In recent years, some movie critics have dismissed certain action films by derisively saying they’re, “like a video game.” But in promoting Rat Runners, the new book by Oisín McGann (paperback, digital), his publicist said the same…and meant it as a compliment. Though in talking to McGann, it’s clear that while he appreciates a good game, it’s not the only thing that inspired his new novel.
First, what is Rat Runners about?
Rat Runners is a crime story set in a near future London, which is now part of a surveillance state. There’s a complete lack of privacy, particularly because of the Safe-Guards, people with suits loaded with surveillance gear who can pretty much go wherever they like. In the book, four young professional criminals — Nimmo, Manikin, FX, and Scope —are tasked by a mob boss with retrieving a case that belonged to a recently murdered scientist. They get caught up in a conflict as another anonymous and powerful figure tries to find the case too and eventually end up trying to solve the murder.
At first, reading it might seem like a science fiction story, but I actually had to tone down some of the existing spy technology to keep the narrative centered round characters rather than tech. Most people wouldn’t believe what’s already possible and what’s already being used. Snowden and the Wikileaks stuff is only one face of an entire culture that’s growing around us.
Is that where you got the idea for the book?
The basic idea started with the Safe-Guards. We’re under so much surveillance these days, but most of it is impersonal; cameras, the reading of our digital footprints, data mining…we don’t really feel oppressed by it in the way that we should. But it occurred to me that if we could see an actual masked figure standing there watching us all the time, that would be much creepier. Imagine someone who could come into your house, watch you eat dinner, or watch you sleeping or going to the toilet, now that would be creepy. It’s an animal thing in us. We don’t like being stared at. It’s why I chose to use patrolling humans, rather than drones, which are already being put into use.
Once I had that idea, I built the setting I wanted around it, and with that came the characters I needed. I wanted it to be about kids, but I needed to give them advantages over adults. It’s always the way with kids’ stories, they have to empower them, sort things out themselves, so you have to get rid of the parents and any other responsible adults. So these Safe-Guards can only follow people who are over sixteen. This gives kids much more freedom of movement than adults and this, of course, makes them very useful to criminals as thieves, messengers and couriers. And I made sure the two girls and two boys in my story were really good at what they did.
It also created some very useful features for the story: Because they have to avoid cameras and sensors that cover the streets, the kids are free runners, so just getting from place to place can be an action scene. Because these sensors can automatically detect hidden weapons, I can avoid excessive use of guns and knives; the fights and other action scenes have to be more physical and more inventive. I have to be smarter about the weapons that can be carried. Real gangsters use guns, but shooting can quickly get repetitive. It also gave me a chance to question the way we’ve all contributed to the loss of our privacy. Something is automatically more important once it’s been seen on television, we take selfies all the time. It’s like we’re welcoming surveillance into our lives. All this celebrity culture and obsession with being on screen provides a lot of opportunity for humor too. We’re a daft lot, really.
In pitching me on this interview, your publicist said the book “reads like a video game.” Are you a big gamer? And in what ways do you think games have influenced or inspired Rat Runners?
I’m not a big gamer, but that’s not because I don’t enjoy games. Some of the stuff out there is fantastic…and seriously addictive. I write and draw for a living, I love reading books and watching films. If I had one more thing keeping me in, sitting in front of a screen, they’d end up having to hoist my bloated corpse off the sofa with a crane. As it is, I have a stand-up desk to try and stop me spending so much time on my arse.
That said, I think books, films, and games are all influencing each other now. It’s hard to tell some game trailers apart from films. Look at films like Edge Of Tomorrow or the success of Pixar and see how they’re informed by game plotting and aesthetics. Read most YA books and you’ll find the narrative reads like a film, because we’ve all grown up watching them.
I’ve actually recently finished working on two novel tie-ins, commissioned by Penguin, for a major new online fantasy game that’s just been launched, entitled Kings Of The Realm. Working with games designers at the concept stage was a lot of fun, but it was also a valuable insight into how a story for a game has to be built around the mechanics.
So do you think Rat Runners could be made into a game?
Oh, I absolutely think Rat Runners could be a game. I’d like to see it as a mystery story with a lot of sneaking and evasion, but also some kick-ass fights. I love a good martial arts scene. Assassin’s Creed would probably be a good example of the style of game.
