Earlier this week I posted a review of Poison City, which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Superb. Gritty. Compelling. Exciting. It’s just that good. And it’s based in Durban, South Africa, the city where I grew up. So I had to read this, and then I had to interview Paul Crilley. I stalked him on Twitter, nicely, and he agreed to this interview on his writing, urban fantasy and more specifically, urban fantasy in South Africa.
What are you reading right now?
I’m always reading a lot of books at once. How long do you have? Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard. London Lore, by Steve Roud, Secret London, Tunnels, Towers, and Temples by David Long. White Corridor by Christopher Fowler. The Peripheral by William Gibson. I’m looking forward to Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin.
Who are your favourite genre authors?
William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett.
What do you like best about South African urban fantasy?
That it’s a fresh canvas. Not many people write in the field, so there’s a small chance of stepping on toes. Plus we have a huge source of untapped mythology, different types of gods and monsters. It’s great to find these fresh takes on old favourites and to introduce them to a wider audience.
You’ve had a vast career in TV and books for younger readers, what prompted your decision to write an adult novel?
I have a list of about seven books that I’m always planning. When I finish one book I’ll pull out my notebook and see which one calls to me. It’s a feeling thing. I’d done a lot of younger stuff up to this point and this time round I wanted to explore more adult themes like corruption, religion, and politics.
How did Poison City come to be? What inspired it?
It was originally a comic book pitch that I came up with about 6 or 7 years ago. The ideas was for “An African X-files”, and it just sort of grew from there. I decided that it would be better served as a book series. That I could do more with it in prose.
Gideon is a broken man, and he’ll do anything – risk anything – to find his daughter’s killer as the blurb makes clear. What concerns did you have writing your “good” guy as so ruthless? (it’s the only work I can think of, but I’m not sure it’s the most accurate)
I think a lot of that actually came from me. I have two kids and I would do anything – absolutely anything – to protect them. (As would any parent, I think.) I sat down and I imagined what I would do in that situation (which wasn’t pleasant) and a lot of what Gideon thinks and does came from that. But as to why people still sympathise with him, I think it’s because everything he does comes from love, although it has become a slightly twisted love that has turned dark and corrupted him a little bit. But I think as long as I kept it about his daughter I would be able to hold on to the readers. I was worried what people would think when he made his choice at the end, but I think he redeems himself.
I honestly don’t know. It’s one of those things I’m asked and I can’t really come up with a single point of genesis. My favourite movies are the “buddy” movies, like Pulp Fiction and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, where you have two different characters playing off each other. I wanted something like that because it’s an absolute joy to write that type of dialogue. (Which brings its own problems. I could just let London and the dog chat about movies and pop culture for pages and pages, but I have to make sure I don’t become self-indulgent). As to the dog, he went through various iterations. He was a ten-foot tall demon at one point, and then he was just a voice in London’s head. Then I realised it needed to be something that was unobtrusive, that can accompany Gideon as he does about his business and a dog was the most obvious answer. As to his personality, I just love writing caustic, bitter characters, so it was obvious how he was going to be.
I also thought Gideon was a lonely character, almost as if he was in a grief-stricken self-imposed exile from everything. But there are Dog and Armitage, pulling him out of that and annoying him along the way. Tell us about their relationship with Gideon?
He is lonely, and the people at work became his family when he went through his loss. (Although none of them would ever admit that.) You know who your real friends are when they stay with you through the hard times, and these characters all did this. They may have given him crap and tried to snap him out of it, but even if they didn’t succeed they stayed by him. That’s true friendship and I think I’ll explore that more in future books.
I loved the idea of giving Durban a physical form – and wished she’d played a bigger part in the story, in all honesty! How did the idea for her come about?
I just thought that all cities must have a soul, a psychic build-up from all the people and the histories that have given her life. But I always wanted to keep her mysterious and enigmatic. Like we as humans can’t really understand that kind of thing. Having said that, the souls of cities do take part in book 2.
The worldbuilding and different characters were such joy to read, but I wonder – were they a joy to write? How do you approach worldbuilding in the first book of a series, and resist dumping all this information on readers in one go?
I did about 6 months of research before starting. I don’t always enjoy that, but it has to be done. As to the info dumps, that’s tricky and it comes from gut feeling. Every time there was information coming through I wrote those scenes full, chock full of info, really dropping everything in. I do that all the way through the book, often repeating myself and just laying it all down, then in second draft I go back to those scenes and trim and trim, shifting some stuff to later on, moving some stuff earlier, moving it all around until it feels light enough that there is no information overload.
And that’s Paul Crilley and urban fantasy in South Africa! What did you think of South Africa as an urban fantasy setting? Or cities that have physical form?