"I worked hard on those lies." - We talk to Ben Aaronovitch about fiction, folklore, and crime
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We were lucky enough to sit down with Ben Aaronovitch at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival.
Aaronovitch has achieved considerable notoriety for his Peter Grant novels, which tell the story of a police constable recruited to a supernatural division of the London Metropolitan Police. Beginning with Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot if you’re in the US), the series is a delicate blend of urban fantasy and police procedural, which lends it a fantastic combination of fantasy fiction’s fear of the unknown (and potentially unknowable) and crime’s constant drive to unravel an apparent mystery with logic and deduction.
We took the opportunity to ask him some questions about the Peter Grant series, writing, and some of the books he’d recommend to fans of his work.
Some of your best known work before Rivers of London was on Doctor Who, which is very light-hearted and frivolous and fun when it wants to be. Do you feel you draw on that style in your own work?
No, I think what happened was that me and Doctor Who managed to coincide at the same time. I think I ended up on Doctor Who because I’ve got that kind of brain and it’s just continued.
You’re the second Doctor Who writer to have gone on to write a paranormal detective novel. Is that a coincidence or is there a natural connection between the two?
Oh, no. I don’t think so, because otherwise I would have made the connection… No, I literally did not think in those terms and sometimes there are; I’m not gonna say that you don’t sometimes go, “Ah, I shall nick from this person.” There are those kinds of connections, where one thing leads to another and you can trace the line of descent, through art and pieces of work, and sometimes it’s just coincidence. The trouble is, you’ve only got the writer’s word for which is which. We could be lying… so we’re unreliable narrators of our own work.
There’s a folkloric quality to many of the character and places in Rivers of London, do you feel you engage more with that than other urban fantasy writers?
Folkloric quality- we nick stuff from folklore.
I don’t know that other urban fantasy doesn’t. I mean, they all draw upon the folkloric, a lot of them are very seriously drawing on that tradition. Some of it is inevitable. If you’re going to do a supernatural fantasy and you’re going to have a character who is the goddess of the river Thames, you have to take into account those woodcuts of Father Thames emerging out of the stink in 1855 with a long beard, and that great big, bearded statue of him at Lechlade and things like that.
To be honest, it never occurred to me not to put this stuff in. It’s not like I went, “I shall put this stuff in,” some things just follow. I find a lot of the time you follow, like breadcrumbs, you think you’re going one way when you’re following the breadcrumbs, and you end up somewhere else…
Actually, breadcrumbs is not the right analogy. It’s more like a pinball machine. You’re just kind of racketing around [he makes a series of weirdly evocative pinball machine noises, impossible to render in text]. Randomly hitting the ball with the flipper. At least that’s how I play pinball… and occasionally it goes where you want it to go, and you get a... double word score, but most of the time you’re just randomly hitting the flipper’s switch.
Beyond that organic, folkloric influence, you have a very systematic approach to magic. As someone who started out in science fiction, do you think that’s a holdover from your past life?
Yes, I am actually a science fiction writer masquerading as a fantasy writer. I think it’s mainly because I’ve fallen out of date with science fiction. I woke up one morning and it was all about nanites and horrible, weird biological stuff... and it just left me behind. It was all kind of all about folding space and things being 78-dimensional and really I’m kind of a guy-with-a-ray-gun-and-spaceship-and-aliens guy.
I grew up in a period when this distinction between science fiction authors and fantasy authors didn’t really exist so much. People like Andre Norton , Poul Anderson, C. L. Moore, and Heinlein, even Clarke would write science fiction or fantasy depending on the mood they woke up in or what they felt. They didn’t think to themselves, “Now I shall follow the tropes of the fantasy genre.” Leigh Brackett is another really great example of that.
All of these people would be amazed by the idea that there was a barrier there, any kind of barrier at all. Obviously, they’re different genres and they have different tropes, and you’re aware of those tropes as you write them, but the thing about genre tropes is that they’re there to do two things: guide you or break. You can do both. They’re like a mix of ingredients, so you just take the ingredients that you like. For example, there’s a whole list of science fiction ingredients and a whole list of fantasy ingredients, and you get all your ingredients and you can leave some of them out, you can put some of them in, and you can make a kind of minestrone kind of fantasy, or you can make your full on bouillabaisse gumbo with everything with the kitchen sink in it.
Or you can get a science fiction, like for example Peter Hamilton. In The Reality Dysfunction, what he does is he takes a very hard space opera science fiction series and pours in this mixture of horror. Now, he explains it away as science fiction, but you only know once you’ve got through the subsequent 6,000 pages or so… by that point, it’s too late. If you don’t like that supernatural horror flavouring that’s in The Reality Dysfunction, you’re not gonna read The Naked God. The thing that made The Reality Dysfunction different from every other space opera you’ve ever read was that there was a horror element in there! In a completely unexpected way, you’re moving along, reading a space opera, and suddenly horror is happening and you think, “Shit, I wasn’t expecting that.”
It’s always useful to know the genre, so that you know what rules you’re breaking and who you’re stealing. I’m basically doing a fantasy, but it’s also a police procedural so I’ve got three bowls in front of me, and I’m just greedy. I take the bits I like and that’s been my approach to it. It’s informed by my understanding of the genre, which is very highly refined, much as any man who’s discovered a TVTropes page…
I take the bits that work for me. Then I just throw them all together and hope for the best. Essentially, that’s my style, it’s how my writing works: vague idea where I’m going, hope for the best, foot on the accelerator.
You make it sound very scattershot, but you’ve had a lot of success with that method.
