Your new book, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, returns to the familiar territory of your debut novel, Unspeakable Secrets – a main character down on his luck called Danyl. How important is it to you to base your fiction in the local environment? Why name a character after yourself? And why return to Danyl and the Aro Valley?
It’s not important to me to base my fiction in Aro Valley. It’s just a great setting for comic novels and no one else is using it, so I might as well take advantage of it. And I named the main character after myself because he was originally just a fictional version of me and I think it feels fake when obvious author surrogates are hidden behind fake names. (Although sometimes it can be funny. Philip K. Dick called one of his surrogate characters ‘Horselover Fat’ because Philip means ‘lover of horses’ and ‘Dick’ is German for ‘fat’.) Sometimes I feel like novelists make fools of themselves when they have these very loosely disguised versions of themselves running around inside their books. They make themselves brilliant and brave and witty and attractive and, if the novelist is a man, irresistible to women. So giving the character my own name keeps me honest but also hopefully stops me from inadvertently embarrassing myself. I returned to the character and Te Aro because I liked writing the last one and people liked reading it. But my next book will be very different. New characters, new settings.
Mysterious Mysteries like Unspeakable Secrets deals with the occult, conspiracy theories, and the people that get obsessed and drawn in by them. What is the attraction for you in the occult?
The first book had occultists in it and I find the subject interesting because occult leaders are usually just writers who have convinced a group of people that their stories are true. Many writers like to think that stories are important and that they change people’s lives and mostly, I think, they don’t. But with occult leaders they do change lives, but the change is usually destructive. In this book the conspiracy is centred on several mathematicians, which might seem like the opposite of occultists. Mathematics is widely seen as a science; something very practical. But if you look closer at it and learn a little about the philosophy, it is very mysterious. What are mathematical objects? Are they real? Are they created or discovered? What is their relation to reality? Are there problems that are unprovable or incomputable? Cults of mathematicians can be just as sinister and mysterious as cults of occultists.
Are there books you’ve read or admire that helped you set a tone or find a way of writing your two novels?
My favourite writers are genre novelists who transcend their genre. Patricia Highsmith and Philip K. Dick are well known. There’s a less famous but, I think, just as brilliant novelist called Donald E. Westlake who wrote a number of thrillers under the pseudonym Richard Stark. They’re masterworks of minimalism and plot structure. Also a British medieval Arabic scholar called Robert Irwin who wrote a novel called The Arabian Nightmare set in 15th century Cairo against a backdrop of warring cults and otherworldly conspiracies. That book had some of the tone I was going for; this idea that the characters had stumbled upon plots and counterplots to bring about outcomes that were almost incomprehensible.
What is the attraction of plots and counterplots? Entertainment value?
I think so. I started to write my first book during the golden age of TV, when you had shows like The Wire and The Sopranos and Lost that were doing all of this complex innovative stuff in terms of storytelling. They were the first time I really paid attention to plot structure on a technical level. Like asking, ‘Why did this story work?’ ‘How did they achieve this effect?’ There’s also this quote from, I think, the film critic Pauline Kael who said, ‘A movie should be a machine built to surprise and delight the audience.’ That’s very much my philosophy to plot. And, of course, delight doesn’t mean a movie or a book has to be trivial. You can delight the reader with ideas or emotions.
One of the joys of your writing is how funny it is. I hoot with laughter as I read it! Is the humour a natural consequence of writing about conspiracy theories? Their ridiculousness? What writers do you admire for their humour?
Thanks! Umberto Eco died a few months ago and he wrote the classic comic conspiracy theory novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which anticipated and satirised The Da Vinci Code fifteen years before Dan Brown’s bestseller was published. I like the mid-century English comic writers Evelyn Waugh and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Graham Greene wrote comic novels – Our Man in Havana, Travels with My Aunt - that he didn’t even refer to as novels; he called them ‘entertainments’, to distinguish them from his very serious important work like Heart of the Matter or Power and the Glory. I think the entertainments have dated a lot better than the novels have. Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm was a send-up of a lot of serious literary books published in the 1920s that have mostly been forgotten, but her satire abides. It is also, bizarrely, a science-fiction book set in the remote future of the late 1940s in which people have television phones and Mayfair has been reduced to a slum. Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is another favourite. I went for years without reading that because the covers always made it look very serious and grim.
