While surrealism works well in such visual mediums as painting and film, it’s a bit trickier to pull off in print, especially prose. But if anyone can pull it off, it’s writer Lavie Tidhar, who — in the following email interview — describes his new sci-fi / fantasy / what-have-you mash-up novel The Escapement (paperback, Kindle) in terms art critics might appreciate.
To begin, what is The Escapement about, and what kind of world is it set in?
On one level, it’s about a desperate father searching for a cure for his son’s illness. On the other, it’s a quest across a surrealist landscape peopled (if “peopled” is the right word) with moving statues, shadow puppets, and clowns. So there are gunfights and train robberies and double-crosses and all that, and then there’s a child in a hospital room…I’d like to think it’s sort of what might have happened if Salvador Dali directed The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Or maybe if Sergio Leone ever got to make Dr. Seuss’ Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
Where did you get the idea for The Escapement?
It started with a short story a while back called “High Noon In Clown Town.” I like juxtaposing two or more things that really shouldn’t work together. In this case, a circus western. When I set down to write the book, I really just wanted to write something very simple and linear. I was tired of novels with a complex structure. Instead, of course, the book took over and got very weird, and required a few shifts of perception, characters wandered in and out, and before you know it I was deep in uncharted territories on a map that kept shifting. Then the publishers asked me to draw a map.
The thing with writing sort of fun, colorful stuff, for me, is that it needs a heart grounded in the real world. So the “Hitler Noir” stuff in [his 2014 novel] A Man Lies Dreaming can only exist because of Shomer, the Yiddish writer in Auschwitz. And similarly here, as much as I just wanted to just write a weird take on a western, it would have had no heart without the grounding in our world, with the hope and heartbreak that comes with it. I love to try and make you laugh and then make you cry. Of course, different books work for different readers, so it’s hardly going to be a universal reaction! But when it works, I’m happy.
It kind of sounds like The Escapement is a mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy, but may have a bunch of other genres at work in it as well. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
I don’t pay much attention to genre. It’s influenced by surrealism, obviously. By nonsense and children’s books and picture books. By “The Epic Of Gilgamesh” and spaghetti westerns and fairytales. Who needs genres? It is what it is.
The Escapement is not your first novel; far from it. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a big influence on The Escapement but not on anything else you’ve written?
I was really happy I got to pay homage to Michael Ende in this book. He wrote The Neverending Story, which is all anyone know him for in English. But he actually wrote a lot of wonderful children’s books like Momo, and he wrote a great surrealist short story collection for adults called The Mirror In The Mirror. I got to go to his hometown in Bavaria a while back, and visit the local Michael Ende Park, which has elements from the books inside it. A beautiful place. So that’s probably an influence that would mean very little to an American reader.
How about non-literary influences; do you think The Escapement was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Well, I mentioned Sergio Leone. I think there’s a lot of cross-fertilization going on between film and literature, has been since the invention of cinema. I’m not sure it’s acknowledged much, but just as film (and particularly today, television) has been borrowing novelistic tools to tell stories, so have authors been borrowing from the cinema. So there’s a certain cinematic approach to this book. I would also mention what I think is a forgotten classic, Tony Collingwood’s short animated movie, “Rarg” from 1988. I think it’s a wonderful, whimsical story that has a lot to say about portals and perception and fantasy, and I pay it homage right in the middle of the book. You can catch it on YouTube, and I recommend it.
Speaking of movies, in the previous interview we did about Unholy Land, you said that your novels Osama, The Violent Century, and A Man Lies Dreaming formed what you thought of as your Casablanca trilogy, because they all pay homage to that classic film. Does The Escapement do that as well? Or is the first of your Porky’s quartet?
Nah, there’s no Casablanca moment. I really felt the need to move on from that sort of alternate history political noir thing I was doing. I wrote Unholy Land as a sort of coda to that and then moved on. So this is a very different sort of book. And, you know, the other stuff I’ve done since, too. I wrote a children’s book called The Candy Mafia (in the US. It’s called Candy in the UK and For A Fistful of Smarties in Czech and The Town Without Chocolate in Italy and Secret Agent Candy in Germany! I never wrote a book with so many different titles before), and a graphic novel, Adler. I wrote a short non-fantastical book about a poker playing nun, The Big Blind, that I really like. And next year I’m releasing a huge historical epic set across forty years of Israeli history. To quote Harry Zimm in Get Shorty, it has “no mutants or maniacs.”
As you know, some sci-fi and fantasy novels are self-contained stories, while others are part of larger sagas. Which is The Escapement?
I think it’s just what it is, though I do wonder if you couldn’t theoretically tell other stories that take place on the Escapement that have nothing to do with the one I told. It’s just that for me, there’s always the next new thing and the next challenge. I don’t want to tell the same story over and over again.
Though you did say earlier that The Escapement started with a short story “High Noon In Clown Town.” How is that story and this novel connected?
It’s what you’d call a seed story, I guess. A way of working out some ideas. “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” was a seed story forOsama, for instance, and “Uganda” and “Shira” were seed stories for Unholy Land. Or, put it another way, when you’re trying to engage with a theme you usually take more than one run at it.
