A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by one Sara Martin Alegre, a senior lecturer at the Universitat Autonoma in Barcelona, asking me if I’d mind answering a couple of questions about my novel Black Man (or Thirteen as it continues to be known in the US) for an academic paper she was preparing. Black Man remains the book I’m proudest to have written, and with the upcoming Thin Air being set in the Black Man universe, Marsalis and his world have been much in my mind lately, so I ended up rambling interminably in response. Result – Sara asked if she could lash the material into shape as a formal interview and publish it in her University’s digital repository. Never one to miss the chance to have my ego stoked, I jumped at the chance, so that’s what we did. The full text of the interview is below. Enjoy!
Q: Writing a thriller usually requires plenty of previous planning and writing ‘backwards’, starting with the end and then choosing where to insert key events and revelations into the text. Since you write SF and need to build an imaginary context, you must also handle much more information than a realist writer. Yet, I realise when re-reading your novels that your reader necessarily misses many details the first time around. Are you aware of this ‘loss’? Do you take it into account for the planning of each novel using some kind of redundancy mechanism?
Not really. In fact, I’m a miserable failure as a true thriller writer–I never do that ‘working backwards’ thing. I mean, I usually have a pretty solid idea of where I want the narrative to end up, something like seeing a hilltop rising out of the jungle ahead of you. But as to how I actually get there, that’s a more protracted issue. I have to hack my way through the jungle, inventing the SF context as I go, taking the concepts for an exploratory walk, improvising the path and then keep going back to tidy up. As a result, my journey to that hilltop very rarely ends up being the most direct or economical one!
So yes, that does mean there’s a lot of extraneous detail left lying around, stuff that isn’t strictly necessary to the core narrative (though hopefully I weed out anything that isn’t a coherent pleasure to read!) Thing is, I’m primarily interested in the journey rather than the getting there, and that is probably what kills my chances of making the airport bestseller lists. But it’s nice to know that I’m delivering side benefits in re-readability!
Q: Thrillers are fast-paced and Black Man/Thirteen does work this way. It is, however, also a very long novel (630 pages in the Orion edition). There is, then, a certain tension as your reader cannot risk missing many details of the SF background (thus increasing the ‘loss’ I mentioned), yet s/he wants to read fast and find out what happens next. My impression is that you control the pace of reading, making sure it is not hurried by slowing down the action, for instance with chapters which might not be strictly necessary (like Chapter 3, when the grunt Joe enters the crashed spaceship). Was this your goal in Black Man/Thirteen?
I wouldn’t say there’s any conscious attempt on my part to control pace, and certainly not to slow it down. I like dynamic narrative, I like stories in which shit happens!, and I do try to have a lot of dynamic shit happening in mine. But my books tend to be character- rather than plot-driven, and conceptually rather than situationally based.
That is, my inciting questions don’t tend to be things like What would you do if X happened to you?, but rather What would happen–to individuals, society, relationships, politics, economics–if X were true? The story unfolds against that broad conceptual question, has to take it into account across a broad canvas, and I then just push the characters forward into that mess and see what happens to them!
Taking your example of Ch 3 in Black Man–I wanted a non-primary character view of the crash, and I also wanted to point up how slack and cheapskate privately contracted security is, how badly it works. I built the characters of Joey and Zdena for those purposes, and then spun up as much sociological future detail as the text would carry. But at the time, I had no idea Joey was going to take a fall or be particularly instrumental in the later narrative, or that we’d be seeing Zdena again.
The downside of that approach is, as we’ve already said, the indirect narrative path. But the upside is that every single thing in the story is solidly and organically rooted in something that’s come before. That’s why it’s impossible to skip bits–the structure is built from the ground up, and every brick is (or at least ends up) being important.
Q: I take it that you think that your being white is no obstacle to write about non-white characters, whether they’re black like Carl or Mediterranean (and Muslim!) like Sevgi. Is this correct?
Yeah, I think it’s colossally stupid to start drawing lines around what people should or should not write about–writing fiction is an act of the imagination, and the whole point of imagination is that you put yourself somewhere other than where you actually are.
Now obviously you can do that better or worse, depending on your writerly skills, and equally obviously some acts of imagination are harder than others–it’s harder for me to imagine being a Turkish Muslim woman than a British atheist man; harder to step inside the skin of a black character than a white one. As a writer, you want to get that leap of imagination right, not out of any quaking politically correct terror of upsetting anyone, but out of simple pride in your craft, so sure, you’re going to have to be sensitive, to work hard at the detail, to bring a craftsman’s humility to your task. But the idea that you shouldn’t even try, because certain cultures, ethnicities or identities don’t “belong” to you–that’s just bullshit.
Q: Yet, you take a big risk by characterizing the anti-hero ‘monster’ as a black man and, indeed, by calling the novel Black Man. I wonder how black readers have reacted to these choices.
