Just a couple of hours before I had to “meet” Neal Asher in a chat room for an interview we had arranged, I had the misfortune to read an interview he did recently, in which he had answered all the questions I wanted to ask him. So I had to come up with an entirely new set of questions and found myself probing Neal’s mind about the craft of writing …
Ire: I like what you said in the other interview that a writer should – above all – be writing, writing, writing and reading, reading, reading. It seems so many people nowadays perceive writing not as a job or as hard work, but as something anyone can do. You may have the talent, the will, the whatever, but most of all you have to work and learn the skill.
Neal: It’s a learning process that never ends. I would say that if I ever think that I know it all, that’ll be time for me to quit.
Ire: Have you ever attended a writing workshop?
Neal: I was involved in a postal workshop and once I went to a writers circle – I didn’t bother going back because they spent too much time slagging off Jeffrey Archer and complaining about not getting published. I guess it goes back to that comment I made in that other interview: a writer writes.
Ire: And how do you get your ideas? I mean, it’s nothing new when you look at it: aliens, AIs, monsters, etc. But your writing has that je ne sais qui, something of yours that can’t be found in other authors. Is it pure talent and imagination or do you have your little factory of ideas?
Neal: Like a lot of SF writers I’m building on what went before and putting my own spin on it. Damn, I can’t really say. I’m a seat-of-the-pants sort of writer. I don’t plan much. I just sit down and get on with it. I’m writing the kind of stuff I like to read.
Ire: Do you have any favorite themes you like to write about? And do you sometimes “use the SF” (as some mainstream writer would put it) to tackle our everyday lives and problems that we may face in the near future?
Neal: Our everyday lives and the problems we face do come into the equation, but tackling them isn’t my main aim. I’m out to write sensawunda SF and entertain. Favorite themes would be technology, biology (usually alien, but then, if you want to find the alien just go and lift the nearest rock), war, murder … hang on … in retrospect it would seem my main themes are mind control, hive minds, how a far future technology impacts on the human mind and the relationship between human minds and artificial intelligence. However, if there are no big-fuck spaceships, gun-fights or large explosions, my interest wanes.
Ire: I’ve found on the net your list of 10 SF novels you’d recommend (http://www.zone-sf.com/nealasher.html) and the first two are written by Iain M. Banks. Is he your favorite author? Many critics compare your work to his, being you both have novels that take place in the same universes respectively, in highly developed cultures (you Polity, him Culture), that they are action packed and usually have very charming AIs, amongst other characters.
Neal: Ian M Banks is certainly one of my favorite authors. In “Polity Agent” he’s in the acknowledgements where I thank him for his drones, though admittedly the idea of quirky robots/drones has been around for a while (R2D2 anyone?).
Ire: What other authors have had the most influence on your writing?
Neal: Well, if you list just about every SF writer for the last fifty or more years, that’ll about cover it. In “The Skinner” acknowledgements I thank ‘all those writers from Aldiss to Zelazny’ A to Z. Greats like Clarke, Silverberg, Asimov are on the list. The likes of Van Vogt, Harrison … damn. My SF collection is up in my loft so I can’t refer to it to remind me. Let’s just say there are a lot of influences there.
Ire: I’d like to ask you to give some advice to young and aspiring authors, but I know what you’d say: stop overthinking it and start writing it, right?
Neal: Yes. I’d also like to add that I’m not a great believer in natural talent. I think we all possess the capability of being good at something; it’s just that not all of us possess the will and the capacity for hard work.
Ire: How long have you been writing?
Neal: I think I wrote my first bit of SF when I was about 15 or 16. After leaving school I dabbled a bit more but didn’t take it seriously until I was about 20. I then spent a lot of time writing a fantasy. Later I started having a go at short stories, the first one of which was published in a magazine called Back Brain Recluse in 1989. Okay, I’m 46 now so, on and off, about 30 years. Shit … is it that long?
Ire: Your books have been translated into French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, German, Russian … did I miss any?
