David Barnett is described on Amazon as “an award-winning journalist, multimedia content manager of the Telegraph & Argus, cultural reviewer for The Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, and has done features for The Independent and Wired. He is the author of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, Angelglass (described by The Guardian as “stunning”), Hinterland, and popCULT!.
David Barnett is not only author of the Gideon Smith series, seven other novels, some short stories, and even comics: he is also a freelance journalist with a regular column in one of Britain’s top newspapers, The Guardian. After reading many of his pieces, I was excited to interview him myself. I had intended to take his answers to my variety of questions and draw them together into a cohesive whole. But I couldn’t bring myself to cull a single word. As in his fiction, his words here are thoughtful and playful both, with contemplation of big issues and enjoyment of creativity finding equal value.
Part one of the interview, featuring the Gideon Smith books, follows below. Look for part two later this week!
Sarah Olsen: Your GIDEON SMITH novels have been called “A fun and bawdy romp” by the Washington Post– which is a good and true description. But these books also engage with subjects as encompassing as energy resource consumption, as intricate as the effect of personal corruption on the public sector, and as acute as child abuse. What can you tell us about your process of balancing the serious with the sideshow?
David Barnett: Steampunk these days comes with more baggage than Phileas Fogg, and as a signifier for a literary sub-genre I’m not sure it’s entirely useful any more, and certainly not necessarily for the Gideon Smith series. I’d probably just call them Victorian Fantasy. Steampunk is more an aesthetic these days, and the steampunk community – entirely validly – concentrates on the more splendid aspects of Victorian life – exaggerated costumes, fantastical weapons and really nice cups of tea. And that’s utterly lovely. But I think it’s a mistake to map that on to books that have been given the tag “steampunk” because the two, while sharing some themes, of course, are not necessarily the same. So while, yes, there is much splendidness in the Gideon Smith novels, there’s also the dark side of Victorian life. In a way, Gideon himself is the bridge between the two aesthetics – he’s idealistic and thinks, at least at the beginning, that everything is an awfully jolly adventure. But as the series progresses he realises that all that is just surface and pomp and propaganda, and that there’s a lot of dirty work going on that is either hidden from the public or which the public would rather ignore. So while I want the books to be fun and thrilling, I also want to dig away at the world beneath the veneer and show that while we might be distracted by fabulous things, we have to ask why we’re being distracted, from what, and whose interests it’s in.
SO: Aloysius Bent is a character outside social norms: a deliberate choice by him and by you. You’ve asserted before that he is a lot of fun to write. What other purposes does he serve for you?
DB: Aloysius was meant to have a walk-on comedy part in the first book and then get forgotten. But he wouldn’t go away. Bent is really a foil to Gideon’s idealism; he’s a Fleet Street journalist, he’s been around the block quite a few times, he knows that the world’s not a very nice place. He’s actually quite wise, too, though I don’t think he recognises that himself very often. He guides Gideon, almost like a foul-mouthed Yoda. And he also allows me to channel some of the accepted mores of the time into some of the more outlandish things in the book – Bent will be the one who wonders “what the eff is going on here?” when faced with something unusual and outside normal experience. I sometimes suspect Aloysius is actually the main character in this series…
SO: Unlike many stories featuring a company of comrades, your books don’t end with the main characters reflecting together on the adventure just completed. Instead, we see you acknowledge the diverse perspectives of your various characters at the end of MASK OF THE RIPPER, and, indeed, in the other Gideon Smith novels as well. It isn’t just that their outcomes differ, but that their experience of what has transpired depends upon the way their understanding of the world has been altered. You have an economical way of delivering a powerful existential punch on behalf of each of your main characters. What’s your philosophy underlying this pattern?
DB: I think it comes out of a belief that although the series is called Gideon Smith, and Gideon’s the main character, he’s just the lens through which we see most of the action – his naïveté, at least in the earlier books, is our window on his world. But I do believe that the events of the books impact differently on the different characters, and yes, some of them might interpret the same events in a different way. I also think that there are no villains in the books – just people who have different aims and objectives and different moral compasses, and that they believe in their own way that they are right. Otherwise you get moustache-twirling cartoon baddies. So that’s really why I like to close the books with different perspectives on what’s gone down.
SO: You return in MASK OF THE RIPPER to the theme of government officials who, for reasons personal or political, can’t be trusted. (I was very affected by the shades of villainy of a certain character.) Is there anything you want to share about why this idea of suspect authority works for you as a novelist? Do you think this is particularly powerful for us, members of the so-called Gen-X, the narrative-spirit-children of movies like Star Wars and War Games?
DB: Again, it comes down to people believing they’re doing the right thing, either for themselves or for “the masses”, and what sacrifices they have to make – moral personal sacrifices or perceived wider “greater good” sacrifices. The Government of Britain in the Gideon books isn’t evil per se, but that kind of depends where you’re standing. If you’re rich, white and male then it’s probably a fact that the Government is working pretty good for you. If you’re not, you’re more marginalised or on the edges of society, then perhaps not so much. I do tend to be highly cynical and think that by and large there can be no such thing as a utopia for everyone, so it stands to reason that certain sectors of society, or characters representing them in the Gideon books, are going to feel there’s villainy at play. I think we as a generation – certainly post-1960s – have learned to question authority much more, and that’s got to be a good thing, if only to remind governments that they are, in fact, accountable to us all.
SO: You continue in MASK OF THE RIPPER a theme I noticed most strongly in GIDEON SMITH AND THE BRASS DRAGON: fathers are good guys. Dads are people to look up to, in ways simple and complex. This is really rather refreshing. It makes me wonder if you’re honoring a father-figure in your own life, or writing about the kind of dad you’d like to be. Any thoughts behind this you’d like to share?
DB: I never even noticed that! I’m going to have to balance that out in the next one. I think as a dad of two children myself, there’s always a fear that you’re not doing well enough, and perhaps there is some subconscious examination of my own role coming through. And, of course, Mask of the Ripper is dedicated to my own father, who’s not been in the best of health recently.
SO: What are you working on now? Is there another adventure in store for Gideon Smith, Maria-the-Mechanical-Girl, Rowena Fanshawe, and Aloysius Bent?
DB: I’ve always said that I’d like the Gideon Smith story arc run to six books to fully tell the entire story started right on the first page of Mechanical Girl. Mask of the Ripper is the third, and whether there’ll be any more kind of depends on how well the first three sell. Failing that, I’ve got other projects on the go, the furthest along being something completely different to the Gideon books, more of a contemporary fantasy exploring our attitudes to divinity and belief in the modern world.
SO: Personally, I can’t wait to read that! Thanks, David, for the thoughtful response to my questions. Readers can find David Barnett on Twitter at @davidmbarnett and at his wordpress website, Postcards from the Hinterland. Check out his Amazon Author Page here. GIDEON SMITH AND THE MASK OF THE RIPPER was out on October 13, 2015.