Nick Harkaway is a British writer who has two novels and one book of non-fiction under his belt. The Guardian referred to his debut novel, The Gone-Away World, as “a beautifully silly plan of melding a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure.” Oh, and it’s set in a scary post-Apocalyptic world. Angelmaker was published in the United States in 2012 and received ridiculously gleeful reviews. In fact, Harkaway’s writing tends to inspire gleeful responses, slithering impishly as it does over genre boundaries and giving a good-natured swat at reader expectations.
“Nick Harkaway is a hyphen-novelist. A tragical-comical-historical-pastoral novelist, if you like; or – more precisely in the case of this second book – a fantasy-gangster-espionage-romance novelist,” writes the Observer. He is also a hyphen-person; and a hilarious-irreverent-mischievous-riotous interviewee, to be more precise.
Nick Harkaway is a pseudonym, as is the nom de plume of his father, John le Carré.
Let me start from the very beginning. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a very young kid I wanted to be a milkman because we had an incredibly happy milkman. He came every morning and he was always pleased to see everyone. That just seemed to me to be an excellent life. I don’t think I ever wanted to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist or a pop singer, anything like that.
When I was in university I wanted to do international environmental law. I had a politics degree and I thought that I could go into a conversion course and a master’s and so on, or East European politics or something. But then I just couldn’t stand the idea of another hundred-thousand years of my life at university. I was like, “It’s already been an eternity! Three years is forever!” Because when you’re nineteen or twenty-one, whatever it is, the idea of six months somewhere is an appreciable fraction of your adult life. Now if someone says, “six months,” I go, “Wow! That soon? Wow!”
So, instead of doing that I got a job, I decided I wanted to go into movies. That was my next big dream.
It was, like, the big silver screen movie dream…?
Yeah, I wanted to write Jurassic Park or… I actually wanted to write the screenplay for Neal Stevenson’s Slowcrash. Literally, I called movie studios and begged them. They were like, “You’re some dude from England, why on Earth would we let this happen?”
But you had the guts to call them. I mean, come on, that’s pretty cool.
Yeah, and the weird thing about that is that in Hollywood people were kind of like, “Well obviously we’re not gonna let you do that, but wow, you know…”
People did offer me things. They were like, “Come and do this instead.” And I was like, “Well, no, I don’t want to do that.” But now I look back and I’m like, “Jeez, did you turn down those offers just because you were so monomaniacal?” But if you’re not that monomaniacal then they’re not interested in you in the first place.
Since you wanted to write for film, writing was something that you wanted to do. And writing wasn’t a foreign thing for you growing up, obviously. For a lot of writers I speak to, it’s a really big hurdle for their families or for themselves to understand that you can write, that such a thing exists called “writer.” But your mom is a book editor and your father is a very successful writer.
The biggest burden that I had, in a way, was that I was surrounded with storytelling as a way of living, as a way of being in the world and whatever. My family tells stories to one another as a kind of… Instead of “hello,” it’s, “this incredible thing happened to me today!”
And I have always known how a writer’s day works, how a writer’s month, year, works, what that whole rhythm is, what it looks like and how it works. I knew that it was a survivable way of living.
My dad would get up in the morning and his commute would be from the bedroom to the study. He would close the door and he would work. Turns out that’s the difference between us: I will very, very happily work where people are doing construction, next door where my daughter is playing, you know, wherever. As long as no one actually demands that I get up and do something else, I’m very happy to work. I’ll work in hotel rooms, I’ll work on the beach, I’ll work wherever I am. If I need to work, I can work.
And it’s funny about the door thing as well: Dad used to shut the door and I kind of always assumed in my life that that was to keep me out, you know, keep us out. Until about twelve months ago when I realized that it might equally be to stop him coming out to play with us. Because I have a daughter now – she’s two – and the single most difficult thing is not just going, “Oh screw it, I’ll write this later when she’s asleep.” Because she’s there and she’s having a great time and she’s going, “I have found the tortoise!” and I’m like, “Oh my God, you said tortoise!” and come out and kind of play with the tortoise for half an hour. You do that three times in a day and you write nothing. That’s your lot.
