Book Depository Interview
1) What gave you the ideas for Strange Telescopes?
A combination of research, good fortune and quite possibly Divine Guidance. I had wanted to write about the Diggers of the Underground Planet (a group of individuals who have spent years exploring the underground labyrinth beneath Moscow and were involved with the Nord Ost hostage crisis) for a long time, and I set that one up without thinking of a book in particular. Via the extremely eccentric Lord of the Diggers I met Edward, a gentleman who was making a film about exorcisms in the remote reaches of Siberia and Ukraine. I noticed similarities between their personalities and I saw an opportunity to write about some of the incredible characters you meet in Russia, and the unstable, fantastical nature of Russian reality. You often see this reflected in books by Russians but it’s rarely approached in studies by outsiders, which tend to focus on politics, the gulag/Stalin or romantic rubbish about St. Petersburg. Then one day as I was walking past the Shabolovsky radio tower in southern Moscow the outline of the entire book unfolded in my head, as if I were receiving a signal from space. At that point I realised Vissarion Christ would be in it, but the wooden skyscraper on the edge of the Arctic Circle where the climax takes place was as yet shrouded in mystery. But I could feel that something was lurking there, in the darkness and the cold, waiting for me…
2) How long did it take you to write? Is this usual for you?
It took me about a year to do all the research as the logistics were complex and I was dealing with exceedingly strange and erratic personalities. Then I let the experiences stew for a couple of months. The physical writing took about a year. I can’t say if it’s ‘usual’ because I was trying a different approach from the one I had used for Lost Cosmonaut. For that book I wrote about each journey immediately after I made it. The advantage of that is that you don’t spend a year in a room imprisoned in your thoughts. The disadvantage is that the possibility of your master plan collapsing at the last hurdle hangs over the entire production of the book, and that’s a bit nerve racking.
3) How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
Usually I spit the words onto the computer in two-three hour bursts and then spend a long time crafting it afterwards. However for both Lost Cosmonaut and Strange Telescopes I wrote the final sections longhand, because I’d gone crazy from being indoors, staring at a screen all day. For Lost Cosmonaut in fact I couldn’t even bear to have a ceiling over my head, so I took some paper and wrote the last part on a park bench next to some drunks. It all came out in a rush and needed almost no revisions. The same goes for the last section of Strange Telescopes, except no drunks were involved.
4) You say, “Strange Telescopes is about people who invent their own realities.” Is writing a way of inventing reality for you?
Good question—in fact you have uncovered one of the hidden themes of the book. I was very aware as I researched and wrote it that there were parallels between the seemingly bizarre creative endeavours of the heroes of Strange Telescopes and my own creation of a book about their bizarre creative endeavours, though I’d like to think the Diggers and exorcists and Messiahs I write about are a bit more extreme than I am. These men stared at the world and took bits and pieces and imaginatively reconstructed it in a way that made sense to them—then tried to sell their personal mythologies to others, to convert people to their way of seeing. Any writer does the same and I am no different. But are we telling the truth or are we lying? What do we leave out, or fail to see? What hidden assumptions are we starting with? Can we even know? And there are many other questions besides…
5) ST, like Lost Cosmonaut before it, is set in the ex-Soviet empire. Do you speak Russian? What attracts you so much to this area of the planet?
I speak it and read it, though far from perfectly. In fact I always make a mistake intentionally whenever I start talking so my interlocutor realises he should slow down, as if he’s talking to a backwards child. It’s a very complex and difficult language. The alphabet is beautiful. In particular I love that reverse ‘R’—which is pronounced ‘Ya’ by the way.
As for why I’m attracted to this part of the planet—it’s a vast, geographically and culturally diverse territory known to Westerners almost exclusively through a set of lazy clichés perpetuated by our incompetent media. There are thus many possibilities for discovery and adventure.
6) What was the most difficult aspect of writing book Daniel? How did you overcome it?
For me the trickiest thing is that I don’t have overt plots in my books—instead I structure them by underlying themes, symbols and ideas that weave in and out of the different sections, developing and mutating as the book progresses. Some of them I make explicit but there are others that I keep concealed. It can be hard to keep an eye on all of them at times.
7) Tell us a little about Vissarion Christ, the ex-traffic cop who claims to be the Son of God and lives surrounded by 4000 followers on top of a mountain in Siberia. Was he the strangest guy you met on your travels?
At the age of 30 God revealed to Sergei Torop that he was the Messiah, destined to complete Christ’s work by revealing the ‘Last Testament’ to mankind, which would take the place of all other religious books. Prior to that he had been a traffic cop, probably the most despised branch of the police in a country where all police are thoroughly despised anyway. At the time of his revelation (early 90s) there were quite a lot of Christs doing the rounds, but Vissarion’s preaching eventually found a large and dedicated audience of thousands which abandoned the comforts of city life and followed him into the wilderness of Siberia where they pray a lot, eat lentils and make things out of wood. They are attempting to build an ecological utopia governed by the theocratic principles revealed by Vissarion. Everything he says is recorded and entered into a vast book of guidance for living that resembles the Koran and Hadith in its scope. Everything is covered in it, from theological questions (there are two gods, evil aliens, Satan is created by negative energy waves emanating from our thoughts) to questions of etiquette (should I wipe my feet before entering the house? What brand of washing powder should I use?). Many of his followers are highly intelligent people—such as ex astrophysicists, film makers, astronomers, military officers—and there are also a couple of ex pop stars who gave up glamorous careers to follow him. They are all waiting for the End, which they expect any day now. They expect to survive. Everyone else will die horribly.
