An Interview With James Smythe

In May The Testimony landed with a thud on my doormat. It was brilliant. Earlier I posted my review of The Explorer which is James Smythe’s second novel. It was brillianter. In fact, I’d be lying if I said that James wasn’t in my top five authors currently; His writing is marvellous, his ideas are diverse and he’s a jolly nice bloke, too. James is due to be a big name within writers in the UK for his approach to novels. Where The Testimony was a thrilling and sprawling epic novel, The Explorer is contained and tense. This is without mentioning that The Machine (due to be James’ next release) changes scope yet again.  James took some time out from teaching creative writing, penning new novels, tweeting and reading Stephen King books to chat about The Explorer, what has come before, after and his writing.

DED : James, let’s talk about inspiration. You’re a massive fan of videogames and films… books of course. I wanted to know if you ever experience something and think “I can do something like that, but make it better”?

JAMES: Ah. Now. Games I do, all the time, but only because in so many games the story comes last, and the writing is severely wanting. (Sometimes – BIOSHOCK, MASS EFFECT, for example – I’m ludicrously impressed, mind you.) Books, it’s very rare. I’m impressed by most books I read, jealous of most as well. I won’t read anything playing in a similar ballpark while I’m writing something, because I don’t want to hate myself and everything I’m working on. I read a lot of stuff, and it’s really varied, because I don’t like the idea of reading only what I would write. I want to read great words and stories and characters. I don’t care what genre they’re in.

(Sorry: ranty. I get very annoyed when people won’t read something because it’s SF, or because it’s literary. If it’s a good story, who cares how it’s sold? Bah.)

DED: To pick up on that rant about genre divides, why do you think we tend to categorise everything when a story is just a story? Do you think the industry is alienating some readers by putting a label on novels?

JAMES: I don’t know. It’s very odd. A lot of my favourite books so far this year have been, I think, genre dancers. JACK GLASS, HAWTHORN & CHILD, NW – they’re all pigeonholed, but I think that they all have a lot to offer all readers. They’re all exceptionally written, that’s what they have in common above anything else. I’m not sure that labels alienate, but they definitely give preconceptions. People might not read EXPLORER because there’s a spaceman on the cover, and a spaceship inside the book, but I’d hope that if they did, they’d find that Cormac’s story – which, hopefully, is quite a human one – might give them the hook that they need to accept the setting and genre label.

DED: So, just to get an idea, what is your view of the industry as it is? What do you think the strengths and weaknesses are in books currently?

JAMES: Hm. I don’t know where it is. I think it’s as confused about itself as I am. But something I’ve started to see – through social media, through bloggers, through booksellers, through word of mouth – is good books getting spoken about more. As much as a lot of the industry is still hype-driven, there are books that seem to be getting quiet buzz because people are discovering how good they are through others. This is how it used to be; it’s how great literary works rose to the top. Regardless of genre, anything where conversation happens about books has to be a good thing. And my number one thing about Twitter? I get to have great conversations about books.

DED: Let’s move on to EXPLORER… it’s is so different in tone to TESTIMONY, was that a conscious thing? Do you use your writing to test your skills? Especially as MACHINE sounds so very different to both of those, too.

JAMES: Yes. I really felt like I’d dealt with something very big – the biggest – in TESTIMONY, and wanted to do something smaller. It isn’t, necessarily. Not in the grand scale of things. But it was always intended to have a smaller cast and a smaller scope, and be a story that was what it was. I wanted to write something more SF, and pulpier. I don’t know that it turned out that way in the end, but that was the intent. (Hence Cormac’s father’s obsession with pulp magazines.) And THE MACHINE… That’s another kettle of fish. It’s much nastier. Quieter, more claustrophobic. It’s meant to be hard. I wanted to write about things that were hard, nasty topics, and so the text had to reflect that.

As for pushing myself, yes. Every single thing I write I want to be something I haven’t done, to go somewhere I haven’t gone before. If I’m not pushing myself, I won’t get better, and this isn’t as much fun. I’ve thrown away a novel because it wasn’t pushing myself, and I wrote something much better after doing it. I think.

DED: Both EXPLORER and TESTIMONY are very human stories and deal with varying emotions. How important is it for you (and the literary world) to continue exploring what constructs us as a people?

JAMES: How important? Mind-blowingly. That’s what THE MACHINE is about. It’s about what exactly it is that makes us human, people, whatever. On a basic level, it’s about whether we are more than our memories. I joke with my editors that I can see my own themes: identity, physical collapse, and belonging. I see them in everything I’ve written. I think that you can’t escape those things. In fact, the sequel to THE EXPLORER is even more about that inability to escape yourself, and the past…

In EXPLORER, Cormac has some… issues? I think that’s fair to say. Avoiding spoilers, the human experience he has makes him who he is. And the ways that the novel allows him to see who he really is really points that out, I would hope.

But we’re all lost. I think that’s my main point. We’re lost, and we need somebody to tell us what we should be doing; maybe even who we are. Literature can and should do this, I think.

DED: How was it dealing with such a small cast in comparison to TESTIMONY?