Well, it’s hard to generalise in a meaningful way about reader reaction, but I did notice one fascinating dynamic. By and large, black readers seemed to like the book–the big outcry came from white people! Example–one of the kindest reviews I received for Black Man was from Nisi Shawl (who is a woman of colour) in the Seattle Times; she called out a couple of minor points where she felt I’d missed with a descriptive detail or two, but overall she was very positive, very enthusiastic about what I’d done. And the small number of other people of colour I spoke to directly who’d read the book–a young African-American guy, a couple of British Africans–were also very positive; basically they enjoyed the fact that the protagonist was, like them, black. It gave them a level of identification with the (anti)hero that they don’t usually get to enjoy, because even now those kind of alpha male characters are rarely black.
Meanwhile, the people who took me to task for making Carl black were almost exclusively white liberals (a few others were right wingers, but also white). That’s where the political critique of what I’d done emanated from–not black readers, but white liberal angst types wrestling with their own political correctness–why had I made the violent sociopath black? what was I thinking? how dare I take it upon myself as a white writer to discuss these kinds of themes?–and a few rightists who were made uncomfortable by Carl’s violent and (very, VERY important in my opinion) sexual prowess. So overall, this book’s big problem wasn’t with its black readers, it was with the white ones!
Q: So, to what factors do you attribute the negative attitude of the white readers?
In a word – discomfort.
Thing is, there’s still an intense pressure related to race in, for want of a better word, western fiction, in that a black character is almost never allowed to be just another character who happens to be black; there are all sorts of implicit politically correct and emotive barriers and bargains involved–major black characters still tend to be overly nice, model citizens, sexually restrained, in other words beyond reproach (or they’re criminals!). But that is, of course, another subtle form of racism.
Black men can’t simply be men who happen to be black, they must be emblems, standard bearers, didactic object lessons. (The Wire and Tremé have been helpful correctives to this recently, but it’s hard to think of many other examples). No one minds James Bond’s rampaging sexual antics, jumping bed to bed and girl to girl, or his sky-high kill-scores–hey, he’s just a fun escapist character, just an action hero. But in truth he gets away with it because he’s white. Let a similarly alpha male black character do the same thing and watch the condemnation rain down.
I did exactly that, and I watched that rain fall on me! One of the things that shocked me about responses to the book were the number of readers who called out Carl Marsalis for his unacceptable levels of violence–yet these were the same readers who loved Takeshi Kovacs! And Marsalis is relatively moral compared to Kovacs, nowhere near as fucked up or violent. So what I was forced to conclude was that these people were responding not to the violence itself, but to the fact it was violence committed by a black man, a man they couldn’t for some reason empathise with the way they apparently could with Kovacs.
Q: Still, you made a particular choice as a writer: Carl does not just ‘happen to be black’ as he is a fictional character. Why, then, does he have to be black?
Well, of course, he doesn’t have to be–Variant 13s come in all shades and ethnicities (though the fact that the source genetic material is harvested from poor women would mitigate towards higher numbers in certain traditionally disadvantaged populations). Stephane Névant, for example, is white. The 13 Carl kills at the start of the book, Gray, is undefined, but the fact that he had cheap and easy facial plastic surgery to look Hispanic suggests he’s almost certainly Caucasian or possibly Eurasian. But again, in the critical readership, pre-set agendas intruded–those white liberal angsty types totally failed to notice that Carl was one of a number of ‘monsters’, and that his being black was (more or less) coincidental.
Of course, as author, yes, I chose to make Carl black, but there’s less (and at the same time more) to that than you’d think. It was initially an impulse decision; I’d written a young Black British hero in my first (never published and for good reason, it was awful!) novel, borrowing the name Marsalis from jazz musician Branford Marsalis, and I decided to bring back an older, wiser version of that character for the 13 novel.
As I’ve detailed above, I write in an exploratory fashion, and it only slowly dawned on me, as I developed Carl’s character and the world he lives in, that here was a fantastic metaphor for the racism we see around us today, and the basic xenophobic tendencies that underlie it. The prejudice Carl experiences as a 13 is driven by exactly the same kind of exclusionary fear and hate that drives racism today; it wells up out of the same places–male competition anxiety over females, in- group vs. out- group loyalties, fear of the Other. What the book is basically saying is that racism is only a symptom of a much deeper underlying human tendency, and that until we get a conscious handle on our genetic heritage, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. And, of course, the point at which I realised all of this–well, that was the point at which, yes, Carl did indeed have to be black, because his ethnicity had just become an integral thematic metaphor for the whole novel.
Q: Many readers identify Carl with actor Idris Elba, possibly the most popular black British man right now, and agree that only he can play Carl on screen, if an adaptation is ever made. Elba was already well-known as the gangster Stringer Bell in The Wire (2002-8) when you wrote Black Man. Were you inspired by Elba in any way when writing about Carl?