Vissarion was unquestionably the strangest man I met on my travels, but he was much more than that—he was extremely charismatic, hypnotic, and utterly convinced of the truth of his revelation. In the book I say he had been swallowed by his own dream, and I think that’s the best way to describe it. He also had a sense of humour. We got along quite well.
8) Are you positive about Russia’s future or do you see it descending back into all-out authoritarianism?
There’s a lot of hysterical and even wilful scaremongering in the media. Numerous bad books have been written by dubious characters who are essentially applying for jobs in think tanks where they hope to coin it by spouting nonsense about a New Cold War to audiences of politicians and global bureaucrats. The true picture is much more complex—Putin is not much of a democrat but he’s hardly Stalin either. He’s not even Brezhnev. Most people are better off now than they were in the 1990s under Yeltsin, and that, along with his unapologetically aggressive foreign policy is why Putin is popular. As for Medvedev (the new president), he’s not much more than a puppet at the moment, as everyone sees. Corruption is nothing new and engineering election results is nothing new, nor is the assassination of journalists. All of that has been going in since the dawn of time and the 90s—often misrepresented as a Golden Age of supposed ‘democracy’—were no exception. Many members of the liberal opposition offered to us as heroes in our press are in fact disaffected ex-members of Putin or Yeltsin’s cabinet who have been kicked away from the trough. I had an interesting conversation with a dissident from Turkmenistan last summer—he thought Putin’s ‘soft authoritarianism’ was a model for the entire ex-USSR, much better than the hard authoritarianism that existed in his country. He didn’t consider democracy a realistic option. Russia has always been an authoritarian country. It will keep moving, getting a bit better here, a bit worse there. I hope for the best, as I love the country and its people.
9) Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?
I have some trusted friends who read my stuff as I’m working on it—I listen to them. I know what I’m doing and why I do it. Reading reviews, whether positive or negative, only disrupts reception of transmissions from the ideas satellite. If any reader (‘professional’ or otherwise) enjoys the fruits of my labour then I am delighted, those who don’t can read something else. My brother compiles clips for my website however as positive reviews do serve one useful function—selling books.
10) What do you do when you are not writing?
It depends on the state of my cash flow. If I am feeling flush I like to travel, especially if I can visit friends while doing so. I read if I’m not overdosed on my own words. I take photographs. I listen to vast amounts of music. I contemplate the destiny of civilisation while taking out the rubbish. I visit the circus whenever it’s in town. I watch trash TV—VH 1 in America (where I am currently based) is astonishingly crass and nihilistic, a true harbinger of The End. I also like to think up ideas for impossible books and elaborate upon them in my head, which is the only place they will ever exist. I have a whole magic library of phantom masterpieces in there.
11) Did you have an idea in your mind of your “ideal” reader? Did you write specifically for them?
Not really, but that doesn’t mean I disregard the audience. I think people who claim to write (make music/paint etc) only for themselves are liars—if that’s the case then why bother showing it to the public? However I agree with Victor Pelevin when he says that the first reader you have a duty to please is yourself. That way you can be certain that at least one person will be happy with the book.
12) What are you working on now?
Various projects of varying degrees of difficulty that will require me to reinvent my wheel somewhat: I have a habit of setting myself difficult goals. I’ll settle on one soon. They all have an apocalyptic flavour.
13) Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
Off the top of my head—I love Dostoevsky, Gogol and Philip K. Dick. Borges, too. One of my all time favourite books is by a Russian author called Edward Limonov, a professional provocateur who is now one of Garry Kasparov’s main allies in the anti-Putin movement. It’s called Diary of a Loser and it’s a semi-fictional account of his life as a Russian émigré in 70s New York, and is an amazing blend of memoir and fantasy, profanity and lyricism, violence and tenderness. It’s simultaneously moving, funny and shocking.
14) Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
Don’t bother with creative writing courses. Don’t spend a lot of time gazing into your own soul—it’s not that interesting a place. Go out and travel and have some experiences. Take a job that will expose you to people outside the circles you are accustomed to. Go to the zoo. Watch bad movies. Spy on your fellow man. Read stuff that is the opposite of your own style and interests. Never look at the window displays of a major book chain, you’ll just get depressed by the mediocre crap that they’re hawking. Never write something you don’t believe in 100%, the money’s not that good and it’s just too much trouble. And you know that book, the one that everyone’s raving about, but which you think is rubbish? It is. But don’t let that put you off: write the books you want to read. Stock the magic library in your own head.
15) Anything else you would like to say?
Yes—visit my site and go to the ‘Images’ section where you can see lots of photographs from my travels. I guarantee you will see some curious sights that will leave you intrigued…