What a busy week here at Smash Dragons! I am delighted to be able to bring you our latest instalment in interviews with Australian speculative fiction writers. David M. Henley is arguably one of the most exciting prospects in Australian science fiction at the moment. He is the author of the much loved The Hunt for Pierre Jnr and Manifestations, and in a few days will be releasing the final book in the trilogy, entitled Convergence. David was kind enough to sit down with Smash Dragons to discuss this, along with various other topics such as writing and climate change.
David, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell us a bit about yourself.
I'm a thirty-something guy who was born in a small town in New Zealand, was raised mostly in Canberra and now live and work in Sydney. After one year of uni I quit to begin working and found my way into publishing.
Why did you start writing? Was it something you envisaged yourself doing when you were younger?
I've always written for fun, even in primary school, and I haven't stopped. It's more a compulsion than a drive if that makes any sense. I get fidgety if I don't sit down and crank out some words. Getting published was something I never really imagined. I read lots but never thought about the author side of things.
What is it about science fiction that appeals to you the most?
Exploring ideas. If you write stories in the present day real world then you are bound by reality. I like science fiction because I can walk the line between the possible and the impossible and hopefully come up with ideas that people find interesting. It's hard to discuss the nature of civilisation without taking a step back, science fiction gives me the distance to depict the future of robots, alternative government and what might happen next to humanity.
Tell me about the origins of The Hunt for Pierre Jnr? Was it the story you always wanted to write? Or did it evolve and change over time?
Pierre Jnr was actually born as a picture in an art show I was a part of. I drew eight images in a series called Aberrations in 2006 and later I fleshed out Pierre's background in a book called The Museum of Unnatural History. People kept telling me for years to write a narrative set in that world and I knew Pierre Jnr's story had to be the first.
After I accepted the contract from Harper Voyager at the end of 2012. It pushed me to expand what I had very quickly, ie I had eight months to turn in the first book. It was when I was mired in the world and trying to tell a geo-syncronous story that it really started to evolve. People often say their characters run away with them, for me it was the world of Pierre Jnr that took on a life of its own. I had all these concepts that fitted together nicely and then combined that with human nature until all hell broke loose.
The world you describe in your books is incredibly fascinating. Tell me about how the idea of the Weave and Benders and Tappers came about? Did you do much research when imagining a society post climate change?
Actually research is a funny thing when you're making things up. I do read a lot of science magazines and blogs to keep me up to date on what is happening in the known and what things scientists are trying to find out in the unknown; and ideas or solutions often come out of that. In reverse, sometimes I have an idea and I look around to see if anyone is studying it or anything like it.
Benders and tappers are the slang terms I came up with for telepaths and telekinetics. I took a lot of inspiration from More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, and The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. Their psionics were still very human and human against human, people had different levels of ability etc. I guess my version and definition of what they were came when writing book one; when the hunt team are trying to figure out the nature of Pierre Jnr, it comes out that they didn't really understand the nature of psionics at all, even those who hav such powers.
The Weave came about from watching the coming of the internet age and what has happened since. I was there before mobile phones and modems came into our homes. Taking the trajectory of human communications, even going further back in time, to now and extending it into the future, it seems obvious that we are just going to become more connected and more fragmented as time goes on.
Both books touch on a variety of powerful themes such as privacy and the nature of the individual. What parallels did you draw from society today when exploring these themes? Do you think it’s possible we may eventually see a society similar to the one imagined in your books?
Maybe some of it, who knows. I've seen others writers who have been asked a similar question say that it isn't the job of the author to predict the future, to which I agree; it isn't a job, but it is something to have fun with.
I never work from the present forwards, the parallels I've seen only in retrospect when I realise that in some ways this elaborate future world I had created wasn't as different from ours as I first thought. But like you say, privacy has largely been done away with in my future world and that is an issue that keeps coming up IRL and won't go away any time soon. It's a conundrum for our century. Sacrificing certain privacies may lead to better healthcare and a more even distribution of resources. One aspect I don't see changing is that in my world that transparency goes both ways, it isn't just individuals sacrificing their information to the group, they also get to see how the group uses that information. It's hard to look at current modes of government and envisage mutual transparency, there just isn't that much trust.
The nature of the individual: that'll never be settled. The value of the individual will keep changing as populations go up, resources go down and more jobs get automated... Which will lead to a questioning of rights and the point of our whole society and what we are doing with our lives...so, no change there.
