My friend Evelyn came round on Saturday and we recorded four short interview segments about City of Masks - this is the first, and I'll be releasing the others over the next few weeks. Evelyn was one of my original pre-publication critique group, so she knows the story well. We tried to stay clear of outright spoilers, but some of our references won't make complete sense until you've read the novel.
I have to apologize for the sound. My best microphone, which I've been using for the podcast, is a clip-on and only works for one person at a time. It was a rainy day, and we had two laptops running, so lots of fan noise. I filtered out the noise from a second copy that Evelyn recorded on her Mac, but inevitably some of the signal went as well, so in the end I've combined that with the original track recorded by my camera's mic - reinforcing the signal but leaving the noise on one of the two versions.
Here's a transcript to partially make up for the sound quality:
Q: Is this your first novel, or have you been published before?
A: Yes and no. It is my first published novel. It's not the first novel I've written, and it's not the first book that I've had published, although I've never had my name on the cover before. It was always projects – work for hire, basically.
Q: You've obviously read a lot of books and maybe even books about how to write. Would that be the case?
A: Yes, yes, pretty much. I've read some writing advice books, which all seem to boil down to one major piece of advice, which is "keep writing". Read a lot, write a lot, toss out what doesn't work, and eventually you'll have written something that does work if you have any ability at all, just through sheer perseverance. And that seems to be the major piece of writing advice that there is. But what perhaps City of Masks arose from is a lot of reading of mostly fantasy and science fiction, even though it's not fantasy or science fiction by strict definitions.
Q: What is its strict definition?
A: You could call it "slipstream" – that's a fiction designation that's around, that most people haven't heard of, which makes it a bit less useful. But it's somewhere in between mainstream fiction and the fantasy-science fiction sort of thing, in that it has elements of the fantastic or the counterfactual – as City of Masks does, it's a city where everyone is required by law to wear masks – it's a what-if, and yet there's no magic, there's no advanced technology, it's not an alternate history in any strict sense. It's not an alternate Venice, for example – no canals in the City of Masks.
Q: That's true. Just highways.
A: Just highways, highways and low ways.
Q: That's right. That's intriguing. It creates a nice picture, as well, it creates a picture of there being lots of levels to the whole city.
A: And the city is very class-stratified, as well. The lowest people are on the lowest roads, and the highest people are on the highest roads, and they only mix in the middle. It's the same thing with the houses. The poor live in the bottom of the houses and the rich live in the top of the houses.
Q: Unless they fall from the top to the bottom. How long did it take you to write the novel?
A: Well, from start to finish, ten years. But the last part was done very quickly. I sat down over a period of about a week and wrote – I'm not sure how much – the last 10 or 15 thousand words, anyway, and the problem was that I got stuck after I'd got the main character to the location. It was, "And now what happens?" I didn't know. I didn't know what was going to happen. I knew that there was going to be a chase across the rooftops, probably with the shooting of arrows, and a sword fight. I didn't know who was chasing whom or why, but I knew that that was in there. And what I ended up doing was I charted out all the characters and their relationship to each other and what they wanted on a big piece of paper like a mind map, and the plot really fell out of that. Once I had it down in that format I could see, this person wants this thing, that's going to lead to certain events, this other person wants this other thing, there's conflict there… it just seemed to develop out of that. But unfortunately I didn't have that idea for quite a while.
Q: The idea of joining everything together?
A: The idea of mapping it all out like that.
Q: So you didn't start with a grand map and then join it all up in words?
A: No. No, I started with an idea about "what would it be like if everybody had to wear masks that told people who they were?" That was my base idea. And from that, which is kind of a metaphor or satire on our society, where we do go around wearing masks that tell other people who we are, and pretending to be people that we aren't, or pretending to be people that we are, sometimes. And I just wanted to explore that. But it ended up as an adventure story and a mystery.
Q: You did intend to write a novel, though, didn't you?
A: I did intend to write a novel, not an essay.
Q: And you just said, we go round wearing masks pretending to be who we are. Is that possible, to pretend to be who you are?
A: Yes. There's actually a book which I came across after I'd finished – or as I was finishing writing City of Masks, called The Woman who Pretended to Be Who She Was. It's a non-fiction book. And I quite like that idea, that if you're true to yourself, if you're authentic and genuine in expressing yourself, that you end up with a mask of your own face, and there is no difference between what you're presenting and what's actually inside.