Archive for Iain Banks

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Harry Potter

Posted in Battle for Earth, Harry Potter, Influences, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2011 by keithmansfield

Most of the entries in this series of things that have impacted on the Johnny Mackintosh books have been either science fiction or science based. I have though saved the biggest influence until last and it comes from another world, but one which many readers will know well: Jo Rowling’s spectacular creation, Harry Potter.

Some people might have heard the story of how I came to begin reading about the boy wizard from Godric’s Hollow, but for those who haven’t here goes. Of course as a publisher I’d heard about Harry and his creator JK Rowling, but I figured he was for kids and I had no interest whatsoever in books about witches and wizards and magic and broomsticks, even though the buzz about this remarkable creation wouldn’t go away.

I was working for a company called Addison-Wesley who were based in Boston, Massachusetts, so had been spending time over there. At the end of the week everyone from the office was out a party in a club (I think the House of Blues) and I would be heading back to the UK the next day. I was approached be someone looking a little sheepish who said she had something to tell me – that everyone in the office thought I was Harry Potter.

In hindsight it’s obvious. At the time, as you can see, I wore ridiculous round battered glasses, had black messed up hair, spoke with an English accent and (though I normally cover it under mounds of foundation) I do actually have a lightning-shaped scar on my forehead. Then there are all the mad things that seem to happen when I get angry, but that’s another story…

The next day I found and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at Logan International Airport and read it on the flight home. Curiously, although I may have read all the Harry Potter books 20-40 times, I’ve still never read the Philosopher’s Stone version of book one where it all began. At that time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was also published so I bought that at Heathrow Airport on the way home, and Prisoner of Azkaban soon followed. I loved this world that the woman who was to become my writing idol had created. It’s a tribute to her that she could even make things like magic and dragons and Quidditch sound interesting. But most of all it was what we call the voice of the books, and the cleverness of telling everything from Harry’s point of view, even when he got the wrong end of the stick.

It had never occurred to me to write the sort of books that children might want to read (as well as adults). I’d been trying to pen the ultimate cutting edge modern novel, a kind of cross between Iain Banks, Paul Auster, Tibor Fisher and Irvine Welsh (there’s a thought!) when one day, walking back from the writing class I’d been going to it hit me like a sledgehammer. Although I enjoyed reading authors like those four listed, there was nothing I loved reading more than Harry Potter. Just as it was books from my childhood that had left further, indelible marks on me. And that I felt that about Harry despite, not because of, the subject matter. How much better it might be if I could write the same sort of story, but replacing magic with science, and having aliens instead of goblins and house elves, and football instead of Quidditch, and pack it with fun gadgets and computers.

I began writing Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London. The other novels I’d tried to create had all been hard work – this was like reading my all-time favourite book, but it was up to me how it developed. It flowed so well. And, many twists and turns later, it’s remarkable that the third in my own series publishes tomorrow.

I have no doubt that Jo Rowling is the greatest writer and storyteller of her (my) generation and seriously underrated. I suspect a lot of it is due to jealousy of her success. Whenever I read other books aimed at the same market, often by lauded authors, I find myself picking holes in their writing and technique, but I can’t find fault with the writing behind Harry Potter. When I was first working on the Johnny Mackintosh stories I would actually read the Harry Potter books in a continuous loop to remind myself of the incredible voice I was trying to find. If a new book was coming out I might have to pause my own writing for a while so I could time it perfectly to finish, say, Goblet of Fire, the day before Order of Phoenix came out so I could carry straight on into the new book.

Sound a little obsessive? Maybe, but I am Harry Potter’s number one fan and don’t let anyone tell you different. In fact, here’s a Harry Potter Quiz I once wrote for the Sunday Telegraph magazine, just before The Deathly Hallows came out. They asked me to create something ungooglable. They also wanted me to include a fair amount of film stuff (as they didn’t realize fans cared about the last book being released, not the fifth film). Also, they wanted multiple choice and so I gave five answers to each question, but the final piece was printed with only four possibilities, so not all the questions work as intended. But I’m still proud of it. The STEWS setting was my idea too.

When I pitched the Johnny Mackintosh books to agents and publishers the 10 second sell I began with was “Harry Potter in space” (or sometimes “Harry Potter meets Star Wars in case they thought at this stage that Harry Potter alone hadn’t made enough money). People who know me will know that dreams are a big part of my life  and I suspect the same is probably true of JKR, because of the way she weaves Harry’s into the stories. I’ve done the same. The best bit about the Potter books is the way so many clues are hidden in plain sight. It’s wonderful trying to spot them – for instance, Chamber of Secrets is particularly packed full of clues that point to events into the far future, even including books six and seven. I’ve tried to do the same. Up until about draft 30 of Spirit of London (yes you read that right) I think my setting for Johnny was too similar to that of Harry’s, in that I had my own hero living with foster parents. Then, after a year of rewriting and plotting, I came up with the idea of Halader House and the children’s home in which my story begins.

