Monday 10 February 2014

I grabbed a pre-release copy of Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson and had a chat with him about it. My review follows the interview. The book is now available.

Tell us a little about the world of the Europe in Autumn and how it differs from our own


Europe In Autumn is set - in Europe, oddly enough - somewhere between fifty and seventy years from now. It’s a world where the European Union, for various reasons – a flu pandemic, serial economic crises – has splintered and new nations have begun to pop up everywhere. Apart from that, and some new bits of technology, it’s really not all that different to the world we live in now.


How would you describe its genre? It's been compared to both Le Carre and Kafka, are you happy with the comparison?


It’s enormously flattering to be described like that. I usually have a hard time describing my stuff to people, but as far as I’m concerned Europe In Autumn is science fiction. Although I have started describing it as a near-future espionage thriller, because that sounds pretty cool.


How much were the original Coureurs Des Bois an influence?


In a way, they were pivotal. I first heard the term in the television adaptation of James Michener’s Centennial back in the 70s, I think, and the image of these French trappers running through the woods stuck with me for a very long time. I originally called the Coureurs in the book ‘Postmen,’ but that always seemed clunky and inadequate. So I renamed them ‘Coureurs,’ and there was kind of a sense of rightness, of things snapping together. I think that was the first time I realised there might be some mileage in the book. So yes, they were a big influence.


In my review I say that some of the ideas are Borgesian. Who would you say are the greatest influences on your writing?


I’m certainly a fan of Borges, although it’s been years since I read him. One of the biggest influences on my writing has been Keith Roberts. He could be a variable writer, but at his best – in stuff like Pavane and some of his short stories – he captured, I thought, a uniquely English voice and sense of landscape that I hadn’t encountered before in my reading. It was the first time I’d realised that science fiction could be about English people – and English people who ran cinemas and garages, at that – rather than Americans with starships. If you asked me which science fiction writer I’d most like to be ‘like,’ I’d have to say Roberts. I admire the hell out of his stuff and he seems not to be talked about so much any more, which I think is a shame.


Other influences are definitely Len Deighton and Raymond Chandler, and more pertinently for Europe In Autumn, Alan Furst, who writes these marvellous espionage novels set around the beginning of the Second World War. Structurally at least, and perhaps even in tone, his stuff influenced Europe In Autumm a lot.


You have a very broad canvas in the book and I especially liked how Estonia and Poland play a large part, have you travelled extensively in that part of Europe?


I’ve never visited Estonia but I have been to Poland a lot. It’s sort of become my default setting for stories, along with London and Scotland. A big chunk of my previous novel, The Villages, is set there, as well as at least two short stories that I can think of. I love Kraków; I think it’s a fantastic city. Gdansk – the Old Town, anyway - is pretty wonderful, too. The food is brilliant, the people are terrific and they don’t half know how to party. 


How much research did you have to do?


Less than I did for The Villages, where I researched the Blitz to the point of obsession. I knew some of the settings from having been there, but I had to research the Estonian section just in order to describe it right. Oddly enough, I was helped by the fact that it took me such a long time to write the book; when I started, Google hadn’t been around all that long – it certainly wasn’t the all-consuming juggernaut it is now. There was no Flickr or Pinterest or Streetview or Wikipedia or Tumblr. If I’d tried to write the Estonian bit back then, it might have been quite different, but as it was by the time I got round to it the technology had caught up and the internet was full of photos of the manor house at Palmse and stuff about the national park and restaurant menus. I remember someone telling me that Thomas Pynchon had never visited England before he wrote Gravity’s Rainbow; he got all his information from guidebooks. And so did I. Best invention for a writer ever, the internet. Although maybe Twitter wasn’t such a great idea if you need to get things done...


If you could be a character from the book who would it be and why?


Hahaha! Good question. Well, it wouldn’t be Rudi; he has a terrible time, poor sod. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. I think I’d quite like to be one of the rangers in the national park in Estonia. It sounds like a smashing place. I hope I get to visit it one day.


What are you working on right now? (apart from this interview of course!) - <Please say the sequel will come soon....>


Right now I’m working on...not a sequel as such, more a companion to Europe In Autumn, which gives another angle on some of the events of the first book. That’s a lot more intentionally le Carré in tone. Over the past couple of weeks, though, I’ve started to see how there could be a direct sequel, although that’s still a kind of misty idea in the back of my head. I’m also working on a detective thriller about gnomes and the nature of Reality.


