Owning the Cardinal Directions of the Heart: An Interview with Author Nick Harkaway

O frabjous day! (Callooh! Callay!) It is March 20th, 2012– the official US release date of UK-based author Nick Harkaway‘s second novel, Angelmaker.

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Comrades, if you appreciate joyful and highly original storytelling, you need to pick up this book. Immediately. Trust me when I tell you that Angelmaker is easily one of the most endearing works of fiction that will be published this year… or next, for that matter.

Better yet, trust William Gibson: “You are in for a treat, sort of like Dickens meets Mervyn Peake in a modern Mother London. The very best sort of odd.” Or Tim Martin: “this is as far as it could be from the wearied tropes that dominate so much of fantasy and SF.” Or Glen Weldon: “A big, gleefully absurd, huggable bear of a novel.” Or Charles Yu: “Nick Harkaway’s novel is like a fractal: when examined at any scale, it reveals itself to be complex, fine-structured and ornately beautiful. And just like a fractal, all of this complexity and beauty derives from a powerful and elegant underlying idea.”

(Yes. YES! THIS. What they said. All of it, plus tax, and with great interest.)

Who among you has read Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World? Those who have know what a big-hearted and ferociously intelligent storyteller he is– how he crafts narratives that defy categorization (and sometimes gravity), shunting his intricate, multi-pronged prose along at breakneck speeds. TGAW is a sprawling, surprisingly poignant hero’s epic that unfurls like a Lichtenberg figure against an unlikely backdrop of pirates, mimes, ninjas, horrific super-weapons and devastating post-apocalypse. It’s equal parts meticulous, silly, sincere, impassioned, hilarious.

The yarn of Angelmaker is made of similarly electric stuff, only spun even more finely, and woven so intricately that many passages play out like a kind of multi-layered literary sleight-of-hand: How did he do that? Within his wordplay, Harkaway ensconces acts of commensurately deft swordplay, espionage, gangbuster hijinks, and even higher fantasy. Intricate family bonds are explored and philosophical quagmires grappled with. There are trains, planes, automobiles, and submersibles. Sex! Monks! Murder! Mechanical bees! We are introduced to tragic elephants and a heroic pug. Harkaway dares us not to fall in hopelessly in love with each and every character and object and exotic locale he braids into the microcirculatory tapestry. (Bear in mind, there are thousands of distinct and lavishly described elements.)

At the golden hammering heart of the story we find Joe Spork, a lonely/adorable identity-crisis-having horologist, and Edie Banister, a ninety-year-old former superspy whose badassery transcends time and easy pigeonholing. Together –with the help of their magnificent friends/lovers/family, and thwarted by an assortment of deliciously loathsome villains– Joe and Edie must rescue the world from an antiquated doomsday device unlike anything anyone ever imagined… save for the tormented genius Frenchwoman who haplessly invented it.

It all sounds utterly absurd, doesn’t it? Well, it is. Ravishingly so.

Now. That being said, I’m delighted to present the following Coilhouse interview with Nick Harkaway, author of Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World. Huge thanks to Qais Fulton for supplying several of these questions, and downright humongous thanks to Mister Harkaway for taking the time to answer them all so thoughtfully.


Nick Harkaway. Photo by Rory Lindsay.

COILHOUSE: You were a professional screenwriter before becoming a novelist. Both The Gone Away World and Angelmaker –while infinitely more complex, dense, and multi-layered than the medium of film could ever allow for– have decidedly cinematic qualities: panoramic descriptions of places and scenes, well-paced bursts of action, crackling dialogue. Do you often find yourself pushing or pulling against that previous construct, or have you compartmentalized the two mediums? What (if any) are some of the most important tools you’ve brought with you from your screenwriting career?
NICK HARKAWAY: Mostly for me the sense of the story leads the writing, so I know where I’m going and I come up with how to say it as I go. (I don’t mean that character doesn’t drive, rather than I have an overarching sense of what character and plot will do in combination, and I then have to write a line through that using the right scenes and the right language to express it. There’s a constant battle to find words and events which properly capture the concept in my head. And sometimes it turns out that the concept has conveniently ignored some logical realities and I have to bridge a gap…)

But screenwriting is a terrific base to work from. There are two gifts it gives which are obvious: if you’ve written a movie script, you know that you can finish a story. (I swear, more people get hung up on sheer terror of the long form than anything else.) And you know about concision. Every good writer I know has at one time or another worked in a field which required them to be able to express a lot in a short space, with minimal linguistic flourish. Whether that’s journalism, the civil service, the law, or something else, it’s a great discipline. I, obviously, have sort of abandoned that kind of sparse writing, at least for the moment, but that doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from it.

