[Kim Lakin-Smith's Autodrome is reviewed by Keith Brooke in today's Guardian]
How would you describe your latest novel, Autodrome?
Death Race with a soul. Autodrome is my wink to the gear-nut and the petrol-head, from rusting rat rods to caterpillar-tread wheelchairs to howling V8s. Its action-adventure with a hefty dose of Indiana-style questing. It’s also a story of survival against the odds and trying to not just beat but better the system.
On one level, it’s a fairly straightforward quest story, what makes it stand out for me is the lovingly detailed backdrop. Tell us a bit about the city of Autodrome.
Everything I write has a strong basis in fact; for me, it is what makes a story engaging and, ultimately, believable. While researching Autodrome I read up on MotorCity, a retail, sporting, recreational and residential development in Dubai. (Incidentally, this was prior to the evolution of the ‘Autodrome’ that now takes pride of place in the development – science fiction becoming science fact, god damn it!) I wondered what would happen if race fans and vehicle enthusiasts flocked to MotorCity in droves; it would soon outgrow itself and be forced to relocate.
At the same time, I needed to consider the geography of a new UAE redevelopment. Given the arid climate, the siting of the city next to a water source – Lady Luck Lough – was essential, as was keeping it in a country rich in oil. Next came the inner workings of the city, and this was where I really got to have fun just imagining all of the out-there possibilities for a future world dedicated to racing. Equally, I wanted the environment to have its roots in real-world commerce, for instance advertising revenue comes from MasterCard, Antram, et al.
For me, cities are characters in their own right. If characters are to come to life for the reader, they have to live in a world that feels gritty and all-encompassing and tangible. This meant giving Autodrome a seedy side; while the west of the city revels in the spoils of the sport, the east is drug-addled and desperately poor, its young people siphoned off to race for cash and perpetuate the dream.
The novel’s protagonists are mostly 15 to 18 years old, and so could the book be read as a young adult novel; but then it’s equally easy as an adult novel and it’d be a shame if it was overlooked by anyone not wanting to read “kids’ stuff”. Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Autodrome exists very much in the ‘crossover’ between YA and adult. The decision to focus on teens was based on some early feedback which suggested the story would have more punch with a younger cast of characters. I really hope that readers who have enjoyed my work in the past will agree that, stylistically, Autodrome stays firmly in my ballpark. I haven’t indulged my characters’ youth; rather, they are expected to earn a crust from an early age, and they have the pride, skill and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep going when older competitors end up dead or jaded.
Something that is always really important to me is to retain my political stance as a writer. The crossover potential of Autodrome allowed me to feature a multicultural society and explore gender, disability and sexuality as part of the natural human condition rather than makes them the sole focus of the plot.
Your research and knowledge show through in the best possible ways – was it an easy book to write, or tough to hit that level of verisimilitude?
I did a lot of research before and during the writing of Autodrome. The race scenes were intrinsic to the book’s success, of course, and I did get carried away with the numbers of those, eventually cutting a few scenes that had taken a fair amount of time to write. I was also very conscious that not everyone shares my love of mechanical detail, but I figured there had to be a balance. This was, after all, my ode to the hotrodder scene and I wanted there to be a level of retro-cool and gear-geek self-indulgence. I had the added bonus of being friends with Lee Whitmore, petrol-head and rodder, who didn’t seem to object to spending many an evening drinking beer and talking shop.
My real hope with Autodrome is that it fires the imagination of readers, even if they don’t have a vested interest in vehicles. I also wanted to create a world where girls race just as hard as boys and on an even playing field.
What are you working on now?
I am working on my next adult book with the provisional title of Curtain Falls, but I’m sure that will change. It is a challenging book to write because it will cross time periods and has its roots in the notion of man as animal, the value of the written word, and fascism. Some pretty heavy subjects which make my head spin! Its early days so I don’t know how the book will pan out, but it feels like a book I should push myself to write, no matter how terrifying the prospect.
What have you recently finished?
I have just completed two children’s books, The Mouse Morrow Map and The Wylde Witches. They are part of a six part fantasy series featuring 12 year old Scarlet White and her adventures next door in Lone Hall, home to sorcerers, elder spirits, boggles, ghouls, sprites and meddlesome mice. I love writing the series between my adult stories; it is freeing to let the imagination flow, no holds barred.
