As a special treat, we caught up with the author of Dark Star, Oliver Langmead. Born in Edinburgh and now native of Dundee he studied law before completing his MLitt in Writing Practice and Study which he gained with distinction. Oliver has appeared at the Dundee Literary Festival and Dark Star was nominated for the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize 2015.’ His debut novel, Dark Star is a fascinating exploration of space noir, written in the form of an epic poem.
Writing in the epic form must have been an incredible challenge for you. What is it about Dark Star as a story that made you think it would be better suited to poetry than prose?
A big part of why Dark Star is in verse is simply for that challenge. Back when I was studying, I had the opportunity to look at a book that took me completely by surprise. That book was A Void, the English translation of La Disparition, and not only was it a perfectly readable, and very well written mystery (my regards to the translator), but it was written entirely without use of the letter E. My question was: why on earth would anyone ever want to write a book without the letter E? I was fascinated. And as it turns out, the original French author, Georges Perec, wrote La Disparition while he was a member of a group of writers called Oulipo, who wrote many works with specific constraints – imposing patterns on their work – to various effects, not the least of which was for the challenge of it.
I wanted to really test myself. To do something that I had never done before. And in that way, inspired by the like
s of Georges Perec, I set myself constraints inspired by the great epics – Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. I decided to write the book in a form that would really push my writing beyond anything I had done before. And I am delighted to say that the challenge was not only rewarding – I can report that I discovered a lot about my writing along the way – but that the result was a book that, surprisingly, actually worked.
You created a lightless world in the novel which must have taken a tonne of research. Was it hard to balance information you had to include with the poetry?
Dark Star is perhaps not quite as hard in the science fiction area as you might suppose. Most of the research put into it was by way of taking thoughts to their conclusions – by developing the manner in which the almost lightless society of Vox might actually survive. Instead of hard scientific concepts, I considered things like atmosphere; making the city very gloomy, very backwards; and style, which lends itself more to things like religion, and the way that epic tradition should affect the plot.
In that way, you might find that Dark Star feels a bit more fantastic and open to interpretation than most science fiction.
Balancing this with the verse wasn’t really the biggest challenge. If anything, considering the language in greater detail helped a lot. Showing as much as possible in a world where almost everything is hidden is tough. Which is where fun things like the way that Virgil and Dante “ignite” their cigarettes, long before it’s made clear why this particular choice of word is being used, helps to introduce ideas subtly instead of overtly, letting me concentrate on the plot.
Can you give us a brief description of your writing process? Are you one of those people who believes you have to write every day or…
I find that it depends. Sometimes, I will write every day, if the idea is carrying me away with itself and I just need to see where it ends up. The book I’m currently writing, I write three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), with days in between to simply think, because it’s a big puzzler of a book that needs a lot of thought put into it. And sometimes, I will write sporadically, if it’s something I feel I can write purely on inspiration alone. But to be clear – writing on inspiration instead of developing a habit is a dangerous thing. Most works done in this way are never completed because, traditionally, the best works are mostly just plain hard work with the occasional burst of inspiration to keep them going.
I wrote Dark Star sporadically, whenever inspiration struck, and could spend somewhere up to a few weeks between writing sections. Sometimes, I would put together an entire cycle in something like a fortnight, and sometimes it would take me months. However, I did feel like writing it all the time. I wanted to dive in, and develop a habit, and work away at it. But I was being very precious about it – writing Dark Star as if it was a sacred thing that I only ever wanted to approach in the very best of moods.
Honestly, I consider myself lucky that I managed to finish it, and that the book feels as cohesive as it does. Writing on inspiration alone is tough, because inspiration in that way – out of the aether – is such a fleeting thing. Sometimes, it doesn’t come back!
Typically a lot of epic protagonists (Dante, Odysseus) are on a journey, searching for something – do you see Virgil Yorke as a continuation in this vein or is he something different?
Traditionally, there are two types of epics. There are the odysseys (Homer’s Odyssey), which are the journeys, and there are the war poems (Homer’s Iliad), and there are epics which are a sort of hybrid of the two (Milton’s Paradise Lost, Virgil’s Aeneid), all of which feature an almost overwhelming amount of protagonists with various quests and goals.