Yes, Idris Elba was very much in my mind when I imagined Carl; as Stringer Bell in The Wire, certainly, but also as Vaughan Rice in Ultraviolet back in the late nineties. There was a very powerful sense of physicality melded with a ferocious focal intelligence in both those roles, and that was exactly what I was looking for in Carl. So if they ever make the movie of Black Man, yeah, I’m giving Idris a call! ☺
Q: The straightforward critique of patriarchy you offer in Black Man is very unusual in the work of male writers. Now I’m baffled. Your anti-hero ‘monsters’ (Carl but also Takeshi Kovacs) might appear to be idealized men both for patriarchal men (like Jeff Norton in Black Man) and for (feminist) women. When Sevgi Ertekin, who is by no means a weak woman, sees Carl and she falls for his calm and self-possession, this is plausible; besides, you make the ‘monster’ far less monstrous than patriarchs like Jeff and Ortiz. Are we, your female readers, deluded about the anti-patriarchal stance and Carl is just yet another masculinist figure? How, in short, do I read your gender politics? Can I, in short, trust them (and you)? Sorry to be so blunt…
Well to be blunt back, the real question is–can you trust yourself? Can any of us? (And the answer, of course, is No. ☺…
Here’s the thing. Everything I hold dear in terms of ideals–feminism, secularism, democratic accountability, the rule of law, generalised humanistic compassion–is little more than the Enlightenment scum floating on the surface of the deeper human condition. We are violent apes by nature, our history, even more recently as ‘civilised’ creatures, is replete with savagery and injustice, and the kind of worldview you and I might espouse is still struggling desperately to be born. And we all carry with us the heritage of that deeper, more savage evolution. It’s what has driven us for 99.9% of our existence as a species, and it continues to drive us now despite our best efforts to the contrary.
Q: I remain more surprised, then, that there is something attractive in your monsters…
But you shouldn’t be! There’s nothing strange about finding Marsalis (or even Kovacs) attractive because he’s a cocktail of all those things that (straight) women are evolved to find attractive in men–he’s strong and tough (both physically and emotionally), he’s confident and competent, he’s reliable once committed. But–crucially!–added to this standard tough-guy list, he’s also smart, introspective and sensitive enough to escape the more macho stereotypes that might turn more, ehm, modern women off. As a feminist, you’re able to accept the gene-deep triggers because they come with enough mind-candy not to trip the alarms (or at least to mute them).
Q: Or you’re trying to have your cake and eat it…
Yes, you could argue that, I guess. That level of sensitivity and introspection is very often lacking, or at least limited, in men exhibiting the other tough-guy traits–Navy SEAL feminists are probably not a frequent occurrence!! But I’d argue that it can still happen, albeit rarely, and that in a science fictional future it’s much more likely still. The future will–with a bit of luck! –consist of more feminised societies, better general levels of education and psychological training etc, knowing ourselves internally as a matter of course instead of just as a result of privileged education and upbringing, and so forth, so sophisticated tough guys needn’t be the exception to the rule anymore. And in the case of Marsalis, well, he steps outside the standard human set of attributes anyway by virtue of his 13 status–no one knows what those guys would be like if you ever came across one. So I’m in the clear–just! ☺…
Q: And about patriarchy, are you sincere?
Patriarchy itself, I hate with a passion. But I remain unconvinced by the more purely doctrinal strands of feminism that see things in old-style leftist terms, i.e. believing that patriarchy can be ‘abolished’ or ‘defeated’. Like xenophobic tendency, I have the feeling that misogyny is probably coded pretty deep in our genes (male and female expressed, hence the enormity of the problem). I’m optimistic that culture can effect major changes to that over time, and that the rapidly increasing feminisation/sophistication of our societies (I pair those two -ations very deliberately!) is going to lead to far better lives for women and men both. But I think it would be a dangerous error to believe that out genetic heritage will easily take a backseat. I personally have seen some quite remarkably virulent instances of misogyny in supposedly progressive feminist Scandinavia. And even the most brutally repressive Communist regimes were never able to enforce their vision of a modern socialist mankind – individualism refused to be suppressed, genuinely egalitarian impulses were not fooled by the dogma, and stubborn atavistic resistance was endemic. So even in a feminised future, the same atavistic sexism will probably always continue to rear its head, and need to be beaten down with education and socialisation, and probably even then there’ll always be a little sexism in all of us and in all our societies…
Q: This sounds rather pessimistic… Are you, then, irretrievably a dystopian writer?
