Thursday, 16 June 2011

Mike French: The Ascent of Isaac Steward

Today sees the release of Mike French's debut novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward (Cauliay Publishing).

I first got to know Mike in 2007 when I was waiting for The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore to be released by PaperBooks and  he was trying-out draft chapters of The Dandelion Tree online.  Before long, Mike founded The View From Here - a literary ezine - and I was privileged to be one of the first authors  interviewed.  Since then, he's become a good friend, and there's something neat about being able to interview him in return.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin.

How did the story of Isaac Steward evolve?
In the beginning there was nothing at all but the desire to write. I honestly had no idea what I was going to do, why I was really doing it or how to do it.  (I had to go find a book and look at basic things like how to format paragraphs, when to indent etc.!) It really was a matter of sitting down and bashing away at the keyboard to see what spilled out of my head, not knowing what on earth was going to happen. 
From that beginning scenes came, which led to ideas, then characters. What grounded me were some key pieces like Isaac and Rebekah walking into Mamre Wood and the idea of the Dandelion Tree.  After a year I had, I think, about 120 thousand words which I then edited down to half that length as I chopped out some of my wilder flights of fancy – or scenes that didn’t fit into the tone of the book. During that stage some characters merged into one, in order for Isaac to take central stage.  I think some significant changes were the editing out of some talking frogs(!) and a character called Triage who determined what priority a new memory had in Isaac’s memory.  It really was quite, quite mad with Triage fighting nano bots within Isaac’s mind, with the epilogue having the Punch and Judy characters blasting off in a rocket within Isaac’s mind only to encounter the nano bots out in space. Here’s an example of the frogs:
Before Temp finished his croak, Rana's strong hind legs propelled her off the curb in a gigantic leap towards Isaac.  She landed, and braced herself for another leap across the road.  Temp turned away, unable to look. 
SPLAT.  The fat chunky tread of the juggernaut’s tyres bore down on her and crushed her body into their rubber.  Temp sat open mouthed. 
‘Rana,’ he mouthed, tears rolling down his shiny face.  He sat motionless, mouthing her name over and over to himself as he looked at the spot where the lorry had picked her up. 

It’s nothing like that now! Well maybe a little bit like that.
The final version was an edit after leaving the MS for a year or so, reflecting on the key elements I wanted to tell; then moulding the material I had to pull those to the front of the novel.
In what ways, if any, does the place in which you live (or the places in which you’ve lived) shape the way in which you write?
That’s a very interesting question!  My environment has affected some of the imagery, like the descriptions of Mamre Wood, which is from my observations of walking through a small wood near where I live and I think from my childhood where, unlike today, kids were free to roam, and I’d spend hours and hours exploring woods and the countryside around me in Scotland – I think that sense of wonder at your surroundings that you have as a kid have found their way into the novel.
So that affected what I write and how I describe things, the emotions behind the descriptions. The other thing of course is the people around where you live – for example my friend Charlie who pointed me the way of Stephen King’s On Writing.

What are some of the influences that most affect you as a writer (aside from booze or drugs!)?  Perhaps you could write a few lines on:
    Most influential book/author

It’s hard to single one out, I think influences are a mixing together of Julian Barnes, John Steinbeck, George Orwell, Tom McCarthy, David Lapham (his non-sequential story-telling) and Kurt Vonnegut.  Like a blended malt. Although I don’t drink malt – a Ben and Jerry’s flavour ice-cream perhaps? Kurt can be the chocolate fish.

    Most influential music ... or music you enjoy writing to
I only ever put music on if I need it to help with the mood of a specific scene – like a film soundtrack of something sad for example if I’m writing a sad scene. Even then that’s rare and I prefer to work in silence and let the story fill my mind so I can step into a scene and view it without any distractions. Having said that music has influenced me greatly, just not during the writing itself – stuff like Coldplay, Jem, Pink Floyd and Radiohead.
    Most influential film
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I watched this as a kid and it had a profound impact on me.  It’s like a combination of George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, so I think in some way I must be hard-wired to like this kind of weird stuff. I’m also a visual person and Gilliam’s style is atmospheric, retro and mad.
    Most influential visual image, architectural delight, sculpture ...
Can I say comics here?  Does that count for visual imagery? In particular [the work of] Dave McKean, who I had the pleasure of interviewing last year. I love the interplay between images and text, the way one works with the other to convey mood and pace but, unlike most films, still makes the reader a key part of the process.  In fact, having grown up with comics and taking to them again as an adult with such things as Sandman, Stray Bullets and Bone, I’d go as far as saying they probably played the most important part of shaping me as a writer – certainly the imagery conveyed in a novel is crucially important to me.

