An Interview with David Nickleby John Toews - Wednesday, Jun 20, 2012 at 9:37am
Rasputin's Bastards is an unhinged post-Cold War satiric thriller filled with spies, counterspies, dream-walkers, telepaths, dangerous babies and giant squids...all sprung from the unconscious of author David Nickle. I deeply enjoyed his previous book Eutopia and his short story collection Monstrous Affections, so it was a special treat to be able to send some questions his way. Much appreciation is due to his publishers ChiZine Publications, one of Canada's finest and most reliable independent presses, for facilitating this conversation.
Click "more..." to read the interview.
JT: To begin with, please tell us a little about the plot and inspiration behind Rasputin's Bastards. What was the original seed for the novel?
DN: It wasn't so much a seed as it was an itch, to write an espionage novel. I'm an unabashed Ian Fleming fan from way back--and have over the years enjoyed my fill of John Le Carre and Graham Green and Len Deighton, and envied them all their glamorous, gritty genre. So Rasputin's Bastards started, literally, with the image of a Russian secret agent being pulled onto a boat, and in a bit of an möbius strip inversion on Jason Bourne's experience. Rather than having a straightforward case of amnesia, Alexei Kilodovich feels the need to feign amnesia without realizing that in fact he has had amnesia for all of his life. The story blossomed from there.
JT: Was there a particular historical incident or personage that served as inspiration for the work?
DN: I wouldn't say there was one historical person or incident. But I became fascinated with Russian purpose-built military-industrial cities like Perm, nestled in the Urals with the singular purpose of shoring up the Soviet war machine. It didn't seem to me to be too far-fetched to establish other cities there, with other purposes.
JT: Mid-Cold War there were a great number of cod-science books that came out as westerners? fascination with the mysterious events behind the Iron Curtain grew (Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, et al.). Did these play any part in the development of the book?
DN: I actually stayed away from that stuff. I didn't want this to be a "true history of the Comrades Who Stare at Goats." I was more interested in exploring what my first-hand understanding of psychic culture was. I spent a good many years of my childhood following my mother through various psychic fairs, aura-reading seminars and Transcendental Meditation retreats. What had intrigued me was applying much of that as an actual system by which the psychic Cold War might have been waged. I was also, frankly, interested in interrogating that part of my life.
JT: Did you set out to make the book deliberately labyrinthine (something that perfectly complements its content) or did its sprawl become apparent as the writing progressed?
DN: I didn't expect it to become as labyrinthine as it did, that's for sure. But as I started to explore the implications of the story, and the breadth of the characters I'd created, it evolved that way. I workshopped parts of the book, to the intense frustration of the workshop, because of course they would be seeing these sections in isolation, over longish periods of time. I realized it was going to be a challenge, but I felt I had no choice but to try and meet that challenge in the complexity.
JT: Having spent so much time on this book (with the first draft completed in the late 1990s) how does its final form differed from your original draft?
DN: In my last answer, I had no choice but to meet the challenge of a complex book. That is not entirely true. When I presented a long draft of the book to my agent at the time, he wouldn't even look at it until I cut the book "in half." I didn't quite do that, but in a second draft I shaved off about 60,000 words, rethinking the book in much simpler terms. To be kind about it, the shorter draft didn't quite work; in simplifying it, I'd rendered it more difficult to understand and less, I think, resonant.
So ultimately, I had no choice but to go back and work on the longer draft -- which is very similar to the version that's appearing in bookstores this fall. The work that I did on that draft involved a couple of things. At the time, it was a contemporary novel; now, it's a period piece. I needed to make sure that I expunged any late-90s naivete, and make sure that the imagery and so on wasn't too, too dated. There were also some small structural changes, to help make the book more coherent.
JT: How did you cope with the multiple levels of consciousness within the story? It can be wonderfully disorienting from a reader's perspective, and imagine it posed its own unique difficulties while writing the book.
DN: The shifting consciousness that informs a lot of the plot was actually dead easy to write; I just followed the story to the place, and state of mind, where it was occurring. Moving from the deck of a cabin cruiser to a possibly false memory of spy school to an upper-floor bidet in a Manhattan hotel was a lot of fun. The trick was--and is--to learn the difference between having fun and being a self-indulgent sot.
And that, in the end, is what editors are for.
JT: What was it about the fallout from Cold War political tensions that drew you to set the story amidst its ruins?
The end of the Cold War was a confused time. Prior to that, our understanding of the world had been aligned with the sharp polarity of two superpowers with each other in their sights. The end-game was Armageddon.
After the Cold War fizzled, we were all frightened rabbits--looking around for the new predator that was just around the corner. We found it, in Al Quaeda (and, arguably, the Department of Homeland Security), after the attacks of 9/11. But for a time, there was this lull when everything might be possible. And even a child who's good at mind-reading might be a worthy threat.
JT: Please tell us a little bit about the concept of 'The Metaphor'? You had mentioned that your grandmother's nostalgic view of pre-Revolutionary Russia helped develop the concept. Would you also expand upon that?
DN: The Metaphor is a tweak on something that I'd seen employed in various psychic seminars in the 1970s. The idea, at least as I apprehended it, was that our minds understand the world as we see it. So if we want to unlock the powers of the mind, we should encourage the mind to visualize something that either immediately or metaphorically signifies the objective. It's like going to your "happy place" to deal with stress.
