This author interview, in which Mike Chapman asks me some of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, fell off the air – possibly swallowed by a Black Hole. It took place shortly before ‘The Evening Lands’ was due to be published so, for the curious, I have reproduced it here.
Now read on…
Could you tell us a little about your first book ‘The Price of Time’?
The plot grows from the main character’s discovery that she has – not a Guardian Angel, but a Guardian Devil. I’m not religious but the idea came to me through thinking how lucky I have been in life, where so many others have not.
Basically, things keep trying to kill me, but failing! My main character – Verity Player – is in a way my caricature. She, too, has had a string of lucky escapes in life.
When she comes face-to-face with her evil Guardian Stan ‘Satanic’ Mills, she ascribes her lifelong good luck to him.
But such luck has a price. A keen environmental campaigner, Verity has long ago worked out that one simple convention – one ‘custom’ to which we all subscribe – is the force that lurks behind humanity’s apparent headlong rush to destruction.
Now she finds out Mills is its creator.
He intends to let humanity destroy itself and the world while he sits back to watch. And Verity’s incessant questions as she struggles to find a way to stop Mills’ plan in its tracks land her in further trouble: he tricks her into wagering her most prized possession – her Conscience – on success in striking the first blow against his plan before the clock strikes New Year…
That’s a really interesting idea and it’s quite unlike anything I’ve heard before! It strikes me as having fascinating overtones of old morality tales and of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
Someone said it had shades of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ as a matter of fact! And in a way I suppose it has a moral point: where does our urge to do harm – even if it’s not for immediate personal gain – come from? Why does a person whose wealth is already all but immeasurably vast continue, as if desperate, to scrabble for more? What, even though we’re a social species, causes our empathy sometimes to take a back seat or appear absent altogether?
I came across what appeared to be the common denominator. It’s the thing that gives StanMills his power.
Do you think that this empathy failure is something that humanity can overcome?
If we can bring ourselves to accept that lack of empathy constitutes a problem – including for those who suffer from that lack – rather than a trait that accompanies success, and then act upon this knowledge, then yes I think we stand a chance. We evolved to have empathy, and for a reason: as hunter-gatherers we needed to work together in order to survive. Now once again we need to work together on a massive scale, as the recent IPCC report has spelled out in its stark terms. We need to take our empathy to the next level. Physically we can’t evolve fast enough for this, but there are other ways to ‘evolve’.
If you’ve heard of the Dunbar Number – the number of individuals someone is capable of knowing well – for a human being it’s about 150. I find it encouraging that the number of countries at the United Nations is not far over that.
What made you choose to pursue traditional publishing as a route to tell your story, rather than self-publishing?
I think self-publishing works better for people who are natural entrepreneurs – who know all the business ‘tricks’ and can ‘network like a boss’. That’s not quite me. I love to take part in events – my first book-signing was a great success considering I was a complete unknown – but I’m not a natural ‘organiser’ of such things.
In addition, a traditional publisher will be able to get copies into bookshops where the sort of folk who like my story will be browsing.
Having said all that, if what’s on offer from these publishers isn’t suitable, then I’m happy to go the self-published route again.
What sort of people do you think will enjoy your stories?
There’s a generation of people who grew up with science and the environment movement and who – even with mortgages, families, jobs, insurance and all the rest of it – never lost the curiosity and idealism that is every child’s birthright. We’re still out there, looking for answers, and we relate to heroines and heroes like us who are doing the same.
What do you think is at the core of writing good speculative fiction?
A story isn’t a story without relationships that change and progress. Even the opening chapters of ‘The Martian’ with our hero stranded incommunicado millions of miles from home describe relationships: with his former crew who abandoned him, with the unforgiving landscape in which he finds himself, and with his country via the real potatoes brought for Thanksgiving.
On top of this, good speculative fiction needs a ‘premise’ – a ‘what if..?’ that climbs into your mind and stays there asking questions – possibly for the rest of your life. The unfolding dimensions in ‘The Three Body Problem’, plus the relationship between the two civilisations mirroring China’s with the West, for example, or the challenge to the entire nature of perceived reality in ‘The Matrix’…
And of course, all fiction should ideally have you wondering ‘what’s going to happen next..?’ as you turn the pages, all the way through to the end!
I was reading a newspaper article today about how the author felt that cyberpunk as a speculative genre was stagnating because it has nothing new to say about society. Do you think that speculative fiction – that a fantastical world – needs to have a message?
It perhaps needn’t, but it often does have a message, and that’s why it appeals so much to me. As for cyberpunk: like all speculative fiction genres, the fact the ‘obvious’ plots will have already been written up by now just appeals to people like me as a challenge!
Society is moving and changing all the time – our problems are evolving: look at Brexit, Trump and what happened in Brazil. New settings, new characters and new viewpoints can bring whole new ‘variations on a theme’ even if some of the plot elements have appeared elsewhere before.
Which authors are an inspiration to you?
I enjoyed Isaac Azimov’s short stories for their ideas – I used to read them in pockets of spare time during A-levels. I’d put the book down after each tale with a ‘Wow, yes: what if that could happen?’, ‘What would I have done?’ or ‘How can we prevent that disaster..?’ I recall in particular one in which a hyper-slow-motion film of an atomic bomb revealed the face of the Devil. At the height – or depths depending on your point of view – of the Cold War, that really left an impression! I also relished Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Neville Chute…
More recently I enjoyed Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ series, and ‘The Radleys’ (which is set just down the road from where I live!), as well as David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’ and Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’.
