When I learned that the new BBC-America hit television series INTRUDERS was adapted from a novel by Michael Marshall Smith, I felt compelled to read his book. THE INTRUDERS was my introduction to this exceptional author. When I did some research about him, I was surprised to learn that he has long been lauded (and awarded) for his work as a science fiction and fantasy writer. Then I discovered that he also wrote crime fiction. I'm currently reading STRAW MEN, the first in his thriller trilogy. Michael was kind enough to do this Q&A. My aim with the questions was NOT to disclose any key plot points of either the book or the television series while exploring setting, themes, and background research.
(1) Your first novel ONLY FORWARD, initially published by HarperCollins UK in 1994, was awarded the Philip K. Dick Award in 2000 for best original science fiction paperback published in the United States. The award is given out every year at Norwescon, the science fiction and fantasy convention located in Sea Tac, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Seattle appears not to be just a setting, but a character in the novel. What was it about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest which made you choose it as the location of THE INTRUDERS?I’m glad you felt that — it’s something I try to do with all my novels. A sense of place is critically important to any story, and the flavour and atmosphere of either a city or tiny town can contribute a huge amount to the tone, to the point where yes, the location becomes a character in its own right, shaping the narrative, speaking quietly in the background: Frank Lloyd Wright said a house should be “of the hill, not on the hill”, and I think the same is true of story and location.
I haven’t been back there in a while, but there was a period when I seemed to be passing through Seattle and the Pacific Northwest every year or so (including for that NorWesCon where I was delighted to receive the PKD Award), and I loved the area. The Cascades and the Olympic Forest are amazing, and that bleak, silent coast line… and I’d happily live in Seattle, too: it has an extremely distinctive atmosphere, great bookstores and food and coffee, some unusually interesting history and geography (sandwiched between mountains and that frigid bay)… and more than a hint of the strange.
I’d already used the Cascade Mountains as a locale in an earlier novel, THE LONELY DEAD (published as THE UPRIGHT MAN in the US, for reasons I’ll never quite understand), and Seattle simply seemed like the right choice for THE INTRUDERS. The story was initially going to be tied even more intimately to Seattle's past, in fact, but some of that material didn’t make it to the final draft. I was aware however that I didn’t know the place well enough before I started writing, and so - in a rare moment of professionalism - took myself there for a week. I spent eight hours a day walking the streets alone for hour after hour, pausing only for coffee and book stores, and the evenings in a variety of bars drinking local ambers and reading local history. It’s the best way to get to know a town quickly, I think, and I did the same for NYC when I was preparing to write must last novel, WE ARE HERE...
(2) While you have a tremendous fan base with science fiction and fantasy fans, I believe that THE INTRUDERS definitely places you in the pantheon of crime fiction. In fact, on your author website you refer to THE INTRUDERS as “a compelling thriller about human nature.” While I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot for any of your readers (or fans of the television series), the novel begins with two murders, and three missing persons. You certainly have the mastery over all the elements of a thriller. When the International Thriller Writers was formed in 2005, their mission was to “educate readers about thrillers.” David Morrell gave a definition of "thriller" in this excerpt from Crimespree Magazine:
What aspects of human nature did you explore in THE INTRUDERS?
I think David’s absolutely right, and my first three SF novels were basically thrillers too — ones that merely happened to be set in somewhat strange near-futures. An exploration of human nature should be at the heart of all fiction, and genre novels possess some of the best tools for doing that, both through the metaphors at their disposal and their characteristic subject matter - love, death, desire, fear, and the inexorable influence of the past upon the present and future.The echoes of the past are very loud: so loud that they drown out what’s happening now. Though they have to be taken seriously, too, because as Clarke Ashton Smith said, “the commonist and gravest error of modernity lies in believing that antiquity is dead”. We’re all time travellers, simultaneously living in our pasts and future — which is why it’s so hard sometimes to just be here, now. Marc Augé also put it well: “History is on our heels, following us like our shadows, like death”. The trick in life is try to balance emotional hysteresis with who we actually are now, to work out who we are today and who we’re going to be , and what we need, and want. This sounds easy — but in fact they’re the biggest tests we ever face.
(3) Who are some of your favorite crime fiction writers and in which ways have they influenced you?
I hadn’t actually read a lot of crime fiction before my thirties, but then by chance I discovered three writers not long before writing THE STRAW MEN novels, and they all had an influence. I think of them as “the three Jims” - Jim Thompson, James Lee Burke and James Ellroy. I love Thompson for his sparse, eerily noir universe, and his penchant for staring fixedly at the darkness in the human character until it burns your mind. I could never emulate Ellroy’s vertiginous grip of detail and background (or wish to, especially), but except for his too-pared-down phases I love the directness of his style, and the way multiple story lines are bled together. And it’s hard to beat Burke at his best, for his lyrical prose and how well he portrays relationships, especially between men.
