Where did the idea initially come from? Was it a specific image, or the legends?
It was an image, but it was also the legends. There are two separate strands to it.
The idea for the plot came from an image of somebody just disappearing in a crowded space. What I wanted when they disappeared was for something horrible to happen to them – I didn’t know quite what – but I also wanted there to be a chance that they might survive; maybe a very very small chance, but a chance. If someone disappears and they’re definitely dead, there’s no tension, but if there’s a small chance that they survive – a sliver – I thought that would be really exciting and have everyone looking at their watches and just wondering what was going on. That was one strand of the story.
The other was obviously the legends, the mythology. I’ve written a few short stories over the past ten years that involved the Irish fairies, the sídhe, and they’ve been slowly building up to where we are now in terms of what was going on. Originally they were cannibal fairies…
Eating other fairies or eating humans?
Both. They were basically semi-sentient only and just eating anything that got near their mouths, more or less. But they danced beautifully!
I moved on from there. I had a story about a gambler who ended up in what you would now recognise as the Grey Land. I was building up to that very slowly.
They would be parallel with it because they were separate stories, and I cannibalised them – if you’ll excuse the expression! – to use for some of my world building for The Call.
I had this idea of people disappearing and something horrible happening to them and then what could be more horrible than the Grey Land, which I’d already come up with for one of the other stories.
The 184 seconds that the Call lasts – why that specific length? Was it just to have that thing of getting to the end of the third minute, and you know you’re just ticking those last four seconds…?
It was pretty much that, and also the fact that I didn’t want it to be neat, exactly three minutes. I wanted it to feel like that thing that people talk about, the gnarl, where you’re building a world. If it’s too neat, it’s like those computer generated images that you know immediately aren’t real. You have to have a few imperfections!
Is there a logic for the time elapse within the story?
No, it’s a thing out of Irish legends – and a lot of European legends – that the time in the fairy world is different. There’s that amazing story about Tír na nÓg, the land of youth: Oisin goes there and gets a bit bored because it’s all so perfect and wonderful – and CGI-ed actually! – so he comes home. When he gets back to Ireland, he immediately ages four hundred years. He was gone that long but had no idea of the time.
That’s a very common thing: someone goes to the fairy world and when they come back, seven years have passed. I just wanted there to be a difference like that.
When I go onto the second book now, it actually becomes relevant and important that there is a time difference.
You were clearly setting something up, but it felt part of the world building that hadn’t paid off yet…
Yes – and I’m hoping that it’s considered as paid off in the second one.
Is this a two-book story or ongoing?
I’m saying two books. There is still a bit of room left if someone wanted to go in another direction but to be honest, I’m happy with two. I feel like I’ve closed off everything that can be closed off in the second one.
So in essence, it’s Nessa’s story?
Nessa’s story is fully closed off; it’s not that it’s not possible to tell other stories in that universe, but I would like to move on to something else for a while.
Oh yes, absolutely – The Book of Conquests that I talk about is a real book. There are two copies of it from the Middle Ages, and they’re slightly different of course, because of copying errors and people taking the initiative when they probably shouldn’t and so on.
The Book of Conquests, as I mention in The Call, tells the story of all the peoples that came to Ireland, wave after wave, and what happened to them. The second last people were the Bronze Age Tuatha Dé Danann, who were indeed kicked out. They lost against the iron weapons of what I guess you could call our ancestors – although we’re mixed up with Normans and Vikings and other things – and a treaty was made, so they had to leave. The king of the Tuatha Dé Danann led his people under the mounds, and the word sídhe, which we use now for fairies, means “mounds”, or “of the mounds”.
Where they went, you’ll hear lots of different versions – they went to the land of youth, or the Blessed Isles, or these other places. To my mind, when people lose in a war, where they go is not the Blessed Isles; where they go is somewhere like the Badlands of North Dakota – there’s a trail of tears and they go somewhere horrible. They go to the really bad lands, and the people who won keep the good lands.
When I was doing my story, I came up with the Grey Land as the place they went; I thought if they have to go somewhere it has to be somewhere terrible because they lost. They’re not going to get the paradise. I made it as bad as possible to make them as vengeful as possible and slightly mad.
There are similarities with Battle Royale or The Hunger Games but it feels like you consciously go against some of their tropes…
It wasn’t even that I did that. I don’t feel like it is like The Hunger Games or Battle Royale; I know a lot of people do.
I think the terrible thing about The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, the thing they have in common and where they get their strength from, is that it’s a zero sum game. For you to survive, you have to kill people that you like, people you would normally cooperate with, people that you don’t want to kill. That is the whole dynamic of The Hunger Games. The other element of The Hunger Games is the dystopian element: you have these evil overlords ruling your world, and you want to overthrow them as well. Those are the two main strands I see in The Hunger Games and the whole point of The Hunger Games.
I don’t feel that I consciously went away from that; I feel that what my book is about is more people being lonely and lost and hunted, and having no one to help them. In my mind it’s a whole different dynamic.