What pushed you to write your first novel? Was there a specific catalyst?
Yes. I was heartily sick of pitch meetings. I couldn’t stand taking another great story to someone who was fried on Starbucks’ coffee and not really paying attention and have them object to everything which was interesting about it and then complain that what was left wasn’t original enough. Or some variation on that theme. The final straw was a musketeer-ish story I wanted to write which was about a women who had, in her youth, dressed as a kind of D’Artagnan figure. She’s in middle age, her kid gets kidnapped, and she has to go back to being an adventurer – but she’s no longer a waif. She’s a farmer. She’s strong, heavy, and very obviously female. So she puts on a fake beard and decides essentially to be Porthos instead. There was all kinds of fun stuff in that story – just talking about it I want to get it out of the drawer again. Anyway, my panel of (female) execs sit through this, and at the end they say “well, it’s kinda hard to place stories with a middle-aged female lead”. And that is their entire critique apart from a nice extra kiss-off about transvestitism being hard to sell, too. And I just thought “screw this”.

“Athena’s Curse, Medusa’s Fate” — Created by Jessica Rowell, Nina Pak, and Elizabeth Maiden

Sometimes, when creative and inspired people get together to collaborate on making imagery in a specific vein that no one’s attempted before, a special kind of magic happens. Case in point, this elaborate photo series independently produced by Jessica Rowell of J-Chan Designs and photographer Nina Pak in cahoots with model Elizabeth Maiden:

Κατάρα της Αθηνάς, η μοίρα της Μέδουσας
Αθηνάς: Elizabeth Maiden
Μέδουσας: Jessica Rowell of J-Chan’s Designs
Photography: Nina Pak
Costume Design & Styling: J-Chan’s Designs
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Ancient Greek lore and steampunk culture clash, titan style, in a sumptuous mythos-meets-modernity photo series depicting the Goddess Athena (Elizabeth Maiden) and the Gorgon Medusa (Jessica Rowell).

According to legend, the once ravishing Medusa was cursed with a monstrous appearance after “seducing” Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, under the roof of Athena’s sacred temple. Hence, this series title (which, translated into English, means) “Athena’s curse, Medusa’s fate.”

Rowell pulled “inspiration from Desmond Davis’ 1981 film Clash of the Titans, then put an atemporal spin on things by incorporating several contemporary ingredients that “also felt industrial and familiar to alternative culture.”

A Bio-Mechanical Astro Boy by Kazuhiko Nakamura

Since we last covered artist Kazuhiko Nakamura (a.k.a Almacan) in 2007, he’s posted a several amazing new pieces, including “Atoma,” seen above. “This is biomechanical Astro Boy,” says the artist on his DeviantArt page and adds, “I recommend you watch this image while listening to King Crimson’s ‘Moonchild’.” [via Wurzeltod]

Also new is this rhinoceros based on the one that Albrecht Durer drew in 1515.

“Durer, never actually saw a live rhino and based his drawing on a brief sketch and a letter. The rhino that inspired Durer’s drawing was given by an Indian sultan to King Manuel of Portugal in 1515. The Portuguese king sent the rhino as a gift to the pope. However, the ship carrying the rhino sank in a storm and the unfortunate rhino was drowned.” (Quotation from “A History of the World”)

Cargo Cult, Native Appropriations, and Voodoo Programming

The campaign slogan was “Traditional Goes Digital,” and it included three images: Squaw, Brave and Chief. These were created for Australian printing company ColorChiefs in 2006, and recently resurfaced on the How to Be a Retronaut blog, to such wry comments as “Native American steampunk use ALL the parts of the 8088.” The images have also garnered some critique, both for their cultural appropriation and sexism. As blogger Ikwe recently wrote on Tumblr, “it’s not very creative to sexualize a native woman in this way but it’s packaged with a new futuristic sexy theme so it’s sooooo groundbreaking and chic. Oh yes, the ad also reminds us that we are moving forward from our primitive and savage ways. Meh.” Paging Dr. Adrienne!

