EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ian McDonald Talks About His New Novel: ‘Planesrunner’
Ian McDonald lives just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland, with a hill behind him and the sea before him. He’s been writing since the early 1980s, which scares him a lot. His last novel was the Hugo-nominee The Dervish House (Pyr, Gollancz). His first book for younger readers, Planesrunner, is out from Pyr. Planesrunner has its own facebook page: The Infundibulum. You can follow Ian on twitter: @iannmcdonald. Don’t expect wit or profundity.
CHARLES TAN: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, could you tell us more about your upcoming novel, Planesrunner?
IAN MCDONALD: It’s a fast-paced adventure that takes Everett Singh — 14, clever, slightly geeky, Anglo-Punjabi, named after a quantum physicist (thanks Dad!) – off on adventures through the 10-known parallel universes of the Plentitude, and beyond, into the unmapped billions of worlds of the Panoply. His Dad’s been kidnapped, he’s being chased by the villainous Charlotte Villiers and all he has is natural smarts and the Infundibulum — the map of the all parallel universes, which his Dad gave him before he was taken. Oh, and the crew of Earth 3 cargo airship Everness. So what chance do the bad guys stand? Yes, there are airships. There have to be, it’s parallel universes. Only they’ve got a particularly good reason for airships — they never had any oil. They’ve had to build an entire industrial civilization on electricity. So though it may look like steampunk, it’s electropunk. The point is, it’s fun, for all ages — from about 12 up. I like to think it’s well written fun that doesn’t insult a 12-up intelligence.
CT: How long is the series going to be?
IM: The cynical, and in many ways honest, answer is, as long as it remains commercially viable. But intentions are grander things, so in theory this is no limp-wristed trilogy, by thunder no! I’m contracted for three books in the series — I’m just delivering book 2 Everness and about to go into pre-production on book three, Empress of the Sun (where we first get to see what Charlotte Villiers’ game really is). There’s a whole lot more at stake than just the map of the multiverse, cool though that is. I’ve got the next three roughly mapped out and it could go to seven or maybe eight ultimately: the 10 Known Worlds of the Plenitude alone have a huge amount of room for exploration and adventure, and that’s before we get to the billions of unknown worlds of the Panoply beyond. A big story is unfolding. But I do know how it ends — there are seeds already sown in Book 1 — and it will be like nothing the readership has ever seen before. It will rock.
CT: What made you decide to write a young adult (YA) novel?
IM: I’ve never really called it YA, because it’s targeted at a younger age-group — I believe it’s Middle Grade, in the hair-splitting terminologies of this kind of writing. I had many reasons, all of them honest. Most of all, it was the story that could only be told with these characters, in this way. It was a story I wanted to tell this way, for this age-group. I’d done some research. Boys read pretty damn voraciously until they’re thirteen, then a lot fall off for various reasons — games, peer pressure, too cool for that kind of thing, lack of stuff to read… At the same time, the BBC did some research into who watches Doctor Who — and by that, I mean ‘appointment to view’ — who decides to turn the telly on and watch it, and they found it was fourteen year-old boys. So I thought, can I do something that gives the same eyekicks and the same level of complexity — it’s only adults who whine about plots being difficult because they lack the mental agility and ability to concentrate and be absorbed that kids have — as Doctor Who, in book form. But aim it at that age-gap: 13 year-old boys — not forgetting the girls as well. Make it’s smart, stretch imaginations a little, make it SF because there’s an awful lot of fantasy out there. Make it different and fresh — no, not another dystopia. Introduce the idea of learning how scientists think and look at the world — because it’s very different from what we think.
CT: In your opinion, what characteristic makes Planesrunner classifiable as YA?
IM: As I say elsewhere, it skews a little younger than classic YA — the URST (UnResolved Sexual Tension) isn’t as prominent. These are adventure stories. But characteristic? Because you can read it at any age from 12 (ish) up. Young characters, young sensibility, young view of the world and its wonders, young take on moral problems and dilemmas, young energy and young sense of self-confidence and self-discovery, young sense of justice and what matters, young sense of family and friends, young sense of alienation and belonging.
CT: What were the challenges in writing the book?
IM: Structure and plotting mostly. It’s structured around twelve main plot beats, but the challenge is to keep it moving and fast paced, but not so bang-bang-bang that it becomes staccato: characters just running up one corridor and running down the next on their way to meet the next monster. There needs to be character development, and, because it’s SF, that essential sense of ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this far from home before,” (Thank you, Kaiser Chiefs, by way of Paul Cornell) Everett has a lot to take in, so there has to be time to get behind his eyes, see what he sees and share his struggles to understand worlds that in some ways look the same, but in many many more are very very different. Keeping the sentences short and supple. Making the writing muscular without being oafish. Choosing the words carefully — not being afraid of the occasional big fat gobstopper word, but knowing where to place it. Introducing the science in a way that feels comprehensible. Getting the second-level humour in there.
