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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Chris Farnell was born in Leicester in 1984. He’s been making up stories as far back as he can remember and started writing Mark II when he should have been revising for his A Levels. He continued writing Mark II while he studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich – where he still lives, writes and works.
Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write a story about cloning? Are you concerned/worried about what science is doing at the moment or fairly phlegmatic about gene technology?
Chris Farnell:My main reason for writing Mark II was that it seemed like a cool idea- a very simple, easy to grasp concept that could be used as a springboard into issues surrounding identity, friendship and grief. I think it’s self-evident that cloning as it’s used in Mark II would be extremely morally dodgy, but the fault lies with how the technology is used, not the technology itself. I like to imagine cave- men having similar debates over their new “sharpened-tool” technology. Sure, it’s great for cutting meat, but what if an unscrupulous person was to get their hands on it?
MT: Did you do much research for your novel?
CF: I barely did any. Anyone with the slightest grounding in Biology can see that the science in Mark II is pure hokum. My intention was to create characters as fully rounded and realistic as I could. If the reader cares about the characters enough they tend to be more forgiving when your best explanation is “It’s all done with science.”
MT: Do you set out to explore an issue or to create characters or to move your readers?
CF: When I start writing a story it’s usually with a single concept in mind, something that can be summed up very neatly in a single sentence- usually one that starts “What if…”. A large part of the writing after that, and one of the really fun parts of writing, is seeing where that idea takes you.
MT: You are with the Birmingham-based Tindal Street Press. What has your experience with this small, regional publisher been like?
CF: It’s been great. Most of your time writing a book is spent in a room, on your own, passionately devoting yourself to something that for all you know nobody is ever going to read. It comes as a breath of fresh air to get to work with people who are as excited about your book as you are.
MT: Mark II is your debut novel. Have you been pleased with its reception?
CF: My favourite reaction so far has been a friend of mine who was reading it in the bath and couldn’t stop crying when she reached the end. I think that’s all any writer truly wants- to make girls cry in the bath.
MT: Is being a bona fide writer living up to your expectations?
CF:In a lot of ways not much has changed. I’m still working, writing whenever I can and generally just trundling along in my own little world. But it does help a lot to know that when I’ve finished this book there’re going to be people waiting to read it. If nothing else getting published has just given me a huge confidence boost.
MT: Mark II is a work of science fiction. It is a fiction with an impossible science element, but it’s neither Frankenstein nor a galaxy-wide gun-fest! Why did you decide to tell your story in this way? Does writing a genre book narrow your options or expand your possibilities?
CF: I write science fiction because I love science fiction. It’s the biggest toy box a writer can have. However, when I’m writing I find genre’s an issue you can pretty much ignore. I think you only really need to worry about genre conventions and the like if you’re writing a pastiche. I’m not writing science fiction -- I’m writing a story with some science fiction things in it.
Having said that, there are themes and plot devices in Mark II that are common throughout science fiction. I think when we were talking earlier I said that I didn’t want Mark II to turn into a Frankenstein story- in that it wasn’t intended as a technological horror story- but unintentionally it actually has a few similarities to Mary Shelley’s novel. Both stories feature a character that is created by science, who becomes an observer of human nature from the outside. The clone in Mark II has a lot in common with Frankenstein’s monster, and Doctor Spock, and that robot in Short Circuit. I think this sort of character is one of the things that science fiction does better than any other genre, trying to show what humans look like from an outsider’s point of view. In a way, I think Mark II is a more optimistic version of Frankenstein- the monster is capable of doing a great deal of good, but becomes alienated and embittered because people are frightened and repulsed by him. The clone is in a very similar situation, but manages to form a bond with the people around him. In both books the issue isn’t really the act of creating a monster or a clone- it’s a question of how you deal with the consequences of that act.
MT: Sci-fi isn't always taken very seriously as good art. Do you think it can be? Which writers have influenced you?
CF: I’m not sure what “taken very seriously” means. I think people have an idea that science fiction is people with made-up names shouting technobabble at each other, which just isn’t very interesting. I know quite a few people who say they don’t really like sci-fi, but they won’t miss an episode of Doctor Who, or were first in line to see Serenity when it came out. A good story is a good story is a good story. If you care about what happens to the characters, if the concept catches your imagination, then you’ll want to hear the story.
Personally, I think everything I’ve ever written secretly wanted to be Back to the Future. All the ingredients of a good piece of sci-fi are right there- you have your one plot device, a time-travelling De Lorean, but the question that powers the film is “Would you get on with your parents if you met them in High School?” It’s not something that would ever happen, but at the same time it’s a question everyone is instantly curious about. Nobody would argue that Back to the Future is anyone’s intellectual treat (Well, actually, I might after a couple of drinks, but I’d be wrong) but it’s a good template for what makes science fiction work. I think you can see the same qualities in a lot of the sci-fi writers who emerged in the fifties and sixties, such as John Wyndham, Richard Matheson and Kurt Vonnegut (and I’ll add H.G. Wells to that list, because although he’s outside the period, it’d be criminal to leave him out). But even among these few writers there’s a massive amount of difference between the stories that they tell. Wyndham’s Chocky is a very simple story about a father-son relationship. Kurt Vonnegut uses a story about time travel and aliens to tell the very true story of the fire-bombing of Dresden.
I don’t know whether anyone’s going to take science fiction “seriously” (although it helps to remember that when Charles Dickens was writing, novels were considered every bit as trashy as soap operas, and Shakespeare’s theatre was considered not much better than the pub or the whorehouse) but I think the scenarios that sci-fi throws up are always going to intrigue people, and that’s a good place to start from if you want to tell a good story.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or straight onto a computer?
CF: I make it up as I go along. Which sounds so much more romantic than it actually is- there’s an awful lot of procrastinating, rereading what I just wrote and deciding it’s all bilge, and drinking endless cups of tea. I used to write pretty much exclusively on my Psion 3A palm-top, I don’t think they make those anymore, which is a shame, it’s a lovely little bit of machinery and the only palm-top I’ve found that you can actually write on for a long period of time. These days it depends on my mood and whatever’s to hand at the time.
MT: What are you working on now?
CF: I’m keeping my next story close to my chest at the moment. It has a sci-fi flavour to it, but it’s going to be very different to Mark II.
Mark Thwaite: Thanks so much for your time Chris -- all the very best.
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