January 13, 2017

Dream a Little Dream: an interview with Oliver Langmead, author of "Metronome"

About METRONOME by Oliver Langmead:
'You and I, we wear our wounds. I wear my scars, you wear your tattoos, and we don't forget who we are.'

It is for the entities known as Sleepwalkers to cross the doors between dreams, and hunt the nightmares that haunt sleeping minds. Theirs is a world of impossible vistas, where reason is banished and only the imagination holds sway: the connected worlds that all sleeping minds inhabit, and the doors that lead between.

But tonight, one Sleepwalker has gone rogue. Abandoning her sworn oath to protect the dreamscapes, she has devoted herself to another cause, threatening to unleash a nightmare older than man. The only chance of stopping her lies with a man named Manderlay. Once a feted musician, William Manderlay is living his twilight years in an Edinburgh care home, riddled with arthritis and filled with a longing for his youth, for the open seas, and for the lost use of his hands and the violin he has always treasured.

For too long now, Manderlay's nights have been coloured by dark, corrupted dreams: dreams of leprous men in landscapes plucked from his memory, of dark figures seeking him on city streets. His comrades in the retirement home believe Manderlay is giving in to age and senility - but the truth is much worse. For in dreams, maps are made from music – and it just might be that one of William Manderlay's forgotten compositions holds the key to unleashing the nightmare that holds the world of dreams in balance. The Sleepwalkers are zoning in on him. He might be their saviour, or his music might be their damnation...

From the acclaimed author of Dark Star comes a literary fantasy like no other.

What was the impetus behind Metronome?

My first published book, Dark Star, was both literally and figuratively dark. It was defined by those few things my protagonist could actually see, and those things, though startling, were often bleak. It wasn't a happy book, and it's difficult to call it colourful. I took a step back after finishing it, and thought about where to go next. I've never been too fond of authors who write the same book over and over again (with exceptions – trilogies and series, for instance: anywhere the story needs multiple books to work), and I felt like going somewhere completely different. In that way, Metronome is a burst of colour. I wanted to write a journey instead of a procedural, so it ended up being an odyssey, and I wanted to really test the limits of my imagination, so it ended up being fantasy instead of science fiction. If Dark Star is a rain cloud, then Metronome is a rainbow.

What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from your previous work?
Metronome is barely similar to Dark Star. They're both in first person, and I like to think that they're both quite visual books, but it's there that the similarities end. Dark Star was in verse, and Metronome is in prose. Dark Star was in American English, and Metronome is in British English. Virgil, the protagonist of Dark Star, is a celebrated young detective serving a law enforcement agency in a city engulfed by perpetual darkness, and Manderlay, the protagonist of Metronome, is an elderly man with a long life behind him, living in an Edinburgh care home and beset by terrible dreams. As a reader, I want to be taken to places that I've never been before, and the same can be said for my writing.
Who do you count among your writing influences?

As a writer, I tend to wear my influences on my sleeve. Metronome, I think, is clearly a celebration of the contemporary fantasy novel, as spearheaded by such brilliant writers as China Miéville and Neil Gaiman. But it also takes its lineage from the imagination of Mark Twain (in particular, the controversial The Mysterious Stranger), and the richly visual writing of Mervyn Peak, and even classical texts, like John Milton's Paradise Lost. There's definitely a bit of Philip Pullman in there, as well, and even a little Bret Easton Ellis if you squint.

Beyond Metronome, I tend to read as much as I can of pretty much everything. Variety is key. One of my fellow authors with Unsung Stories, the remarkable Verity Holloway, recently said that an author should strive to read books that they don't want to read – to look outside the genres their work fits into – and I can't agree enough. I'm hugely into Cormac McCarthy and the great American novel, and I've recently been reading a lot of twentieth century feminist writers – enjoying taking a tour of the likes of Shirley Jackson, who is completely superb, and even Virginia Woolf, who I once found impenetrable to read, but am now beginning to fall in love with.

