If you can’t change, you stagnate
‘Outlivers’ is set in a dystopian near-future world where the rich, privileged and elderly elite have control of money, all resources. They have all the power. And they control, use and exploit the young.
It’s an extrapolation… an exaggeration… a ‘what if?’
Of corse, more and more wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few. And the elderly in western societies increasingly seem the only people who ever have money, or time, or freedom. The book explores what a world might be like if the trend went too far.
This is an interview given to a sci-fi fan site in October 2013, when Outlivers launched:
Can you talk a little bit about Outlivers?
By genre it would classed as dystopian sci-fi, and it’s intended for both adults and young adults. It’s set in a near future where the rich live prolonged lives, and effectively never die. But the rest of the population has been virtually enslaved. It focuses on a group of young people who have recently turned 17 and been given their work assignments for the rest of their lives. Theia, a martial arts prodigy, is sent to become a ‘companion’ – a glorified but also much more personal carer – for one of the outlivers. She will do anything to escape, and is determined to fight back, against her fate and the world she lives in. The book follows what happens to her, how she changes, and how the world is changed by her.
How long did it take to write the book?
It was a little over a year from starting out to actually deciding it was done – though I still had to force myself to stop tinkering. Of course, I wasn’t working exclusively on ‘Outlivers’ during that time. I spent about a month to six weeks on the planning stage, thinking about the story and characters, but also making lots of notes, and deciding what would happen, making sure the structure of the story was in place. Then I spent two months on the first draft. And after that came editing. I’ve done a lot of editing passes on the book, which I find essential. And even after six or seven run throughs, I was still making significant changes, such as adding another two hundred words at the very end of the book quite near to the publication date.
Who is your favourite character?
That would have to be Theia, the protagonist, who is a seventeen-year-old young woman and tough and self-reliant, both inside and out. She has her softer side, but it doesn’t often show, because she’s had a hard life. All the same, one of her major influences is a man called Soho who runs a gym where he trains youngsters in the martial arts. But he’s also using this as a way to teach them about life, and some more eastern spiritual practices. So while Theia is a fighter, she also comes under his influence, and has been taught to value life, all life. That makes her quite conflicted at times, because of the society she’s living in, and some of the challenges she faces in the book.
What kind of writing process do you use? Do you outline extensively?
With this book I walked a middle road as far as outlining goes. I knew the major plot points, the main dramatic events which change the story and point it in new directions at certain critical stages. Typically these fall at the quarter, half-way and three quarter points in a story. This may sound formulaic, but it’s true of most effective stories. I also had a pretty good idea of what would happen at the climax, although this did change quite a bit in the end. But I didn’t outline every chapter and every scene. I like to know where the story is heading, but also leave myself room for having fresh ideas as I go along.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
It grew out of a muddle of other ideas. I started out wanting to write something based loosely around the ancient Greek myth of Psyche, who falls in love with Cupid after he shoots her with his arrow while she’s asleep. The idea was to use that theme of someone trying to control the feelings of another. There are bits of it still in the book – in the name of part one of the novel, “while psyche sleeps,” (which is a phrase from a Wikipedia page!) and in some of the actions. At one point one character tries to use hypnosis to make Theia fall in love with him. Some of the names still reflect the myth as well – Essa is short for Vanessa and came from Venus, the Roman name for Aphrodite, who is Cupid’s mother. And Aeron came from Eros, the Greek name for Cupid. But really the whole myth thing got overlaid with a bigger and I felt better story, which is about the ‘outlivers.’ These are old folk who keep on living, some of them two or three hundred years old. Only the rich can afford the medicines and treatments for this, and they horde all the world’s wealth, because of course no one ever inherits anymore. I can’t really remember where that idea came from. Partially from being around elderly relatives, of course. But also from a basic ‘what if…’ scenario. What if it really was possible for some people to have extended long lives? It sounds great, but what if there was a down side? What if that meant the rich and powerful don’t die, and just go on getting more powerful, and more wealthy? So it became a story about a dystopian future. And the world I created for this was also heavily influence by rioting we had in the UK back in 2011, mainly in London. I’m not defending what the rioters did, much of it was horrible and cruel, and just criminals taking advantage. But there was an element of young people taking to the streets to let off their frustration, and then the state clamping down on them. And the demonstrations in the USA around the 99% idea also influenced the themes of the book.
When did you know you wanted to be an author?
