Q&A with Gareth L. Powell

First up, for those of our readers who are not familiar with you and your work, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and, in particular, the Ack-Ack Macaque series? 

I’m a novelist writing about spaceships and monkeys. I started out writing short stories, some of which were published in Interzone, including one featuring a one-eyed monkey pilot. Later, that short story became the inspiration for a trilogy of novels, of which Hive Monkey is the second. The storyline in the novels follows the adventures of Ack-Ack and his friend, the former journalist-turned-investigator, Victoria Valois as they try to solve a series of bizarre murders.

How important is it to have read Ack-Ack Macaque before reading the up-coming Hive Monkey?

The books are a continuous story, so should ideally be read in sequence—however, I’ve tried to include enough background information in Hive Monkey to allow someone who hasn’t read the first book to get an idea of what has gone before.

What gave you the idea for a monkey protagonist, and where did the name, Ack-Ack Macaque, come from?

I was playing with words and came up with this rhyming couplet, which I jotted into my notebook. Shortly thereafter, I was writing a short story about a web animator and needed a fictional anime character for her to work on, and there the name was. As ‘ack-ack’ is a term for antiaircraft fire, and a macaque is a type of monkey, it seemed natural to make him a fighter pilot.

Airships, a sentient Macaque, wet-ware and gaming, alternate timelines… As a writer, it’s obviously fun to blur the lines between genres, but why a steampunk/alternative history setting? 

People keep describing the books as ‘steampunk’, when there really isn’t any steam in them at all. They’re set midway through the 21st Century, in an alternate Europe served by massive atomic-powered airships known as skyliners. I chose the setting because it fascinated me, and because I needed to set the story on an alternate timeline in order to avoid having to use real members of the royal family—and also because I wanted an excuse to use giant airships.

You write strongly drawn female characters, which is a delight. What wellspring do you visit?

I am fortunate in knowing many strong, inspiring and very human women, and so it seems natural for me to write strong, inspiring and very human female characters.

Having nailed the first in a series, what were the challenges you faced in writing the second book, Hive Monkey?

The challenge was to do justice to the first book; to take the themes and crank everything up a notch. I couldn’t just write the same book again, I had to take everything to another level.

In Ack-Ack Macaque, your characters were up against a corrupt corporation, what made you go in the ‘Hive Mind’ direction in book two?

I’d had the Gestalt in mind for some time, waiting to find the right story in which to use them. As soon as I decided to play with the alternate world setting for book two, the setting seemed perfect for them.

Did you become quite the history buff while doing research for the series and, given the chance, would you take a spin in a Spitfire?

I did as much research as I could, but I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert. I tried to get details right and make everything plausible. And yes, I would love to take a ride in a Spitfire; it would be  childhood dream come true.

Not to spoil anything, but did ‘Write what you know’ play a part in the setting for book two? Oh, and as an aside, I loved the fact you snuck Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the back door!

As the main events of Ack-Ack Macaque are set in London and Paris, I decided to set the first part of Hive Monkey in Bristol. I grew up there, and it’s a very science fictional city. It’s always been the jumping-off point for expeditions, and as such has an ‘edge of the world’ feel to it. Plus, there’s a certain satisfaction to being able to set scenes in locales you know very well.

So what part of you, as ‘reporter/writer’ manifested itself in the characters William Cole and Victoria Valois? 

I’d say all the characters, in so far as they emerged from my imagination, are in some ways reflections of my personality. In the case of Cole, I think of him as a possible version of me, how I could have turned out if things had gone very differently in my life.

And, following on from the last question, how do you go about discovering/finding/building your characters?

I usually start with a name, and they accrete characteristic around that.

Finally, what’s up next in the writing schedule and, in particular, for the Mayhem Monkey in the third instalment, Macaque Attack?

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the third instalment (due for publication in Jan 2015) will tie up loose ends from books one and two, and bring everything together in an epic clash between monkeys and cyborgs. At least, that’s the plan.

Author Bio

Born and brought up in the West of England, Gareth L. Powell studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan, where he was fortunate to list the poet and novelist Helen Dunmore as one of his tutors. He has since given guest lectures on creative writing at Bath Spa University, and has written for The Irish Times, SFX Magazine, Futurismic, Acoustic Magazine, 2000AD, and the Bristol Review of Books.

Gareth is the author of the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy, The Recollection and Silversands—the last two of which were favourably reviewed in The Guardian.