Friday, February 5, 2010

An interview with Hamish MacDonald, author of FINITUDE, one of the most important novels of the 21st Century

An interview with the author of FINITUDE, a novel about future climate chaos in an un-named country. Reproduced here from Outer Alliance Spotlight, all rights reserved, copyright, 3010.

Hamish MacDonald

Welcome to Outer Alliance Spotlight #20. Each Friday, the Spotlight features an ally who writes, reviews, publishes, or is in some other way involved with LGBTQI speculative fiction. Our guest this week is Canadian author and bookmaker now living in Scotland, Hamish MacDonald.

Hamish has been designing and publishing his own books for a decade, beginning with the Y2K thriller, doubleZero. All of his books feature gay characters, but he’s quick to point out that their sexuality is not the only thing that defines them. “In writing books, I try to create accessible, fun stories that clip along yet deep down ask a fundamental question about some issue we’re facing,” he says. “The homosexuality is always incidental to the story, but it’s something reviewers have singled out and use to describe the books; I think that’s narrow — straightness doesn’t need a warning label, nor is its inclusion taken to be a statement.”

Originally from Canada, Hamish gave in to the desire to live in place where his name would be commonplace, and relocated to Scotland in 2001. He lived in Edinburgh for 9 years, but is currently planning to move up into the highlands. In addition to creating books from scratch, he also passes on instruction and advice for others in his podcast, DIY Book. He keeps a blog on his website, and can be found on Twitter as hamishmacdonald.

OA: Finitude is set in a time when climate change has reached a crisis point. How well does your fictional portrayal of this scenario match your actual opinions and worries?

HM: In order to have complete freedom to explore a lot of extreme scenarios, I set the book in a fictional, parallel world. This also meant I wouldn’t come across as finger-wagging or blaming any nation in particular.

What I tried to do in writing a piece of fiction was give a ground-level point of view, a few characters with whom we could contemplate what this kind of outcome might really mean for us as individuals, something we can relate to, rather than dwelling on the Celsius scale or particulate carbon parts per million.

For instance, there’s one bit where they’re faced with a conundrum (one I can’t answer for myself): If it turned out that air and sea travel were too damaging, and we could only take one last trip somewhere — to have a “Last Flights Day” — where would you go? For me, living in one place, working with a client in another, and with my immediate family in two other places, it’s wrenching. But what if? And that question is really what fiction is for, I figure.

I started off trying to write a funny story, just to avoid all the heavy-handedness this issue is generally treated with. Sure, it’s the most serious issue we’re facing, don’t get me wrong, but I tried to keep the characters out of it, in a way. They’re bumbling about, trying to survive, while behind them the machinations of bureaucracy and a generally apathetic public are making things very bad.

Unfortunately, I think this is our collective weakness, too: Our politicians are geared toward creating a society that’s conducive to business, not life, and the rest of us are just too damned comfortable to want to change. Especially when we keep being told “You’re worth it,” “Treat yourself”, and such things by an industrial system that needs us to be constantly dissatisfied yet hopeful for material bliss. Suggesting people undergo a drastic change of lifestyle like the one they made here [in Britain] during World War II today comes across today like an insult.

In some ways, I believe story and metaphor are better tools for achieving awareness and care than constant, belligerent argument. And my job was to try to make this novel clip along, because I don’t feel I have the right to challenge anyone to think about an idea until I’ve honoured the free time they’ve loaned me and rewarded them with something fun.

That said, we can go too far in that direction, resulting in a candy-floss forest like Avatar, which is an amazing, fun spectacle, but is ultimately a closed loop: You leave the theatre having had a complete experience, so you’re finished; meanwhile, that story trades on our three most serious issues (which are all really the same thing): the ecosystem, trade justice, and corporate sociopathy. Yet none of us leaves angry about our complicity in the parallel, real things happening in our world. For instance, mining the coltan in our mobile phones (“unobtanium”) leads to abuse and slavery of a group of people (the “Na’vi”) in the Congo (“Pandora”). It’s the same damned thing, but we’re too busy to notice, being wowed by blue cat-people living in a cosmic bowling lane of a jungle.

While researching Finitude, I lucked upon a website called It’s a resource, searchable by speciality, that teams writers up with scientists, so our work can be a more accurate reflection of their disciplines. I guess they’re also tired of all being portrayed as clip-board toting brunettes wearing white coats and glasses, just waiting for a dramatic moment to take off their specs, shake their hair out of a bun, and suddenly be sexy. So, out of gratitude to the climate scientists who gave me their advice, I’ll say that scientists are sexy all the time.

OA: Do you have any suggestions for the global community about how to mitigate the problem?

HM: Despite my ranting, I’m really not a political person, and I don’t pretend to have any answers; I just like playing with ideas, always trying to climb higher and higher to get a clearer view for myself. Conflict is story, and it’s pretty easy to be in conflict with the horseshit our society gets up to.

In fiction, I guess I keep trying to dig under issues, ask what an issue is really about. In thinking about Finitude, it occurred to me that none of this is actually about light-bulbs or shopping bags or Swiffers, but about our fundamental relationship to life — our own and that around us, and it seems like we don’t want to think about it.

Someone once said that fiction should ask questions but never answer them, and I agree with that. There are far better-informed people with real, workable visions we can turn to — if we’re moved to.

OA: You’ve self-published from the start of your novel writing career in 1999. Why did you choose that path, and what do you love about it?

HM: My first book, doubleZero, was about Y2K. Yeah, oops! That topic had the shelf-life of yoghurt in the sun. But when I started, I had no idea what I was doing, then I finished, I had a novel, and there was no way I was going to just let it sit in a drawer!

