Q&A With Paul McAuley

In this interview, Paul McAuley discusses his interest in climate change, how he deals with writer’s block, and his upcoming novel about someone getting “caught up in his sister’s bad choices.” We’re excited to feature his novella “Gravesend, or, Everyday Life in the Anthropocene” in our [March/April issue, on sale now!]

(Credit: Lawrie Photography)

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
Paul McAuley: Setting was the spark that came before story. It’s based on a couple of real places in the Thames estuary: Gravesend, a town some miles downstream of London, and Cliffe Fort, which hosts a free market in the story, a partly ruined artillery fort built in the 1860s a couple of miles further downstream. The area around the fort features marshes, lagoons, abandoned docks and flooded quarry workings (there’s a plant that processes sea-dredged aggregate behind it). It’s flat and bleak and full of bird life—a large part of it is a wildlife sanctuary. An intersection between post-industrial ruin and raw nature. The story developed from that. A near future when global warming has altered the landscape and climate; a narrative focusing on the ordinary lives of people and the accommodations and adaptations forced by ongoing changes. A character who is trying to come to terms with her damaged life, and stumbles into a local mystery.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
PM: It’s a stand-alone. At the moment I’m at the early stage of writing a near future novel which, although it shares a few ideas from the background of the story, attacks climate change from a different angle. But any near future novel has to contend, directly or indirectly, with the effects of global warming, or the effects of efforts to mitigate it. It’s a hyperobject too large to fully comprehend that casts a shadow across centuries to come.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
PM: From the reflection of the name of the town in a key part of the narrative, and from the idea of writing a climate-change story that was about everyday life in a near future somewhat depleted and ravaged, but not apocalyptically so.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
PM: As your career progresses, you begin to see the patterns your fictions fall into. Some you try not to repeat; others become themes you haven’t yet exhausted. In my case, a good number of my characters are ordinary people who are caught up in mysteries, conspiracies or historical shifts. And from Fairyland onwards, many of my novels have incorporated the effects of climate change in the background, or have foregrounded them. The background history of the Quiet War novels is dominated by catastrophic changes triggered by global warming; my most recent novel, Beyond the Burn Line, is set in a post-Anthropocene future.

AE: What is your process?
PM: There isn’t any set process, except one of discovery. Most often, there’s an idea for an opening scene at a particular point in the character’s life, and a rough direction. That develops into a narrative through the character’s choices and actions, and their uncovering of what they are actually involved in, what they need to do, and how they set about doing it. There isn’t much detailed or consistent “worldbuilding” beforehand. A few ideas and structures, notes on various details and landscapes that may or may not be used. Or may only haunt the story without being mentioned. Nothing too prescriptive. Necessary detail unfolds as the narrative progresses, or is slipped in during rewriting.

As your career progresses, you begin to see the patterns your fictions fall into. Some you try not to repeat; others become themes you haven’t yet exhausted.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
PM: A novel about someone caught up in his sister’s bad choices, set in a depleted near future England. And a story about human foolishness and night.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
PM: By writing through it, whenever possible. By trying not to be too self-conscious about the worth of what I’m getting down, as long as I’m getting something down. Most of the work—the most enjoyable part as far as I’m concerned—is in rewriting, and that involves jettisoning stuff as much as reworking it.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
PM: Teleportation (does that count as a prediction? If not I’d like it anyway).

AE: What are you reading right now?
PM: Jonathan Carroll’s Mr. Breakfast.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
PM: I was once a research scientist, and briefly a university lecturer. Is that why I’m more inclined towards writing science fiction than fantasy? Or was I more inclined towards science because I read an awful lot of science fiction at an impressionable age? In any case, I’m sympathetic to the amazing idea that a great deal of the phenomenal universe can be unpicked and explicated by the scientific method. People, not so much.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
PM: I’m on Twitter and Mastodon as UnlikelyWorlds; you can find me there most days. There’s a very intermittent blog, Earth and Other Unlikely Worlds, and a web site (which I need to update) with free samples of my fiction and the usual author info at http://www.unlikelyworlds.myzen.co.uk/

Paul J. McAuley has published about two dozen novels and more than a hundred short stories, as well as a Doctor Who novella and a BFI Film Classic monograph on Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. He became a full-time writer after working as a research biologist in various universities, including Oxford and University of California, Los Angeles, and as a lecturer in botany at St Andrews University. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award; his fifth, Fairyland, won the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Awards. Other works have won the Sidewise Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Gollancz has recently reissued The Secret of Life in their Masterworks series. Paul’s latest novel, Beyond the Burn Line, is an exploration of our post-Anthropocene legacy.

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