Please welcome John Love to The Qwillery. Evensong, John's most recent novel, was published in January 2015 by Night Shade Books.
TQ: Welcome back to The Qwillery. Your new novel, Evensong, was published on January 6th. Has your writing process changed (or not) from when you wrote Faith (2012) to Evensong?
John: Thank you for inviting me, it’s nice to be back.
In my last interview, I said that when I’m writing I like to have a glass of malt whisky, and a cat, within easy reach. That bit hasn’t changed.
The style of writing is a bit different from Faith, my first novel. Evensong’s style is a bit plainer and sparser, and more suited to that of a thriller. There are one or two purple patches, but overall it’s less flamboyant than Faith; deliberately so.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing now?
John: The challenge is to get readers to give positive answers to these three questions:
Did you want to turn the page and find out what happens next?
Did you care about the characters? (Not Did you like them? Characters don’t have to be nice to be believable and complex and make you want to know what happens to them.)
Did you think the book tried to be original and different? If you didn’t, what other book or books did you think it most resembled?
For me, the first question is the most important. I’m always asking, Is this page enough to make a reader want to turn to the next page?
TQ: What do you wish that you knew about book publishing when Faith came out that you know now?
John: Publicity. I always felt Faith got less than it deserved, partly because of my own inexperience at pushing the publishers and partly because of the internal problems in Nightshade at the time.
TQ: Tell us something about Evensong that is not in the book description.
John: Some of the reviews and reader responses have described Evensong’s universe as being dark and twisted, which I wouldn’t deny. But it’s not entirely dark and twisted. Some interesting technologies have started to answer (not completely, but partially) the questions of long-term clean energy supply. And fundamentalism, both religious and political, has been marginalised – again, not completely, but partially. The book’s universe is ambiguous and menacing, but there are also the elements of a kind of Enlightenment springing up here and there. I was tempted to go down that road a bit more, but I decided it would be outside the scope of the book.
TQ: Which character in the Evensong surprised you the most? Who has been the hardest character to write and why?
John: Laurens Rafiq, the Controller-General of the UN, was the most surprising. He’s the spider at the centre of all the world’s webs (I wish I’d thought of that phrase when I was writing the book!) so I thought he’d just be pure unalloyed cynicism coupled with labyrinthine cunning. But I realised that although he had to have those qualities he also needed to have something good buried in there as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have worked.
Gaetano was the hardest, because he’s a character like Anwar, and he resents him but has to work with him. I had to be careful to get the balance right.
You didn’t ask me which character was my favourite, but I’d like to tell you anyway: the Ginger Cat.
TQ: Please give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Evensong.
John: This is where Anwar and Olivia, the two main characters, meet for the first time.
‘When he first saw her she was at the top of a stepladder, scooping a dead fish out of a floor-to-ceiling ornamental tank at the far end of the Boardroom. She had her back to him. Her bottom was wobbling interestingly under a long voluminous velvet skirt.
“Sorry”, she said without turning round, “I’ll be right with you. I just noticed one of these angelfish had died.”
“Do they die very often?”
“No, only once.” ’
TQ: Both Faith and Evensong are SF with the former being Space Opera/Military SF and Evensong being called a near future thriller (by your publisher). Other than being SF and having titles that have religious connotations, what do the two novels have in common? Do they address similar themes? Should SF address big themes?
John: There is something I once wrote in a post for the “Night Bazaar” website run by Nightshade, when Faith was first published:
“If Faith has any political resonances, they’re at best oblique. But I hope it has some other resonances. About identity and free will: what makes us what we are, and what makes us what we do. About love and friendship: what forces bring us together, or keep us apart, and why we don’t recognise them. And about the absence of simple good and evil: the complexities which make each of them part of each other.”
Evensong is a near-future political thriller, so it does have some clear political resonances where Faith doesn’t; but the rest of that paragraph could apply to Evensong as much as to Faith.
So, to answer your last question, yes, absolutely. Big themes are as much fair game for SF as for any other genre.
TQ: Which question about Evensong do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
John: That’s a nice question. I think I’d like someone to ask how I came to think of Evensong. It was quite an unusual process, and I love regaling (or boring) people with it. Now it’s your turn.
My wife and I went to an Evensong service in Rochester Cathedral in Kent. It was a beautiful summer evening and afterwards everybody went out into the Cathedral precincts where some tables had been set out for coffee. Halfway through my coffee I had this idea of a similar setting, where an unidentified woman comes to the Evensong service but doesn’t stop for coffee afterwards. She hurries away. She’s been to several previous Evensongs and has always hurried away afterwards. Who she is, and why she comes there, is her back story which begins nearly a year earlier.
What is so unusual is that I’d got the whole of her back story, and the whole construction of the book, in less time than it took to swallow a mouthful of coffee. There was no blinding flash or feeling of revelation, but the whole book had sprung out fully formed – main plot, sub-plots, main characters, minor characters, settings, everything. I could see it in three dimensions, could (metaphorically) walk round it and study it from every angle, and it worked. It all hung together.
When I came to write it there was almost nothing, major or minor, which was changed.
TQ: What's next?