Some folks for whatever reason turn their nose up at science fiction. What do you consider to be its saving grace?
I'm glad to say that attitudes towards books that might be considered genre fiction – science fiction and fantasy included – are beginning to change, at least in the academic sense. I have the privilege of being enrolled in the University of Glasgow's Fantasy masters, the only one of its kind in the world, now in its second year, and the field that me and my fellow students are studying feels relatively untouched by literary critics. Certainly, books at the edge of fantasy and science fiction – or those that have the good fortune to be considered primarily as works of literature – have been explored. Look, for instance, at Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, one of the most important Russian novels of the twentieth century, which happens to be fantasy. Or at Virgina Woolf's Orlando – no doubt an important modernist novel, but also a work of fantasy. It feels as if we're working from the outside in, studying those well-explored works of literary fantasy and science fiction first simply because an extensive critical framework already exists, and working our way to those equally as celebrated, yet academically ignored texts yet to be acknowledged as works of literature. The Harry Potter series, for instance – doesn't it deserve academic acknowledgement? In some small way, it feels like we few Fantasy students are pioneers, bravely traversing undiscovered countries, and from that point of view, the future feels bright. Change is coming.
Otherwise, the answer is simple. Some people will read only science fiction, and some people will only read crime thrillers, and some people will only read books considered to be literary. That's just a matter of taste, and I don't think it'll change any time soon.
What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

The one piece of advice that really bothers me is “write what you know.” I'm sure it's something that works for some people, don't get me wrong. Take Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, with his My Struggle series. He has written so many books about his own life, often in excruciating detail, and is showing no signs of stopping. He sells millions of copies of his books, so it's not like he lacks readers, either. But... it doesn't work for me, both as a reader and a writer.

The problem, I think, comes down to boredom. If you're writing about something you don't know – say, exploring a new, fantastic kingdom you came up with, or a new planet, or anything like that – then your excitement as you explore comes through in your writing. I long for that spark, of discovering the undiscovered, and when I truly capture it, or feel it coming through the page of a book I'm reading, then it's like no other feeling in the world. But if I write about something I know - Law, for instance (I have a degree in it I plan on never using) - then I find myself being bored by it. There's nothing new there for me to find, or for anybody else to find. There's just a bunch of dull moments I already know very well, often captured in excruciating detail that doesn't feel exciting to me, and I'm sure wouldn't feel exciting to anyone else either.

What kinds of stories resonate with you as a reader?

I like reading stories that take me somewhere I've never been before. That doesn't necessarily mean going very far – just to the next town over, or showing me something from a different point of view – but I am all about escapism in some form or another. Certainly, I appreciate language. If your prose is excellent, then it should be acknowledged and celebrated as such. But if I'm not going anywhere new, then I seem to lose interest. A great example of this is with David Foster Wallace's Eternal Jest. When I first got stuck into it, I was excited. The world he'd created was rich and intricate, and his language was something special. But then... it never really got going anywhere. It stayed in the same place, with the same characters, not doing very much. And while his prose remained brilliant, I simply lost interest and went in search of a book that could take me somewhere new instead.

How has the relationship with your publisher been so far?

Unsung have been nothing short of brilliant to work with. They've responded to both the books I've submitted to them with enthusiasm, and I'm happy to say that that enthusiasm remains, even for Dark Star, which was published nearly two years ago now. They're doing something that not a lot of publishers are doing these days – namely, taking chances on books that the public at large, and a lot of editors, wouldn't usually be brave enough to approach. Dark Star was a poem the length of a book, and Metronome is a fantasy odyssey whose protagonist is over the age of eighty, and not only have Unsung been bold enough to publish them, but to publish them cleverly and thoughtfully – finding ways to bring books that mainstream editors would never dare to put in front of their marketing teams to mainstream audiences and niche audiences alike.

Is theme something you have in mind when your writing the story, or is that something that kinds of reveals itself later in the process?
It's difficult to write a book using a strict plan. Books are more like trees – you start with the acorn of an idea, and grow it, and it doesn't stop growing until it's finally made it past all the editors and copy editors and found its way to the shelves of bookshops and the minds of readers, where it finds its final form. Themes are pretty similar. You can go in with a plan for which themes are going to emerge in your writing, but, so far as I've found, you're always going to end up being surprised by what actually comes out. And even then, you, as an author, might not find them all. Readers discover new themes all the time. One of Metronome's first reviews read the book in a way that neither me or my editors had considered, and it was wonderful. It's not like there's any wrong way to read a book: everybody's interpretations are equally as legitimate (at least, I don't consider myself the ultimate authority on how my books should be read. I can only tell you what I meant).
What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Do you ever get those times in your life where a million opportunities and events come up at once after a long period of calm? I'm currently going through one of those times, and it comes with the irritating caveat of being able to talk about exactly none of it. Of course, I'm writing. I can say that much! I'm writing and writing and writing, and there is a chance that some of it may find its way to publication. The best place to keep up with that is: oliverlangmead.com

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