James Smythe was born in London and now lives in West Sussex. Since receiving a PhD from Cardiff University, he has worked as both a Creative Writing teacher and as a writer/narrative designer of video games.
His debut novel, Hereditation, was published as part of Parthian’s Bright Young Things series in 2009. His next book, The Testimony, a novel about the voice of God, terrorism and the apocalypse, was published in April 2012 by HarperCollins (Blue Door). In December 2012, HarperCollins (Voyager) published The Explorer, a science fiction novel in the vein of 2001 and Solaris.
In April 2013, HarperCollins (Blue Door) will publish The Machine.
He is represented by Sam Copeland at Rogers, Coleridge & White.
Tim Ward: First off, I have to ask, at any point from the conception of The Explorer to its release did you ever laugh out loud at how hard it might be for reviewers or interviewers to talk to you about the story without spoiling anything? If not, feel free to do so now.
James Smythe: Ha! I didn’t, I must admit. It never really occurred to me until I was finished about the difficulty talking about certain… developments in the novel. But the pacing was quite careful: even if you have the first reveal ruined, as it were – the narrative-driving one – hopefully the second, more emotionally-resonant reveal will still come as a shock. A few people have mentioned what happens at a certain point in the book, and that’s fine. It’s tough; and maybe they don’t see it as spoilers? Having said that, some people have said that the reveal that Cormac’s crew are all dead is a spoiler, but that happens in the first line of the book, so I think that one is fine.
And you’re right: it is really hard to talk about the book without spoiling anything.
“One of the first things I did when I realized that I was never going to make it home—when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures—was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again; let me wallow in it, swim around in missing them as much as I could.”
In regards to some people saying you spoiled it in the first line, I suppose you did, but I found that choice very bold. It planted a seed of interest that made me need to find out how such information could just be thrown out right away, leaving something far more interesting to find out within the rest of the story. I quoted that line to a friend and he said it reminded him of the intro to Fight Club.
I also loved the reveals at the end of each part. They fit in seamlessly and really drove me through to the next part without putting it down.
JS: Oh, I like a Fight Club reference. I used to love that book. For me, I’ve never been a believer in the First Line being the most important part of the book, but the first page, the first chapter – especially in these days of Kindle samples etc – need to have a real grab. Fight Club did that for me; to have the opening compared to that is really thrilling to me.
TW: I jokingly called your book Fight Club in space, but the more I think about it the more similarities I see. How is your book similar and dissimilar to Fight Club?
JS: Hmm. I think there’s a sense of both books being about degradation: physical and mental, and how the two are entwined. Fight Club seems as if it’s about physical prowess, but it’s not. It’s about physical collapse. It’s only through the journey that the narrator realises the extent to which they were always dying, maybe.
TW: I found your one sentence synopsis for The Explorer on your blog: “In space, no-one can hear you be totally and utterly alone. The Explorer.” What inspired and excited you to write about someone being totally and utterly alone, and why did you choose Cormac as your torture subject?
JS: A lot of my interest in space came from the concept of loneliness. My favourite real-space story concerns Michael Collins, the third astronaut in Apollo 11, being alone and out of contact for 48 minutes while his crewmates walked on the moon. And my favourite SF stories have always dealt with loneliness in some form or other. It’s definitely amplified when you think about the vastness of space as well. I’m not a religious person, but I know what I know: that space is vast, and it’s terrifying. It should be: we know so little about what’s past our own front door, really.
Cormac was always a vessel. I wanted a real man – or, at least, a fictionalised version of a real man – with a real job that was at least slightly relatable. (I find astronauts mythical, somehow.) And I wanted a character who didn’t understand his situation beyond the fact that he was there: totally helpless, out of his depth. Cormac came out writing about an isolated man first, starting with him alone – this was, actually, before space was even a part of the story – and I knew that a journalist would work well as a character who felt that they had to report, almost, what had happened as part of a first person narrative.
TW: The Testimony and Hereditation, the two other books you have for sale, seem to have the same compelling, darkly personal feeling to them. If The Explorer, The Testimony, and Hereditation were siblings, how would you characterize them?
JS: Yeah, they’re all dark. I definitely have inadvertent themes that run through them all: physical and mental degradation, identity, loss. If they were siblings… Well, Hereditation is the older brother that the parents had when they were young, foolish and probably drunk. They didn’t know how to bring him up properly, and he’s a bit rough around the edges, shall we say? Not quite disowned, but off doing his own thing. Pops up at holidays for turkey and tells stories about investments he’s made that have fallen through, and how he’s going to buy a van. The Testimony is the one that the parents were scared into making: like a backup. They panicked, and coddled him, and spend years polishing him off. He’s a good student, and he tries really hard. He’s got a real darkness to him, but also a real heart. Then The Explorer is the newest. The baby. Only he’s been born with a darker heart than the other two…
TW: Great! Thanks for making time to chat, James. It has been great meeting you and I can’t wait to read another of your stories.
From your website it looks like The Machinist is coming out in April and The Explorer 2 this time next year. Anything planned to release your earlier books on Kindle US?
JS: Yeah, hopefully. There’s stuff in the works for The Testimony and The Machine, but nothing for Hereditation – and, honestly, that might be for the best.
Thanks for asking me to do the interview, and a pleasure to meet you too.