You know, a lot of people think basically if you want to be a writer and you’re not high 90% of the time and if everyone you love doesn’t hate you and you didn’t have a terrible childhood, you’re screwed, you’ve got nothing. And it’s not true! I would go so far as to say five or six percent of writers are not insane. I don’t necessarily number myself in that group but, you know, it’s possible and I knew it was possible. So, I knew that writing as a life was not about being Hunter S. Thompson. That’s not to say you can’t do it, obviously Hunter S. Thompson wrote amazing stuff. But the thing is, you write day after day and by the end of the year, amazingly, you have a book.
Because you had writing all around you and your parents working with writing, did you ever have that sort of rebellious feeling like, “Well, heck, I can’t do that because that’s what they do.” I mean it’s almost too close to home too.
So, that was the movie thing. Because movie writing is a very different skill.
But the environment I grew up in wasn’t pre-scripted. It wasn’t like, “You will be a novelist.” There is a Monty Python sketch which inverts the usual thing and it’s a northern family and the dad’s a writer and he’s saying, “It’s no good you going down the coal mine and thinking you’re clever. No, you’ve got to learn to work at the creative calling.” It’s a gag.
Yeah, I’ve seen it.
But it’s true, there are families that I know where big pressure is put to work in an intellectual job and actually all the guy wants to do is go and be a ski bum for a few years. But no, that didn’t really happen to me. I wanted to be in a creative space, but initially I wanted to be in a different creative space so that’s why the movies.
What was your first step to break into the movie business? It’s a difficult industry.
I got a job working as a production runner – it’s a UK term which basically means that you do an insane quantity of stuff. It’s the first step on the ladder to being a producer because you touch every aspect of the job. So you’re over in the editing room saying, “Can we have this for the director to see this evening?” And the editor is like, “Yeah sure, sit down. This is what we’re cutting together and this is how it’s done.” Then you ping-pong back into the office and it’s like, “Oh my God, the assistant director is sick today so we moved everyone up a slot. Can you go over there and be a runner on the stage?” And you’re wrangling actors and that whole sort of thing – it’s basically panic stations the entire time. And you work…I was working, let’s see… I was getting into the office at about six in the morning, I was getting home at about midnight-thirty, to go to sleep and do it all again.
When you’re twenty-one, that is the most exciting thing you can ever do and I fell in love with about 1,700 different extraordinarily exotic people at the same time and I fell asleep at the wheel of my car and nearly drove off the road, you know, all of the things that should happen to you when you’re testing your physical limits and the kind of limits of your, I guess, professional stamina.
Once you’ve done the production runner job, just in terms of hours spent in the week, nothing will ever scare you again in terms of physical endurance. I mean you might say, “I’m not gonna do that because it’s insane,” but you’ll never go, “Well I don’t know if I’d cope with that,” because you’ll know whether you could or not. It’s great preparation, certainly, for being a dad.
Always chasing someone around.
Always in crisis, plans change immediately, you have to arrange for the ability to feed an extraordinarily large number of people at very short notice, and the star of the show is usually in tears. It’s exactly like being in the movies. In fact I have a friend who was a production coordinator. She was trained as a nanny and then she was like, “To hell with this, I’m doing movies.” And she was perfect. I mean, the best coordinator in the world. People would call her up and go, “I’m on the M-25 road and I’m lost and I don’t know where I should be and da-da-da-da,” and she would just go, “It’s okay…” and then after a while go, “That’s enough!”
Ha! That’s amazing. Then what happened? Did you know you wanted to move towards writing? Is that where you were setting your sights or were you testing everything out?
No, I was testing everything out. I was working on these movies and it would be extraordinary: you’d get 300 people working those kinds of hours, massive effort, and insane stuff would happen. A guy would take 30,000 volts, fall backwards seven feet off a ladder, land on his back, hitting the ground, would restart his heart, and be at work the next day. That’s the movies. All this would happen and if the script was bad none of it mattered. There’s nothing you can do with a bad script. I worked on a bunch of movies and some of them had, at best, mediocre scripts and I just thought, “Well, I can do this,” and I started writing film scripts.
My first film script was sort of a cross between Delicatessen and V for Vendetta, and it got me an agent. Then I spent nine years trying to manage the trick again and get someone to pay attention and doing occasional bits of writing and getting paid some, but I am not a big fan of the movie industry.
You said you weren’t a big fan of the industry. Tell me about that discontentment.