John: I’m writing a fantasy novel. It doesn’t have any orcs, elves, dragons, sorcerers or dark malign gods, only people. But “fantasy” is probably the most convenient shorthand description because it’s set in a completely imaginary world at the same approximate level of development as ancient Greece or Rome. It even has a map.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
John: Thank you for asking me back, and thank you for your interest in my book.
Night Shade Books, January 6, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 352 pages
A near-future thriller where those who protect humanity are not always completely human.
The future is a dangerous place. Keeping the world stable and peaceful when competing corporate interests and nation-states battle for power, wealth, and prestige has only gotten harder over the years. But that’s the United Nations’ job. So the UN has changed along with the rest of the world. When the UN’s “soft” diplomacy fails, it has harder options. Quiet, scalpel-like options: The Dead—biologically enhanced secret operatives created by the UN to solve the problems no one else can.
Anwar Abbas is one of The Dead. When the Controller-General of the UN asks him to perform a simple bodyguard mission, he’s insulted and resentful: mere bodyguard work is a waste of his unique abilities. But he takes the job, because to refuse it would be unthinkable.
Anwar is asked to protect Olivia del Sarto, the host of an important upcoming UN conference. Olivia is head of the world’s fastest-growing church, but in her rise to power she has made enemies: shadowy enemies with apparently limitless resources.
Anwar is one of the deadliest people on earth, but her enemies have something which kills people like him. And they’ve sent it for her. It’s out there, unstoppable and untraceable, getting closer as the conference approaches.
As he and Olivia ignite a torrid affair, Anwar must uncover the conspiracy that threatens to destroy her, the UN, and even The Dead.
John Love spent most of his working life in the music industry. He was Managing Director of PPL, the world’s largest record industry copyright organization. He also ran Ocean, a large music venue in Hackney, East London.
He lives just outside London in north-west Kent with his wife and cats (currently two, but they have had as many as six). They have two grown-up children.
Apart from his family, London and cats, his favorite things include books and book collecting, cars and driving, football and Tottenham Hotspur, old movies and music. Science fiction books were among the first he can remember reading, and he thinks they will probably be among the last.
Anwar sat in a formal garden in northern Malaysia on a pleasant September afternoon, reading. The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on…He liked FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, but felt it took liberties with the text; he preferred the original, in the cadences of twelfth-century Persian.
It was 4:00 p.m.: time. He closed the book and retreated back under the roof of his verandah, just as the afternoon rain began with its usual promptness and intensity. While he watched it he performed one of his standard exercises: using the fingers of his right hand to break, one by one, the fingers of his left hand. The core of the exercise was not to blank out the pain—though his abilities were such that he could have done that, too—but to feel the pain and still not react to it, either by noise or by movement, as each finger was bent back beyond the vertical and snapped. It was a familiar exercise and he finished it satisfactorily.
The rain stopped, as promptly and suddenly as it had begun. He leaned back, breathing in the scent of wet leaves and grass. A brief gust of wind shook rain from the trees, so that it sounded, for a few seconds, like another downpour beginning. He cupped his right hand round his left, easing his fingers back to their normal position, and waited for the bones to set and regenerate; it would take about an hour.
It was not unheard-of for a VSTOL from the UN to land on the formal lawn at the centre of his garden, but it was not something which happened often. This was one of their latest, silent and silvered and almost alien. A door melted open in its side and a dark-haired young woman got out and walked across the lawn towards Anwar. She was Arden Bierce, one of Rafiq’s personal staff, and they smiled a greeting at each other.
“Rafiq wants you.” She handed him a letter. He studied Rafiq’s neat italic handwriting, not unlike his own, and the courteously phrased request and personal signature. When Rafiq made this kind of request, he did so by pen and ink and personal meeting. Never remotely, and never electronically.
“I should go now.” He was telling her, not asking her. She nodded and turned back to the waiting VSTOL. Anwar Abbas stood up, stretched, and walked after her. He was as powerful as a tiger, as quiet as the flame of a candle.
Offer and Acceptance. The VSTOL would take him south to the UN complex outside Kuala Lumpur, where Laurens Rafiq, the Controller-General, would formally offer him a mission and request his acceptance. Anwar Abbas had received such requests before from Rafiq, but this one would be different. It would lead him to two people, one of them his beginning and the other his end.
Anwar liked the VSTOL, almost to the point of kinship; it was quiet, did exactly what it was supposed to do, and did it supremely well. It was even superior to America’s Area 51 planes, and their Chinese and European equivalents.
There was a growing concern in some quarters that the UN was developing better hardware than its members. Another example, Anwar reflected, of the Rafiq Effect.
The northern highlands of Malaysia hurtled past underneath. They were heavily wooded, and seemed to be smoking without flames; vapour from the last downpour, hanging above treetop level. He clenched and unclenched his left hand.
“Is it healed?” Arden Bierce asked him.
He smiled. “The Moving Finger breaks, and having broke, resets itself.”
“Don’t you mean ‘broken’?”
