Interview with Armadillo Magazine

(Note from Oisin: I’ve removed one question from this because it contains a major story spoiler.)

1.Your main protagonist, Nathanial has all the attributes of a traditional hero as his sense of adventure, courage and resourcefulness dominate the action of your two novels. Considering his macho appeal did you construct him with male readers in mind?
In some ways, the elaborate style of the period setting and the dialogue lends itself more to female readers, so I did want to make sure there was enough in there for the boys too. But I don’t think Nate is specifically a ‘boy’s’ character. He is an adventurer (albeit a frustrated one), the blunt, somewhat flamboyant action-man type I think appeals to both sides.

2.The character of Daisy outwardly conforms to the gender-role expected of her in Victorian society. However, she proves herself to be inwardly very powerful and by all means and purposes very likeable! Was this intentional and were you conveying to the reader the realities of Victorian life for upper-class women?
The setting demanded the story and characters have a certain shape, and the attitude to women was one of these constraints. Women of the time could not vote, take part in government, own property or own a business, so having the near-mandatory self-sufficient career woman you see in most stories now just wouldn’t fit in this setting. Enterprising and self-possessed women were certainly around, but they had to find other ways of taking control of their lives. Daisy is an example of this – she has to play power games, but within the arena she inhabits. Conforming to some norms allows her to take an interest and exercise control over many areas traditionally denied to women of the time.

3.Gerald’s role and function in questioning the existence of God against scientific discovery permeates both novels. His role in bringing back ancient ancestors from the dead perhaps allows the reader to see the dangers of misguided and extremist forms of religious worship. Would you agree and do Gerald’s views and opinions reflect your own?
This is one of the central themes, and although I’d consider myself much more a follower of science rather than religion, I’m not an atheist. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God, but at the same time we know that science can’t explain everything in nature – although perhaps it will in time. But until then, there are still times when we rely on things like instinct, intuition and empathy. Gerald’s opinions are a bit more extreme, and though he is extremely rational, he’s not the most compassionate of individuals. I think any kind of extremist religious views are insidious and destructive, but at the same time, I don’t believe in living life with merciless reason either.

4.The engimals appear to be part machine/animal that feel pain, respond to love and have something akin to DNA by having their own unique footprints. What influenced you in creating them?
I think so many people relate to the idea of the engimals because all the machines around us are becoming so sophisticated. Most of us don’t really understand how the fuel injection system or the anti-lock brakes in a car work, or even all of the things our phones can do. Machines are electronic and software-based more than mechanical now, and they develop bewildering bugs and characteristics that can give them what seem like personalities. Most of us have cursed, shouted or exclaimed at our machines at some time in our lives. So the idea of machines behaving like animals isn’t a big leap for the imagination.

5.There is a clear hierarchy that exists between engimals as Flash dominates over other engimals through his strength and power whilst many engimals exist to serve humans in menial tasks such as mowing lawns. Can you explain this?
I see it as pyramid, as in nature, with peak predators at the top and the placid grazers at the bottom – although the engimals rarely actually attack each other – but all with apparent functions useful to mankind. Thousands of years of feral wandering has reduced many of them to savagery, while others are insecure and want to be domesticated. Again, it comes back to giving them personalities that fit their functions and how hard they would likely be to tame or train. It makes sense (at least to me) to have a motorcycle that’s almost untameable, a lawnmower that’s controllable but liable to bite your ankles, and a vacuum cleaner that skulks around behind the furniture.

6.The hierarchy that exists between engimals is also noticeable through the class structure of Victorian society in regard to the expected behaviour of servants i.e. facing the wall or turning their faces when they pass a Wildenstern. However, the narrative voice does not condone or condemn this? Was this a conscious decision and how important is it to allow the reader space to construct their own views and opinions on the polarity of wealth and poverty?
One of the key techniques of writing a fantasy story is that where you are featuring the ‘real’ elements of that world, they have to be as true-to-life as possible, in order to convince the reader that the fantasy elements are true too. I did a lot of research on life in manor houses at the time, and this is how staff would have been expected to behave. They were not seen or heard beyond their function in the house – it was an absolutely gruelling life for many of them. To have a modern voice narrating this and passing judgement from a contemporary point of view would have broken the spell I hoped to achieve in creating the setting.