I loved working as a runner; that was one of my favorite things that I ever did. What I didn’t love later was working in the UK film industry as a writer. There is a myth that the difference between London and Hollywood in this regard is that in Hollywood it’s a straightforward Faustian bargain: they give you a shit-load of money. And in London it’s a much more equitable exchange: they give you much less money, but your soul remains intact. No: In Hollywood they pay you; in London they don’t but you’re soul gets taken both times. I have impatience with the London model; it’s terrible what’s gonna happen to my soul, but I do expect incoming cash.
If you’re a novelist and somebody wants to make a movie of your thing you have to bear in mind these three things: The first is that no one will ever buy the movie rights to your book. The second is that, if they do buy the movie rights to your book, they will sit on them and they will never make the movie. The third is that if they do make the movie of your book, you will hate it. If you cannot deal with those three things, you should not allow anybody to try to sell your movie rights. If you can cope with all three of those things, then you can cruise through the movie industry.
But weirdly, as a novelist, you’re in a completely different dynamic with the studios and with producers and so on than you are as a screenwriter. If you’re a screenwriter, you are basically some guy who wants to bore them and use up their time for no good reason because you’re just some schmuck with a project. But a novelist, you’ve already been published, that means there’s a group of people out there who are already fond of your stuff, it’s proven material. That means you have a project which they might want to buy. It’s completely different.
Tell me a little about what life was like when you were working as a runner. I mean, you were mostly just working, but where were you living and who were you spending time with? The whole shebang.
So the studios in London, at the time there were basically only two: Pinewood and Shepperton. I was working at Shepperton studios, which is southwest of the main city. I would drive out there in the morning and it’s a totally surreal experience. One time, actually, when I was working at Pinewood, I got in and I was driving around finding a parking space and I got out of my car and was immediately surrounded by a troupe of mounted horseman in medieval armor, passing two-by-two and led by Richard Gere. And I was just like, “Okay, I don’t know if I’m hallucinating now or if that was real.” Of course they were filming that Lancelot movie that he did.
It was weird because all the other guys were carrying a sword and he had like a broomstick or something because he wouldn’t carry an edged-weapon because he’s a Buddhist. So that was weird. The whole thing is so surreal. I just went from crisis to catastrophe the entire time… I leaned on a tiger cage; they were filming a commercial with tigers and I was just getting my breakfast and I leaned back on the cage….
Just like that, just having my eggs and everyone’s looking at me and I’m having my eggs and everyone’s looking at me and suddenly I hear, “Grrrrrrrrr,” and I look around at a tiger. The tiger’s looking at my eggs or possibly my head and kind of going, “Where’s my breakfast?” I had no idea. I teleported ten feet away.
Five weeks into one production a guy crashed a forklift truck into my car.
Oh God! When you were in it?
I wasn’t in it. He drove the forks of the thing through the passenger door. He was worried he was going to get in trouble because it was in the studio parking space, so he gets the forklift truck, he takes my car up on the forklift and he puts it back in the space neatly so I’ll never know. Like, there are holes in my car! The wheels are pointing in different directions! What a joke.
I got home one night and I was living in Surbiton, it’s a very notoriously middle-class kind of area, which is surrounded by a couple of fairly rough bits of London. I was living in this flat and I went in, I had this old portable TV – this was back when TV’s had cathode ray tubes – which I’d been given by my brother when he moved out. It was plugged in by my bed and I was watching TV and I was just falling asleep when the TV exploded, just like Bang! Black smoke pours out of the back and all of the lights go out in my apartment and I’m suddenly in this acrid choking box. So then I’m out the door and I get out to the corridor and I choke for a while. Then I figure I should go back in and see if the house is on fire and warn the other people but there’s black smoke coming out so I bang on the door of the apartment next to me and this guy comes out in a pair of swimming trunks. I’m just like, “What the hell? Am I back at the movie studio asleep with my head stuck to my desk?” And he’s looking a little bit angry and I say, “Look I’m really sorry but I think I may have set the house on fire, could I possibly borrow a torch?” And he says, “You know, seriously I’m packing for my honeymoon right now…” They were entirely having sex. I interrupted my neighbor having sex the night before his honeymoon. I was the worst human being in Surbiton. On the other hand, accidentally letting your neighbor’s house burn down…
Somehow in between all this I found the time to write. And this is the great thing about dedicated screenwriting software and it’s the greatest thing about Scrivener which I use to write novels – you can write little chunks of stuff and knit it together later. If you don’t have time it’s really, really useful, because you can’t [type a lot] in the seven minutes that you have, so you write 150 words, you’re done, you go. But if you do that three or four times in a day, you’ve maybe written 1000 words and suddenly you’ve got something.