It’s an interesting question, though. Looking back at it, it has the clowns, it has the western, it has some of the world caught in a glimpse in passing. And it has the three main characters, the Stranger, the Kid, and the Conjurer, and the relationship between them. And yet it was nearly a decade between the story and the novel.
Do any versions of The Escapement come with “High Noon In Clown Town,” like as a bonus?
I don’t know that there’d be much point, or else we could have probably put it into the forthcoming collector’s edition. You can find it in Postscripts #9, which is a nice collectible book in its own right.
What we are going to do though is have some original poster art by Sarah Anne Langton for the slipcase, and there’ll also be a signed art print of one of them available in the UK through Forbidden Planet. I always like to do some extra art as a way of visualizing the world just a little bit. And I’m a sucker for art prints.
Along with The Escapement, you also recently put out the graphic novel you mentioned earlier, Adler. Who is Adler, what does she do, and where does she do it?
Adler is just a fun, very tongue-in-cheek alt-Victorian adventure. It’s with an artist called Paul McCaffrey, who’s terrific. It takes all the cool characters from Victorian literature — Ayesha from She, Irene Adler from Sherlock Holmes, Carmilla from, well, Carmilla, Estella from Great Expectations, and kind of pitches them into this five-issue mini-series — really a single graphic novel in five chapters. So that’s out now in the omnibus edition.
It kind of sounds like Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Well, it’s a convenient shorthand, so sure, as long as you don’t expect it to be much like Alan Moore. I don’t want you to be disappointed. But if you’re talking about the…literary precedence, you’re going back to Philip Jose Farmer’s “Wold Newton” universe from the 1970s, or to Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula from 1992, you know, that sort of stuff really. Funnily enough, though, you can get the new volume of New Worlds (Michael Moorcock’s seminal 1960s magazine) from PS Publishing in a signed edition that does include both Moore and me. One for the collectors maybe. And PS are of course doing the limited edition of The Escapement, so that’s another thing to look forward to.
Why did you decide to do Adler a comic book and not a prose novel?
I enjoy writing comics. It is its own medium. Different stories require different mediums. I’ve also been working on a short animated web series, which is a completely different thing again — from the animator to the voice actors to the music to technical restrictions that affect what you can write. It’s great fun. We’re four episodes down, and hope we can do something with it once we’ve completed the entire first season. It just seemed like a fun thing to do.
So is this book the end of their adventures or just the first of many?
We don’t know. There might be more. I have some notes for where it could be going. And someone’s trying to adapt it for TV right now, so there’s that. We’ll see!
Do you think people who enjoy The Escapement will like Adler, and vice versa?
I don’t know what people like or don’t like. I try to please myself, and I try to find that one person who will want to publish my stuff. After that, you never know. Some people love it, some people hate it with a passion, some people are indifferent, and most would have never heard of it at all. I hope people who do like what I do will like whatever it is I do, but you never know.
Earlier I asked if The Escapement had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask this: Do you think The Escapement would work as a movie, show, or game?
You know, there’s nothing wrong with adaptation, but it doesn’t really affect the original work in any way, does it? An adaptation is someone else’s vision. The book’s still the book, and it’s always going to be right there on the shelf. So I don’t have any strong feelings about it other than, you know, I’m happy for the money.
I did get into making my own tiny Android games for mobiles for fun recently. So I’m actually making an Escapement game, I call it a “surrealist side-scroller quest” or SSSQ game. It’s a new genre. Ha! Hopefully I can get it finished in time for the book coming out. And, you know, if someone with a vision comes along and wants to turn it into a TV show, then sure. The world needs more surrealist westerns with clowns shows.
If someone wanted to do an Escapement TV show, who do you think they should cast as The Stranger and the other main characters?
I sometimes make retro make-believe movie posters with the artist Sarah Anne Langton — we hope to release an art book eventually. So I get to cast imaginary films for imaginary posters, like the Tangier poster we did for the alternate-history version of Casablanca from A Man Lies Dreaming, starring Leni Riefenstahl, Humphrey Bogart, Boris Karloff and a young Ronald Reagan (and with Hattie McDaniel as the pianist).
We’re actually making one for The Escapement, so I’m still debating who I’d cast — [The Good, The Bad And The Ugly‘s] Lee Van Cleef will probably have to be in it. Of course, it’s easier casting when you’re just making stuff up — otherwise, I’d say leave it to a professional casting agent.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Escapement, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
All of them! And I have novels coming out from here to 2023 right now, so there’s no shortage of new stuff either. I’m lucky that I get to write weird stuff and still be published, and I’m doubly lucky to keep getting new editions of my books come out. We’re doing a Tenth Anniversary Edition of Osama in the UK right now, and it looks terrific. I don’t know many books that get a Tenth Anniversary Edition. You’re lucky for most books to come out once. But for me, if a book is good enough to publish once it should be good enough to publish again and again. I try very hard to make sure that every book I write is a book that will keep having a life, that it won’t be “just” a book. Though maybe my life would be easier if I worked a little less…