Neal: There’re Czech copies. I won their Salamander Award for “The Skinner” and was short-listed with “Gridlinked”. Other countries now conquered are America and Japan.
Ire: Once I commented your book on your old website and you said something along the lines of it mattering more to you to be translated into a “small” language, like Croatian for example, then into a “big” one.
Neal: Did I? There you go: I write so much on the Internet that I cannot remember it all. Financially it’s better if say America or Germany takes a book of mine, but in terms of kudos and getting my books out there I take as much pleasure in sales to smaller countries. Hey, know any good Croatian publishers? LOL
Ire: How about China then? It’s the biggest SF market on the planet. Have you any plans for Chinese translations of your books?
Neal: I’d love to see it. What is it? Close to a billion of them. Another one might be India with its billion citizens too. “Gridlinked” in Hindi?
Ire: So you’ve written a lot and you’ve conquered most of the world translation-wise (or you’re planning to), but do you have any idea how well your books are selling?
Neal: I know my books are selling pretty well in Britain, but I don’t have figures for the other countries.
Ire: How much do you work on promoting your books?
Neal: I’ve done plenty of interviews, a few signings and attended one or two SF conventions. I guess I do most of my promotion like this, over the Internet, talking to those who read my books.
Ire: You keep a relationship with your readers mostly through your blog and forums. Do you ever get any ideas from the people you talk online? Do they ever make suggestions?
Neal: Yes and no. When I wrote “Gridlinked”, the book included a character called Mr. Crane – a two-and-a-half meter tall brass Golem android. I really liked the character and was thinking about doing more about him. Quite possibly it was the feedback from fans – saying they really liked him – that … informed my decision to write “Brass Man”. The feedback from fans saying they like my stuff is what helps keep my nose to the grindstone.
Ire: So, it could be said that you’re listening to the pulse of your readers regarding your books?
Neal: Yeah, I’m listening. I’m not going to go off and do something all arty just to satisfy my ego – I’ll keep giving them what they want.
Ire: You said you’ve written a couple of fantasy novels that haven’t been published yet. So the question of the hour is: which do you prefer – fantasy or science fiction?
Neal: I definitely prefer the SF. Even the fantasy I was writing had to have a logical basis – the powers employed were super-science rather than magic – and there were few of the usual standard fantasy tropes like elves, dwarves or magic swords. Thought admittedly there was a ‘staff of power’. Anyway, SF was where I was successful and now having written lots of it, it’s my preferred form.
Ire: Why do you think there’s so much interest in fantasy these days and less and less in SF? I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Brian Aldiss last year and he said it’s because people are feeling that there’s nothing much left to discover. That we’ve gone too fast and too far with technology and people are kind of regressing, looking for spirituality in myth and legend.
Neal: I think it is because fantasy is easier and most people know the language. The SF ‘language’ is a difficult one to acquire. I think you’ve got it about right there: a close analogy is between science and religion – the latter is easier and requires a lot less thought.
Ire: And do you hang out with other writers? Do you exchange ideas with them, discuss the current trends?
Neal: I have to admit that I don’t hang out much with other authors. I’ve met a few. It was nice when getting taken up by a big publisher to actually meet one of my heroines – Tanith Lee – and others like Harry Harrison and Michael Moorcock. I’ve chatted in passing with China Mieville, Liz Williams, Alastair Reynolds and others, but never really had lengthy conversations with any of them. I guess I’m just doing my own thing and going my own way. I’m no necessarily aiming to do anything new … I’m aiming to do what is mine, and what’s entertaining.
Ire: And finally, how do you see your future as a SF author? Are there some rewards you are aiming to get? Some stories you are eager to write?
Neal: I’ll keep on writing while publishers keep taking my stuff. I’m on my ninth book for Macmillan right now, am lined up for doing another book for Night Shade Books and hope to see more contracts. What rewards? The rewards are on the shelf behind me. Not many people get to earn a living doing something they love. I appreciate that and want it to carry on.