Looking at this somewhat clueless ad campaign did lead me through an interesting Wikipedia tunnel. Come with me on a magical journey:

Cargo Cult on Wikipedia:

With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldierssailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.[5] The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses.[citation needed] In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.

Which led to Cargo Cult Programming on Wikipedia:

A style of computer programming that is characterized by the ritual inclusion of code or program structures that serve no real purpose. Cargo cult programming is typically symptomatic of a programmer not understanding either a bug he or she was attempting to solve or the apparent solution (compare shotgun debuggingvoodoo programming).[1] The term cargo cult programmer may also apply when an unskilled or novice computer programmer (or one not experienced with the problem at hand) copies some program code from one place and pastes it into another place, with little or no understanding of how the code works, or if it is required in its new position.

Voodoo Programming on Wikipedia:

In computer programmingdeep magic refers to techniques that are not widely known, and may be deliberately kept secret. The number of such techniques has arguably decreased in recent years, especially in the field of cryptography, many aspects of which are now open to public scrutiny. The Jargon File makes a distinction between deep magic, which refers to (code based on) esoteric theoretical knowledge; black magic, which refers to (code based on) techniques that appear to work but which lack a theoretical explanation; and heavy wizardry, which refers to (code based on) obscure or undocumented intricacies of particular hardware or software. All three terms can appear in source code comments of the form:

Deep magic begins here…

In fiction, the term comes from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, an early book from C. S. Lewis‘s The Chronicles of Narnia, which describes ancient laws and codes as “deep magic from the dawn of time.”

[via m1k3y]

Bethalynne Bajema’s Black Ibis Tarot Deck



Nadya, Zo & Mer as the Star, the Moon and the Sun Tarot cards illustrated by Bethalynne Bajema

The Coilhouse editorial team is honored to be part of the beautiful Black Ibis Tarot Deck, conceived and illustrated by artist Bethalynne Bajema (previously on Coilhouse here and here).

The Black Ibis Tarot Deck is a companion to Bajema’s Sepia Stains Tarot Deck, and both decks exist to accompany a nine-book graphic novel series that Bajema is currently working on called The Black Ibis. Book I, The Secret London, will be available on May 27th. More about this project, from Bethalynne Bajema’s Kickstarter page:

The Black Ibis is a graphic novel told in nine books. Each book takes you a little deeper into a dark fairy tale that is based upon my own love of the idea that there exists a world beneath the world. This idea that sometimes a door is not just a mundane door but an entrance to someplace we reserve for our dreams. The story, at its heart, is a simple one. It revolves around one sister trying to find her sister who has become lost. She must follow the same path her sister has set out on going a little farther into this underground world of dark cabarets and strange theaters as she attempts to catch up to her sister, who is falling faster down this path in her desire to finally find a performer known as the Black Ibis. The story is absurd at times, illustrated in my particular style and filled with my legion of wonky characters and enigmatic performers.

Bajema has launched a Kickstarter project to support the printing of the first book and the Tarot Deck. Although Bajema has already reached her modest goal of $2K, the fundraiser still has 3 days left to go. Pledge rewards include signed metallic prints, graphic novels, decks, original sketches, handmade deck boxes, pages of artwork from the novel, and even a chance to appear in one scene in a cabaret scene in the final chapter of the graphic novel.

As the fundraiser continues, Bajema has been revealing more and more cards from the deck on Twitter. Follow her for the latest!

A Whimsical, Alarming Resonance: Sandra Kasturi

In Sandra Kasturi’s first full length poetry collection, The Animal Bridegroom, one finds all manner of fantastical creatures –shapeshifters, changelings goddesses, and monsters– juxtaposed with the quotidian and the mundane.  Myth intersects with reality, resulting in outlandish dream worlds, unexpected bedtime stories, and everyday affairs elevated to the exotic and the surreal.

