In his debut novel, The Detainee, writer Peter Liney imagines a dystopian world where those who are incapable of taking care of themselves are sent to a prison called The Island. But while the book is fictional, Liney admits that the book’s origins, and thus its foundations, stem from some very real concerns about our society.
For those who haven’t read it, what is The Detainee about?
Well, the first thing I’ve got to say is it’s about hope, the prevailing of the human spirit, though, admittedly, we have to go through some very challenging situations before we finally get there.
It’s set not so far into the future, maybe thirty years or so. There’s been another economic collapse, no surprise there. Only this one is total. The State can no longer support its weaker members, and if you aren’t self-sufficient — the elderly; those with health problems, physical and mental; unwanted children; even criminals who have no-one to pay for their incarceration — you’re sent to the Island, a big pile of landfill, human garbage to go with the regular kind. There’s no escape, not from the satellite-drones that oversee the place, nor the crazed demons that attack on foggy nights when the satellites are temporarily blinded.
However, when ageing ex-heavy Clancy finds a network of tunnels under the Old City suddenly he also discovers hope, not just for freedom, but love, too…and finally the “Big Guy” is ready to fight back.
Where did you get the original idea from?
I had a lot of thoughts…well, more concerns really, floating around in my head. What is going to happen to our society when there are far too many old people for the young ones to support? Why are so many of us spied on all the time? How far are those in control prepared to go? It was just getting all those elements into a hothouse situation. One day I happened to wander into New York Library and saw this exhibition of landfill on Staten Island. I won’t say “Bingo!” because I hate that tired old expression, but that’s about what it was.
The novel is set in a dystopian world. What movies, TV shows, video games, comics, and other books do you think are an influence on how you depicted the dystopian aspects of the book’s setting?
That’s a really difficult question because I’m not aware of being influenced by anything in particular. I’ve had several suggestions — Logan’s Run, Lord Of The Flies, that old cult TV favorite The Prisoner, all of which I’m very familiar with — but it’s very hard to gauge what influence something else has had on you, directly or indirectly. I’ve looked at old movies or re-read books and been very surprised on occasions, but really, I think what influenced me the most was seeing what was going on around me now.
As you said, in the book you blame economics for the downfall of society that led to this dystopian future. Did you consult any economics experts to make sure your reasoning was plausible?
I actually used to teach business and finance to foreign students. Not something I would say I have an avid interest in, but if you want to really learn something, then teach it. I felt I knew enough and, as many people have said, one of the great strengths of The Detainee is that it’s disturbingly believable. As we saw in 2008, these things can be amazingly simple. At the time you can hardly believe it: How can this be possible? I thought these people were supposed to be experts? It can, and possibly will, happen again, I just hope it won’t be like The Detainee.
Another interesting aspect of The Detainee is that the hero, “Big Guy” Clancy, isn’t a kid or even a young man. He’s actually described as being “Clint Eastwood-esque.” Why did you decide to go with an older person as the main character instead of some young whipper-snapper?
You know, I’m really surprised how this is really stoking people’s interest. I guess I should’ve thought about it a bit more. I wanted a good old-fashioned hero. And by that I mean, someone who, despite his background, is a man of real integrity. I also like the fact that he’s flawed: he has self-esteem issues, and the scenes where he decides to get back into training, to get his muscles toned up and working again, are so visual.
In the book, there’s some conflict between the older people and the younger ones. Are you using this book to work out your frustrations over those damn kids who won’t get off your lawn?
And all because I set fire to their skateboards…okay, so they were on them at the time.
No, actually, the scenes with the kids were very difficult to write. I almost found myself stopping and asking if I should be doing this? A lot of research went into that. You’d be amazed what children will do just for a sense of belonging.
The book is the first in what you’re called The Detainee Trilogy. How far along are you with the other two books?
The second book, Into The Fire, is finished and will be out in the UK on July 3rd, 2014. I’m now on In Constant Fear which, hopefully, will be completed by the end of summer and be out the following July. I’m guessing the same pattern will follow in the U.S., and that Into The Fire will be out next March. Though, maybe, if it continues to go as well as it has, my publishers will bring it forward.
Prior to writing The Detainee, you wrote both sitcoms and dramas. What sitcoms and dramas did you write?
Actually, my writing career has had two distinct phases. Some time ago there was a period of writing comedy sketches and sitcoms for TV. In Australia it was Tickled Pink and variety shows, in the UK it was It’s Going To Be All Right for Channel 4, and a series for the BBC called Back To Our Roots that, alas, never made it to the screen. To be honest, none of them bathed in the ass’s milk of glory, but then, that’s TV for you. I also wrote dramas for BBC and South African Radio, which was an altogether more fulfilling experience. Then, after a pause, I turned to writing books; it was quite a while before I finally wrote something I was ready to show someone.
So why did you decide to write The Detainee as a book, as opposed to as a TV show or movie?
One of my friends once said to me, “You don’t write books, you write films in a book form.” I kind of hope I’ve got all bases covered…or two out of three. More on that, hopefully, to follow.
Now that you’ve written it, do you think The Detainee could work as a TV show or movie, and if so, which do you think would work better?
For me, it’s a movie. In my head, I’ve pretty well got it cast. And actually, I would say 70% of the people who read it come up with same name for Clancy…and no, I’m not going to tell you. See what you think.
Well, Clint Eastwood is the obvious one, but since you’re being coy, I’m guessing that’s not it. Anyway, I usually like to conclude my author interviews by asking which of their other novels people should read next. But since this is your first book, I’ll instead ask you what other books do you think fans of The Detainee should check out next?
Ha! This reminds me of a question you asked earlier. Check out Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. When Into The Fire comes out, you’ll see what I mean about unknowingly being influenced.