I could wax lyrical about the boy who lived for days/weeks/months, but I’m sure you get the idea. Tomorrow my third book will be published and it’s a huge thank you to Jo Rowling for helping that happen. And now I might just pop out and see if I can buy a copy of and then start on a book I’ve still never read: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Iain (M.) Banks

Posted in Influences, Writers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2011 by keithmansfield

Not long after I’d signed the contract to write Johnny Mackintosh, I came across Iain Banks in a London pub. I remember telling him I had a publishing deal and that he was my biggest influence, to which he replied, “I shall bask in your reflected glory”. It was a very lovely and typically self-effacing thing to say, especially given the great man had consumed several whiskies by this point.

Banks’ Culture novels are the most compelling modern fiction I know of. They present a utopian future of enlightened humanoids at pretty much the highest level of galactic civilization without “subliming” – the act of moving on to the next plane of existence.

Some of Banks’ books are under the moniker Iain Banks while others are written as Iain M. Banks (his middle name is the uber cool “Menzies”). I believe Banks regrets the distinction that was foist upon him in the early days of his writing. Publishers (I should know because I am one) are always trying to classify books and identify the correct market. I suspect his didn’t want people not buying future novels “from the critically acclaimed fiction of the author of The Wasp Factory” because they might turn out to be science fiction (heaven forbid).  What are known as “genre” books can often get a very raw deal from publishers and critics. I’m sure Banks believes his Culture novels would be a good read for anyone, just as I’ve always said the Johnny Mackintosh books are aimed squarely at a general audience and not hard-core sci-fi fans. In fact, the Culture books are the only science fiction I’ve read since I was a kid. I remember one reviewer saying of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London that it was reminiscent of “Asimov, Clarke, Moorcock and Dick” which I thought great only for the review to continue that these authors were “totally out of vogue now”. I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, “I don’t normally read/enjoy science fiction, but I love your books” while sci-fi fans appear nowadays to be looking for something else.

Back to the Culture. Banks’ novels take place at the boundary of the Culture’s influence – the society itself is so stable that any story rooted in it would most likely be pretty dull. Everything’s good and there’s no conflict of note. Instead we tend to read about their equivalent of the Foreign Office, a body called Contact, and their division that performs dubious activities of questionable legality to ensure society and the wider galactic civilization function as they should: Special Circumstances.

This society has developed an incredibly high level of artificial intelligence and the machines work in harmony with the humans. Overall the society is run by these “minds” whether in charge of a spaceship or an artificial planetary-scale habitat known as an “orbital”. Now Sol is, I suppose, the mind of the Spirit of London, but she doesn’t come from Iain Banks – equally well she could originate from Zen in Blake’s 7 or Rommie in Andromeda (pictured), or just from my own head.

I think where Banks has really influenced me is in the style of the story-telling. What I mean is that there’s normally a very long set-up and then everything comes together in a frantic, fast-paced conclusion. Sometimes you’re only seeing the situation from the point of view of a few characters (as with Johnny) and you only realize at the very end that rather more of the Culture’s resources have been brought to bear on events than you knew – that you’re just seeing a part of the story.

I think I re-read Look to Windward as I was writing Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze so the book ran along similar lines and it was only the strictures of my editor that brought it more into line with what you might more normally expect for a book that children read.

Where I have borrowed most openly from Banks is the design of Galactic Emperor Bram Khari’s flagship, the Calida Lucia. The idea of fields and a flexible ship structure, complete with potentially gigantic hold, are very similar to a Culture General Systems Vehicle (GSV), although I haven’t come across any of those that have carpets which massage your feet.

I often find myself falling in love with Banks’ characters – they’re so alive and attractive. For instance, in one of my all time favourite books The Crow Road, like hero Prentice I fall first for “beautiful cousin Verity” before realizing by the end just how perfect Ashley has been throughout. Then there was the adorable Isis Whit, title character of the novel Whit, and I defy any geeky bloke not to love the plethora of femail Special Circumstances operatives who constantly save the day.

A recent Banks publication was Transmission, published without the “M.” but a story about travel between parallel Earths as different political factions fight for supremacy. A brilliant little detail in the books was an idea for locating aliens that doesn’t involve huge radio telescopes and vast amounts of computer resources to decode the signals. It looks at the problem from a completely different angle. What is it about Earth that makes our planet special – possibly a unique place in the galaxy? The answer is that by a great cosmic fluke the Sun and Moon appear exactly the same size in the sky, which in turn gives us the phenomenon of the total solar eclipse.

This is a sight that must be rare, even in our galaxy of 400 billion suns. If you’re a super-advanced alien being with unparalleled resources at your disposal, perhaps you get your kicks by seeing the sights? Perhaps you come to Earth as an eclipse tourist? Next year there are total eclipses in the western United States and Queensland, Australia. I intend to be present at both, thinking of my writing idol and keeping half an eye out for extraterrestrials while enjoying the view.

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