On a sunny Wednesday evening, I headed into town to the newly refurbished barn at the Crown & Thistle in Abingdon to hear author Nick Harkaway talk about his novels and more. (Beer and books make a nice mixture in the sunshine).
Nick is now the author of three novels and one non-fiction book. His latest, Tigerman, has recently been published and I will tell you up front that it is the best novel I’ve read this year (out of fifty read so far), and I shall be reviewing the book for Shiny New Books, issue 2, out at the beginning of July.
The evening started off with Nick in conversation with Mark from Mostly Books, and it was obvious to me right from the start that Nick is, as Jenny @ReadingtheEnd put later put it on twitter to me, “Sui generis that man!” – definitely one of a kind; intellectual, erudite and well-read, yet loving trashy movies, completely mad, yet intensely sane, and yes, happy! It was a pleasure to meet him and hear him speak – I am now a huge fan.
Nick and Mark started off by immediately digressing off-topic into the genesis of his book The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age. It came out of some blog columns he wrote for The Bookseller on the challenge of e-books and the internet, and he pulled all the ideas together into a discussion about social agency as it relates to technology.
After riffing about the internet to which we returned later, Nick and Mark discussed the genre-busting nature of his three novels. They are all very different in style – The Gone-Away World is a bit SF&F – post-apocalyptic but with ninjas and pirates; Angelmaker has a clockwork repairer, a ninety-year-old former superspy and a doomsday machine; Tigerman is a post-colonial eco-thriller set in a dangerous paradise with superheroes. Harkaway said that “in the UK we are obsessed with taxonomy and putting things into pigeonholes.” He grew up reading wonderful books that defied pigeonholing, and after being a scriptwriter, which is a very enclosed type of writing – you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end – being free to write a novel made him go, “I can do anything!” and so he has done. He hinted that his fourth novel is “completely batshit!” – can’t wait!
There is a development in his writing through the three novels though. The first features two male friends of the same age, the second a Father and grown-up son, and in Tigerman we have a man who wants to become a parent to a lost boy.
He told us about the Eureka moment in Thailand when he fired a handgun for the first time (at a target), and he thought about how Batman no longer carries a gun. This gave him the superhero aspect of Tigerman. He and his wife were planning to have children at the time, so parenthood came into the mix too. His wife runs a human rights charity and deals with torture and rendition; he had been thinking about the island of Diego Garcia (see Wikipedia here), a British-owned island in the central Indian Ocean where the US has a base and the CIA were rumoured to have landed rendition flights for refuelling – this gave him the island of Mancreu where the novel is based. Tigerman is his first novel to have a unity of place and time – the island circumscribes the whole thing and the action all takes place over a few weeks.
Nick read us an extract from the novel, a really funny passage which didn’t spoil the plot for those who hadn’t read the book. There is a lot of humour in this novel – and it was one of the passages I’d marked down to quote from later. When I read the novel, I saw echoes of Graham Greene, which I asked about, and Nick said he never thought about but is terribly flattered by the comparison whenever it gets mentioned. The main character, Lester Ferris, is definitely a Greene type – he’s a British Army sergeant – left behind to represent British interests once the embassy staff have gone – Lester being a soldier is used to obeying orders, and is told not to look too closely at what is going on around the island, but living there does affect him – particularly when he meets and befriends a boy who could be the son he’s never had.
Harkaway also talked more about twitter – he is an enthusiast, but doesn’t let it distract him from writing – noises from his young children are more likely to do that. He does read digital text, but isn’t “pleased by it.” You just can’t beat the feel of a book – indeed when he signed my hardbacks of Tigerman and Angelmaker, he stroked the cover and end-papers of Angelmaker saying it was such a lovely design – it is.
If you ever get the chance to hear Nick talk, do go – he is a fascinating speaker and a lovely chap to boot. Tigerman was a five star read for me – and I’ve got his previous two novels still to read – Yay!
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway – published May 2014 by William Heinemann, hardback, 384 pages.
The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age by Nick Harkaway, paperback.