It’s funny, the labels that get stuck to you. During the last ten years or so I’ve often found myself billed as a science-fiction novelist; I’ve no idea if I really count as one, but if that’s what people want to call me then fine. Apparently I’m also an historical novelist: in the 90s I was described as being a writer of tales in the spirit of Voltaire, and in May I’ll be at the Warwick Book Festival talking about historical fiction. That’s fine too. Back when I started out, a little over twenty years ago, the first label that came flying my way was “postmodernist”, and it made me feel uneasy at the time since I felt I’d learned more tricks from Laurence Sterne or Flann O’Brien than Derrida or Baudrillard. But really that’s fine too, no better or worse than the others. Oh, and there was also “detective novelist”, stuck on me by the person who decided to review my first novel in a crime fiction round-up. But it meant that the reviewer thought my novel sucked, so it wasn’t such a good idea.
For the moment let’s go with my 90s image, the historical novelist. I was especially interested in the 18th century, and read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. I was struck by many things, but one little detail in particular caught my imagination. Rousseau did the familiar writer’s thing of finding himself a little country hideaway where he could work in peace: it was a house in Montmorency, just outside Paris by modern standards, but a distant rural retreat in those days. In the Confessions he describes two men who moved in next door: he became convinced they were using false names and were spying on him. That, I thought to myself, is a story waiting to be told.
My novel Mr Mee tells the story (or let’s be blunt, makes it up), as well as telling the story of a present-day scholar intent on solving the mystery, and an elderly book-lover, the eponymous Mr Mee, who somehow gets mixed up in it all, and blunders into the world of internet pornography.
I’ll leave pornography for now (you’ll just have to read the book) and instead stick with Rousseau. Some novelists would want to start by going and visiting that house in Montmorency, or even contacting some scholars to find out what was known about those mysterious neighbours, but I did it the other way round: I waited until after I’d written the novel. Montmorency was pretty much how I imagined it (or close enough), and my idea that the neighbours were mysterious figures whose true identities have never been established, well, that pretty much checks out too.
This left me with a warm sense of having been somehow prophetic – a common enough feeling whenever something happens that we think we dreamed about or in some way anticipated. Like many novelists, I’ve found situations arising in my life some time after having written about them. Rationalists attribute it to randomness and statistics, mystics call it premonition. Like those labels that get stuck on me, I can live happily enough with either. And that idea of two simultaneous views, the rational and the mystical, came to be central to my next novel, Mobius Dick. I won’t try and summarise the plot (it’s a while since I wrote it and my memory’s not what it used to be), but one reviewer called it the only novel about quantum mechanics you could read on a beach, and I’ll go with that.
So Mr Mee is one of my “historical” novels and Mobius Dick is “science fiction”? Well, there’s a bit of science and maths in Mr Mee, and history in Mobius Dick, so I wouldn’t say they’re so different. And as regular readers of my novels will know, there are connections. I write all my novels by putting together bits and pieces that at first seem unrelated. I take the same view with the novels themselves: they’re parts of a whole. The plot of that whole, or mythology if you prefer, has been partly revealed over the course of the books: the philosopher Jean-Bernard Rosier, his bizarre theories and encyclopedia; the modern corporation apparently named after him, involved in sinister world-changing experiments. Other stuff.
My plan, such as it is, is to finish things off with a further one or possibly two novels (I can’t decide if one will be enough for all the bits I’m currently working on). It will then be series that can be read in any order: I want readers to be able to start anywhere, then if they like it they can try another, and keep going in random sequence until they’ve had enough, maybe even get to the end. Though of course, in a series without order there can be no end – unless perhaps it has happened already, for instance in the final chapter of Mobius Dick. Which is no reason why you shouldn’t start with that one anyway.