But very few women have crossed my reading path, either as authors or characters. I recall disappointment at having to ‘be a boy’ most times I stepped into a story or watched a film, but as a left-hander you get used to things being ‘built for someone else’ and just get on with it. Oh but imagine how thrilled I was to meet Douglas Adams and discover – yes – he was my fellow leftie!
If you had to pick just one book or short story – a sort of Desert Island books – which would it be?
Assuming it’s a fiction book, I’d go for ‘The Three Body Problem’. I’ve read it once but I feel that that’s probably not enough to do it justice and I’ve likely missed a lot of subtleties. If I were limited to a short story I think I’d pick E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ which is as germane today as when it was written over 100 years ago. It predicted universal mains electricity, the internet, and our complete inability to deal with their possible sudden absence…
Would you say that environmentalism is a key component of your work?
There’s an environmental angle to ‘The Price of Time’, but it’s not the usual one: not energy, or pollution, or global warming – although these all get a mention as Verity’s battle against Mills’ plan darkens towards midwinter. The story turns more upon the things that lurk hidden in our culture – in people’s minds – that make us want to do that damage, or at the very least render us indifferent to it.
In the wake of the Banking crisis, the Panama Papers and other high-rolling scandals I began to wonder: what sort of people are we dealing with here? That’s how that ‘common denominator’ I mentioned earlier crystallised. What if their antics are all the result of irrational fear – the fear of losing what they have and ‘falling behind’ which Oliver James, in his book ‘Affluenza’, so forensically analyses? What – I turned it into a ‘who’ – stokes that irrational fear?
‘The Evening Lands’ moves on from this and delves into other pressures that face us, particularly in our jobs. The plot was inspired by my reading about Milgram’s obedience experiments as a teen: why would anyone – anyone who hadn’t been literally forced into it – obey cruel orders? This basic question spawned others: why is so much of the work we do at present useless, or outright harmful? Why, to take things to the extreme, would anyone torture someone – particularly as time after time it’s been shown that softer techniques are more effective for getting information, and in the long run History shows that mistreatment only galvanises the other side?
All of this meant quite a bit of research, some of which I’ve put up on my blog. I even took a brief internet course on P.E.A.C.E., the interviewing technique developed by the police force in the U.K. and (I’m reasonably certain) once used upon me, as a crime victim, in its early days.
Erm, we’ve moved on a bit from the environment haven’t we…
Yep! That’s such a rich answer that I’m struggling to pick the next follow-up question out of the possibilities! With the Milgram experiment, banking crisis and all the other high profile law-breaking that’s come to light in recent years, do you feel then that people are fundamentally good but can be driven by fear?
I think yes – that sums up how I feel about people in general: fundamentally good – ‘a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet’. But that goodness can slip away if people are put in certain types of fear – for example fear of being ‘left-out’ of a social group.
The BBC once ran a series on the unhappy childhoods of top business people and it was a real eye-opener for me. A childhood without unconditional love is absolutely a place of fear, and as Stan Mills puts it when taunting Verity with the latest newspaper headlines, ‘Eton, Harrow; rich and elite, (are) cradles of so much of the country’s irrational fear…’ and these places go on to generate what he refers to as ‘his people’. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that fear of falling forces them to climb to the top, where they can do the most damage.
You’ve been described as a keen physicist. Any particular field?
My Ph.D. investigated the effect of weather conditions on microwave transmissions beyond the horizon: basically either they bend round the curvature of the earth or scatter from air turbulence or rain. It taught me a lot about the weather! After that, I spent about 20 years in research on quite a variety of projects, most involving electromagnetic waves in one way or another – everything from the magnetic fields in motors to communications with satellites.
Other projects included signal processing. One – echo cancellation – took as its starting point a matrix inversion method developed in France in 1795 – yes you read that right! I imagined the mathematician – Gaspard Riche, Baron de Prony – hiding in his garret doing candle-lit calculations as people were rioting in the streets below…
There are plenty of signal processing and wave metaphors in my stories now. People even say my writing looks like waves.
What attracted you to physics as a discipline?
You could say I came for the space travel, stayed for the beauty.
At the age of six I was living in the USA. At that time Americans were in the final throes of the race to put a man on the moon before the Russians, who’d already pipped them to the post on several fronts including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. The whole USA was space nuts, especially us kids.
The views of Earth from space left a lifelong impression on all of us especially as, at the time, voyages to other planets were being seriously touted.
That vision faded, but then along came Physics into my life, which began to let me into the secrets of how it all works.
A simple (just one frequency, or pitch if you’re listening to it) wave, I learned, has so many hidden properties. For example a plot of its gradient – its slope – would reproduce a wave of identical shape, only shifted along. Plot the rate at which that gradient changes and you’re back to the original wave, only inverted: how perfect is that?
The human ear performs complex maths, with waves, and has only recently in historical terms been out-paced by computers. An object can resonate and be heard, or felt, without the quiet wave that drives it being perceptible. Waves, if something like a surface or a wall pins down their boundaries, blossom into elaborate patterns that can be used to describe anything from the ‘tone’ of a Stradivarius to the shape of an atom.
Even our thoughts travel as waves in our brains. But which comes first: the abstract thought, or the physical wave..?
I think this may be the most philosophical this interview series has ever gone! As fascinating as this has been, I think we need to wrap up. If people want to interact with you online, what’s the best way to do that?
My website lives at:
It has links to a list of free-to-read short stories, and sites where you can buy ‘The Price of Time’ and ‘The Evening Lands’.
The ‘contact’ page sends an email straight to me. I’m also on Twitter: @CandiSpillard.
Finally, thank you for the chance to be interviewed like this – and for asking such marvellous questions!