Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Joseph MacKinnon

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Joseph MacKinnon

Not all technological advances are good ones. That's what, Paul, the protagonist of Joseph MacKinnon's Cypulchre (Guy Faux Books) found out the hard way after he invented the CLOUD technology. It swept the wealthy and bored into a dissociative state (the "noosphere"), and now it is threatening Paul's family. Battling his own psychoses, Paul emerges from a decade of exile to save the people who shunned him. From android strippers to technology addicts, Cypulchre is part cyberpunk thriller and part essential human storytelling in its depiction of a man's quest for redemption.

Joseph speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today Joseph tells us about the nightmare that inspired his new book, the questions about technological process that spurred his writing and why writing in bed is a bad idea.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Joseph MacKinnon:

The name of my new book is Cypulchre. I could wax poetic about it, but I feel the blurb on the back does a better job with fewer words:

The inventor of the CLOUD technology — that's swept Los Angeles' rich and willing into the noosphere — has lived in exile for a decade, north of the mountains, feared, defamed, and despised by his former colleagues and estranged family. When he learns that the same technology that led to his downfall now threatens his family as well as the thousands synchronized to it, he must take action. Nothing is what it seems, especially with his psychoses turning allies to enemies, and enemies into demons.

Growing up, I was plighted by a recurring nightmare. In it, I’d be overwhelmed by a chaotic swirl of information. Really quite terrifying. After finishing work on Faultline 49, I wanted to return to that sensation — back to that feeling of being dwarfed by information and other people. I already had a skeleton of a story haphazardly strung-together on my corkboard concerning a schizophrenic that self-medicated with a substance that only worsened his condition. His good intentions would always be undermined by his impulses, which he — sadly — would never remember acting on. This sad individual, I decided, would be my surrogate in a confrontation with the soul-destroying apparition from my dreams.

A few months into the process of world-building around what was, at first, a very simple story, I found myself obsessing over the concept of the noosphere, as well as theories pertaining to nirvana, heaven, and cyberspace. The world of Cypulchre grew around my curiosity, my questions, and my anxieties, and fleshed out when my characters started to resist the answers and rationalizations I came up with.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

JM:

The questions I started off with were: Will the noosphere be impersonal? What will it look like? Would it be tantamount to an industrialized nirvana? Would mind- and memory-sharing reduce us to archetypes? Would it change the importance we place on individuality in the West?

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

JM:

The project changed drastically from draft to draft. The first iteration was foul and excessively gritty… Each draft seemed to refocus the narrative and the voice on the story and the message. The gutters and bodies are still there in the final, only they’re not expounded upon as they had been.

The writing process took just under a year. Edits, on the other hand, took about five months.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

JM:

Coffee. A lot of coffee. I take a long shot of espresso with a little bit of cream. No sugar. That keeps my mind from straying.

I can write anywhere except in bed, because I’ll just fall asleep. Coffee shops are great because there is a great deal of stimuli — enough so that you can’t get too comfortable. Also, they have plenty of coffee.

I don’t find that comfort is conducive to thinking creatively. That being said, I don’t think I’d work well on a bed of nails.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

JM:

If I am feeling discouraged, I just immerse myself in whatever genre I’ve settled in. If I’m feeling really discouraged, I find the worst of the genre and remind myself that it could be worse.

While writing Cypulchre, I found myself binge-watching Twilight Zone episodes and obsessively going-over "Ghost in the Shell" as if somewhere, hidden between the frames, were the answers I needed.

In terms of coping…more coffee.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

JM:

A great book constructs a vivid stage in your head and bids you walk around and explore it. If, upon passing the apron, you’ve found more than just facades — if the green room is populated with characters too dynamic or symbolic to have been replaced by mere props — you’ve find greatness. A good book is a well-staged play. A great book is a living theatre.

Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent are both great books. It’s hardly risky to say so; T.S Eliot loved the first, and modernist scholars everywhere love the second.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JM:

I am finishing work on a collaboration with Toronto artist, Carlo Schefter, on a work of fantasy pulp entitled The Savage Kingdom. Once it is released, he and I will write another, this time a horror story set in 1888 in the Rocky Mountains, entitled The Last Spike.

On weekends, I’m helping an indie-game developer with a cyberpunk RPG.

Two pulp novels and a sci-fi game means I’m sitting on a pile of pithy one-liners — more than enough to keep my partner’s eyes rolling.


Joseph MacKinnon was born in Calgary, Alberta, and now resides with his wife, Samantha Butwell, and their German shepherd, Opie, in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author of Faultline 49 (published under his now-deceased nom de plume, David Danson) and Cypulchre. He also co-authored The Savage Kingdom with Carlo Schefter.

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