So I sent out the manuscript, and I received some serious interest from a publisher in Toronto who kept saying yes, yes, then finally said no: They were concerned about having to recoup all their investment before the end of the year. So, since I was doing graphic design at the time, I laid it out myself and hired a small press to print it.

The result got me in with the vibrant ‘zine community in Toronto, and I learned a lot from them. I suck at self-promotion, though, so I was just happy to sell out the run of books.

I wrote a second novel, but submitting it was a similar story: “Love it… Love it… Cut it in half.” That kind of thing. The responses were good, but everyone wanted someone else to be the first to choose me.

Then I up and moved to Scotland, following my heart and gut when they kept saying I should come over here — which has been great, absolutely the right thing to do life-wise, but meant I had to start my career as a novelist over.

My next book, Idea in Stone, was a magical realist story about Edinburgh, and I spent years sending that around to various publishers in Scotland, most of whom were too busy fighting for their continued existence to take on any new work that wasn’t by a celebrity, or they were in the process of being bought out by a multi-national corporation. One was interested in going ahead with it, but then the press stopped printing fiction, choosing instead to make coffee-table books about whisky and hillwalking, along with some Glaswegian joke-books to read in the bathroom. What can you do?

It was all enough to make me decide to leave the industry to itself and focus on creating books and finding readers. So this time, rather than pay a truckload of money for someone to deliver boxes of books, I decided to make them myself.

The DIY Book process I’ve set out for myself is work, but it’s a helluva lot of fun. And it means I’m creatively free to dream up and print anything I like without asking anyone for permission. I think this is a really important freedom, especially for an LGBTI person who might be tempted to censor or stifle themselves after spending time trying to woo that corporate world — where the aim becomes trying to be as unobjectionable, as unrejectable, as possible. But of course, in my case, I’ve come to see that the bits I feel apologetic or shy about, the bits I would cut, are the things that my readers say they love the most.

Indie publishing seems to, coincidentally, be a hot topic these days, with traditional publishing in such trouble, and e-books on the rise. So I’d love to spare potential self-publishers having to learn everything from scratch as I did. And with so many business springing up to predate on writers’ ambitions, I’d like to show that there’s a third path for entering the field — not traditional publishing, nor Print-on-Demand (which is usually presented as the only other option), but a true DIY effort that anyone can start at any level of complexity and expense they’re comfortable with, starting with some pretty cheap and easy methods. I’m sharing this information via a free podcast on iTunes.

Rather than cutting off options, I think this is a great way to bypass a lot of hassle and heartache, learn loads about what’s involved in publishing a book, retain complete creative freedom, and just do something while waiting for the limelight to hit — which, honestly, is a bit of a lottery, and doesn’t happen for as many of us as the contests and talk shows would suggest.

OA: You’re not keen on people assuming queer stereotypes are true (you describe yourself as gay, but a crap decorator, for instance). How do you combat this in your work? Do you have any particularly non-stereotypical gay leads?

HM: I write fiction in which one or more of the characters is incidentally gay, alongside other characters. It’s not “gay fiction” — though some people blindly lump any story with a gay protagonist into that genre — because the story is about something else. I write stories I’d like to read, that I could relate to — stories about made-up times, places, and people alongside real ideas and questions.

At the risk of offending anyone, I never want to read another book about a young American kid from the heartlands who goes to Manhattan and becomes a hustler who dies of AIDS. Or a story about a clutch of gays who shop and giggle and drink with their drag-queen best friend. Or a book with a shirtless model on the cover and pages filled with wank stories, labelled “Gay Literature”.

There are a million other stories, and while we’re not finished securing equality and understanding, the LGBTI spectrum is a lot more varied than our own culture tends to acknowledge.

OA: The DIY Book podcast is full of information on how to make books, which is awesome, but I’m wondering if you have any advice for people who want to make podcasts of their own. Are there any resources you’d recommend?

HM: Oh, cheers! It’s fun, though admittedly it takes a lot of work. But I get excited about the prospect of helping other people get their own book out into the world.

At the risk of sounding like a Mac zealot, the Apple program GarageBand makes it easy for me to produce a rather complicated piece of multimedia. It hadn’t occurred to me to make a podcast until I switched back to a Mac and found this amazing studio program just sitting there, for free, in my Applications folder.

I’m sure there are other ways to do it, but this is mine. I try to remember, though, that the computer is just a creative tool, and what matters is what you create with it, not which name or fruit is on the lid.

OA: What’s it like living in Scotland as a foreigner? Do you ever feel homesick or out of place?

HM: People are always a bit surprised when they’ve heard my name then hear me speak. I’m not from here, and I’ll never be from here, and I’m aware of that. I thought my Canadian accent would have changed more by now, but it hasn’t. Maybe I’m too old, or maybe it’s been a factor of living in Edinburgh until now, which is a real crossroads for students, visitors, and other people from everyplace else. This city can be a bit hard on the surface, and it took a while to meet real Scots!

Of course, now I’ve been in a relationship with one for a while, I’m getting to experience what it’s like to be taken into a family.

OA: How has the move affected your writing?

HM: The gravity and beauty of Edinburgh overwhelmed me at first, and I can still just take a walk around and be in rapture. That inspired me to write a book about the place, but I didn’t know enough about the place for it to be historically accurate, nor could I authentically write in the voice of local people, so I opted for a magical realist story about someone discovering the place and falling in love with it just as it’s starting to vanish because of redevelopment. (Am I sounding like a crank? It’s actually a love story!)

So I got a book out of this city. And now it looks like I’m moving to the north Highlands. Like, north north. So we’ll see what I find there!


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