In what ways has your training and experience as an engineer shaped the way you write, or your expectations as a writer?
It helped with the cooling ducts that keep chapters seven and eight at a constant temperature, but, apart from that, none as far as I’m aware – and being an engineer was only a way of making my love of Physics pay the mortgage. I like the way Physics asks some huge questions about the whole nature of reality, especially with quantum mechanics.  The idea that your common sense is built up over years by what you have observed and learnt, and how this is flawed as you can only observe the world around you through a narrow window.   Physics widens that window, often with surprising results – that sense of what you could call the surreal effects the way in which I write.

How would you like readers to best remember The Ascent of Isaac Steward?  (Other than it being the best novel they’ve ever read.)
I really can’t answer that! I hope that I’ve written it in a way that interacts with people that is specific to them, that the reader and book come to a mutual understanding of what the whole experience was about, shake hands and part as friends, lovers, sworn enemies, whatever.  As long as there is a reaction, rather than, “that was nice.” Hopefully the reaction will be wildly different for different people and I’ve left room for that to happen.

In what way have you been most affected or changed by the process of getting this novel published?
That you have to discover what talent you have, be the best you can possibly be with it once you’ve found it, and never give up Mr. Frodo, er, I mean Paul.

I gather you’re writing your second novel – Blue Friday.  Are you approaching the writing of this differently in any way?
I’m so excited about Blue Friday! But I’m trying to keep the lid on it whilst the Ascent of Isaac Steward goes out. In fact I’ve had to lock it in the attic where it hammers away like some lunatic wanting to be let out. (You can probably hear it now.) It’s actually finished, two people have read it so far and that’s it. I can’t let it out again for a while as it may try to burn the house down.
And yes I approached the writing differently – with the Ascent of Isaac  Steward I started without the faintest idea of what I was doing and it took me years and years to get it to what it is today. Blue Friday still has all the hallmarks of what you’ll get in one of my novels, but it is stripped back, hard-boiled and a different animal all together.  I was influenced greatly by reading Only Joking by Gabriel Josipovici  shortly before writing it, and that, together with a greater understanding of the craft (which I cut my teeth on with Isaac), meant the whole novel was done and dusted in 4 months. That worried me to start with but Iain Banks knocks them out like that – or his latest one at least – and it is very short at just over 30 thousand words.  I would have liked it to be longer but every time I went to tinker with it and carry on the story it just felt wrong, and I was messing with a perfectly good story just to fit it into a mould of what people see as acceptable for the length of a novel – it’s about the length of my arm if I stretch it out like this or Animal Farm if that is more helpful.
And although it only took 4 months to write, the ideas for the story had been swilling about my head for ages, in fact it started years ago as a short story, so the first chapter came already written, although it needed some editing to turn it into chapter 1.
The other main change was that I had the luxury of writing it almost continuously throughout the winter months at the start of this year, whereas Isaac Steward was written in dribs and drabs over the space of a whole year. 
Excuse me a moment.
No, you can’t come out, later, stop hammering!
Sorry I feel like Mr Rochester sometimes.  Is that all Paul?  It’s been a pleasure.  Cup of tea?
Isaac Steward thinks he has had a good life so far. That is what he chooses to remember. The Ascent of Isaac Steward is the remarkable and extraordinary debut novel from the senior editor of the prestigious literary magazine, The View From Here. Written with a literary, lyrical voice, the book follows Isaac Steward in an emotional and original tale as he struggles to deal with the resurfacing of a suppressed memory. Isaac becomes increasingly dysfunctional and delusional as the story unfolds in a hypnotic and startling way bringing into play childhood memories of a Punch and Judy show and the revelation from his half-brother, Ishmael, that he must be brought to a tree from his father's wood called The Dandelion Tree. 
ISBN: 978095688101
Buy from: The Book Depository 
Visit Mike's blog: mikefrenchuk.com
Visit The View from Here here


Jane Turley said...

Well that's given me quite a lot of insight into the novel and Mike's brain:) I thought Mike was relatively "normal"- now I know he's more bonkers than I am! Hurrah!!

I am so looking forward to reading The Ascent of Issac Steward:)

Great interview PB:)

Paul said...

Absolutely bonkers ... thankfully ;-)