JAMES: Wonderful.

Though to be less glib: I wrote it as a direct rebuttal to writing TESTIMONY. Having spent so much time with the huge cast – and there’s 26 in the published version, but at a time there were in the mid-30s – I wanted to write something with far fewer people. Six people, a small ship, stick it somewhere nobody can knock on the door dragging a Macguffin with them… It made it easier to write, which is great. (Mainly so I could add a load more complications to it!)

DED: How did you put yourself in the minds of the crew? Particularly Cormac. Obviously so much is speculation, but what you wrote seemed incredibly vivid and believable.

JAMES: Cormac, I just lived with him. For a long time. I wrote an entire book with him in – this is the first draft of EXPLORER – which had the same opening as this, and then an entirely different story. I wrote every aspect of his life, and then I realised that I wanted to write a different book around him. I think that that helped. And Emmy actually came out of that book, as a different character, so I knew her as well.

I think that a lot of the book came from the fact that I was working on it when I was teaching part time. It was sporadic work, big gaps where I was doing nothing, and I was at home all day every day on my own. I’m not comparing my isolation to the isolation of space, but I think that there were subliminal similarities. (I also hate/am terrified of going to the dentist, and it has been pointed out to me that both EXPLORER and TESTIMONY feature characters losing teeth in nasty ways. So I am totally into the thought of the writer as part of the narrative itself.)

DED: How much research was sitting and watching/reading Sci-Fi and how much “real science” research did you put in.

JAMES: Lots of both. I tried to read everything in what I think of as the ‘Lonely Man In Space’ subgenre of SF, and watch all that stuff. Lots of watching documentaries like FOR ALL MANKIND, Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON. I also have a friend – he’s on Twitter as @orbitingfrog – who is an astrophysicist  About four years ago I started throwing ideas at him and asking his opinion, and he basically told me that I was wrong, and instead, here is what the real way to do this would be. I ignored a lot of what he said, because I needed it to serve the narrative, but some stuff is totally him. The piezoelectric energy in the ship, particularly, was his, and I loved that idea; the ship needing to move forward in order to keep those on it alive was thrilling to me.

DED: I have to ask how the idea for the novel came about and what you would say your influences are/were. I know some early readers have likened it to MOON and I can see the reasoning. For some reason I also thought of Event Horizon.

JAMES: EVENT HORIZON is a pretty good touchstone, actually. I have a real soft spot for it: the unexplained out there, the nasty thing you don’t understand. (And that’s maybe more prominent in the sequel, still.) Really, a lot of it came from me wanting to write something that nodded towards Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION, Vonnegut’s SIRENS OF TITAN, Lem’s SOLARIS, a Stephen King short story I adore called BEACHWORLD. And there was another one: ALIEN. I love it. I always have – it’s probably my favourite film – but my first exposure to it was the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster. I loved that book. Didn’t watch the film for years after reading it, even.

And MOON is a good one. I wouldn’t say I was influenced by it, per se – I love it, but I was writing the first draft of this before I’d seen it – but I’d assume we were influenced by the same things, maybe.

DED: You’re making quite a name for yourself as being a writing MACHINE (pun!) and you always seem to be tweeting about new projects (Care to tell us how many exactly?). What is your writing schedule like, where do you work most?

JAMES: My schedule is pretty simple: write in the morning as much as I can, and then in the afternoon if I’m still in the mood. Used to be, when I had my commute (3+ hours a day on a train) I would write then. At weekends – this has been seven days a week for two years now? – I would get up 6AM, walk the dog and have some breakfast, write until lunch and then stop. Now I’m writing full time, and I’ve started taking myself off to coffee shops. A few hours every day there, powering through words, then coming home and editing/writing after lunch. That’s the plan.

As for new projects… After THE EXPLORER and THE MACHINE there’s a sequel to EXPLORER (title as yet undecided, because the working title was awful), and then – fingers crossed, all going to plan – there’s a weird, dark thing called K&R that I’ve written a first draft of, and is currently percolating. And right now I’m working on something that I’m ludicrously excited about. Totally different to what I’ve done, writing for the hell of it. Nothing might come of it – it might even be thrown away – but it’s so much fun to write. And that’s why I do this: everything I’ve written has been fun. I’ve jettisoned a few novels over the years because they weren’t fun to write; I’d get 15 thousand words in and realise my heart wasn’t in it. It’s got to be fun to write, or I think readers will see the lack of that in the finished book.

A massive thanks goes to James for writing his books and another for joining me on the blog for a nice LONG chat.

You can buy The Testimony and The Explorer online.

2 thoughts on “An Interview With James Smythe

  1. Ellie

    I was thinking of Even Horizon too but I thought that was just because the eyeball pressure thing got to me so much when I watched it that it haunts me! But maybe there are more connections. Great interview and I’m with James in his ranty bit 🙂

    1. Dog Ear Post author

      Yes, those were my thoughts around Event Horizon! Thanks for reading and enjoying, Ellie. I think we all agree with James on his ranty bit… just a shame it won’t change anytime soon.


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