Typically, epic protagonists are rather two dimensional, reflecting all the best bits of their cultures, and defined by their strengths. Just look at Odysseus, famed for his great wits, or, my favourites, Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, who are defined, respectively, by his intellect and her beauty. These are simple, powerful, brilliant characters, and in poems like the Iliad, there are a hell of a lot of them.
Virgil, in the other hand, is almost the antithesis of this. Instead of reflecting the best bits of his culture, he reflects the worst – addiction, ignorance and depression. And instead of being defined by his strengths, he is very much defined by his weaknesses. This was a deliberate decision, among many, in order to develop a book inspired by the epics that would still be very much readable. I wanted people to sympathise with Virgil, and it is difficult to sympathise with the likes of Odysseus. Him and his kind are the Superman of their day – superhuman, and almost inhuman – whereas I wanted Virgil to be very human indeed.
Is Virgil on a quest, though? A journey, in the epic sense? Now that was something I tried to develop. The signs are there, even though they may not be easy to spot. See if you can work out at which point Virgil does that traditional epic thing of heading down to the land of the dead.
In addition to being an epic poem set on another planet, Dark Star definitely has an old-school detective noir vibe going on. Who are your influences and favourites in that genre?
I have to talk about Raymond Chandler. His detective, Philip Marlowe, taught me a lot about detective noir, from the very roots of the genre. I suppose that Raymond Chandler is probably the father of noir, even though some of the most recognisable tropes were developed after him. The Big Sleep was my go-to for attitude and era. I wanted a city that felt as if it had as much character, and I wanted characters with the same kind of speech patterns and outlooks. I wanted Dark Star to feel familiar in the same way that The Big Sleep now does.
Of course, I took it a step forwards from that. I’m a big fan of Frank Miller’s Sin City, the film and the comic. And while Frank Miller is a lot more about the ultra-violence, I took a lot of inspiration from the voices of his characters. The film helped especially. I think I watched it just before starting to write the very first part of what would eventually become Dark Star, and managed to capture a bit of that grit, that downtrodden, clipped feel, in Virgil’s voice.
One day, I hope that Dark Star is released as an audio book, with a great, gravelly, out-of-hope kind of voice to bring Virgil to life.
Dark Star is a very different kind of novel that occupies a niche all of its own. Would you say that there’s a growing market for fiction that defies the norm?
The answer is – probably not. People think that they want something different, but in reality, they want to sit down to a book that feels familiar, that they can just lose themselves to and enjoy. The real steps forward, I think, are when it is one of those familiar feeling books, but trying something new in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s defying the norm too much. In that way, you get a book that enters the market and is both an easy sell, and ignites people’s imaginations a bit. A smaller step forwards.
People want familiar, in the end. But people doing things like developing the fantasy genre by going against its tropes (George RR Martin), or putting familiar feeling stories in really challenging and imaginative settings (China Mieville) are doing a lot to keep things fresh.
I’ll take this moment to plug Dark Star’s publisher, Unsung Stories, who are really trying to find those very unusual stories and give them an audience. They took a chance on Dark Star, which is a science fiction noir poem, and difficult to sell because of that. But they are a brave new indie publisher, and perhaps, one would hope, the future for very interesting fiction that defies the norm.
Finally, in the spirit of the season, what would Christmas be like on Vox? Or what would they celebrate instead?
Brilliant question. I’ve had to think about this. Would the folk who live in Vox have religious holidays? Of course they would. But when? Defined by what? Possibly the end of the calendar year, or the solstices, measured by temperature instead of daylight. Of course there would be no Christmas, because there is no Christ, but there would probably be something similar – a time of generosity and celebration – because it’s echoed in most cultures, and the culture of Vox is very much an echo itself.
Probably, I would imagine it would be something like a poor man’s version of Diwali. A festival celebrating light in all its forms. Of course, it would be engulfed by greed – the lights would be minimal, and kept from those in poverty, and only the light-rich would be able to exchange gifts of batteries and bulbs. But it would still be a hopeful time, with churches full and thanks given to God; time to bring family together, and eat well, and celebrate.
The local God is called Phos. So… Phosgiving, perhaps?
Interview by maxine blane