An interview with Madeline Ashby, author of Company Town


Photo by Kayleigh McCollum

Fans of Madeline Ashby’s work have waited impatiently for Company Town to finally come out, and it finally comes out next week! Madeline was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about Company Town and what inspired you to write it?

I’m terrible at summarizing my own work, so let me snip this bit from the Chicago Tribune’s review of the book (

“What really makes the novel succeed as a thriller is that protagonist, the tough-as-nails martial arts expert Hwa, whom we first meet serving as a professional bodyguard for those sex workers. She’s very good at her job, and since she can’t afford the various body augmentations common to other rig workers, she’s almost the only purely organic human on board. This, plus the fact that a facial disfigurement somehow confuses video images of her, brings her to the attention of the superwealthy industrial family in the process of assuming ownership of the entire complex. Hwa is offered a position protecting the teenage family heir apparent, which could either be a dream job or a nightmare, as she uncovers a series of murders that seem directed more at her own friends — and maybe herself — than at the mysterious wealthy family.”

As for what inspired me: Korean dramas. Specifically Coffee Prince and You Are Beautiful. I wish I could give you a more inspiring answer, but that’s my answer. I really wanted to write a story with a plucky, gender-bending heroine like the ones in those stories, but naturally once I started, she became much darker and meaner and sadder. And she got involved in a noir plot, which given my favourite films and books was somewhat inevitable. I mean, I love Blade Runner and The Maltese Falcon and whenever I’m sad I watch The Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal. My favourite novels include The Alienist and Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. My writing a book like this was really just a matter of time.

I also say it was “inevitable” because I really wanted to do a murder mystery set in the future, that also happened to be about the future in an explicit way. The thing about murder mysteries (and any mysteries, really) is that they make us ask questions about causality and motive and how events depend on each other. In Agatha Christie novels they’re just big logic puzzles, which is also true of, say, Asimov’s robot stories. And we tend to think about history, both past history and the presumed history of how the future might unfold, in a similar way.

What makes Hwa a compelling character? Why will readers root for her?

I think Hwa is in a really tough position, socially and physically and emotionally, but she manages to find a way to make things work for her. And while she’s often very sad or very angry about her circumstances, she doesn’t have a lot of time for self-pity. She has self-respect and dignity in the face of adversity. It was really important to me that she be strong physically, but also strong emotionally — that she know herself and stand up for herself. That’s a different kind of strength. Between re-writes I went back and re-read Jane Eyre, which is one of the reasons there’s a reference to that novel within this one. And Jane is no martial artist. The first time you meet her, she gets beaten up and can’t really protect herself, no matter how hard she tries. But her inner strength is boundless. The novel is really the story of her honing and tempering that strength until it’s sharp enough and hard enough to cut away everything she doesn’t need.

When we talk about “strong female characters,” it’s important to consider that kind of strength, too. Because as a woman you shouldn’t have to be physically strong, or good shot or whatever, to get the respect you deserve. The fact that you’re a human being should be enough. But of course it isn’t, because you’re a woman, so you have to work twice as hard at commanding respect, and the process of learning how to do that is important.

What kind of research did you do for the book? What is your writing process like?

I did research on Sturge-Weber, and research on efforts to decriminalize sex work (and the consequences of keeping it illegal, which is to say: more rape and murder and trafficking), and I also did research on serial killing and how serial killers prey on sex workers (and how criminalizing sex work allows serial killers to continue killing unchecked). I also read books like The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, which is about how oil has replaced human labour and how automation might change that equation after oil goes away.

My favourite part of the research process was probably watching videos on YouTube of people from Newfoundland and Labrador talking. The “Newfinese” accent is something Canadians know about — and something they make fun of, sometimes, which is bullshit — but it wasn’t something I was familiar with, having grown up in the States. So making that discovery, and watching all these people sort of provide examples of the way they actually speak and interact, was oddly heartening. It’s really easy to feel that with cable tv and the Internet that the English language is losing all its interesting nooks and crannies, but that’s not quite the case yet.

What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?

That’s really tough. As a kid, I recited stories aloud to myself in my room. It was a long time before I wrote them down. My hand-writing was terrible because I am left-handed and neither of my parents are, and none of my teachers seemed to be, either. It took a while before my hand-writing was good enough to write stories with. But I didn’t start to be prolific until I learned to type, which was when I was thirteen or so.

Why SFF? What do you enjoy the most about reading, and writing, in the genre?

SF as a genre, when it’s doing what it does best, it’s actively imagining change. Not necessarily positive change, or negative change, but change. And that’s important. I don’t think you can create change without envisioning it, first. SF is a genre that cares deeply about the future. And you can’t say that about most of the other genres within fiction. That’s what draws me to it, I think.

What do you look for in a good book? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?

I can usually tell pretty quickly if I’m going to want to read a book or a short story. There’s a confidence in the tone of voice that helps the prose carry you along. I prefer a good story — not just a good genre story, or a good example of a genre. If the characters can’t sing, or I just don’t like them, then I’ll probably put the book down. I’m very picky, that way. It can’t just be good for genre literature, it has to be good literature first, and good genre literature second. That means good prose, good characterization, good plot, good dialogue, all of that. If you can’t nail those very Aristotelian unities and basics, then there’s really no point.

What authors have influenced you the most?

I almost feel like that’s something for someone else to answer — something for readers to pick up on and decide for themselves. I know I’ve been influenced a great deal by Stephen King and Haruki Murakami and Ursula K. LeGuin. But I’m also influenced a great deal by film — I love Alfred Hitchcock, for example. And in writing this book, I watched Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels about a million times.

If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?

That’s a really good question! My first instinct is to say I should re-read something I initially read too quickly, like Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. But really the answer is probably Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I love that book so much. It made me into a history major, in university. Ondaatje, and other writers with that lyrical prose style, do something so special. I’m so jealous of it. I’m in awe of it.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading Adam Rakunas’ latest, and some unpublished stuff from A.M. Dellamonica, and my husband David Nickle.

Keep up with Madeline: Twitter | Website

About Company Town:
New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd.

Hwa is of the few people in her community (which constitutes the whole rig) to forgo bio-engineered enhancements. As such, she’s the last truly organic person left on the rig–making her doubly an outsider, as well as a neglected daughter and bodyguard extraordinaire. Still, her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?

Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability and heightens the unease of a rig turning over. All signs point to a nearly invisible serial killer, but all of the murders seem to lead right back to Hwa’s front door. Company Town has never been the safest place to be–but now, the danger is personal.

A brilliant, twisted mystery, as one woman must evaluate saving the people of a town that can’t be saved, or saving herself.

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