Well, that’s very often my public billing, yes. Perhaps I’m typecast
In all seriousness, though, I guess that my writing probably carries within it the stamp of a rather sombre outlook on human nature and its limitations – I certainly don’t believe we’re heading to any Utopia, feminist or otherwise, any time soon. My hatred of patriarchal oppression–which to be honest is at least as much instinctive as it is learnt–shows up in characters that are markedly anti-patriarchal, but what these guys are really anti- is any form of authoritarianism or hierarchical oppression. (I don’t think either Kovacs or Marsalis would react very well, for example, to the MacKinnon/Dworkin school of ‘feminist’ enforcement or the ‘no platform/safe space’ ideological children it has birthed in recent years.) Even more importantly, they–the characters–are also fundamentally dysfunctional and unsafe to have around
Q: They’re not heroes, then…
No, and it’s vital to realise that. These are only ‘heroes’ in the old-school Greek myth/Norse saga sense of the word–not the Hollywood type–and like those heroes, they are human nitroglycerine. Good to have on your side in a tight spot, sure–but wholly unpredictable and unmanageable in a broader context.
[SPOILER ALERT!!! SKIP ONE PARAGRAPH IF YOU PLAN TO READ BLACK MAN]
After all, there’s no doubt that Sevgi’s relationship with Marsalis is what gets her killed–if he hadn’t gone out looking to scratch a random violent itch, she wouldn’t have been dragged into the gun-battle that gets her shot. (Male violence, regardless of intention, almost invariably creates female collateral damage–it was very important to me to point that up; in the same way, Gray’s girlfriend Gaby, in the opening chapters, suffers unjustly at the hands of both Gray and Marsalis as she tries to interpose herself). And Kovacs is even more fucked up than Marsalis, constantly walking the edge of his own control (e.g.: having to restrain himself from assaulting a perfectly harmless fundamentalist woman in Woken Furies because of his own internal rages).
Ultimately, these are professional men of violence whose allegiances to the systems that produced them have failed catastrophically–I guess you could read into that a metaphor for my own journey away from the patriarchal society that created me–and left them with precious little other space to stand. They have rebelled against their old masters, but they aren’t about to take on any new ones. They will tear down hierarchical structure at the drop of a hat, either because they perceive it as having hurt them in some way (or those they care about) or simply because it’s in the way. And since most structures are inherently patriarchal, that makes these characters anti-patriarchal by default. But it also makes them anti-order in general–there’s more than a trace of the Loki/Trickster chaos spirit in their DNA, and you flirt with them at your own risk ☺
Q: But, if Carl is indeed an alternative, anti-patriarchal rebel, could he not take the patriarchal villains in Black Man to justice and thus become the civic/civil hero we need to undo patriarchy?
No, absolutely not. Marsalis is not interested in justice in the broader social sense – in fact, he’s not really interested in society in the broader sense; what he wants is personal vengeance, and he is merciless in its extraction.
[SPOILER ALERT!!! SKIP ONE PARAGRAPH IF YOU PLAN TO READ BLACK MAN]
Let’s not forget he also murders an NYPD policewoman, Amy Westhoff, purely because he thinks–and he may or may not be right about this–that it’s the revenge that Sevgi would have liked. Westhoff’s actual ‘crime’ was no worse than notifying the authorities of an–allegedly–dangerous 13, which she was in theory duty-bound to do anyway (of course she didn’t do it out of duty, she did it out of jealousy). She appears to regret the death of Sevgi’s previous boyfriend almost as much as Sevgi herself (after all, she was sleeping with him as well!). But to Marsalis, that’s irrelevant–as are Ortiz’s pleadings for one last chance to say goodbye to his family. Once set in motion, Marsalis is like the Furies, a pitiless, implacable destructive force unleashed. That’s not something you can tame, or at least not for long. Of course, one of the major themes of Black Man is that ordinary humans aren’t necessarily morally superior to men like Marsalis, and that this implacable violence is in us all, by inclination if not by actual act. Ortiz isn’t a thirteen, but he uses them, as did the whole of western society at the time. Tom Norton isn’t a thirteen, but he makes use of Marsalis to gain his own revenge for Sevgi’s death. Sevgi herself may have been making use of him beyond the grave to claim her revenge on Amy Westhoff–we’re never sure about that, and maybe nor was she, but the end result was pretty unequivocal.
This is the dirty deal that we all do–we claim to abhor violent force as a society, but we’re only too keen to have it to hand and to deploy it at need. Violence is inherent in human affairs–we employ policemen, soldiers and special forces killers, and we’re generally pretty pleased to see them when they show up and help us out. But more than that, at a gut-deep level we all seem to like the idea of these unstoppable agents of violence; they feature continually in our fiction, in our myths and our legends. Men (day)dream of being like that, women (day)dream of having them on their side–or in some cases of being like that themselves, though I suspect the former female fantasy is the more common one.
We are all, as a society and as individuals, in some very real sense every bit as much the victims of our atavistic and genetic drives as any Variant 13. In the book, Marsalis is external to us, but in reality he is inside us all.