A couple of years ago I was lead writer in a project for pre-schools with Sesame Workshop for television in Northern Ireland, and I’ll never forget their advice, which was, never write down. Always write up. They’ll follow.
I wanted to give the crew their own private slang, and looked around for a long time without finding anything that didn’t either sound dated or dumb. Then, out of the blue, — as these things always come — I hit on polari: the old British gay slang from the days when homosexuality was illegal. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of polari (as I am of any underground language) and though it would be fun to have these dudes talking about ‘Fantabulosa’ and ‘bijou buivare’ and ‘having a varda at the eek of her.” There’s a glossary, but you get it pretty quickly, and young people have always had their own impenetrable private langauges — rightly so. I had to add a couple of words of my own, but I went back to the Lingua Franca and Romani roots for inspiration. Polari is dying out, alas; I’d love to be able to do something to help it survive.
CT: In terms of process, how different was writing a middle-grade novel compared to your other novels?
IM: Quicker. Easier. Lots of leaping around when I do a cool bit and saying ‘yesssss!’. (Clenched-fist optional.). Cool stuff by the truck-load. The chance to come back to these people again and again and see how their lives develop and change. I still find directly linear plots where we’re stuck behind one character’s eyes all the way plodding and constraining, but as we get to know the characters better, I’ll open out to their points of view as well.
I’m not scared of putting in scientific ideas that stretch the readers — kids will look things up online — and go on from there into new and exciting places. It’s adults who have to be spoon-fed. We need to regain that sense of reading as an adventure rather than entertainment.
Production-wise, it’s the first book I’ve written completely on Scrivener (mostly on the Windows Beta as well), which has changed the way I write a book so radically I think I’m an addict now.
CT: How did you come up with the concept – or term – Infundibulum?
IM: I wanted a huge fictional universe full of colour, adventure and danger to play in, and I wanted a Tardis — a go-anywhere machine. I didn’t want to do time-travel, because I’ve never seen the point of time-travel books — just go and write a historical novel. (Having said that, I do commit a Connie Willis — I have escalators down to the Circle Line at King’s Cross Station. I was in London after I finished the book and went there to check it out after I finished the book and found there aren’t: mea culpa. And probably rather anal as well. But I do know where Everett’s house is exactly in Stoke Newington, and what the shops are and what his walk home from school is — I do add a fictional extra gate to Abney Park Cemetery.) I wanted a crew ensemble for Everett to be part of — a new fanily, in a sense, but I didn’t want a starship-based thing — it’s pretty much the standard milk-and-cereal of TV scifi. Parallel worlds seemed under-used, though the idea is out there in the popular gno-osphere. Then all I needed was a mechanism to get our hero away from his family and on the run. The Infundibulum is the great maguffin that keeps on giving. The concept is cheerfully stolen from that great Terry Gilliam movie Time Bandits where the little guys steal God’s map of the wormhole through time — I just moved it to parallel universes because it’s an interesting way of telling us about ourselves and the world (or worlds) we live in. The word of course is remixed
from Kurt Vonnegut’s Chronosynclastic Infundibulum, — and the word also makes a guest appearance in John Crowley’s Little Big. It’s a great word.
CT: What is it about the parallel universe concept that appeals to you?
IM: I’ve always loved that slight chill of parallel worlds — familiar but very different, right beside us but further than the farthest star. There can indeed be many yous. Who hasn’t, at some point of juncture in her or his life, stopped and felt ‘In another world….’?
IM: Because Lou loved it and bought it, and Lou Has A Plan. Lou always Has A Plan.
CT: Did you collaborate on the art with John Picacio?
IM: The man is a god. He gave me a cover that will make eye-contact from all the way across a bookstore and say ‘want to know why I’m staring at you? Come and find out.’ You think, ‘who’s she?’ and then, ‘who’s he?” We had a fun email correspondence — the main visual reference point was cavalry jackets, so one Saturday morning John set out across San Antonio in search of cavalry-style jackets and sent me about twenty photographs. That is professionalism. Then there were Afro hair dos, how to get glow-tubes on a North Face all-weather jacket, and Yolandi from South African hiphoppers Die Antwoord, and the always-scary Alison Goldfrapp. Great process. There’s always a gasp of excitement when the big fat file opens from mail and there is your cover. And Lou is a mighty art director — that’s one of the joys of working with a smaller press– the degree to which everything is hands-on and much more personal. I just fired notes around, it was Lou who’s in charge of what goes on the cover, ultimately.
There were some visual references that John sent me that have inspired scenes in the second book, and the way the cover is designed to look like that of Sen’s tarot cards — the cards are going to be a common element in each book.
CT: What projects are you currently working on?
IM: Book 2: Everness is in the bag. Starting pre-production on book 3, and I’m also getting the outline for the next adult novel into a shape I’m happy with. It’s only been nine years in the devising. Proposals to write for the next tranche of the Everness series. Stories promised to good people. Busy. Bonaroo!
Filed under: Interviews
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