Last year I reviewed Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May and The Burning Man, which I enjoyed hugely. I loved the quirkiness of his Peculiar Crime Unit and I have a weak spot for police procedurals anyway. But his other books, speculative fiction with a wide horror streak running through them have consistently caught my eyes over the past few years, though I’ve never had the guts to read them—I guess my teaching myself to (dare to) horror is still a work in progress. His latest novel, The Sand Men, sounds fascinating and I’m pleased to be able to welcome Christopher back to A Fantastical Librarian for another Author Query and his answers to some questions about The Sand Men.
Welcome back to A Fantastical Librarian! Tell us about The Sand Men, your latest release from Solaris. What inspired this near-future thriller?
Partly my love for JG Ballard’s ideas. We used to correspond and I’ve read everything he wrote. I felt that if he had lived longer he would have been fascinated by the Middle East’s determination to hurtle into the future.
The ex-pat compound where Lea, Roy, and Cara live seems like it would function like a perfect pressure cooker, because of its closed-off nature. Was that one of the reasons to set your story there?
Yes, very much so – and I’ve spent time in such a place as I have a friend who lives in one, so I was able to experience its inner world first hand. It’s a surreal and rather Kafkaesque experience, not at all unpleasant, rather like lucid dreaming. I lived as an ex-pat in LA too, which was a far more vicious environment than an Arabic one.
Xenophobia is rampant in the current day and age, but to tackle it through a group itself composed of outsiders is an approach I find very interesting. What drew you to that dynamic?
We talk about this a lot these days. I find the present horrendously conformist compared to the experimental writing and filmmaking I grew up with. You’d be horrified by the bloggers who’ve asked me to tell their readers which other book this book is most like! That’s not how I think. I’ve always thought of myself as an outsider looking in, which is why the heroine finds herself drawn to other outsiders and therefore becoming a closet rebel. Outsiders who also operate within the system fascinate me. It was very important that I didn’t demonize anyone in the book, and having this group of outsiders helped that.
Your Bryant & May series has been going for quite a number of books, yet all of your other books seem to be standalone stories. Is that by design – as a sort of palate cleanser between series books – or did the stories just work out that way?
They’re partly itches I need to scratch, partly palate cleansers. I love doing the Bryant & Mays, which are in their own way anti crime novels because I don’t play by the rules in them, but sometimes I need to do something else. The stand-alones are tricky because you don’t build reader loyalty; I have to say ‘Trust me – I’ll take you somewhere different again.’
While the Bryant and May books are police procedurals and your other books are thrillers with often a large dollop of horror mixed in, all of them seem to contain a mystery at their core. What makes mystery so important to your writing?
I’d like to make them way more mysterious. I think there’s an element of mystery to most novels – not of the whodunit sort but, in the case of ‘The Sand Men’ why does Lea start to kick back? And can we trust what she tells us? In many Ballard books it’s tempting to ask ‘Why are people behaving like this?’ Why does the hero of ‘The Drowned World’ head in the opposite direction to everyone else, even knowing he’ll die? Well, human nature is the biggest mystery of all. Why would anyone do something that will damage them or their family?
And to stay with the mystery novel; which mystery novels should any fan of the genre read in your opinion?
A lot of the Golden Age novels are far better than you’d imagine. Edmund Crispin is hilarious, John Dickson Carr wrote the maddest locked-room mysteries, Margery Allingham’s language is bizarre, Gladys Mitchell’s heroine detective is utterly mad and are all essentials. Frances Iles’ ‘Before The Fact’ is still really shocking because it’s about people who choose to be victims.
Will you be out and about to promote Sand Men? Where can people catch you next?
I’ll be launching at Forbidden Planet in London in early October, then at SlungLow’s Fun Palace on October 4th in Leeds, and I’m pretty much open to signing sessions anywhere in the UK. Just contact Rob Power at Solaris.
Thanks for some terrific questions, by the way.
He is the author of many novels and short story collections, from the urban unease of cult fictions such as Roofworld and Spanky, the horror-pastiche of Hell Train to the much-praised and award-winning Bryant and May series of detective novels – and his two critically acclaimed autobiographies, Paperboy and Film Freak.
He lives in King’s Cross.