Take me through a normal day of writing for you. Are you an architect or gardener when writing? Do you have a particular place you like to write?
The process changes at each stage. To go with your analogy, I'm either a Gehry style architect bringing order to chaotic ideas; or, as a gardener I like to use different gardening philosophies for different scenes, the rigid French pruning and design, the meandering faux-wilderness of the English and the occasional Japanese garden, a beautiful moment of tranquility.
Essentially, at the development stage I just play. I test characters. I try different styles of writing and by the time I'm done mucking around I have a pretty solid framework that I can follow to the end.
I try to write in lots of different places. I actively force myself to not have one place I can write and I try to mix up my schedule as much as possible. If I need a perfect setting to be creative then I probably wouldn't get much done, so I push myself to be flexible. Sometimes I like going to loud places with lots of distractions, it forces me to concentrate.
What challenges did you face in writing both The Hunt for Pierre Jnr and Manifestations?
Besides time and money? That was the main thing, boring as it may sound. I managed to finish PJ1 without problems, but for the second and third book I had to pull back to part time because it wasn't fair on my clients or my colleagues.
The other challenge is a common one for trilogies: what happens in the middle book? In that you don't have the origin story nor the conclusion to frame it, it is just the middle book and you have to do something interesting. I really hope I achieved that by pulling back the lens of the world and increasingly the complexity (which then set up the challenge of threading all that together in Convergence)
Your antagonist, Pierre Jnr, is one of the most mesmerising (yet terrifying) characters I have ever read. Why did you pick a child to be the greatest ‘threat’ humanity has ever faced?
Thanks very much. Two motivations sort of pushed Pierre along, one was because I was tired of 'villains' – not that Pierre is one – that started off seeming really powerful and were then easily defeated. I wanted my antagonist to be unstoppable and then smash it against something immoveable, ie society. That he is eight years old was a rough pinpointing from my own memory of when I started to have conscious thoughts. It's a rough turning point in mental development for a lot of children. I wanted to walk that line with him about whether what he was a bad kid or just going through a phase.
Peter, Tamsin, Colonel Pinter and Ozenbach are all fascinating and enthralling characters in their own unique ways. What do you think is the key to writing a good character?
I appreciate you saying so as some readers and reviewers don't love the way I present characters. I enjoy a light sketching that the reader can superimpose their own images onto. But even though I like to keep light on the details, each character has come from somewhere and is going somewhere. I plot out a whole life story for every character that appears, even the cameos, so they each have motivations that can conflict with the world and each other.
One thing I loved about Manifestations was its exploration of the Will. I especially adored the replacement of town clocks with sculptured heads depicting the town’s mood! Do you think this is the future in terms of our societal and political evolution?
I'd love to say yes. I think there is room to create a social currency like the Will, but to get there would require widespread public engagement in bettering our world. Can you imagine that? The only way I could conceive of us getting to it was after a huge social collapse.
But then again, there are many good people out there and some progress has been made. Check out this New Scientist article, ‘Better than a ballot box: Could digital democracy win your vote?’
This sounds a lot like what I’ve imagined, but they call it ‘liquid democracy’.
There is so much disillusionment, distrust and disparity in the world that something has to change before it all collapses, IMHO.
The town faces could happen now. A simple bit of software taking mood measurements from social media trends, an animatronic head ... Imagine if Ron Meuck made a data-affected sculpture, it would be scary and entrancing.
The introduction of Kronos was a fascinating development in your series. I immediately saw tones of Akira and other great science fiction films in it. How much influence have past films and books had on your development as a writer?
I read and watch everything I can, I don't want to pretend to write in a vacuum –I think the great game of writing in a genre is continuing and advancing what has come before. The development I wanted to make was to create a holistic world where everything could be explored at once, as opposed to a lot of science fiction which explores one or two concepts at a time. I think isolating any concept, be it cybernetics or the eco crisis, from other factors like politics, the internet, global trade etc is an artificial examination because the interaction of all the elements is the real story.
And you have called it correctly. I do love anime – though I always thought of that first Pierre manifestation as my Akira moment. I find the story structure and world view in foreign material refreshing. The closest world for me, that has created that real-world complexity I aspire to, would be the Ghost in the Shell animated series. It combines the personal stories of the team with the macro story of the larger world and all the factions within, and it never stops brining in new factions and factors because that's what the real world is like.