Success and failure in publishing comes down to three elements. One, your work has to be worth something. Two, you have to get someone to publish it. Three, the audience has to read it. “Worth” is usually the threshold that gets you published. If you write something and it’s quite good, sooner or later, if you send it to enough people, someone will publish it. The trouble is, you don’t know whether it’s going to– well, I did, because I was a professional writer for thirty years before I wrote Rivers of London. So when I picked up that first three pages of Rivers of London, I thought, “Fuck me, this is going to sell,” because I have that experience.
That’s one of the advantages of being quite long in the tooth. You have the experience of understanding when something is intrinsically worth money. You have a professional understanding of the genre, but that’s something that takes ages to develop… because the way it develops is people hitting you with a frying pan for 20 years. Finally, you wise up and go, “Oh, right. If I go that way, the frying pan will miss.”
You seem to use humour both to ground the fantastic scenes and defuse tension in the Peter Grant series. When we go back and watch “Remembrance of the Daleks” you do something similar with the dalek on the staircase. Is that humour something you prize stylistically?
I think that’s a function of my– I just like that kind of stuff. I’m a classic repressed Englishman. I don’t like it when things get too serious, so I make a joke of it. In “Remembrance of the Daleks” that was the one thing we were absolutely certain of. We had no idea what the rest of the plot was, but for fuck’s sake the cliffhanger was going to be a dalek going up the stairs, because we were going to nail that bloody stairs thing good and proper. All we knew was that that’s what happened, a dalek was going to go up a stairs, and we pretty much wrote backwards from that stairs-dalek in 1963.
I don’t want to criticise New Who, but they did a similar thing in “Dalek” for the same reason, to kill the whole dalek-goes-up-the-stairs thing. I think they over-rigged it, it stops and goes “ELEVATE,” I think just having it come up the stairs… I’d have just had it rolling up the stairs and them going, “Oh shit.”
We've been asking everyone at the festival this one, but is there a book that you unabashedly love that your readers would be surprised by?
I don’t know, because I’ve…
I like the Eddings, I like The Belgariad. I’m gonna come out there and I’m gonna say, it’s terribly written. I didn’t realise how badly written until I went back and reread it, but you know what? I finished it all the same.
I have a literary answer too. I like a writer called Toni Cade Bambara, who has a book called The Salt Eaters. She also has a book of short stories called Gorilla, My Love. I think she’s the bee’s knees, but to just say that would have been cheating, because I’ve told people I like that book before. I don’t think they’d be surprised, whereas I pretty much keep The Belgariad under wraps. I don’t go around advertising that one.
If you had to recommend five must-read books in your genre, what would they be? For you that’s probably urban fantasy?
In my genre? Well, I think of my genre as also being police procedural...
I like the first The Bridge, mainly because it just has the best pair-up I’ve ever seen. Mismatched cops, Saga and Martin. In fact, I’m going to throw that in as my last book. The first season of The Bridge, it’s not a book, but tough. Saga and Martin are a Swedish cop and a Danish cop, because it takes place on the bridge that links Malmö with Copenhagen. I’ve never been there, but I know that the bridge links Malmö and Copenhagen. She’s autistic and Swedish, where he’s Danish and when we first see him he’s just had a vasectomy, dying of pain and he’s all about this grossness, he’s had three wives and five families, and he’s having an affair with somebody else. There’s this wonderful level of mutual incomprehension between the pair of them.
Most mismatched cops are very obviously mismatched in the sense that one likes opera and the other does not, one plays by the rules and the other doesn’t. Here they’re mismatched in kind of an interesting way. For example, Saga, because she’s autistic, they don’t let her interview people, so she thinks interviewing is done by specialist cops. So when Martin says, “Let’s go interview them,” she’s been told to wait for the interviewers. It’s interesting, because in real life you do have specialist cops for interviews. All these police dramas you see where the detective inspector talks to the suspects… never happens.
I’ve tried to keep true to that. Also, nowadays you’re not allowed to beat people with phonebooks. It takes fucking ages and you can’t have a DI spending 24 hours on an interrogation. Because you can no longer hit them until they tell you what you want to hear, you have to kind of do a proper interrogation, which means sitting down and patiently going over the same thing again and again and again and again. Trying to get them to slip up.
When you tell a lie, if you’re clever you keep it as close to the truth as possible. But policemen, having spent quite a lot of time close to people that are liars, know this (and having told the odd porky themselves). So, what you do is, it’s much easier to remember the truth than a lie. So you keep asking the question in lots of different ways, coming back to it and coming back to it again. Sooner or later, the little bit of lie will start to erode, but the truth is the bit that stays the same. You just wear them away until the truth is what’s left. That’s how the technique works.
That almost brings us back toward folklore again, stories told over and over until all that's left is the part that really works. That bit that's "true" in that sense of the word.
Well, it all sounds like it’s true. That’s why a good lie, good folklore… is true. Someone once said to me,“The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that everything in a documentary except the facts is untrue. In fiction, everything is true except the facts.”
It’s an incredibly glib statement, entirely untrue in almost every respect, because nothing I write about is true in any way. I’m very proud of that. My stuff is 100% lies. I worked hard on those lies. I know this because, you know when you say you lost that five pound note your mother gave you and you go back and you tell them exactly how you lost it even though you can’t remember how… that part of the brain I was using when I was spinning the tale about how that five pound note got lost, that’s the same part of the brain. I can just feel it, it’s the same part of the brain I’m using when I’m typing at a word processor. There’s no getting away from it. It’s the same part of the brain entirely. And so, I lie. It’s all lies.