I don’t feel it’s a dystopia either: other people say it’s set in a dystopia. Obviously “dystopia” just means a bad place, that’s a very open ended thing. The Ireland of my book is more akin to London during the Blitz: there were lots of dystopian laws – “You leave your curtain open during a bombing raid, we’re going to arrest you!” That sounds like a terrible thing that you can’t open your own curtains, you have to queue for tea and for sugar. It sounds very dystopian but it’s not: it’s a government trying to protect its population and genuinely trying to keep it safe. I see it that way, rather than an exploitative overlord trying to look after themselves.
I see where you’re coming from, but the dystopic genre seems to me to be where you’ve got something negative around your protagonists. Once they’re in the Grey Land, they’re still in the battle for survival…
I do think that young people battling for their lives does sum up about fifty percent of all the stories that we human beings have written since the dawn of time. The Hunger Games is such a behemoth. It’s a hugely successful book, it’s the one that many people think of when they think of Young Adults, and here I am with a female protagonist fighting for her life, so it’s perfectly normal that people would make that jump.
You’ve answered some of these criticisms within the story, in terms of the characterisation – apart from the odd moment, she’s not self-pitying like sometimes happens with Katniss, who feels five removes from the reader at times. Nessa feels far more like a normal teenager…
I’m glad you think that. It’s something I tried for, but it’s something that only the reader can tell me if they feel that or not.
I do love Nessa as a character; she’s based in a lot of nostalgia of my own growing up. I went to a boarding school as well, I got a bus from the same bus station she gets the bus from, travelled most of the same route. There’s no reason for her school to be where it is, except that it’s on the way to the school I myself attended! Some of the thoughts she has travelling that route mirror things that I used to think when I was her age: hopefully she is based in some sort of reality, but it’s not for me to say if it works.
There are various groupings within the school – did you match their experiences on their Call to the people? Or was it more that there was a set of events and they were the poor sods who got landed with that particular outcome?
Pretty much, they were the poor sods. Connor’s events are important to Connor; everyone else is a poor sod. It’s just random.
If you think about the story structure, you’ve got all these young people going into the Grey Land – it could get incredibly monotonous. It was very important to me that every trip be as different as possible from the others. Some would die immediately, some would almost escape, some would escape. If you think of the image I had originally of the three minutes and someone disappears and you have that tiny bit of tension. Will they survive? Won’t they survive? I wanted that for each of these trips as well. I wanted the reader not to know, not to have any idea if this was going to be one of the winners or losers.
It’s also why I wrote this book in the present tense, which I almost never do. It was all about that particular tension; it’s not written in stone. Nothing is written. Even I didn’t know always if I was going to have someone survive or not until I was writing the chapter. That’s what I was going after.
I can understand that – there’s always that battle between something that might be slightly useful such as changing your tense (or hugely useful in some cases) and between the comfort of readers. I’ve had several people complain about the present tense, because they’re used to tight third person past tense. I think that’s a terrible thing: I think it would be nice to get readers to explore a little as well rather than just writers.
But there are different types of readers – there are people who read for comfort and people who read for exploration. They want to go where no one has gone before, to quote Star Trek, but others want to go where they’ve been before all the time.
I think that’s why endless series are so popular because people don’t have to invest again in learning how a new world works and I think that’s why short stories have been suffering the last few years because each one is a different world. You’ve got to pay the price of entry every time if you’re a reader. Some people enjoy paying that price because they want to have their minds blown by seeing something interesting and exciting, but some people don’t – they just want something to read on the Tube.
And it can be laziness on the part of the writer sometimes, not needing to explain because ninety percent of their readership aren’t going to query it…
That’s true. It depends why you’re writing, what your Unique Selling Point is. For some people it is the world building: Nora Jemison’s The Fifth Season, for example, I thought was incredible world building. But for other people the USP is character interaction or something else and they don’t want to distract from their USP by changing the tense.
You can probably guess: I’m a completely standard nerd! My father had a beautiful edition of The Hobbit – the one with the drawings by Tolkien with the dragon. I found the language a bit difficult when I started reading it, a little archaic for me but it absolutely blew my mind. Then the animated movie came to the cinema of The Lord of the Rings, which I hadn’t heard of, and when I started watching, I realised there was a Hobbit in it – it must be the same author. So I read The Lord of the Rings about ten times after that.
I loved Harry Harrison as well, the science fiction end of things – I adored the Deathworld books and The Stainless Steel Rat. Practically everything he wrote, I loved it. I didn’t know he lived in Ireland at the time – I probably would have fainted!
So when is the next Call book due out?
We haven’t finished the editing yet but it’s well on the way to completion. The story is written, and has gone through several drafts. We’re fixing little niggles here and there, so the current plan is for it to be out exactly a year after The Call.
The Call is out now from David Fickling Books; click here to order from Amazon.co.uk