Who would be your greatest literary influence?
Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest... I guess I have to credit Stanislaw Lem. He isn't everyone's cup of tea but his ideas brought me back to writing and even re-imbued me with fascination for the human race that got lost in early working life.
What can readers expect from Convergence?
Well, by the time book three opens, the world is in it up to its neck. It is facing huge problems that seem insurmountable. I don't want to spoil anything for people who haven't finished Manifestations but everything is coming to a head. It’s hard to say without giving spoilers, but there is a power struggle between the psis, Pierre Jnr, the World Union and yet even that conflict seems overshadowed by the expansion of Kronos.
The Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. You must select three fellow authors to join your team in order to survive the wasteland that is now Earth. Who do you pick, and why?
I've got a few friends in the literary field I'd trust to keep the zombies off my back, literary tough guys Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Luke Carman – and they both keep in shape unlike myself. Then maybe David Hunt because I'm sure he could find the humour in the situation.
If you were a character in your own books what would you be? A Bender, Tapper, Weaver, or Hakka?
I think I'd be a weaver. To me they are the white blood cells of the internet/Weave. Going around fixing things, doing good. I'm a bit of a techie guy anyway. I like fixing things.
What is your worst writing habit?
I like to write at night. Sometimes, if I’m on a streak, I’ll write until two or three am and then I’m ruined for the next couple days. Tis bad for the working life but when you're on a roll, you're on a roll and have to keep going,
You have championed for the creation of better pathways for potential writers here in Australia. Can you elaborate on what needs to happen in order to make writing a more feasible and attractive career path?
Actually I think you’ve struck on the difference between how I see writing and the generation that is coming up behind me. I don’t see writing as a career like that. It can turn into money-making for a precious few, but it is really unhealthy, for yourself and your writing, to treat it like ‘a job’. A job is where you get paid to do something you wouldn’t otherwise want to do; that’s not what writing is for me and I don’t do it for the dollars.
I treat writing as more like farming. Each book I write is like a fruit tree that year on year will give me a a little bit to eat. The more trees I plant, the more fruit I get each year. This is my intellectual property, get it? :)
As such it can take years and years for your intellectual property to be earning enough for you to live off. To make things better for writers we need to provide them with the tools to start and manage their own intellectual property – ie teach them about the actual business – and setup ways of helping them stay afloat during what could be multiple decades of fallow fields.
To do this would involve some cross generational support networks and backing from people and companies who also believe there could be a better future if we work towards it.
Best tip for aspiring writers?
Don’t be just a writer. Do other things in life. Work lots of jobs. Meet lots of different people. Let the world influence you before you try to influence it. Also, most likely it will take you a very long time to get established so you need to build a lifestyle and work situation that enables you to be flexible.
What is your take on the state of science fiction here in Australia? Are there any authors who perhaps have gone unnoticed that we should check out?
Tough question. In some ways it is very very healthy if you consider YA. If you are more purist then you may be less enthusiastic. I know there are some emerging writers that excite me, whose work I have been reading for fun, but I won’t put any names down yet. They can emerge when they are ready.
What’s next for David M. Henley?
I am currently expanding the world of Pierre in multiple directions. There is a novel on the moon I’m tinkering with, that takes place the year after Convergence. Here I get to play with a sort of parallel society which is extremely regimented due to the scarcity of resources; and I’ve got my whole moon colony history plotted out.
And I’m also working on thhe period before the Second Dark Age with a bunch of short stories which are more near-future, less action oriented. My plan is to flesh out the 2050–2080 period and then do a prequel that follows young Abercrombie Pinter, the Orjians and the founding of the World Union.
Finally, will you be appearing at any events or conventions for the remainder of this year?
I am out and about a lot this year but some things haven’t been announced yet. Next up I will be in Sydney and Perth for Supanova, and on 8th July, Mudgee Underground are going to do an ‘Alien Invasion’ thing I’ve written, which is an interactive performance piece where the audience can play a part in the telling of the story.
David, thank you for chatting to Smash Dragons.
It was my pleasure.
Convergence is out this coming week everyone, and the early signs are that it's David's best yet (which is saying something, considering how great his first two books were). Smash Dragons will also be reviewing Convergence later this week, so stay tuned for that!
Please see the links below for more information in regards to David and Convergence. And be sure to check out The Hunt for Pierre Jnr and Manifestations. Trust me, they are awesome.