New Ian McDonald interview

Jason Pettus from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography recently interviewed science fiction author Ian McDonald. As always with McDonald, the Q&A is quite interesting. Even better, I felt that the interview works as well with long-time fans or newbies.

Here's an extract:

CCLaP: I know that text-based interviews are notoriously long to get through, so I'm going to stick mostly to your two newest US books, Ares Express and The Dervish House, but did want to start with a few general questions before doing so, starting with what I just mentioned, that you're nearly a lifelong resident of Northern Ireland. You've mentioned briefly in the past that this has a bit to do with your famed "third-world" settings for many of your SF novels, or perhaps it's better these days to call it the "developing world." Could you tell us a little more about the relationship between Northern Ireland and these countries that you see?

IM: That's right, start with the heavy hitter. Northern Ireland is the last vestige of the British Empire -- one of its first and last territories, and it's here that the end-game of Empire is still being played out. Thirty years of 'sectarian' violence -- in truth, armed unionism versus old-school 'one nation' nationalism -- does tend to predispose you to looking for those situations in other places around the world, whether it's India, or somewhere with its own Imperial past, like Turkey. I'm interested in divisions in society, where they come from, how they play out, how they become the hidden narrative of a nation -- the one the visitor has to be very sutble to pick up.


CCLaP: And in fact you've said before that these types of novels were at first a very hard sell to American audiences, especially when you started your Africa-set "Chaga" series. Has that changed? And what do you think about very recent developments like the global rise of the so-called BRIC coalition (Brazil, Russia, India and China, which to borrow the Victorian terms are in the process of upgrading from third-world status to second-world these days)? Oh, and I should make it clear, I'm with you as far as such terms as "third world" and the like being inherently uncomfortable and not really that applicable anymore to today's global society.

IM: The idea behind River of Gods was born out of an observation: when did you ever seen an Indian on 'Star Trek?' For all its vaunted racial harmony, it reflected the US world-view at the time. Yet here is a major nation with one of the world's most individual, powerful and ancient cultures -- the future is happening there like it's happening everywhere else, so why not set an SF novel in India? You still see the old attitude in US-centric message boards --when the mention is 'Asian,' it means east Asian. To us on this side of the Atlantic, we've always had a close relationship with South Asia. Likewise, as I researched more into Turkey, the more I was interested in how it challenged the stereotypes of populist post-colonial arguments: here's a big, diverse Empire that owned a lot of Europe, but wasn't Europeans -- and collapsed in nationalism, genocide and ultimately reinvented itself. That asks questions.


CCLaP: Okay, so that brings up my biggest question of this entire interview, the thing I've been intensely curious about since first becoming a fan, of just how much research and what type of research actually does go into writing these novels. They're known, in fact, for being unusually precise and detailed looks at these countries, not just the major issues but how local pop-culture is influencing these societies, the multiple tiers of differing views on religion, etc. As someone who's jealous of how well you do this, just how do you go about gathering in all these details in the first place?

IM: What, give away all my secrets? Well, I have this avatar body I can occupy...It takes years. I read a lot. I travel a lot -- and as much as I can afford. I talk to people, I read the papers. I cook the food. I buy the music, I follow the sports teams. I try to second-guess what the government will do in international politics. I learn a bit of the language. I study the religion. I study the etiquette. I try and work out what the day-to-day details are like. I watch people. I have a very strong visual memory and I can recreate an entire scene in my head and observe details. I cultivate an eye for detail. I take thousands of photographs of boring everyday things. I look at what's on sale in gas stations and what that tells you about a culture. I study the ads. I talk to more people. I get hammered on the local booze. I try to take the country's political position in the world news. I watch television. I read books for those tiny details. Is this like Method Acting? WTF are you doing with those lights?!? This takes time and intellectual and emotional commitment. I love it. Of course I get it wrong. Then again, I can write about what's going on at the bottom of my street and get it wrong...particularly my street. Oh, one other research tool. I tie bundles of memories to scents and smells. When I smell that scent again or something like it, everything in the bundle springs back into the forebrain.

You can read the full interview here.

And be sure to read any and all of Ian McDonald's fascinating scifi novels!:

- River of Gods (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks)
- Brasyl (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks)
- Cyberabad Days (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks)
- Desolation Road (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks)
- Ares Express (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks)
- The Dervish House (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks)

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