What’s recently or soon out?
My debut novel, Tourniquet, is being released as a limited edition by Jurassic London in 2014. I am very excited to see what Jurassic are going to do with Tourniquet; there is talk of including artist plates and the cover art is a striking take on the religious iconography which features in the book.
Newcon Press recently launched Looking Landwards, an anthology commissioned by The Institution of Agricultural Engineers and which includes my short story, ‘Soul Food.’ This is a prequel piece to my novel, Cyber Circus.
Describe your typical writing day.
After the school run, breakfast and a stalk over the fields with Drake, our fat lab, my writing day starts at 10.00am. I write long-hand, in notebooks or on scraps of paper, and go through a lot of pens. If I am writing a new story, I sit in my ‘writing chair’ beside a window that looks out over the garden and some gorgeous old trees in nearby gardens and I think or write. The best stories flow very quickly, and I research extra details as I go. Other days, I’m in the office trying to make sense of my scrawls and typing up on the laptop. I’d like to say I break for lunch – more like I eat at my desk while catching up on news.
By 4.00pm my daughter Scarlet is back from school and it is time for homework, housework and slaving over a hot stove. Work begins again at 7.00pm until 9.00pm, at which point I pour a large wine or several, listen to music and chat over plot ideas with my husband, Del, or collapse on the sofa to watch some spectacularly bad sci-fi.
What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
I really liked the idea of packaging my novel, Cyber Circus, with a sister novella, Black Sunday; there are overlapping themes and, while both are stand alone, this lent an extra dimension to both stories. I would like to publish Black Sunday in its own right in the future as it garnered good reviews and it is my personal favourite of my stories.
My short story, The Island of Peter Pandora, is a steampunk reimagining of Peter Pan and The Island of Doctor Moreau. I think Peter is one of my most disturbed characters to date! The story first appeared in Resurrection Engines (Snowbooks, 2012) and was selected for The Best British Fantasy 2013 (Salt Publishing, 2013).
Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
I am overwhelmed that I get to meet so many incredibly talented writers, editors, publishers, marketers and artists. Everyone works so hard and I am always amazed by how supportive the writing community really is.
To highlight a few real contemporary gems, I’d say authors Adrian Tchaikovsky, Nina Allen, Gareth L Powell, and Den Patrick are among my favourites. I am a huge fan of Philip Reeve’s YA series, Mortal Engines, and I can never get enough of Diana Wynne Jones’s mischievous fantasies.
I would also like to give a special mention to Ian Whates (writer, editor, publisher and all round talent) of Newcon Press, and Jared and Anne Shurin of Jurassic London. Both small presses are doing amazing work with both established authors and exciting new talent.
If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Just the one?
Plot is everything.
So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
This is such a difficult question. In terms of large publishers, commerciality is key, which means, more than ever, the independents are home to books which push boundaries or fall just outside of the traditional remit. Authors need to have lots of fingers in lots of pies if they are to make any kind of a living out of writing; the majority have daytime jobs and write when they can. I like the idea that publishing will evolve into a far more autonomous model where writers are solely responsible for their output, but, at the same time, this is already a solitary profession.
I am horrified by the return percentages from the behemoth which is Amazon – if ever there was a science fiction horror in the making, it is the story of Amazon’s monopoly over book consumerism. But I am a realist, and I am excited by the evolution of publishing in one of two directions. The first will be a much more stripped back art form. Gone the palpability of book production; instead the sole focus will be the consumption of words. The second will be the enrichment of the eBook format through reader interaction and all manner of artistic content.
As for what readers will be reading, I’m hoping that teenage boys will find a voice and either refute the belief they don’t read or find a renewed interest in books. I think this is where the virtual format may come into its own.
Kim Lakin-Smith is the author of Tourniquet, Cyber Circus - shortlisted for the 2012 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel – the YA novella, Queen Rat, and Autodrome. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Interzone, Black Static, and Celebration: 50 years of the BSFA. 2014 sees the release of Tourniquet as a limited edition run from Jurassic London.