On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

In December 2013, the first book in the Earth Haven trilogy, The Cleansing, was published. A reviewer enjoyed the novel so much that she asked to interview me. Not being one to turn down free publicity, I readily agreed. The interview appeared on her blog towards the end of January 2014.

At the time, I was writing the second book in the trilogy, The Beacon, but (as is obvious from my answers) had no clear idea as to how it would all pan out.

I was with a small-press publisher at the time—seems almost quaint to say that now.

On with the interview…

Why did you write an end-of-the-world story?

I have been fascinated by end-of-the-world tales since watching the film The Omega Man as a young boy. There’s a scene where Charlton Heston wanders into a department store and starts picking out new clothes. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to go into any shop I fancied and just take anything that caught my eye. I was too young to appreciate the downside to all this—the despair, the loneliness, the absolute hopelessness of being in such a situation—but the sense of wonder has never left me.

Since then, some of my favourite books have involved end of the world scenarios: The Stand, Riddley Walker and The Road, to name a few. When I started writing in my early thirties, it seemed perfectly natural to pen an apocalyptic tale and I wrote the short story ‘The Third Coming’ around fifteen years ago. It contained the germs of the ideas that would be realised more fully in The Cleansing and its sequels. When writing that story, something in the back of my mind told me I would be returning to explore that world in more depth at some point.

It nagged at me on and off for the next fifteen years, but it was only when a review of my short story collection Pond Life mentioned that the reviewer would be interested in reading an expanded version of ‘The Third Coming’ that I decided the time was right to return to that world.

Did you find it difficult to approach the genre from a new and fresh perspective?

To be perfectly honest, not once did such considerations enter my head. Of course, I was all too aware that similar stories had been told, and amazingly well, by writers with reputations I can only hope to emulate. More than once the thought passed my mind, ‘Does the world really need yet another apocalytic novel?’ Moreover, by a writer no one’s ever heard of? But I pressed on regardless. Not through arrogance, but because I’m the sort of writer who has to write a story once it’s in my head. The only way to get shot of it is to write it. A little like lancing a boil but without the mess.

Who is your favourite character from The Cleansing?

Bishop and Simone both intrigue me. Without giving anything away, they are of the other sort yet neither display the hive mentality of their kindred.

Peter and Milandra, too, I find interesting. Torn between loyalty to their kind and sympathy for the survivors, I’m looking forward to seeing how they will act from here on in.

But my favourite character? Probably Ceri. I sense a strength of character within her that I don’t think even she’s aware of.

Do you know how the rest of the story will play out?

I know (roughly) how the third book ends, so in that sense it’s plot-driven. However, I have no idea how the characters will reach that point. And there are new characters in Book Two (The Beacon) that I’m enjoying getting to know. Quite what their roles will be is not yet clear. That’s part of the fun, and terror, of the way I write: I don’t plot in advance—I’ve tried and I can’t do it—so it’s almost as much a journey of discovery for me as it will be for the reader.

Without giving too much away, what’s next in store for the characters?

Tom was the dominant survivor in The Cleansing, but I suspect that he has already plumbed the depths of his courage when he did what he had to do in his mother’s back garden. Ceri will come more to the fore in Book Two. I know that at least one of the new characters, Bri (pronounced like brie, the cheese), will have a big part to play.

Simone will become a key figure, but possibly not revealing her full role until Book Three. Diane is still an enigma—her innermost feelings and motivations are still unclear. And Peter… hmmm. He’s hiding something. That’s all I’d better say for now.

Who is your favourite comfort author and what is your favourite comfort book?

Since my teens, Stephen King has always been my go-to author, but Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is often revisited for light-hearted escapism. So I’d have to declare a draw for my favourite comfort author. Book? No contest: The Lord of the Rings. I can return to it time after time and never grow bored.

And your favourite comfort food?

Ribeye steak (medium/well done), onion rings, fried mushrooms, peas, golden chips, all washed down with a good Merlot.

Name something you’d like to be better at doing.

Advance plotting. I’m a little envious of writers who can produce a 30,000-word outline then knock out a near-perfect novel in a few weeks because most of the hard work—resolving twists and turns, coping with characters who insist on doing their own thing, tying up loose ends—was done at the outline stage.

Oh, and I have to mention self-promotion. I’m completely inept at blowing my own trumpet. When I try, I become all coy and self-deprecating. So that’s what I wish I was good at—and so do my publishers.