So you were writing in these little snippets of sort of captured time that you had between exploding televisions.
Between exploding televisions and interrupting my neighbor mid-coitus. Yeah, I would stick faux-diagrams on my wall with blue tack. I have this vision in my head of the perfect writing wall or room where you’re typing away and you have an idea and you get up and you have a kind of spider’s web of clotheslines and strings over your head and you just peg the idea in place on a particular string because it’s part of that thread of the story and then, if you need to move it around, you just move the thing and you can weave the threads together.
I’ve tried this a couple of times; it is physically not doable. It’s one of these things that psychopaths and detectives do.
It sounds like A Beautiful Mind.
It can’t be done! You can’t organize yourself in 3-D with clothes pegs and string.
But you’ve actually tried the clothesline thing yourself?
It does not work.
It sounds very complicated and messy.
Like the scary guy in the movie. They walk into the room and they go, “Hooooly Shit. You’ve clearly lost your mind entirely…”
When you were making these crazy clothesline timelines and all that, were you living alone or did you have a roommate?
I have not lived with a roommate for a long time, if ever, really. I’d be living alone or I would be with somebody and they would be spending a lot of time at my place or we’d be living together, whatever. I don’t think I ever did [the clotheslines thing] while somebody was cohabiting with me, I think that would go badly. It’s definitely a very good way of encouraging someone to leave: show them the scary clothesline room.
When I was living in Surbiton I just had lots and lots of charts stuck up on the wall with blue tack, which then I had to pay for because it pulled all the paint off when I finally took it down.
When did you decide to switch and leave the film industry and make this sort of crazy shift to writing novels? Also, it must’ve been daunting considering who your father is.
It was always in my mind that one day I might write a book. Not that I particularly wanted to, but it was a possibility. And again, that’s something that comes out of the confidence of having seen it done.
And also: once you’ve written a screenplay, you know you can finish a long-form project. A lot of people find it very hard when they embark on a book, they just kind of expect it to go faster and when they get stuck and they don’t write for a month or they do write but it doesn’t come out well and they have to cut a great swath of stuff they get very disheartened and they think, “That’s it, it’s all over.” And it’s not. Writing is a stamina game and you just keep going and put one foot in front of the other and, amazingly, sooner or later you arrive at the North Pole and then you walk home again. I had that already from the screenwriting thing. It was always in the back of my mind that I might do it one day and then a bunch of things happened at once: I got engaged and I couldn’t stand the idea of being a struggling scriptwriter.
At the same time I was finding the movie industry increasingly oppressive and the reason for that was very simple: writers are the lowest on the food chain. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. In the movie industry, certainly in the UK, you’re absolutely at the bottom and everybody is looking down. I would go to meetings for the project and I would be aware as I went in through the door that the people I was meeting had read the thing that I had written maybe a quarter of an hour before in a Starbucks with too many lattes and they would be giving me what they thought was constructive commentary. We’d be re-treading decisions that I had made in the writing process and discarded and they’d be going, “Well, can you try this?” And it’s like, “Well yes I can but it doesn’t work and it sucks.” What happened is what always happened which is: I would go away, do it the best that I could and I would come back and they would say, “Well this sucks, why did you do this?” And it’s just enough, you know? I’m not a particularly prideful person, but I got to the point where I was just gonna jump up on the next conference table when someone did that and I was gonna run down and bite them in the leg.