7.Darwin’s theory of natural selection is an overt theme in both books. However, it also applies to the rules of ascension in the Wildenstern family as only the fittest survive! Was it your intention to fully utilise this theme?
Once I have settled on the themes for any book, I tend to use each one throughout to give shape to the plot and help define the paths of the characters. The Wildensterns take capitalism to the ultimate level, kill or be killed, but I don’t think being the ‘fittest’ is necessarily the deciding factor in surviving in the family – no more than it always is in business, or even evolution. There are plenty of parasites and hangers-on in the Wildenstern family who get by quite well by hovering around, making themselves useful to the real predators.

8.(Note from Oisin: I’ve removed this question because it contains a major story spoiler for The Wisdom of Dead Men.)

9.The description of Marcus’ funeral is quite elaborate. The theme of death permeates the works of many Victorian novelists such as Charles Dickens. Were you in some way adhering to this in order to make your own novels appear authentic to the historical setting?
Part of it was authenticity and part of it was to create the right atmosphere for the subsequent scenes. Victorian funerals were very elaborate – a pauper’s grave was the ultimate shame, and premature death and the resultant funeral were so common that families had to put money aside in anticipation of that expense. There was so much ceremony and so many interesting rituals and superstitions surrounding death in those days, and I wanted to bring some of that in. But it was also important that a Wildenstern funeral be dark and spectacular, to help maintain the gothic setting. Some of the description of the scenes was drawn from the funeral of Queen Victoria herself.

10.The role of religion, particularly in The Wisdom of Dead Men appears to be steeped in religious superstition that functions as a cover up for murder. The insidious corruption it relates to is very relevant to Ireland’s history. How important was it to incorporate this theme into your novels?
I have issues with the influence religion has had on life in Ireland, but I didn’t want to highlight a particular example. It’s not faith itself I object to – I think everyone has a right to believe whatever they want, as long as they’re not bothering anyone else – but institutional religion in those days went hand-in-hand with politics and power, not just in Ireland, but everywhere. The resultant corruption and abuse of power made a mockery of the kinds of things Christianity claims to represent. It still sickens me, when I see it happening today. I didn’t want to deliver any lectures with the story; like most of the issues that come up in my books, I just wanted to ask questions and prompt the reader to do the same.

11.Ireland’s history is further explored through the subject of the great famine and the incarceration of innocent women. Is this your way of educating the reader on Irish history?
I’d never claim to be trying to ‘educate’ my readers. I do want to leave them thinking after they’ve finished the book and prompt questions in their minds. When I lived in London, I remember being disappointed with how little British people knew of Irish history. In Ireland, we have to learn a fair bit about British history along with our own because the two are so intertwined. Given how many terrorist attacks Irish ‘nationalists’ carried out in the UK, I’d have thought British people would be more curious about why it was happening . . . The only thing they seem to teach in UK schools is the famine (and it was only one of many famines over the centuries). Seeing as about half the population of Ireland either died or emigrated in the space of five years, I suppose they had to cover it. In the third Wildenstern book, there will be more mention of the great famine as part of one of the characters’ background, but it still remains secondary to the main story.

12.There is a clear anti–British sentiment in both your novels! However, it appears to be the only thing that connects the upper and lower classes throughout your two novels. Would you agree?
This was a thorny one, as I have no real issues with the British (apart from when you try to do things like claim U2 as a ‘British’ band). I’m certainly not a raving nationalist and have never had anything but contempt for the likes of the IRA. Most of my generation are over that kind of thing – and I do want to sell my books in UK! But as with the oppression of women, the conflict between religion and science, and the illegality of homosexuality, it was a feature of the time. If anything, I’ve played it down. It would be hard to overstate the hatred most Irish people of the time felt towards the British landlords and their government. There were numerous acts of rebellion and constant unrest, so I had to feature that background. As for it being something that united the upper and lower classes, there is an element of truth in that. The peasants had it the hardest, of course, but nationalist leaders like Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet were from upper middle-class backgrounds and Daniel O’Connell’s and Charles Parnell’s families were land-owners.

Hope this answers all your questions – it was a pretty in-depth interview! I’m going to go to bed now. My brain is tired.