leave the hurt behind. It’s not much of a hurt, after all. A brief sting. A day of self-doubt. A chocolate bar, an episode of Penny Dreadful.


An enormous amount of a writer’s life is performance. I find myself wondering, at the moment, whether I do too much of it. I feel it might be nice to retreat into a more Pynchon-like performance by absence. I love the stage, but it also eats me alive. I’m caught somewhere between introversion and extroversion. Performance is natural to me, joyful, but it is also exhausting. I can feed on it, but the expense is high too, like being a carnivore: I have to chase down my meals. I’d quite like to eat more vegetables, quietly, on a hillside somewhere, and butt the occasional tiger off a cliff with my horns.


This kind of piece, by the way, is completely forbidden. It represents the moment when a duck, running across the surface of the pond to take off, catches one webbed foot in a wave and goes nose-down into the water. It means recommencing take-off, lurching and flapping and spraying mud-brown spume everywhere, quacking and flailing to achieve escape velocity so that I can return to my new book, believe in my own choices, and be the me I need to be do make it all real.


So what brought this on? What on Earth could motivate me to say any of this out loud, break the fourth wall and perhaps more importantly the first one?


Honestly: it was the Goodreads Choice Awards Fiction list for 2014. Tigerman is in there.


Let me just gloss that for you, because it may not seem like much, but it stopped me just now like walking into the corner of a table, and I’m still struggling with it.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category.


Two years ago, Angelmaker was listed in the SF section. My books are hard to categorize, they’re crossover with elements of the fantastical, so they usually end up in SF. SF is also my natural starting place: it’s what I read as a kid, and it is a literature that challenges the real, which is what I like to do. But even now, with the fantastical waterfalling into the mainstream and the world more SFish than it has ever been, the label still closes doors. Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll on stage at the BFI this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter. SF wasn’t proper writing to him. In an effort to stop the conversation dying a cold death, I explained the kind of thing I write about. “You’re crossover,” he said immediately. And that made everything okay. I don’t want to think about that right now, about the reasons for it or why it’s absurd.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category. It has escaped that moment, at least today.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category. That means it will almost certainly lose.


Why? Because Haruki Murakami is listed in that category too: arguably the world’s most popular author of the not-quite real right now, an international bestseller of the kind of thing I do. (I had an urge to write “try to do”, but no. Be honest. It’s what I do.)


When I grow up, I want to be a bit like him.


Margaret Atwood is listed in that category. Shortlisted five times for the Booker. Winner once. Icon. Pioneer of the odd in English language literary writing. If Murakami is Hephaestus the smith in my personal pantheon of craft, Atwood must be Arachne.


David Mitchell is listed in that category. Author of Cloud Atlas. Twice shortlisted for the Booker, listed in 2007 among Time Magazine’s 100 must influential people in the world. Like Murakami and Atwood, someone I need to learn from. My classical knowledge does not extend to a Greek divinity for him. Apollo, perhaps, or Dionysus.


And it goes on. Roxanne Gay; Emily St. John Mandel; Jojo Moyes. Names to conjure with. Names I admire. I cannot imagine losing in better company.


I have to acknowledge, today, that I do care about this. I don’t care about winning, but I care about being seen in this way. I care about my book being alongside those books, been considered in that mode. That is something I wanted, partly without ever knowing that I wanted it because until it happened I was pretending I was just pretending.


So thank you, world. Seriously. Thank you.

Tigerman: LAUNCH!

22 May 2014

Fireworks over the Eiffel Tower


It’s the UK launch of Tigerman today, which is awesome – so much so that they are celebrating it even in France*, as you can see from this picture – but also, as always, weird. Because on publication day, the book launches. Bookshops stock it, people can buy it, and the thing is finally out of the bag and…

Well, let’s do the plug first and then come to why it’s also weird.

You can buy the book in all the old familiar places – through your local indie, through Waterstones, and of course through Amazon. (A few people have asked me recently why I don’t have an Amazon setup so that I can make money on sales through this site. The answer is that I thought about it, and I may yet, but I don’t like the idea of privileging the world’s most powerful bookseller over other shops. I also do not know which retailer provides me with the best return, so I can’t tell you where to shop. What I can do, though, is ask you to talk about the book. Tell everyone about it. When you’ve read it, assuming you like it, review it and talk it up. The thing that really makes a difference to me is not where you buy, but that you recommend, online and off. If you see a good review that you agree with, pass it on.

That would make a huge difference to me – spread the word!

Anyway, plug over: the weird thing about publication day is…

Nothing actually happens to the author.

You wake up. It’s publication day. You do the Secret Author Publication Day Dance, which is sacred to our people and which cannot be photographed or explained. And then you eat, mooch, work, whatever. All kinds of stuff may happen in the evening – drinks, dinner, parties, whatever – but the day itself is just a day. Newspapers don’t particularly review on the day of release, so you don’t have that to fret over.

The best thing you can do on publication day is write the next book. And that is what I am going to do if I have time.

For your Tigermannish delectation, though, I have a few cool things here you might enjoy…


I wrote a piece yesterday for about where the book came from – and it was interesting to write, because some of the stuff in there I hadn’t realised until I said it, and there’s some good stuff about inspiration and what to do when the lightbulb hits.


If you like my books and you haven’t seen the Herald interview I did with Teddy Jamieson, you should. I’m pretty sure it’s my favourite interview ever, and Mrs H finds it chokingly hilarious and truthful. This was when I knew I was going to love the piece: “I believe it’s as Nick Harkaway ­compares Winston Churchill’s historical writing to the work of a film director that I begin to imagine I’m actually in the middle of a Harkaway novel.” Because that is the person I see in the mirror…


Tom Adair‘s review in The Scotsman was the first broadsheet notice of the book, and again – thank you, Scotland – it just felt as if he had connected with the book exactly as I hoped people would.


There’s a video animation of the making of the cover – sort of – and SFX has some discussion with Glenn O’Neill about how it was done.

There’s more, and you can find some of it on the Tigerman page here on my site, or obviously just the magic of Google… I try to keep things updated, but I always slip, because: reality.

(Tigerman! Pass it on!)




[*no, all right, they’re not. It’s just a great picture – by Yann Caradec under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic via Wikipedia]

The Editorial Process

13 December 2013

What writers really say when they talk to one another about the editorial process:


Drop me a line

Drop me a line! Forgive me if the response is not immediate - I tend to get rather behind. If something requires my rapid attention, please tweet me or get in touch through my agent, Patrick.

Cheers, NH





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