And the other thing about it was: the movie industry is built on fear. They want something which is new, but God forbid it should be original. I would come in and I would say, “Okay, I want to do a local London-based detective story, quite low-budget, about a woman who’s boyfriend is murdered and she decides to use the concept of the six degrees of separation, a mathematical concept, to track down who did it. She’s gonna use that particular social mathematics phenomenon. And the thing about this, it’s pre-Numbers, it was a new idea that you could use math in that way, or at least it was an idea that most movie execs hadn’t heard of. The first thing I would hear would be, “Well, there’s an issue there,” and I’d say, “What?” “Well, it’s very hard to fund movies with female leads. Also, how old were you thinking this person would be?” I was like, “Well you know, maybe twenty-five?” “Yeah, see we think he should be younger. We think he should be in university. Then there’s another thing: we have all the local movies we want right now, we need to fill in the slate. What we’re looking for is a movie that’s set probably on the moon. Could you use that sense of a kind of local community to a moon base?” “Well yeah of course I can move it to a moon base, that’s doable but it’s dumb. And the whole 18-year-old male for a 25-year-old female is an offensive dumbness as well.” I just couldn’t deal with it anymore, it was just heartbreaking.
Finally I went in and I pitched the single-best European movie, possible break-out idea that I’ve ever had, again with a female lead, this time (God help me) in her 40s or even older, 50s. The point about it is that it was a re-telling and an inversion of that old thing about a young woman who runs away to be a soldier and she dresses up as a boy. So they were like, “This is a transvestite movie about a middle-aged woman.” “I wouldn’t classify it as that, it’s kind of a swashbuckler, an adventure, whatever.” “Um, well, no, this is a transvestite movie about a middle-aged woman.” So suddenly it’s this disaster zone and they just threw it out; it was this horrific thing.
And you thought, “No more.”
And bear in mind that this is in the UK where you’re supposed to be allowed to keep your soul. You’re doing kind of country house-horror story or country house-detective story and you go and make the pitch for someone and they say, “I think what would be really good if they were all lesbians.” I’m like, “Well, okay, are we talking about realistic gay women here? That would be fine.” And they go, “Oh no, that’s not what we’re talking about.” And it’s like, “Yeah, so what you’re talking about really is you want to make a 90-minute wet t-shirt contest movie. That’s fine, but I’m not doing it for you.”
It’s kind of a casual abuse of the heart.
So, I started writing a book.
You quit your day job to do this? Wow.
Which was fine. I didn’t take very long to get into the book. I started writing in January and by April I had 300 pages and I knew I was gonna finish and it was gonna be okay. Then I got to the end and it was extraordinary.
Tell me about that first day when you were, like, “Alright, I’m going to start a novel.”
It came pouring out. I was so compressed because movies, particularly UK movies, have a budget ceiling and they’re 120 pages long, there’s a maximum amount of story you can tell. There’s a limit to the amount of elephants you can write in. I want more elephants. I want, in fact, all the elephants! I want to write a book in which every single elephant in the world appears at the same time and they stand on one another’s backs and they dance the cha-cha. So I was just kind of like, “Right! Okay! Let’s go! Come on! This is it!” And I really took the brakes off and away we went.
Were you ever scared? You quit this thing that you had started building a career in and you’re diving into the unknown and you’re getting married too…
I just couldn’t be a scriptwriter again. I just absolutely didn’t want to do it. If the book hadn’t worked out I was gonna go back to university and retrain. I had no doubt about my ability to do that and I was comfortable with that possibility.
How did it go from having this novel pour out of you to getting it published? And you submitted your manuscript under a pseudonym.
UK publishing is a relatively small world and a lot of people in it had known me from when I was a kid and I basically just didn’t want to embarrass anybody. I wanted to make it possible so that if somebody read my book and just hated it, they could say, “I hate this!” and that would be it and they wouldn’t have to call and say, “Gosh, Nick it’s been a really long time, it’s great to hear from you, da-da-da, by the way, we’re not really confident in your grip on narrative structure.” I really didn’t need to have that conversation. So what I did was I called around to a couple of people and I said, “I’ve done this insane thing: I’ve written a book. What agent should I submit to?” Somebody suggested Conville & Walsh – Patrick Walsh in particular – and so I sent it to Patrick, whom I hadn’t met, with a kind of cover note saying, “I’m Nick Harkaway,” or whatever. Patrick read and came back to me and said, “Come in and we’ll talk and see what we can do.” And we were away. From there, in a weird way, it was relatively straightforward.
