Tom Pollock’s debut novel The City’s Son is out in paperback in the UK this week so I thought it would be good opportunity to ask him a few questions:
GAV: I know you’ve been asked this a hundred times before but can you tell us a little about the book?
TOM: I tend to call The City’s Son the most urban fantasy you’ll ever read. A teenaged graffiti artist gets kicked out of school, meets a homeless boy who claims to be the prince of London, and together they have to save the city from a ruthless crane-fingered demolition god. Runaway train ghosts, glass-skinned streetlamp spirits and giant, skeletal, scaffolding wolves all feature. At its heart though, it’s about a very intense friendship between two girls. It’s about friends, family and monsters, and how you can’t always tell which is which.
GAV: London is the backdrop to lots of fantasy stories but you still manage to make it fresh and exciting. Why does London keep managing to by an inspiration and what makes your London different?
TOM: *Doffs hypothetical hat* Much obliged.
I think there are a number of things. To splice both Johnson and Whitman into some horrible mutant hybrid of pretension ‘London contains multitudes.’ It’s been a major port and immigration hub for over two thousand years, and it’s a city where anybody could plausibly encounter anybody else. Diversity is the identity of London, or at least a big part of it. That makes it a handy place to set all kinds of fiction, not just fantasy.
To get at what draws fantasy writers to London, I think you need to look at the architecture. It’s a messy, organic palimpsest of a city. It’s not built on a grid, like New York, or to a central plan, like Paris. Sightlines are occluded. There’s a particular experience of walking through London and becoming suddenly, hair-raisingly aware of all the spaces – the padlocked sheds and electricity sub-stations, the attics and sewers – which are incredibly close to you but where you have no clue of what’s going on inside them. Urban fantasy is, I think, obsessed with the secret and the local, and I think London’s shape lends itself to that very well.
GAV: Speaking of different, your main character, Beth, is teenage girl. It’s unusual for men to write both from that POV and to write YA. Have you had any interesting reactions to that?
TOM: Is it really that rare? My impression is there are tons of us doing it, but I bow to your wider reading (I read like a snail.) [I probably don’t read enough YA and it have it completely wrong – Gav]
Regarding the disparity between my gender and my lead character’s, no one seems to comment on it too much, which is both more or less what I’d expect and what I’d hope for. Beth is a girl, true, but she’s also a graffiti artist, a survivor, a loudmouth and a half-orphan. All of which contribute as much if not more to her character than her gender, and would still do so if she were a boy. It’s not that gender is irrelevant to characterisation. Society still treats the genders differently in a variety of pernicious ways, and that will affect the way they grow up. But those effects won’t be uniform, they won’t be predictable, and they won’t be independent of all the other factors which shape them. They’ll mix with those other factors like paint in a pallet, and the shade that emerges will be unique to each person. Characters should be individuals, they’re far, far more than the sum of their demographics.
GAV: A reader wanted me to ask, ‘’why cranes, why trains, and why graffiti?’
TOM: Cranes, Trains and Graffiti Ha! There’s a Steve Martin movie I’d pay to see.
Well, they’re all features of the modern urban landscape that have either an illicit or a predatory quality that makes us either complicit with, or estranged from our city, and using those two effects together is key to how the books work. Trains have all that rampaging, unstoppable momentum, the sound they make going over bridges is like war drums. Graffiti always has that suggestion of code to it. It get the conspiracy theorist in us going, the idea that there’s something to be decrypted under the palimpsest (an idea which isn’t wholly unproblematic, I’ll grant you). And Cranes, well cranes really do look like giant, skeletal, metal fingers grasping possessively at the skyline, and we walk in their shadows every day.
GAV: Beth is quite a strong character but also quite isolated, as is Filius, though Beth has Pen and Filius has Beth, without spoilers what do you think Beth and Filius learn about themselves and those around them? Are they as isolated as they think they are?
TOM: Ooh, good question. I think what Beth learns, and this is a painful lesson, is that her charisma and her recklessness is a dangerous combination for her friends. They’re assets, and flaws, and she makes use of them as she has to, but doing so costs her. She isn’t as isolated as she thinks she is, and she’ll probably wish she understood that earlier.
Fil, on the other hand is arguably even more isolated than he thinks, because not everyone around him is telling him everything they ought to. Still, I reckon he learns that he can function and fight and carry-the-hell-on if he has even one friend beside him.
GAV: For the next book, The Glass Republic you swap main characters, without spoiling things too much why swap main characters?
TOM: It’s just Pen’s turn, really, The Glass Republic is her story to tell. Its themes fit her character better. Of the two of them, scars and beauty and control (which are essentially what book 2 is about) are far more her territory than Beth’s. Plus, Pen’s on a long arc, and this is the meat of it.
GAV: I can’t see a crane without seeing this book and myself and other have sent you pictures of cranes in and around the capital. Did you know when you wrote about them how much they were a subconscious threat?
TOM: I knew they loomed, in a pretty intimidating fashion, and Reach (the crane-fingered character in the book) was in some measure an articulation of that unease. Still, I have been surprised by the number of people who’ve told me I’ve given them a phobia of cranes. With the first couple of guys who told me that, I was callow enough to be delighted by it, but the more I think about it, the more I’m like. ‘Wait, if that’s true, that’s terrible…’
GAV: I’ve called it a YA book but as an adult I enjoyed it immensely, do you have a reader or audience in mind for this series? Have you had people enjoy it that you’d never have thought would have read it?
TOM: Kinda? I mean, there are individuals, especially other authors I admire, who read it and told me they really enjoyed it, and I’m like ‘damn, really?’ Because you don’t expect Jon Courtenay Grimwood or Ann Aguirre or Adam Roberts to like a book you wrote, you know? But as for a type of person I’m surprised at liking it, not really? I ‘ve been very lucky, the book’s fans seem to come from a wide range of backgrounds and ages and reader types, but I always knew there were a lot of adults out there who like YA. If I hadn’t been one of them, I wouldn’t have written it.
To be honest, it was winning the teenagers over I was most worried about, and it’s their response I’ve been most pleased and relieved by. They know their stuff, you can’t fool ‘em.
GAV: You might get a bit embarrassed by this question but your writing style is very imaginative and intelligent and it reminds me of China Miéville do you think ‘I’d better rein myself in’ just in case readers can’t follow you or your beta readers do that for you or do you just go for it regardless?
TOM: Go for it. Go for it every day. The thing that writing, for me, has over all other story-telling media is that there are no limits, so why impose others? Ink and paper can make anything real.
The only time I reined myself in was when my idea ruptured the confines of the story I was writing. So there was one bit in the first draft where I had a giant serpent made up of all the Thames’s rubbish rise up out of the river, with the arches of Chelsea bridge forming the spines on its, back and then I thought – ‘You know what? People would probably notice that.’ I needed ordinary Londoners to remain oblivious to the strange stuff at that point, so I cut it. Still, I took it out because it was too weird for the people in my book to handle, not the people reading it.
GAV: Finally, what’s the one thing for you that makes The City’s Son worth reading? Mine would be the lamp lights.
TOM: Ooh, tough one. I’m glad you like the Sodiumites. I reckon that Reach is probably my favourite creature in the first book, (although the Wire Mistress is undoubtedly the scariest). Every crane I see reminds me of him. Also, if I can, I’d like to posit the friendship between Beth and Pen – their relationship is the heart and soul of this series, without it, The Skyscraper Throne would be an empty machine.
GAV: Thanks Tom for taking the time. I’m eager to see that happens in next!
Buy The City’s Son: