The Next Big Thing Part II: Martin MacInnes

As I mentioned in my last blog post, when I answered these questions, I’m now going to host my friend and colleague Martin MacInnes’ response to the Next Big Thing questionnaire. Martin has had fiction, non-fiction, and a hybrid version of the two, published in The Edinburgh Review and online at the Human Genre Project, and is easily the most talented writer I know. Here are his answers:

What is the title of your latest book?

Ascension Incorporated.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

A line in a psychology report written in the 1970s. The writer was talking about signals of severe mental disturbance, and claimed that certain changes in human brain-state are detectable, via scent, by rats. The particular line was about a desire to escape the body manifesting as a fascination with hands and feet, ‘terminal peninsula of the human body.’

I began writing fictional interviews with colleagues of an anonymous office worker who has vanished/become insane/ascended/committed suicide. These interviews became extremely digressive, and I used the premise – a search for an impossibly missing person – as an excuse to launch stories and experiment with many different kinds of writing, all really about the interesting difficulty of defining life and of documenting a life, ‘capturing’ a person. I wanted to sort of imply that this was an alternative world in which death was impossible – as, in this world, it imaginatively is – hence the ridiculous lengths gone to in the search. I tied the search to stories around the geography and history of a strange island I’d visited in the South Atlantic, ‘Ascension’ – making full use of the not so very discreet allusion in its name.

What genre does your book fall under?

Science-fiction (in both senses), travel writing, autobiography, natural history, even ‘literary fiction’ – in no order of priority.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?

The main character would never be seen face-on, so it could be many different people, or no-one. For the characters who make up the stories I would like sets of people who looked similar or even related to each other.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

An extraordinary and inexplicable vanishing leads to a search spanning deserts, seas and the polar south, the deep past and the far future, astronauts and ship-wrecked sailors, as an investigating company attempts to establish what has happened to a man who has gone.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m trying for an agent and publisher; self-publishing successes seem predominantly thrillers or genre-work. I wouldn’t want to publish a book without the support of an experienced editor, and I also, possibly pathetically, could do with the professional validation.

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

I’ve written the book twice, with two different plots, so about three years, with some parts drafted many times. I scrapped the first half of the original version, and ‘wrote over’ the rest of it with a new plot.

What other books would you compare it to within your genre?

In popular writing, maybe ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell, ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald,, ‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin and ‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie. The books that most influenced me when writing it were ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Clarice Lispector, ‘Consciousness Explained’ by Daniel Dennett, and most of all J.G. Ballard’s short stories and interviews.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Mainly the feeling that time is always running out, and that the world is stranger and more various than I’ve regularly been able to express. Specifically, I’ve felt it’s important to write about absolutely natural, routine processes – the way the body makes itself, the slow radiation of species, two people sitting in a cafe – in a way that gives them all the imagined wonder of space exploration. I think too much writing – especially ‘literary fiction’ – is limited in its curiosity by being anthropocentric and dualist. The mind can be ‘nothing but’ an organ working, a piece in cooperation with the rest of the body and the organic world, and yet still without significant limitation.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

Quite a lot of it is ‘true’, in the sense of having happened.

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