We had to have the conversation about my father and say, “Are we concealing this in a very serious way or are we just not bringing it to the forefront?” And I said we’re doing the second because, apart from everything else, you’ve got to have a relationship with your editor, which is to some extent based on trust, and with the other people that you’re going to work with. If they do this whole thing, they bid for you and whatever and then you turn around and say, “Oh by the way, there’s something you should know: my father is a best-selling novelist,” they might quite rightly be quite pissed. It affects things; it changes things. I didn’t want to put anybody in that position, so I did a kind of discreet but not obsessively secretive thing about it. It went out and Patrick very skillfully massaged the whole situation and heaven help me, an auction, which is great.
A lot of people might think that the natural thing to do was say, “Yeah, sure this is my father,” because people might be more interested and you might get more money and that whole circus. You wanted to be judged on your own merit.
Very occasionally people have kind of taken a bite out of me because of my father’s career and who he is and somehow I must be inside the door of the industry. But most people go, “God, that’s brave.”
You didn’t play that card, which you could have played.
First of all, it would be disingenuous to suggest that that card doesn’t play itself.
That’s also been the thing that I have to carry a little bit in my life, that that is always in the background and people figure it out relatively quickly for various reasons. It’s relatively obvious to many people. Sometimes you just have to deal with it.
The other thing is, I obviously have never been anyone else’s kid so I have no idea what the other side of that coin is like. The other question people ask me is, “What’s it like? Were you afraid of being compared?” and so on. And I always say, “You’re compared with your parents whatever you do; people reference it because it’s part of who you are.” I have no idea if that comparison is different or irritating because it is what it is.
On the one hand, I wasn’t afraid of it because what I was writing was so different and because in any case, from the age of seven, kids would ask me if my dad helped me with my English homework. It’s never been a thing for me. Or maybe it’s always been a thing. It’s the river I swim in.
We had a lot of stuff about The Gone-Away World that was all kind of: “Wow, here is this guy, le Carré’s kid and he’s writing about ninjas and the end of the world and it’s so completely over the top and he hasn’t written a spy story.” Then with Angelmaker there was almost nothing. Done with that, human-interest story finished. Good.
What was your idea of success when you were in your 20s and what is it now?
Success has always meant happiness to me because otherwise, why are you there? My wife is a lawyer and I’ve met a couple of lawyers who’ve taken the kind of hardcore big law firm route and they work all the hours that God gave and so on in order to produce a vast amount of money which they can then spend on their families and themselves. The loss of facetime with one another is so damaging to them and so painful to them all. For many people maybe it works but for me it was always about being able to be there. There’s no point working so hard that you miss it. It’s like when you take a camera somewhere and you take too many pictures and you miss the event you are photographing. Same thing. You’ve just got to be there.
Not to say that I wasn’t working to succeed professionally, but that professional success is not in-and-of-itself enough; you have to have an entire life which is a success. That’s again why I’m very skeptical of the Hunter S. Thompson model. I’m picking on Hunter S. Thompson slightly unfairly; obviously he had a kind of classically explosive life. But there are a lot of writers who are basically mean to everyone around them. They excuse that or they explain that by saying, “Well it’s my genius.” And I don’t know, I’ve met a lot of people I thought were geniuses and who were not basically annoying and unless your particular genius is kind of a dick, I don’t think it has to happen that way.
I think being an intolerable human being does not make you a success and being a success shouldn’t make you an intolerable human being.
That’s well put. Do you have any other advice for young writers?
That’s almost the most important thing. Be a person, it’ll come through when you write. I hesitate to point to myself since I’ve only written two novels and a non-fiction book, but one of the things that everybody says to me over and over again is: “You write human; there’s empathy in what you write. I feel that your characters are real because they care about stuff.” I care about them reciprocally. I believe it’s because it’s about being a person, it’s not about everything else.
Two easy pieces of advice for anybody writing: first of all, write and don’t stop and when you finish something show it to people. Don’t put in your drawer and say, “Well I’ll work on that and show it later.” Show somebody you trust, that’s fine, but keep showing it to people.
The second thing is, for me: the framework is always the detective story. There’s a crime, an investigation, and a solution. It can be an emotional crime, an emotional investigation, and a human solution – it doesn’t have to be a literal legal crime. But if you keep that structure in your head and keep interrogating your story – Where am I in the investigation? Where am I in the solution? – you won’t get lost, and if you don’t get lost then you can go anywhere.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Rory Lindsay