(4) Your main character, Jack Whelan is the keystone of the novel. He is an ex-LAPD cop who, after success with a photography book, moved to Washington State with his wife Amy Whalen. Detective Blanchard of the Seattle Police Department, is foil character to Jack in that he is on the job and, in fact, rose to the ranks of detective while Jack did not. You seem to know cops very well. (I thought your line in Chapter Seventeen that being a cop is a “social janitor” was so astute!) Did you interview any police officers or detectives while writing THE INTRUDERS?
I’m ashamed to admit that I did not. As with most things, rather than do any actual ‘research’, I tend to just spend a while thinking about what it might be like… I hope I get it right at least some of the time.
(5) There is a secret society in THE INTRUDERS, and it is supported by The Psychomancy Trust. (Psychomancy, according to the OED, is a word which came into use in the late-16th century to describe communication with spirits or souls of the dead.) Did you do a lot of research about secret societies?
Um, no. I think it’s easy to get lost in a sea of two much information, sometimes… the reader doesn’t need chapter and verse on everything: the concept of an age-old secret society is a pretty accessible one, and often it’s better to let the reader fill in the gaps themselves.
(6) Paranormal scientists (or pseudoscientists, depending on what you think) long have used EMF meters to register the presence of a spirit or a ghost. What is the “science” in the science fiction of THE INTRUDERS, with regard to Megahertz and electromagnetic fields (a.k.a. EMF)?
Most of the science I put in the novel is true, actually. Sound at very low frequencies like 19hz - infrasound - though generally not audible to the human ear, can have odd effects on the body. It’s close to the resonant frequency of parts of the human eye, for a start, setting up vibrations that can cause visual distortion. It also creates an unsettled feeling through the way it vibrates through the body, perhaps particularly in the mat of neural tissue we have in our guts — which effectively constitutes a second, inarticulate brain, one that we trust without even really knowing it’s there. I’ve seen it speculated that infrasound in big cities (caused by machinery and traffic or subways) that contributes to the feeling of urban anomie: and a few investigations have indicated the presence of infrasound at places where ghosts are supposed to have been sighted. There’s evidence too that these effects were better-understood in the past (many of Europe’s most prestigious cathedral organs have pipes that produce infrasound, which wouldn’t have been audible, but might have contribute to the effect the music had on listeners in other ways) and even in pre-history: some ceremonial structures from the period appear to have been constructed so as to amplify sound.
(7) Did you choose the name of the law firm Burnell & Lytton based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the 19th-century English novelist, poet, playwright and politician? He was a Victorian horror writer whose novel A STRANGE STORY (1862) greatly influenced Bram Stoker in writing DRACULA.
Ha! Actually, I didn’t… though I kind of wish I had. The search for names is one of the important subsidiary quests in writing a novel - they’ve got to seem right, though it’s hard to put a finger on what makes one better than another. "Burnell & Lytton” sounded like the kind of firm whose sign you’d walk past every day without thinking twice about it… enabling them to hide in plain sight.
(8) There are religious, supernatural and philosophical themes and issues covered in THE INTRUDERS. You studied philosophy at Cambridge. I see a Nietzschean influence in the novel, that is, you use Nietzsche’s idea that the Christian emphasis on the afterlife does not allow believers to deal with earthly life as effectively as they could. Which philosophical lessons did you insert in the novel?
Yes, there’s that Nietzschean influence - second only to Baudrillard, he’s the person I find most rewarding when it comes to human nature - but otherwise I was more interested in tackling more practical questions about the human condition. Why do so many of us seem dualized? How is it that some people seem to hit the ground running, as if born ready? How can we believe one thing but behave in another, again and again? When we’re talking to ourself, who are we talking to?
(9) I wondered whether Psalm 23 ("The Lord Is My Shepherd") was the source for creating the Shepherds. What type of person becomes a Shepherd?
I was aware of the psalm, but no, it wasn’t really a source - though naturally there’s a parallel in the idea of a person who shepherds someone else’s course through life. Who might become a shepherd? I think it’d be the kind of person who feels most comfortable on the margins of life, living in cracks and shadows, and perhaps responds to the idea of seeing - and operating - behind the veil, glimpsing hidden truths and secrets. Also someone who’s done bad things, perhaps, which Qui Reverti can use as leverage… though ultimately they can’t watch you all the time, and so you need the right kind of people… as Richard Shepherd’s questionable choices and quick-thinking saves show.