He liked her; she had this ability to make people feel comfortable around her. She was very attractive, but seemed genuinely unaware of it. Most people born with looks like that would be shaped by them; would probably be cynical or manipulative. She was neither. Perceptive and clever in her dealings with people, but also pleasant and companionable.
Anwar had never done any more than flirt mildly with her. He was awkward socially, the result of having a normal circle of acquaintances but few close friends. Only about thirty people in the world knew what he was.
He leaned back and watched the shapes and colours moving just under the silvered surfaces of the walls and furniture of the VSTOL’s lounge. It would be a short flight. The UN complex outside Kuala Lumpur would soon appear.
The UN had adapted to the increasing complexity and volatility of the world order. It had a Secretary-General (political) and a Controller-General (executive). As it gradually took on more executive functions, the Controller-General became more important, at the expense of the Secretary-General. The Controller-General was Laurens Rafiq.
The old UN in New York still remained, but Rafiq’s UNEX (UN Executive) in Kuala Lumpur was overtaking it—restructuring the major agencies like UNESCO, UNICEF, UNIDO, and transforming them. Policy was still in the hands of the old UN, but it was becoming apparent that policy was meaningless without executive rigour. The medium was overtaking the message.
Rafiq had acquired many assets at UNEX. Not only the agencies, but also some independent military capacity—not enough to make the UN more powerful than any of its individual members, but enough to settle some of the increasing conflicts over resources, energy, borders, and trade. Often Rafiq’s UNEX would take pre-emptive action which later the political UN had to ratify—had to, because the action worked.
One of the smaller and more mysterious components of Rafiq’s UNEX was something he called The Consultancy, known colloquially (and inaccurately) as The Dead. Its members did things for him which mere Special Forces could never do. Outside UNEX, nobody knew exactly how many Consultants Rafiq had, but it was only a handful. This was because only a handful could survive the induction process, and because only a handful was all that even Rafiq could afford. Their training, and the physical and neurological enhancements which made them unique, were uniquely expensive.
Anwar Abbas was a Consultant: one of The Dead.
Dusk fell quickly and was short-lived, turning abruptly to darkness in the few minutes’ duration of the flight. Anwar got only a glimpse of the lights of the UN complex before the silvered plane dropped vertically and landed—or, rather, hovered politely one inch above the ground while they stepped out through the door that had rippled open for them. What enabled it to hover was something to do with room-temperature semiconductors, the Holy Grail of frictionless motion: not fully achieved yet, but getting closer.
The plane slid noiselessly up into the night. For the second time, Anwar found himself following Arden Bierce across a lawn. This lawn was part of the park which formed the centre of the UN complex.
Ringing the park were some tall buildings, each a different shape and colour: ziggurats, pyramids, cones, ovoids. Each stood in its own smaller piece of manicured parkland, and was festooned with greenery hanging from walls and windows and balconies. The overall effect was pleasing, without the pomp of the old UN buildings in New York and Geneva; more like the commercial district of any reasonably prosperous city. Kuala Lumpur, a few miles south, was similar but larger-scale.
The central parkland had lawns and woods, landscaped low hills and a river, over which was cantilevered the Controller-General’s house, Fallingwater. It was based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, scaled up, but still house-sized. The security around this building, of all the buildings in the complex, appeared to be nonexistent, the way Rafiq had personally designed it to appear. They simply walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. The door opened into a large reception area.
“I’ll go and tell him you’re here,” said Arden Bierce as she went through an adjoining door, usually known as the door because it led to Rafiq’s inner office.
Anwar looked around him. He knew Fallingwater well, and found it calming. The interior of the house was larger than Wright’s original, but furnished and decorated in the same style: comfortable and understated, a mix of regular and organic shapes, of autumn browns and ochres and earth tones. Large areas of the floor were open expanses of polished wood, with seating areas formed by clusters of plain stonewhite sofas and armchairs. Several people were there, talking quietly. They were all members of Rafiq’s personal staff, like Arden Bierce, but only a few of them looked up as he entered. The rest paid him no attention.
Except for Miles Levin. He and Anwar had known each other for years, and they exchanged their usual greeting.
Their Muslim and Jewish origins, if any, were no longer important. They had taken their present names, along with their present identities, when they became Consultants. Which they had done at the same time, seven years ago.
Levin was six feet five, nearly three inches taller than Anwar, and more powerfully built. He looked generally younger and stronger, and was—for a Consultant—louder and more outgoing. Anwar was thin-faced, with a hook nose. Levin’s face was broader and more open. Both were dark-haired and wore their hair long.
“Waiting to see him?” Anwar asked.
“I’ve seen him. Offer and Acceptance. I was just leaving.”
Normally they’d have had a lot to talk about, but not this time. They couldn’t discuss missions, that simply wasn’t done; and also, Anwar noted a strangeness in Levin’s manner, a kind of preoccupation. So he just nodded briefly at him, and Levin turned to go.
“Take care,” something prompted Anwar to whisper.
Levin heard. “You too.” He did not look back.
“Filth.” The door closed softly behind him.
Another door—the door—opened. Arden Bierce came out.
“He’ll see you now.”
Excerpted with permission from Evensong by John Love. Copyright 2015, Night Shade Books an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.