Steven Hall (2007)
An interview with author Steven Hall from 2007, Death Ray issue 06. You can read a review of his first book, The Raw Shark Texts, here.
Q&A Steven Hall
Literary new kid on the block Steven Hall has had much approbation heaped upon his first book, the complex yet eminently readable The Raw Shark Texts. Here he spills some, but by no means all, of the novel’s secrets to Death Ray.
Death Ray: The book’s villain is called Mycroft Ward, his opponents Shotai-Mu. We take it you are a Mac user?
Steven Hall: I’m a PC guy, believe it or not! Like all books, The Raw Shark Texts invites the reader into a world built from letters and words. But whereas some writers aim for complete transparency – they want the reader to forget they are reading a book at all – I wanted that machinery of reading, language and symbols to be in the foreground. It makes me laugh when people say that this book was clearly written with Hollywood in mind. Sure the story has a filmic feel, but The Raw Shark Texts is built most heavily on the printed page, on its own bookishness. And with that in mind, what else can you call a Lovecraft-esque monster villain hell-bent on taking over the world?
DR: It has been said that The Raw Shark Texts is SF, but it seems more akin to fantasy – parallel worlds made of concepts, soul-eating creatures, a boat created from other objects with sympathetic magic…
SH: That’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought of it like that but I can see where you’re coming from. I guess the big difference is that all those things you mention only exist in the world of Raw Shark if you’re looking at them from a certain perspective, and if you choose to take the narrator at his word. I’d say it’s much less black-and-white than a traditional fantasy story, where the world often comes pre-equipped with demons and dragons that are as real to everyone living there as the trees and the mountains. One of the things I wanted to do is ask “What is real?” Eric Sanderson talks about thought sharks but there’s a chance that what he’s really trying to tell us is quite different. Then again, maybe not.
DR: You bought a Dalek with the advance. Come clean, what’s your biggest influence – genre, or the stuff they don’t take the piss out of on The Late Review?
SH: Haha, good question. My influences come from everywhere. I’m not one of those people who draws a line between high art and low art. If it’s interesting, it’s interesting. If it’s exciting, it’s exciting. I’m interested and excited by Auster and Calvino and Borges, I’m interested and excited by Transformers and Jaws and Star Wars (but only the three real ones). One review called The Raw Shark Texts a cross between Thomas Pynchon and Doctor Who. That was fantastic, that’s just where I want to be.
The Raw Shark Texts has been called literary fiction, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, horror, sci-fi, cyberpunk, romance, literary mash-up (I like that one), slipstream, a graphic novel in prose, and now fantasy. I’m happy for each reader to make that call for themselves. It’s not a writer’s job to say, “You will read my book like this”.
With this book I wanted to smash together types of writing and storytelling which have always been seen as quite separate. It’s a type of heresy, I think. I’ve upset a few people, but that’s always a good start.
DR: Seas, oceans, fish. Does this aquatic theme of the novel have any special attraction to you or is it only a function of this particular story?
SH: I am fascinated and also a little frightened by deep water, and I think sharks are amazing. And fish. Fish just seem so alien somehow. I suppose you could call it a sense of wonder and it definitely found its way into the book.
That said, it’s all vital to the story too. I love the way we use water terminology when we talk about language and thought – stream of consciousness, flow of conversation, the depths of the unconscious, muddying the water. That connection always seems to be there. The question I asked myself was – what kind of animals would live in these non-physical streams and flows? The Ludovician shark evolved from there.
DR: There’s all this additional material out there. Where’s it fit in? And if I were to work hard with your QWERTY code on the book, would I uncover a text telling me to assassinate Tony Blair?
SH: There are some codes hidden in the book, but you’re not going to pin any assassinations on me! Raw Shark was designed to reward the careful reader. You can go a long way down the rabbit hole if you decide to.
There’s lots of extra material out there and lots more to come, like “Negatives”. These aren’t deleted scenes, they’re extra parts of the novel which are not always bound between the covers of the book. The indexes are negatives (only the Canadian and UK editions contain indexes, and both are different), and so is the prologue (available online and as a limited free booklet published in Canada). Then there are the extra pages which I slipped randomly into a few hundred copies of the UK hardback, the scene with the conceptual sword which only appears in the Italian translation and a guest appearance by the narrator of book two in the Greek translation, there’s lots of these things. It’s a book about lost things and it seemed to make sense to have missing texts and blurred edges. The forums at www.rawsharktexts.com/unspace are the best place to keep track of what’s happening with the extra sections.
DR: After reading The Raw Shark Texts I feel that I know you – is it a very personal book?
SH: I feel that you have to invest a lot of yourself into writing a book for it to really feel alive. You have to open yourself up to the reader. That’s not to say it’s autobiographical – I’ve never been attacked by an imaginary shark – but you do find yourself drawing on the emotions you’ve experienced and presenting them in as honest a way as you can. It’s quite a scary process in that sense, rewarding though. I’ve had some great messages from people who’ve been touched by the book, a few who’ve felt it helped them deal with things that were happening in their lives and also a few who’ve been given nightmares by the story. As a writer, what more could I ask for?