We’re Doomed, Captain Mainwaring, Doomed

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. (Oxford Dictionaries)

There are times, and they seem to becoming more and more frequent, when I wonder whether the world we inhabit today might be described as dystopian. War, terrorism, genocide, famine, epidemics, climate change… No, I’m not going to get all political, but it’s difficult sometimes to watch footage of the latest bombing or gun massacre and not wonder what sort of world we live in.

This isn’t about doom and gloom of the actual sort; it’s about fictional doom and gloom, though it’s often impossible, without being deliberately obtuse, not to comment on how one mimics the other.

Yet dystopia doesn’t need to be gloomy; at least, not all of the time. Take Ready Player One. I consider myself a seventies child, but I was still in my teens during the early eighties and loved spotting the references in the novel to eighties pop culture. It’s very much a dystopian world that our hero inhabits, caused by an energy crisis – people living in on-the-cheap apartment blocks made from trailers stacked one on top of another due to rocketing overpopulation; terrorism; food shortages. Gloom aplenty, but it’s how people escape their otherwise drab existence where the fun comes in. And it’s a lot of fun. An almost limitless virtual universe, a vast interactive game, that sounds so appealing that we might, if given the opportunity, seriously consider sharing their deprivations if we can also join in their means of escape.


Ready Player One

Of course, most fictional dystopian worlds aren’t places we’d want to live. That’s kind of the point. One of the first dystopian novels I can remember reading was when I was a teenager. It was finished in 1948 and the author simply reversed the last two digits of that year to come up with a title. Aspects of the novel seem eerily prescient today. Take a walk around any city or town centre and you’ll be recorded by any number of CCTV cameras; records exist of your phone calls and texts, of your online browsing habits. Big Brotheris watching you. And what about ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’? Orwell’s terms have morphed into today’s Doublespeak. Again, I don’t want to get political, but Doublespeak is as prevalent today as wannabe celebrities. Alternative facts, anyone?


1984

Since you’re visiting a site devoted to writing and reading, there’s a fair chance that you feel the same way about books that I do. If I had to give up every form of entertainment except one, I’d heave a heavy sigh of regret at losing films, sport and music, but I’d keep my books. It’s because of this deep love of the written word that I found myself squirming at times while reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For anyone who doesn’t know, the title comes from the temperature at which books burn. No spoilers, but this presents as grim a future as any other book mentioned here and is, for me, up there with Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favourite Bradbury work.


Fahrenheit 451

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells of a future USA, or a part of it, taken over by a new order under which women are subjugated. The eponymous handmaid’s role is to breed, and nothing much else. The novel reminded me of 1984 in generating that brooding sense of menace, of being constantly watched. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagines a future where breeding programmes eliminate disease and deformity. It is quite a long time since I read either of them, but in my memory they are the sorts of story that make you think shit, this could really happen and hoping fervently it never does.


The Handmaid’s Tale

It was also a long time ago that I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the book upon which the film Blade Runner was based. My memories of the film are stronger, but I do recall enjoying the book and feeling that the film took all that was good of the novel and built upon it.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is set in a world filled with poverty and malnourishment and overpopulation. Global warming is making matters considerably worse and, on top of all that, there is war between various superpowers. Once more, it is impossible not to see parallels with today’s world; while we haven’t quite reached the levels of despair experienced by the characters in Le Guin’s novel, are we really that far from it? I would dearly like to think not – or that we will somehow turn aside from the path of self-destruction we seem hell-bent on pursuing – but the more pessimistic part of me doubts it.

I’m going to finish with two novels by that famous author Richard Bachman. Although set in grim, dystopian worlds, they both tell tales that enthralled and thrilled me in my late teens.

The Running Man is a rollercoaster of a story about a desperate man driven to enter a futuristic game show in an effort to raise funds for something that I’ve forgotten (medicine for his wife or child?). If you’ve seen the film version starring Arnie, don’t be put off – the book is by far superior.

The Long Walk is about an annual event where a hundred teenage boys set off on a walk. It’s not a race, as such. They will keep walking until there is only one left standing and he’s the winner. Doesn’t sound that bad until the reader realises what happens if the competitors’ walking pace falls below 4mph. It’s a gripping and, in its way, horrific tale, and I find it compelling. It’s long overdue a film adaptation.


The Bachman Books

Those are some of my favourite dystopian novels. I haven’t included post-apocalyptic books, which will get their own post. I know, I know, virtually all post-apocalytpic tales arguably also qualify as dystopian, but I don’t think the reverse is as often true.

(A quick note about the title – it’s a nod to Private Frazer, one of my favourite characters in the old BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army.)