What are you most proud of about the book?


I’m insanely proud of the whole thing; I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. As I said, I wrote it, off and on, over a very long period, and I’m delighted that it hangs together the way it does. I did a lot of other stuff during that time, and my writing style changed and developed, so the fact that the joins aren’t hugely visible in the book pleases me a lot. The single part of the book I’m most proud of, oddly enough, is the Prague chapter. I read an article about the Czechoslovak television series The Thirty Cases Of Major Zeman about eight years ago, and sort of mentally tagged the title for a chapter heading without having the first idea what I was going to do with it. When it came to sit down and actually write something, I typed the title and ‘The war started on a Thursday,’ and the whole thing just wrote itself. I’m very pleased with the way that turned out.


I should say that no book really happens in isolation. A friend of mine proof-read and copy-edited the book while I was finishing it, and there are some things in it which wouldn’t have been there without her. Myself, I don’t think I would have got it finished at all without her help, and I will always be grateful.


Do you have a set writing process, if so what is it? What did you learn about writing whilst writing the book?


I don’t really have any set routine; I just sit down and write. I don’t need total silence or isolation to do it – I used to listen to a lot of late-night talk radio while I was writing because it made me angry and helped me concentrate – but I do need to sort of get into a groove, tune in to what I’m doing. If I can’t do that, I just wind up staring at the screen of my laptop sighing and shaking my head. I’ve found that I write dreadful stuff, unsalvageable stuff, if I try to force it. There isn’t a magic formula; some days it clicks, some days it’s best just to mess around on Twitter and try again tomorrow.


I find the act of writing very hard. The bit of writing that I do enjoy is the imagining of stuff, and that can happen anywhere, any time. Stories start in different ways – with a title or an image or a character or a bit of dialogue – and then they cook for a while, gradually picking up other bits and pieces, until they kind of reach a critical mass where stuff needs to be written down. Sometimes a story will get written sequentially, from beginning to end, but it’s more usual for me to think up scenes and bits of dialogue out of sequence and bolt them together. After that, there’s a variable amount of rewriting. I think I spent two years rewriting The Villages before it finally found a publisher and I had to stop, but I have published short stories – and no, I’m not going to tell you which ones – which were basically copy-edited first drafts.


I think the main thing I learned is that I’m still learning, still getting better. Europe In Autumn is quite different from, say, the stories in my collection As The Crow Flies. It’s really quite startling. I’m very pleased with all those stories, but they’re different, from another part of my life. Ten years from now, I might be writing something as different again from Europe In Autumn. I don’t know; all I can say for sure is that I will still be writing.  


In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?


Don’t be afraid or embarrassed; write, and write, and write, and then write some more.

My Review
Rudi is a chef hailing from Estonia who has wound up working in a Polish restaurant in an alternative history Krakow. Following devastating economic and medical crises Europe has splintered into a plethora of tiny polities and splinter states. When Rudi gets involved in crossing a border on behalf of his boss’s cousin he is drawn into a new career, part-spy, part postman, part people smuggler for an organisation called Les Coureurs des Bois (for which there is a real life equivalent - Starting as a part time past time Rudi is drawn ever further into the shadow machinations of espionage and counter-espionage, conspiracy and counter-conspiracy and the book winds us ever further into second guessing what is going on.

At first the genre element is very lightly done but later in the book we get to explore some very cool, almost Borgesian ideas, it has also been described as Le Carre meets Kafka which I think it deserves. I loved the fact that the really cool ideas are fully integrated with the plot and when we get to the revelation it feels natural. The Coureur organisation is quite a neat idea too, and I liked the introduction of the various special code words etc. Rudi’s induction into the organisation was very well done and the succession of rug pulling felt exciting and interesting and certainly kept me reading. My only, very minor, gripes here are to do with pacing, although I’m not a thriller reader so perhaps it’s just me but some of the set up feels a little slow, later when there are several POV changes it feels a bit like a series of resets. However the overall quality of the writing, the characterisation and the central premise are easily good enough for me to forgive this. My only real complaint is that I didn’t know if this was the first in a series and  I felt a little disappointed when it ended, hoping for a sequel. Not sure that even counts as a complaint, wanting to spend more time in the world Hutchinson creates!

Overall - If you like spy thrillers, if you like alternative history, if you like SF&F I thoroughly recommend you check this out

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