Friday, January 19, 2007

The Surreal World

Let me go on record right now as predicting that one of the big books of 2007 will be Michael Marshall’s The Intruders, which is set for release in the UK in April by HarperCollins and in the States in August by William Morrow. My first interview with Marshall, for January Magazine, was a little over four years ago, after the publication of his debut crime novel, The Straw Men (2002). I absolutely loved that novel, which expertly weaved elements of the crime genre into a pitch-black conspiracy thriller tinged with the brutal kisses of horror and science fiction. A few readers seemed not to understand it, but the majority sat through the book terrified, as they discovered the secret that lurked at that novel’s core.

After The Straw Men came two sequels, of sorts: 2004’s The Lonely Dead (published in the States as The Upright Man) and 2005’s Blood of Angels. A neat trilogy with significant sales appeal, guaranteed to get Marshall’s name around.

But now we come to 2007. And a standalone, left-of-field tale in The Intruders. It’s a remarkable thriller that doses crime fiction with horror, and leads to a perplexing, terrifying climax. What I love about Marshall’s work is his “off-kilter” view of life and death, which in The Intruders reaches its menacing extreme.

This conspiracy yarn kicks off with the apparently motiveless slaying of a mother and her teenage son, crimes committed by a man who exhibits no emotion or humanity. The murderer, we learn, is called Shepard and he seems to be controlled by others, not unlike the killers who populated The Straw Men (though there are some major differences, which are only revealed in the book’s conclusion).

Enter Jack Whalen, a Los Angeles cop turned writer who has escaped Southern California for a small town called Birch Crossing in America’s Pacific Northwest. His life with wife Amy, a high-flying corporate executive, could hardly better--that is, until an old high-school friend, Gary Fisher, calls him and wants to share a secret. Then everything starts to turn surreal. Amy goes missing in Seattle, Washington, leaving Whalen to suspect that she’s having an affair; by the time she finds her way home, things have changed--and so has Amy. Jack Whalen’s world begins to crumble. Add to this mix of plot threads a missing 10-year-old child named Madison (who exhibits some psychopathic tendencies) and is drawn to the malevolent Shepard, more deaths, and a sinister legal firm that serves its deep-pocketed corporate clients out of--get this--a rotting tenement building in the slum district of Seattle, and you have a tale from which dread seeps off the page and onto your fingers. Whalen finally turns to Fisher for help in unraveling the nightmare encircling him.

I really cannot say much more about the story line, lest I spoil the reading experience and the big surprise that sits at the end of this novel, like a demon clutching a handgun pointed directly into your face. But deep in the narrative is a feeling for humanity, and what loss can mean to those who have the most to risk--their loved ones.

Since I was so taken with The Intruders, I decided to call author Marshall (shown below with Mike Stotter, the editor of the British Webzine Shots) and ask him about his latest work:

Ali Karim: I know that you’ve been rather busy, so what have been the highlights and lowlights of your life over the last year?

Michael Marshall: It’s been busy, that’s for sure. The background throughout has been the writing of my new novel, The Intruders. It took up a lot of foreground, too. At the beginning of 2006 I also co-wrote (with Stephen Jones) an animated horror movie for kids, called Monstermania, which is currently at the pre-pre-pre-production/development/whatever stage. I’ve managed to get a few … short stories written, for once, and from August onwards have also been involved in writing a feature adaptation of an earlier story, Hell Hath Enlarged Herself. Just before Christmas I got a 50,000-word novella done, too. So, work-wise, 2006 was generally a year of getting stuff done … And getting stuff done is always good.

AK: After Blood of Angels, I thought you were leaving crime fiction for a while. I was surprised to hear about you penning The Intruders. What made you change your mind?

MM: I never intended to leave crime fiction, in the same way I never really intended to join it. I’ve always thought of what I do more as “noir” than crime, and essentially the core perspective has been the same right from the earliest novels. [My early novels] happened to be set in the future, and so got labeled [science fiction] (and died in the crime market); the last three novels were set in the present day, so they’ve been seen as “crime” (thus perplexing my SF readers). To me, it’s all been the same, just with changes in emphasis.

AK: As in the Straw Men Trilogy, there’s a central conspiracy in The Intruders, and a big one to boot. Without giving too much away, can you tell me where the seeds for that central idea came from?

MM: In just about everything I’ve done at book length, I’ve been trying to think about aspects of human nature, [and] the type of culture and society we live in. What drives us, what shapes our world? And [I think about] how so much of our behavior now has its roots long, long ago. We forget we’re an animal, in both negative and positive ways. The idea at the center of The Intruders has to do with seeking to explain certain fundamental aspects of the way we are, our inherent dualism, and the unknowability of other people. Like most of these things I’ve done, the central idea started out as a conceit, but now I kind of believe it to be true ...

AK: Conspiracy theories appear to interest you, as you reference them in The Intruders. So, what are your top three conspiracy theories, and why do they interest you?

MM: There’s only one conspiracy theory: Something is going on that I don’t know about. And the natural human response to this is to develop a more specific theory which says: Something is going on that most people don’t know about, but I do, and it explains everything, so there. Virtually all humankind’s conceptual thought boils down to something like this--Gnosticism, UFOs, 9/11, life after death, JFK, witches, religion, myth, and legend in general. And [it] is most simply enshrined in the notion that God moves in mysterious ways. “Conspiracy” is an attempt to inductively solve life’s oddities and mysteries, to put the theorist in a position of power through allowing him or her to peek behind the veils, and thus to resolve the anxiety of feeling ignorant or confused. So I don’t really have any “favorite three.” My enjoyment instead comes in seeing how they work together, representing different facets of the same crystal, especially if they give some fresh (albeit usually plain wrong) way of understanding the world.