What about other influences, what else inspired what you wrote about in Rat Runners or how you wrote it?
I’ve been reading a lot of crime lately, I particularly like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. Reacher is such a hardcore, almost mythical character, yet despite the darkness of the stories, he’s not miserable, as so many detectives are. I think it’s natural to be interested in the darker side of human nature.
I also do a lot of work with kids of all ages, who are often fascinated with that kind of thing. It struck me some time ago how different it must be for them growing up than it was for people of my generation. They are constantly being photographed and filmed in a way that they can immediately see on screen. Think how that must affect your behavior. But also, we’re getting so cautious with kids now. Teenagers especially are watched in ways they never were before, and not just by parents and teachers. We can all relate to what it was like when you were young and you walked into certain shops and the staff watched you intently, as if you might be there to steal something, so you almost felt like you had to buy something to prove you weren’t a thief. Or that feeling you get when you’re walking past a police officer, or a police car drives past, and part of you wonders: “Am I doing anything illegal?” Human nature is the best means of driving a story and this sense of monitoring our own behavior when we’re being watched, and how we’re different when we’re not being watched, provides plenty of good material for tension.
Speaking of kids, Rat Runners was also described as being a young adult novel. But do you think that an adult — say a forty-six year old man who plays video games — might get into it as well?
I think the whole young adult thing is a marketing category and nothing more. There was no such thing when I was that age, so I went from The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and Treasure Island to The Lord Of The Rings, Moby Dick, Stephen King. and lots of Cold War thrillers. I write for the reader I was when stories could still blow my mind, whether it was an adult thriller or a comic or a beautifully illustrated kid’s book. We read stories we like; the business of how to sell them is something entirely different.
Besides writing, you’re also an artist, and usually do the illustrations for your own novels. Do you think Rat Runners would work as a comic?
Absolutely, but I’d be really picky about the adaptation. What works in a novel won’t always work in a comic and vice versa. The same goes for films. A story needs to be molded to fit the medium.
You’re also the father of three. Do you ever catch yourself writing someone but then thinking, “Oh, I do not want my kids reading that”?
I have a fourteen-year-old stepson, a five-and-and-a-half-year-old, and a four-year-old. Our son is at an age where he needs to get away from our guidance and start exploring; we’ve done our best with him, but as far as reading material is concerned, he’s got to find his own way now. The older girl is already a keen reader, and the youngest is impatient to get to the point where she can read on her own. My wife is a librarian with a keen interest in children’s books, and we read all sorts of things to the two girls, but they’ll tell us if there’s something they’re uncomfortable with or don’t feel ready for. They’re curious and have constant questions, and we figure we should answer them all as honestly as we can.
But then, I don’t think there’s been any point in any of my stories where I’ve worried about what my kids might think. It’s the nature of stories to introduce us in theory to things that we may not be ready for in practice, or to try things we could, or should, never try in real life. It’s one of the qualities of reading I love most. It also makes me wonder why we’re more reluctant to show responsible sex in young adult books than we are about depicting graphic violence. I mean, which do we want them doing when they’re older?
Finally, if someone read Rat Runners and wanted to read another of your books, which one would you suggest they read next and why?
I’m always wary of recommending a book without knowing who I’m recommending it too; stories are such subjective things. If you’re into the whole surveillance/ conspiracy thriller thing, Strangled Silence plays like a kind of prequel to Rat Runners, and is set pretty much in our current world. But if you like the whimsical darkness and oddball characters of Rat Runners, and you fancy a bit of fantasy or historical fiction, you might go for The Wildenstern Saga, starting with Ancient Appetites. If you’re into the dystopian thing, maybe with an environmental theme thrown in, you might like Small-Minded Giants, published in the U.S. as Daylight Runner. Or The Gods And Their Machines for a boy-meets-girl in a clash of cultures deal set in an alternative world.
But who knows what any reader might like? For me, a book should have good characters, a gripping thriller plot, colorful dialogue loaded with personality, plenty of pace, some stimulating ideas and bursts of imagination. Once it’s got all that, you’ll have my interest, no matter what the genre or setting is. I mean, why limit yourself?