In his introduction to the collection, Neil Gaiman writes:

“…People forget the joy of story as they grow older.  They forget the joy of poetry, of finding the perfect word, of turning a phrase, like a potter turning a pot on a wheel, and they believe mistakenly that poetry is not pleasure, but work , or worse, something good for you but unpleasant tasting, like cod-liver oil.

Sandra Kasturi has not forgotten any of these things.”

Sandra has three poetry chapbooks published, as well as the well-received SF poetry anthology, The Stars As Seen from this Particular Angle of Night, which she edited. Her poetry has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, and her cultural essay, “Divine Secrets of the Yaga Sisterhood” appeared in the anthology Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Slayers, Mutants and Freaks. Sandra is a founding member of the Algonquin Square Table poetry workshop and runs her own imprint, Kelp Queen Press.  She has also received several Toronto Arts Council grants, and a Bram Stoker Award for her editorial work at ChiZine: Treatments of Light and Shade in Words.  As an evolution of  ChiZine, ChiZine Publications (CZP) “emerged on the Canadian publishing” scene in 2009. To quote from their philosophy:

“CZP doesn’t want what’s hot now or stuff that’s so weird it’s entirely out in la-la-land—we want the next step forward. Horror that isn’t just gross or going for a cheap scare, but fundamentally disturbing, instilling a sense of true dread. Fantasy that doesn’t need elves or spells or wizards to create a world far removed or different than ours. Just a slight skewing of our world, handled properly, is far more effective at creating that otherworldly sense for which we strive.”

Sandra generously gave of her time  to talk with us about the slightly skewed otherworld she inhabits; very see below the cut for our recent Q&A.

“Eye of the Storm” by Lovett

From a seasoned shoestringer’s standpoint, this music video for Lovett’s “Eye of the Storm” is just so impressive and inspiring:


Via James Sime.

Also worth watching is this short making-of documentary, detailing how the production team managed to pull everything together on next to no budget. “It was just a group of folks who got together and made this through sheer will.”

Wow. Huge admiration for musician Ben Lovett, director Christopher Alender, producer Kris Eber, animator Wes Ball, and their entire crew. UR DOIN’ IT RIGHT.

The Architect’s Brother

These images are part of a traveling solo exhibition titled The Architect’s Brother, created by artists Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. These images have been around for over ten years, but this is the first time I’ve stumbled across them by way of Mickael Ivorra. From the Environmental Graffiti blog:

Could fixing clouds, pollinating a barren earth, making wind and patching up the sky ever be turned into almost humorous subjects? In “The Architect’s Brother,” a series of 42 photographic images by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, we follow a determined and optimistic Everyman who does just that – and rewards viewers with new details the longer they look.

The ParkeHarrisons are a husband-and-wife team whose photographic work, “The Architect’s Brother” is concerned with the state and possible fate of the Earth. The exhibition has travelled from 2002 to 2007 through the United States, Canada and Germany and is probably the artists’ most publicized work. According to its official description, ParkeHarrison “conjures a destiny in which humankind’s overuse of the land has led to a spent and abandoned environment, inhabited by one indefatigable spirit (portrayed by ParkeHarrison).”

More images can be seen here and here. A hardcover book of photos is available on Amazon. More images, after the jump!

Some of the images remind me of a striking shot from the never-completed Worst Case Scenario, a Dutch Horror film in which zombie Nazis descend into the Netherlands on decrepit steampunk air balloons. Click here for the trailer. It’s… amazing.

Everything Is Indeed Terrible

Whatever you do, DON’T click on Sex Furby the Extra Terrestrial’s face. Don’t do it. Don’t. Do NOT.

Verne Brown Points to his Flux Capacitor in BttF III

Comrades! I am shocked, I say. Shocked. To the very marrow of my bones. Not since that degenerate extra of indeterminate sex indulged an urge to oxygenate their crotch fruit on the bleachers during the triumphant final scene of Teen Wolf have I been so taken aback! HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?! THINK OF THE CHILDREN.