In Rasputin's Bastards, the Russians use this kind of visualization metaphor as a means of control and empowerment. These can be peaceful places, for those looking to surrender control, or they can be very dangerous places, for psychics wishing to establish a defense against the incursions of others.
I think that nostalgia is a kind of metaphor in itself--something that we don't need to be psychic to employ, to either shore ourselves up or to make ourselves more vulnerable to manipulation. When we imagine a time that we believe was good, how different is that from imagining a serene prayer garden?
It also harkens, for me, to a kind of cyberspace as William Gibson originally conceived it--as a place where lines of code manifest themselves in what seems like real dimension.
JT: Your works are all very different, thematically, atmospherically and format wise. Was this a deliberate decision? Even within Rasputin's Bastards you have the chance to play around with a variety of genres (espionage, gangster, plucky teenage investigators) to great effect. Did you plan the overlapping genres in advance, or did that evolve as a natural way of telling the story?
DN: I know that a lot of people think of me as a horror writer, but really, the fossil record of my work doesn't bear that out. I enjoy reading and working in a variety of genres--I've published stories that you'd classify as fantasy, science fiction, even some lurid noir-crime. I've got a great love of horror fiction, but I've never seen the need, or at least desirability, to pick just one genre.
In Rasputin's Bastards I realized that I had an opportunity to dip toe in a lot of them within the scope of a single project. I didn't go in with a comprehensive list, by any means--I was as shocked by the girl-detective stuff as any hapless reader when it emerged.
But I was happy to have selected a template that gave me the opportunity to fool around a little bit without the project turning entirely into an exercise in metafiction.
JT: You made reference to having to undertake a great deal of research to properly conjure the atmosphere, setting and intrigue of the narrative. What did this entail? Were there any books that were of specific importance to you during this stage?
DN: My research was really all over the map. My friend Karl Schroeder, for instance, was kind enough to take a detailed video of a walk-through he did on a Foxtrot submarine berthed in Vancouver while he was visiting there. It helped me map out how it would be to be on board a submarine. I needed to learn about giant squid, for reasons that will become apparent, so I turned to Peter Watts for a crash course in squid-ology. And of course I drew on my own experiences with the Mind, to build up the system.
But this is not a research-intensive book, and no one should go in expecting to learn things about the former Soviet Union that they didn't already know. For the most part, I made it all up.
JT: Now that this behemoth is out of your system, are you planning on plunging right into another extended work or focusing on short/collaborative fiction? (The inevitable "you just published a book - now what!?" question).
DN: Right now I'm working on a ghost story, sort-of, called The 'Geisters. I describe it as my novel of poltergeists, the modern marriage and inconstant husbands. With luck, I'll have something to ChiZine by November and we'll be able to make a 2013 release.
JT: Finally, who is one author working in the field of horror or speculative fiction that you think readers should watch out for? Is there an author you believe is currently flying under the radar?
DN: I'm going to offer up two, because the one I'm most inclined to trumpet is Madeline Ashby, my partner, whose first novel vN is coming out from Angry Robot books just a month after mine. It's appropriately placed--it is literally about a couple of very angry robots. Her book is already taking the blogosphere by a storm, and it is awfully good. When vN comes out in July, it will be unstoppable.
People should also be paying attention to Michael Rowe, who re-sanguinated the vampire novel with Enter, Night in 2011, and will soon be doing something similar with the ghost story, with his as-yet untitled novel for CZP.
JT: Thank you for your patience and for taking the time out of your busy schedule to dig into these questions.
DN: The pleasure is mine.
David Nickle is the author of more than 30 short stories, 13 of which have been gathered in the collection Monstrous Affections. He is author of Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, and co-author of The Claus Effect, with Karl Schroeder. Years ago, he and Karl won an Aurora Award for the short story that inspired that novel, "The Toy Mill." Some years later, he won a Bram Stoker Award for short fiction, for a story called "Rat Food" - co-written with Edo Van Belkom. He lives in Toronto, Canada. His website, The Devil's Exercise Yard has stories on it for free.
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They were the beautiful dreamers. From a hidden city deep in the Ural mountains, they walked the world as the coldest of Cold Warriors, under the command of the Kremlin and under the power of their own expansive minds. They slipped into the minds of Russia's enemies with diabolical ease, and drove their human puppets to murder, and worse. They moved as Gods. And as Gods, they might have remade the world. But like the mad holy man Rasputin, who destroyed Russia through his own powerful influence . . . in the end, the psychic spies for the Motherland were only in it for themselves. It is the 1990s. The Cold War is long finished. In a remote Labrador fishing village, an old woman known only as Babushka foresees her ending through the harbour ice, in the giant eye of a dying kraken–and vows to have none of it. Beaten insensible and cast adrift in a life raft, ex-KGB agent Alexei Kilodovich is dragged to the deck of a ship full of criminals, and with them he will embark on a journey that will change everything he knows about himself. And from a suite in an unseen hotel in the heart of Manhattan, an old warrior named Kolyokov sets out with an open heart, to gather together the youngest members of his immense, and immensely talented, family. They are more beautiful, and more terrible, than any who came before them. They are Rasputin's bastards. And they will remake the world.