I think by the time I was eleven or twelve. I remember being eight or nine and being given an assignment to write a short story – a few hundred words. But I kept going, writing more and more over a series of weeks.
What are your favourite books and authors?
How long have we got? I did a degree in English literature, and still have a love of many of the great and classic works of literature. I’ve been known to read the plays of Sophocles on the beach – but in translation. (Reading them in the original Greek would just be pretentious!). So I love Shakespeare, and lots of poetry by folks as diverse as TS Eliot, Blake and Byron. I also like a lot of the great novels by writers such as Joyce, Dickens, Hardy, and many of the French guys from the nineteenth century such as Balzac and Stendhal. On the other hand, I love Tolkien as well as Terry Pratchett and the Harry Potter books. I’ve read all the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ (‘Game of Thrones’) series, the ones released at least, and loved those. But on the other hand, I also like science fiction and young adult books of all kinds. Iain Banks is a name that springs to mind. And Jasper Fforde. And JG Ballard. The sci-fi masters such as Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein. Others such as Huxley and Orwell – ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’ are both dystopian sci-fi, after all.
And that’s reflected in my writing too. I should pick a genre and stick to it – that’s the basic advice. But I can’t. I don’t want to. I like to mix up genres and try different things.
Having said all of that, there is a noticeable sci-fi element to a lot of my books. None are ‘hard’ sci-fi, but most have a new invention or technology or scientific breakthrough at their heart – a sentient android who plays tennis; a geneticist who learns how to enhance animal intelligence and creates a talking dog; a brain-link device used to enter the mind of a coma patient. Even my prehistoric novels focus on how technological breakthroughs such as new weapons or tools change the worlds the characters inhabit.
What are you working on next?
I’m editing / rewriting a novel called ‘In the Wreckage.’ It’s on the fourth or fifth draft. It’s set in the a future where rampant climate change has destroyed civilization. The arctic has melted and many of the survivors have moved north. The story focuses on two brothers who got left behind on Shetland, a group of islands north of Scotland. When a ship arrives, they sneak on board hoping to make it to Svalbard, to look for their long-lost parents. But then they encounter treasure maps and slavers and all sorts. There’s a strong ‘Treasure Island’ influence to it.
I’m also editing / rewriting a prehistoric novel called ‘Caves of the Seers.’ It’s a sequel to my novel ‘The Dry Lands’ which is set 43,000 years BC, on the plains of Africa. It’s a time that has been referred to as ‘the dawn of human culture’ by archeologists.
And I’m planning a new novel, this time about a man from a different universe all together. He gets dumped on Earth by a multiverse portal device. He has to survive, stay hidden, save the planet, that kind of thing. So that’s a bit more sci-fi. Crossed with detective noir.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Read a lot, write a lot. Read plenty of books on the craft of writing and story telling. Seriously, read dozens of them. I could name twenty or thirty I think are essential. Some are a bit obscure these days, such as ‘Becoming a Writer,’ by Dorothea Brande. It’s the book often cited by Hilary Mantel, who has twice won the Booker Prize here in the UK. Others include Dwight Swain’s ‘Techniques of the Selling Writer,’ and ‘Anatomy of Story’ by John Truby. I’d also mention ‘Writing for Emotional Impact’ by Karl Iglesias and ‘Into the Woods’ by John Yorke, which is a very recent book, not well known yet. Basically, improving your writing craft and understanding of how and why stories work is something you can control, you can work at it every day. That’s a good thing. When it comes to getting agents and publishing deals, I’m not sure I have much to offer.
But one other thing I would stress, and it may sound trivial or boring or obvious, but learn to touch type. Don’t argue, just do it. It’ll save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run. But there are more important reasons. Because to write well and really enjoy it, you need to go into ‘flow’ as the sports people call it, or ‘the zone.’ This is a big subject, too big to cover here. But one of the most important elements of flow is mastery of the basic physical movements. This is true if you are a tennis player or a carpenter or a kung fu expert. It’s also true for writers. The physical side is getting words down onto the page. This needs to be automatic and effortless if you’re to really get into the writing zone. I think that’s why some people still prefer to write with pen and paper. They can do it without having to think about where the keys are. Because that act of thinking about what your fingers are doing rips you out of the flow of the story.
And other than that, I’d say write what you want. Don’t write to please other people or for markets or what you think agents will read. Write your stories. But get as good as you can on the craft side of things as well.