Steven Hall on thirteen years between novels, parent-children relationships, and full stops.
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Steven – thanks for talking to me. Andrew Black, a mysterious figure in your new novel Maxwell’s Demon, doesn’t do interviews. Though I’ll avoid that terrible thing of reading a writer into their characters – of seeing Black, a character who spends quite a few years not publishing a book called Maxwell’s Demon, as a proxy for you – why do you do interviews?
It’s a pleasure to talk to you. Andrew Black is a very strange character. Hopefully I’m not too much like him, although you’re right – we both spent a long time not publishing a second novel called Maxwell’s Demon, so maybe I’d kidding myself on that front.
Why do I do interviews? Well, I suppose it’s because the things I write are important to me. They feel like children, in an odd sort of way, and I want to do everything I can to help them find their way in the world. It’s also really good to be able to talk to other people about something huge that’s been in your head for so long. To have the book out of my head and in the world feels wonderful.
I’ll try to avoid that terrible habit again when I ask you about the time between The Raw Shark Texts, your bestseller debut novel, and Maxwell’s Demon, your second. In those thirteen years you’ve written for television and video games. Firstly, have those other forms inflected how you’ve written this novel?
Yes, I think so. I’m always looking for different forms to explore, and what I learn in one brings new things to all of the others. Novels are the most challenging form for me though. I’m a fast scriptwriter but a slow novelist. There are a lot ideas and explorations in Maxwell’s Demon. Religious, scientific, existential, structural – exploring the mechanics of narrative and language. But at the same time, it’s crucial to me that a novel is also dramatic, exciting, moving, emotionally resonant – all that good, vitally important human stuff. So, it’s a lot. Writing a book is a lot. At least, it is the way I seem to write them.
And, secondly, why thirteen years? (I imagine it’s pretty different to the in-book reasons…)
Partly because the book has a lot of different things going on, as I say. Maxwell’s Demon talks a lot about the novel as an engine, and I do think about stories as machines (actually, that’s another point where I’m completely in line with Andrew Black – this isn’t looking good for me claiming I’m nothing like him, is it?). As a narrative machine, Maxwell’s Demon is attempting to do a ton of different things at the same time – it’s difficult to make a machine like that work in harmony with itself and not rip itself apart.
Thirteen years is an insanely long time, though. All I can say is, that’s how long it took. The Raw Shark Texts took six years; Maxwell’s Demon took thirteen. I’m aware that I need to break that pattern now though, as I don’t have twenty-six years to spend on number three!
I sense you have an interest in the small; your work feels considered line-by-line, word-by-word, smallest-unit-of-meaning-by-smallest-unit-of-meaning. You draw narrative, also, from the smallest occurrences of life. How do you reconcile this with the largeness of subject and thought and existence that your work is also ultimately about? Does the attention to the smallness and precision of words and letters ever get in the way of using them to explore bigger things?
Not really, because think it’s true that all big things grow from tiny things. Tiny moments, tiny mistakes. Maybe a lot of tiny things. Entropy, collapse, time – and with them loss, death, change – these big things spring from the tiny, probability playing out in millions of mundane little ways. Tiny choices, tiny changes – the more I explored, the more it seemed that these things make the world.
Some metafiction is page-turning, but more is not. Maxwell’s Demon is, and – rarer – it is poignant and humane and moving. You were one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Can some of the poignancy, eight years on, be chalked up to a little life-experience?
Thank you. Well, my life has been quite a crazy one, so there has always been life-experience to draw on! Although the kinds of life-experience definitely change as you get older. This book has a different energy to the last one, and a big part of that is down to the thirteen years that have passed between them for sure.
Could you talk to me a little about writing children, and parent-children relationships?
During the thirteen years that went into writing the book, I had children. That’s definitely some new life experience right there! So I found myself thinking a lot – not only about them, but also about my own parents, and my own childhood. One part of having children that I wasn’t prepared for was how much you find yourself reliving your own childhood as you go about raising your kids. That new sense of generational thinking, thinking about who my parents were to me, and how I want to be to my children, that was a huge part of writing this book.
What’s Maxwell’s Demon about?
A character in the book says, ‘Is the world you live in, each and every day, made more from rocks and grass and trees, or from articles, certificates, records, files and letters? Is it made more from soil and rivers and sand, or from thoughts and ideas, beliefs and opinions?’ That’s what it’s about, that and making sure that you don’t waste your life looking the wrong way, and focusing on the wrong things. It’s also about angels and demons and miracles. And time and entropy and loss. And stories and words and worlds. But ultimately, when all’s said and done, it’s about parents and children.
This is an extraordinarily complex book. My question is: how do you hold this all in your head? How do you plan it, and fight the entropy, and deliver it to paper? (‘The larger the closed system is, the more work must’ve gone into creating and maintaining it’.)
There’s a phrase in the book – ‘the artfully concealed application of a shitload of time’. That’s it in a nutshell, really. There was no easy way to do it and I got most parts of it wrong before I got them right. Maybe extreme stubbornness was the key to finally getting it all on paper (another thing in common with Andrew Black, this is looking bad now…).
Maxwell’s Demon is driven, in part, by the philosophical, literary and indeed scientific material it references. How much of this was already in your head, as it were, when you began writing the book, and how much of it did you read and discover, and in turn the book take in, in the process of writing?
I had some, but a lot I discovered along the way. Especially the philosophical elements. I had a sense of something I wanted to create – this mythology of language and creation – and I dug into lots of old religious texts to try to find a basis to help me build it. The shocking thing I discovered was that everything I wanted to create was already there! The deeper I dug into old religious texts, the more I found. What I’d been hoping to invent was already right there. And deeper and stranger and richer than I could’ve hoped for. It was wonderful and exciting, so I pushed deeper and explored more. None of those elements in the book are invented. Which is nicely unsettling for me as a writer. Hopefully nicely unsettling for readers too.
Finally, could you talk to me about full stops?
Be careful of them. But be even more careful of that little black dot above the ‘i’, hanging like a tempting apple, just out of reach. Actually, I’d avoid ‘i’ altogether. It’s a trouble causer, that one.
Steven Hall is the author of The Raw Shark Texts and was lead writer on the bestselling video game Battlefield 1, for which he received a Writer’s Guild nomination. His 2007 debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, won the Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It was an international bestseller and has been translated into over thirty languages. In 2013, Hall was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Maxwell’s Demon is his second novel.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.
Photo credit: Jerry Bauer