“Angelus” won the Aeon Award (2007) and was first published in Albedo 1, Issue #34 (2008). Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired this story?
The ideas for “Angelus” actually grew out of the story fragment that eventually became “Flying in the Face of God’ (shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2010 and recently reprinted in Microcosmos, my new story collection from NewCon Press). It was also an attempt to explore further some of the ideas I touched on in an earlier story, “Bird Songs at Eventide,” about the distances—both physical and emotional—that inevitably exist between those who embark on a momentous journey and those who remain behind. There is another, much longer shadow hanging over “Angelus,” though—that of Nabokov’s monumentally brilliant short story “Spring in Fialta,” about an ultimately fatal meeting between two on-off lovers at a fictional resort on the Riviera. The time-echoes in that story, the way episodes of life and memory are juxtaposed and overlaid, like the folded bellows in a concertina, resound with redoubled force each time I read it.
There are beautiful descriptions with close attention to sensory detail throughout this story. It’s obvious you care about the language. I’ve read that most writers fall into one of two categories: storytellers or wordsmiths. Do you agree with this idea? Would you put yourself in the wordsmith camp?
I care passionately about language—but not altogether, I hope, at the expense of story. It’s absolutely true that I’m very particular about the stylistic aspects of a story, and while I find the wordsmith/storyteller comparison interesting and probably true, there’s another I’d like to cite alongside it. Unfortunately I forget who said it, but according to an article I once read, all writers are either “Dickensian” or “Nabokovian.” The Dickensian writer’s central concern is with life in the round, the vast panoply of existence, the “God’s eye view,” if you like, whereas the Nabokovian’s focus is narrower, more internal, obsessed with detail and with the subject of obsession itself. I’m definitely that second type of writer! Nabokovian writers tend to circle the same concerns endlessly, repeatedly picking them apart, reiterating. It’s probably no coincidence that such writers do also tend towards a preoccupation with the way words are put together, although I would hope always to be an inclusive writer—a writer who uses language to generate an emotional response rather than to alienate, to invite readers in rather than erecting a barricade against them.
The science fiction elements concerning the Aurora Project and fliers were fascinating, but they were also fairly subtle. Why use a fantastic setting to tell this story? What’s the appeal of speculative fiction for you?
The fantastic vision is at the core of everything I write, and I can’t imagine writing a story that did not contain at least some speculative element. For me, the whole of quotidian existence has its underpinnings in the fantastic, anyway. We like to familiarize the process of life and death by pretending that it’s entirely ordinary, that it’s “normal”—but when you actually begin thinking about the sheer unlikeliness of existence, the vast number of imponderables and inexplicables that have conspired to enable our presence here, there’s nothing remotely ‘normal’ about it! Even the most average day in any given year contains a thousand possibilities for the most outlandish strangeness. It is the fundamental strangeness of our predicament, its fantastical underpinning, that I have always felt driven to reveal and examine through my writing. The fantastic is often the truest metaphor for life as it appears when it is properly examined, scrutinized without prior expectations, at the basement level. European writers especially use these kinds of tools all the time—just take a look at stories by Kafka, or Bruno Schulz, and you’ll see what I mean.
I enjoyed how open the ending feels. You left me questioning the fate of these characters. Why did you choose to end the story at this point?
I always prefer a story to feel as if it’s really just a part of something, an episode, if you like, from a much longer story. The stories I love best are those in which you can sense the story—the lives of the characters—continuing after the final paragraph. (Stories by writers like Cheever and Carver, for instance, are masterclasses in this kind of open-ended narrative.) If readers come to the end of one of my stories still caring enough about the characters to keep guessing about what might have happened to them beyond that final frame, then the story is going some way towards succeeding. I like to end a story feeling that it’s still alive.
I found myself considering ideas of regret and choice, among other things, as I read this story. Does your work tend to explore particular themes?
Most definitely—over and over! Back to Nabokov again, he sometimes spoke of something he called “chronophobia,” or a fear of the passing of time. I’ve always identified with that. I think I also share his preoccupation with pinning events in place—and in particular the precise details of events—by the use of language, of “saving” things by writing them down. Every choice you make in life seals off other choices, and sometimes—many times—it’s impossible to know which choice was preferable until long after it’s been made. I think a lot of my stories deal with these themes—and with the nostalgia that inevitably accompanies this kind of intense examination of specific memories.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about “Angelus”? What’s next for you?
Winning the Aeon Award with “Angelus” was a hugely important milestone for me—not because it felt good to win an award as such (although it did!) but because the competition was judged by Ian Watson, who was one of my great SF heroes when I first started reading science fiction in my mid- to late teens. To know that he’d read my story and liked it—well, that felt fantastic.
I have to date written two other stories set in the same universe as “Angelus.” One is “Flying in the Face of God,” which I mentioned earlier, and the other is “Stardust,” published this April by PS Publishing as part of a collection of the same name. The events of “Stardust” take place in the same alternate world as “Angelus,” but at a time when the scientist Valery Kushnev is still alive and the idea of deep space travel is still in its infancy.
I’m still drawn towards the themes in these stories, and there’s every possibility I might revisit the “Angelus” universe again in the future—perhaps to find out more about Angelica Eyre. That’s unlikely to happen for a while, though, as I’ve just started work on a new novel-length project. The story is set on another planet, which is something of a departure for me, although all my familiar obsessions are present and correct!
Spread the word!