Nick Harkaway is the author of The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, and his big, gorgeous new book, Tigerman, is out tomorrow. I was thrilled when Nick agreed to answer a few of my questions, so please give him a warm welcome!
Tigerman is one of the most unique, and wonderful, novels I’ve ever read, and I love it! What inspired you to write the book?
It’s so hard to point to, any one thing. I became a dad during the writing – twice, actually, because the book was incepted before my daughter was born and finished in the first months of my son’s presence in our lives. Then at the other end of the scale the name “Diego Garcia” was in the air – the Indian Ocean island that appears to have played host to a black prison, in defiance of British law. I think inspiration is about collision: stubs of stories come together and somehow enliven one another.
Sgt. Lester Ferris has a heart of gold, and is even a bit old fashioned (in a sweet, charming way), for a man of only 40. Was there anyone that particularly inspired his character?
Well, now that you’ve said that about him it would be unBritish to say “me”. To a certain extent, of course, all the characters are me, by definition. Lester started as an image of loneliness, I suppose: someone who had missed the personal road I’m on despite having wanted it – in part because he never acknowledged the desire. He grew, as characters must, but there was never a single person.
What do you personally like to see in a protagonist?
From a writing perspective? Potential. I like someone whose power to effect change is untested, misunderstood, or concealed. That implies a story.
As a reader, I need someone in whom I can vest some sense of self, who can be my “me”. I’m not good with stories focusing on unlikeable characters. I had real trouble with Wolf Hall – which I know is superb, and Mantel is a stunning writer – because I loathed the protagonist personally. I’d kick him out of my house. Makes it hard to have him in my head.
The sense of place is very important in Tigerman, and you seem to have fond memories of living by the sea in Cornwall. Did this influence your decision to set the book on an island, and why a fictional island?
I wanted an island for its completeness, its isolation. Also, you can throw away a small island and no one really cares. We’ve done it before. You might argue we’re doing it now, by degrees, to Micronesia and the Maldives. At the same time, though, an island is a magical place – from The Tempest to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – and the normal rules may be suspended not only for wicked governments but for would-be heroes, too.
Tigerman has a sense of pulp adventure about it, with a modern twist, and the US cover reflects that a bit. Was that your intention when you were writing the book?
I was riffing on the superhero, of course – the hero story has a deep presence in how we construct our nations. Robert Warshow’s writings on the gangster and the western are a big influence on me; Frank Capra’s movies, too. I think the evolution of the hero story is very telling, especially as you look at the Watchmen and more recently Kick-Ass and see the death of the dream of goodness. We’re disillusioned – but Capra understood there was a way out of that.
Pulp and pop are part of my worldview. I think they’re every bit as revealing about culture and self as the studied exegesis or tortured literary novel. They’re our dreams – sometimes literally “dreams of flying”.
But this isn’t an ironic story. There’s plenty of irony and awareness in it, but it’s not primarily cognitive or self-satirising. It’s a heart story, about love. That’s what I wanted.
What is your writing process like, and what kind of research did you do for the book?
Chaos! I mean, I go to my desk at a given time – about 9am, because I take my daughter to school – and I work a regular day (ish). But the process is chaotic, serendipitous, wayward. There’s a whole section I kept writing and cutting about sourdough starter, and Mancreu’s only high-end restaurant. (What was I thinking?!)
You are a self-professed lover of stories in all forms. What is one story that you would like to experience again for the first time?
I have this occasional nightmare that I lose my memory and struggle to find out who I was by reading my own books. But it would be interesting.
In spite of the dark doings that happen in Tigerman, I found myself laughing quite a bit (and following my husband around reading out loud from the book.) What’s something that makes you laugh without fail?
There’s a section in a PG Wodehouse novel where a guy gets caught impersonating someone he was at school with – by the guy he was at school with. And the hero doesn’t bat an eye. His response reduces me to helpless laughter.
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
Lawyering was one thing I thought of. It wouldn’t be good. I love performance, mischief, and being good. I like to think I’d be like James Spader in Boston Legal. I’d probably be more like a cross between Saul Goodman and Patrick Bateman.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A milkman. Our milkman seemed so happy. I found out later he was appallingly sad, but he never let me know because he liked me.
What do you look for in a good book?
That elusive wow, the sense of specialness that raises the hair on my neck.
Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
Oh, yes. Lots of things. There are so many books. There’s no point reading one that you’re not getting anything from. Difficult is fine. Empty is not.
Have you read any particularly good books lately?
I’ve just finished something wonderful by a friend, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to let on. Otherwise: Borges’ Labyrinths. Amazing.
What are you currently reading?
Murakami and Ballard. I have catching up to do.
What’s next for you?
A new book, of course. Semiotics, substrate-independence, steganography, alchemy and surveillance…
Sergeant Lester Ferris is a good man in need of a rest. After a long career of being shot at, he’s about to be retired. The mildly larcenous, backwater island of Mancreu is the ideal place to serve out his time, a former British colony in legal limbo, belching toxic clouds of waste and facing imminent destruction by an international community concerned for their own safety. The perfect place for Lester is also the perfect location for a multinational array of shady businesses. Hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: spy stations, arms dealers, offshore hospitals, money-laundering operations, drug factories and torture centers. None of which should be a problem, since Lester’s brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye.
Meanwhile, he befriends a brilliant, Internet-addled street kid with a comic-book fixation who will need a new home when the island dies. When Mancreu’s fragile society erupts in violence, Lester must be more than just an observer: he has no choice but to rediscover the man of action he once was, and find out what kind of hero the island—and the boy—will need.