Nick Harkaway On Writing: Take the Brakes Off
An unassuming clock repairman, a ninety-year-old secret agent, psychopathic serial killers, mad geniuses, and a cantankerous old pug: Angelmaker isn’t your average spy thriller. io9 agrees, declaring, “Nick Harkaway has created a brand new genre: Existential pulp.” In this exclusive essay, Nick talks about what it takes to create a world this inventive—and original.
It’s not a form of insanity, but it is an absence of the sort of safety belt most people have in their brains. I can see how it could contribute to going totally-barking mad, how it could be a factor. You definitely want to be on top of the wave rather than under it. Writing—at least in my life—goes like this:
You’re sitting having coffee. The coffee is good coffee. You look down into the cup and see the swirl of milk, and you see galaxies, and when you look harder you see an eye staring back at you, and you wonder about a world where all communication takes place through magical coffee. Another part of you—a part which, in most people, is considerably more awake and preemptive—rules that this is a ridiculous speculation. Again, in most people, that would mean you’d stop thinking about it, but you don’t, you just sideline it in case it turns out to be important one day, and you know that it actually could. And speaking of sidelines, you notice that the staff in this coffee shop are a really attractive bunch. In fact, they are anomalously attractive. Either there’s a fashion college nearby, or some sort of population blip, or this coffee shop is part of a human trafficking operation or a Gonzo Porn studio. So you spend a few minutes working out who plays what role in the smuggling op, and/or who is what kind of porn star and what they think about that, and what their family thinks about that, and then you get distracted because the last of the Knights Templar comes in to take delivery of the Holy Grail disguised as a latte.
Everything has a story. You’re reading this on a screen, and that screen was made somewhere, and the people who made it had stories, and the people who mined the rare earths which go into the chips, and the people who went out and discovered the deposits in the first place. The clothes you wear and, yes, the coffee in your cup and the cap on your toothpaste and the concrete under your feet are all narrative-rich. I started writing a story once about a character with a psychological disorder I called Benign Compulsive Hyperconnectivity. This guy saw patterns everywhere, in everything. The reason his condition was benign was that he could distinguish when those patterns were illusions from when they were not. This made him a great detective rather than a lunatic. The trick is not finding inspiration, but letting go of the part of yourself which culls your fantasies, your silly ideas, to just the right degree. Some ideas are too silly to be credible. A lot of those ideas get written into Hollywood movies. The best Hollywood movies are often the ones where someone wrote in one of those ideas and then dug deep enough and went far enough to make it work, went so far that they shifted what feels credible to meet the story coming the other way.
So if you’re looking for inspiration, take the brakes off yourself. Abandon shame and embarrassment and what your mother told you was impossible or your dad said was childish and remember your crazy uncle with the weird hair who taught math and tried to persuade you that there really were angels on the head of a pin and he could calculate how many. That guy knew something. (Are you thinking of Einstein? I was. What would it be like to be Einstein’s nephew? Annoying, I would imagine, and wonderful.)
And when the brakes are off and you’re falling faster and farther than Felix Baumgartner through a sky crisscrossed by wide rivers of music towards a world where the dominant life form is the typewriter: that’s when you can start thinking that maybe it’s time to dial it back. Maybe. Because just one of the ideas falling all around you is a novel. After the inspiration comes the hard work, and that’s all part of the fun.
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