What do you do in your day job at Victoria University? How long have you been here? Is there ever any cross over between your day job and your writing?
I’m a computational biologist. So I work in a lab and do some research but mostly support other researchers and biologists. I’ve been here for just over ten years. There’s some crossover, in that I like to have characters who are scientists or who argue about scientific points. But mostly my writing is something I do very early in the morning when it’s very quiet and there’s nothing else around to distract me, and my day job is the opposite of that.
What time do you get up? And do you like to hit a word count? You seem like a writer who can produce work quite quickly.
Usually I get up about five or five-thirty. When I’m really deep into the book it is a bit earlier. I don’t try and hit a word count because almost every word I write gets rewritten or cut, so counting them would just depress me. I think I am a quick writer on an hourly basis but the rewriting slows me down. I do write every day though and you get so much done that way, even if a lot of it doesn’t end up in the final book.
Have you always wanted to write fiction? Have you done any of the popular writing courses, and do you have an opinion on these?
I have always wanted to be a writer, but it was only really when I reached my late thirties that I acquired the ability to commit to a book and rewrite and rewrite it, which is what you need to do to make it any good. Before that I’d just write a short story and not even revise it, just give it to friends or a girlfriend and expect them to lavish me with praise. They’d have to clench their teeth and tell me how it had potential as an idea, maybe. I’ve never done a popular writing course. I’d like to, it’d be nice to have all that time just to write and to have someone very wise give me feedback but it’s just not compatible with my job.
What made you realise you need to revise? And what caused the shift from short stories to novels?
I stopped writing short stories sometime in my twenties and I didn’t do any creative writing for maybe ten years. Then I wrote a screenplay with a friend of mine, Andrew Brettell, who used to lecture in Film at Victoria University. The screenplay never got made. We came up with this great idea, wrote the script and it wasn’t commercial so we just couldn’t get any interest in it. Anyway, Andrew knew a lot more about the actual hard work of writing than I did. Originally I went away and wrote all this comic dialogue, which I thought was hilarious, and I showed it to him. He basically tore it all up and said, ‘That isn’t how you write.’ So we went back to the beginning and figured out the structure of the movie, what the function of each scene was supposed to be, what was at risk for the characters, and all of that basic storytelling stuff. And then I went away and wrote the actual dialogue. We revised it and revised it, and the end product was just so superior in every way to what I’d originally written. So much funnier. So much more interesting. So I learned a lot about writing from that experience, but also that film wasn’t for me. You could put all that work into a screenplay and produce something really good and nothing would happen to it. At least when you write a novel you have a finished product you can take to publishers.
You have a popular following for The Dim-Post, your political commentary blog. Does that come out a desire to write also? Is writing partly a desire to have your voice heard (politically and fictionally)? Is it hard to get your voice heard, both your political and fictional voice?
For me, the desire to write is more of a compulsion. I get ideas or dialogues or arguments or scenes in my head that won’t go away unless I write them down. It’s very similar to the experience of rehearsing an argument with someone, or reiterating a debate in which you think of really great points you wish you’d made, except it can be directed. I can say, ‘Hey brain, figure out a way to make the opening scene in my book more interesting,’ and off it goes. And if I’m writing it down, I might as well try and publish it. With the blogging about politics, I see it as more of a hobby. It’s what I do instead of watching sport, or trainspotting, or whatever. And I try to be accurate and insightful but I don’t take it too seriously. With the novel writing I feel more of an obligation. People are going to pay for the book and invest their time in reading it, so I invest a lot more energy and work into it. Ironically, the political commentary is far more widely read and discussed. That’s fine. I should be grateful any of it is read. But hopefully the books will have a longer shelf-life.
Danyl McLauchlan's second novel, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, is published on Thursday, and his launch will be held at Unity Books next Tuesday 14 June, 2016.