I’ll tell you my least favorite, [though,] which is the death of Diana [Princess of Wales]. There was no conspiracy there--her driver was simply going too fast, and the British public was dying to wallow in mawkish tabloid grief for a while. Frankly, I don’t care anyway. Her death is of real import to her family and friends only, and that’s the way it should be. Any other interest is intrusive. Plus, to be honest, I found her really annoying.

AK: It’s interesting that much of the action in your new book is based in and around Seattle. Does that coffee-drinking city have any resonance with you, and have you spent much time there?

MM: I love Seattle. I’ve only spent a few weeks there, all told, but the first time I visited I immediately thought “I like this place a lot.” It’s partly to do with the city itself, its neighborhoods and history and the [Pike Place] Market and Puget Sound (plus great seafood and bookstores); [and] partly its location--in sight of both sea and high ground, with the Cascade Mountains (which featured in The Lonely Dead) only a couple of hours inland, and the extraordinary Olympic [National] Forest about the same distance around the sound. Seattle has just about everything a city needs, while remaining of walkable size. That whole area of the U.S.--the Pacific Northwest--is one of my favorite places in the world. There’s something about Washington and Oregon that harks back to an earlier era, both of the settlement of America and the times before our species was little more than a blip on the map. It feels old, and mysterious, and a lot of it’s pretty deserted, too. It’s also one of the few places in the U.S. where a gentleman can still smoke in a bar, should he wish to.

In preparation for writing The Intruders I shipped myself off to Seattle for a week by myself. I stayed in a hotel downtown, which I left at 8:30 each morning and hiked the streets pretty much non-stop until 5:00, pausing only for lunch, bookstores, and Starbucks. By the end, I liked the city even more (and was being greeted by local tramps each morning), and the story I had in mind had become firmly shaped by the environment and its history.

AK: The Intruders does have a little “genre cross-over” potential, like The Straw Men. So, how supportive [of that] were your publishers, in a world dominated by genre classifications?

MM: There were some teething troubles, that’s for sure--and in the end I wound up making a few adjustments to bring the book within their comfort zone. I’m happy with the result, and the editing process certainly helped refine some elements of the story. The book industry is very structured by rigid genre definitions at the moment, and you attempt to blur them at your peril. But now we have a book that HarperCollins [UK] is supportive of, and my new U.S. publishers appear to be backing to the hilt, so that’s great. I’m never going to sit very comfortably within one genre or another, and will take large sales hits as a result. I can live with that.

AK: Your thoughts about the Internet, expressed in The Intruders, were interesting, insofar as you see that technology becoming a “tool” with which the powers than be can keep tabs on humanity.

MM: The Internet’s a strange place. A lot of the features that people go on about--MySpace and YouTube, for example--don’t seem too interesting to me. It’s the same old same old (cliques, friend lists, showing off), merely done in a different medium. But the ways in which [the Internet] is changing our interactions--and our perceptions of distant others--are fascinating. And because it largely removes the constraint of peer review--and, indeed, any kind of arbiter of sense or truth--it’s becoming a repository for some very odd ideas ... which co-exist on a flat plain with everything else, just as everything in a digital photograph seems to exist in the same depth of field. In Baudrillard’s terms, it’s a growing simulation of thought--another step in the death of reality.

AK: I felt that the ending of The Intruders leaves an opening for a follow-up. And could you see a collision between the surviving characters that populate the Straw Men Trilogy and The Intruders, perhaps?

MM: You’re an astute man. Some sort of cross-fertilization had occurred to me as a possibility, and the eagle-eyed reader may spot a foreshadowing of that already in this novel. But at the moment I’m not completely sure what I’m going to write next ...

AK: I know you’re published by big houses, such as HarperCollins, but your work also appears through some of the smaller independent presses ... Can you tell me the differences in working for big versus small publishers?

MM: Three differences, I guess: money, pressure, and freedom. With the big publishers, you get the first two; with the smaller presses, you don’t--but you get the last one. I have a great relationship with Harper and have been with them for seven novels, and over a decade. The relative sales of the past three novels, however, mean they’re justifiably keen that I produce books that are consistent with what’s gone before, so they don’t scare the horses (or [the] pre-established readership). They also want them on time, weirdly, and get awfully pushy when you suggest that the year after next might be a good time to see the next one, or just “at some point in the future.”

Working with smaller presses tends to mean you’re under less pressure, and may also confer the freedom to go a lot further out into left field. I’ve just written a long novella for Earthling [Publications] ... and I’m very pleased with the result.

AK: So, what’s on your reading table currently? And what books have you enjoyed recently?

MM: I’m finally getting back into some fiction, after a long time off. I’ve found myself going back to what I think of as “early late period” Stephen King, books like Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis. And [I’m] realizing they were even better than I thought the first time. Aside from that, I’m taking a slow and pleasurable trawl through Calvin Trillin’s food writing ... and dipping in and out of Jean Baudrillard as I see fit. I love his stuff.

(The complete results of my exchange with Michael Marshall will be featured next month in Shots.)

1 comment:

Katie said...

just finished his book and loved it. truly fantastic. your right in saying that it will be one of the big books of '07