An Interview with Greg Chivers
Greg and I sit in a smoky bar. I offer him a cigarette and he declines, telling me, “I gave up smoking on my 30th birthday. I’d recently taken up boxing, and the two were incompatible.” He goes on to tell me he doesn’t mind my smoking, and that it reminds him of days long gone.
He orders a Cuba libre, asking for the darkest rum they have, and I get a whiskey sour. Above the bar a muted TV clings to the wall. Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is playing. I smoke some, then crush out the cigarette and ask him the big question, even before our drinks arrive. “Why do you write novels?”
He smiles, says, “I write novels because I have something to say. I don’t necessarily know what it is when I sit down to write, and it won’t necessarily be what a reader takes away from the novel, but there’ll be something brewing in me, and it will find expression as the story unfolds.”
“For me, The Crying Machine is about bodies - about how they make us who we are.”
“For me, The Crying Machine is about bodies - about how they make us who we are. Like many people of my generation, I grew up with the idea that the mind was the true self, and the body was just something we rode around in, but I think that idea is damaging and profoundly wrong, and as far as I can tell, recent neuroscience backs me up - to a large extent, the mind, or self, is formed in response to sensory input, which all comes through the body. If you change the body, you change the input, and a different self is formed. It’s an idea I explore through my protagonist, Clementine, who’s coming to terms with a new body, and struggling to form a new self. She’s going through an accelerated version of the journey most humans spend their lifetimes on, but she’s doing it consciously, which gives interesting opportunities for reflection.”
Our drinks arrive. I take a sip of mine and try and look smart. I think about all the philosophers I half know, about embodied cognition, about anything. I try and recall the passages from his novel that had me thinking of dualism, or what it means to be human. I remember Clementine finding the monastery—the nuns asking if she’ll take the lord as her saviour, and her saying, ‘With all my heart.’ She has heart, this half-robot girl.
Greg is looking at me now. He sips his libre, and I start to panic. Sam Jackson is muted above the bar, a cigarette between his lips. I take out another cigarette and I ask, “So how do you go about researching? You must have to do a lot of research.”
“I don’t need to do a massive amount of research before writing,” he tells me, setting his glass on the bar, “because I have a huge back catalogue of material from my day job making science and history documentaries.”
“When something’s interesting, it lodges in my brain, waiting to be used.”
“When something’s interesting, it lodges in my brain, waiting to be used. The main research task for The Crying Machine was creating Jerusalem. For that I leaned heavily on Simon Sebag-Monetfiore’s ‘Jerusalem: A Biography’.”
“I created a city of the future by mashing together all my favourite bits of the city’s past, from the Bronze Age and the Crusades all the way to 19th century missionaries and the Six-Day War.”
“I created a city of the future by mashing together all my favourite bits of the city’s past, from the Bronze Age and the Crusades all the way to 19th century missionaries and the Six-Day War. It seemed fitting, because the modern day Jerusalem is very much a product of big history. Of course that’s true of any city, but the past is really in your face in Jerusalem.
I light my cigarette and think fondly of all his descriptions of the city. I remember how easily he transported me there. I remember thinking he had to be real brave to set a novel in Jerusalem.
So, I ask him, “Why Jerusalem?”
“Where else are you going to discover the nature of God?” He smiles again, takes a neat sip of his drink.
There is a lot of God in the novel—I take a drink of my whiskey sour, it’s good and sharp and cuts the nicotine nicely. Greg used the Antikythera mechanism to embody God, eh? Dangerous, dangerous stuff. There’s a ghost in the machine, or is there? I figure Greg to be a Gilbert Ryle fan, so I think to ask him about more philosophy, but then I see him, he’s getting loose on his libre and I don’t know if we can handle more God talk. I steer away. “Your style,” I say, “what about your style? It has to come from somewhere.”
“Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett,” he says into his highball. “I was delighted when one reviewer compared the novel to The Maltese Falcon ! (He also compared it to Lock, Stock…, which was less what I was going for, but hey ho). Of course it’s not a straight crime story, so there’s a liberal dose—” he gestures a seesaw—” of mysticism courtesy of Frank Herbert and the Old Testament.”
The bartender asks us if we want more drinks. I nod and she takes away our empty glasses. There’s the crack of a pool break behind us and I tremble a little bit. Greg’s novel had me thinking a lot and I’m still a little nervous sitting here next to him. Elmore’s his favourite, I think to myself, damn.
Robert De Niro and Sam Jackson are talking about Melanie on the TV.
I smoke some more, ask, “What was the routine like?”
“I wrote the novel while I was working full time in quite a demanding job, so my writing schedule was pretty strict.”
“I’d get up, feed my kids breakfast, then write from 8AM to to 8:40AM before doing the school run.”
“I’d get up, feed my kids breakfast, then write from 8AM to to 8:40AM before doing the school run. Then I’d go to work and write from 9PM to 11PM after putting the kids to bed. It was really hard, so I don’t do that any more, but that’s how I wrote this book.”
The second round of drinks arrive. My nerves have settled a bit. I think up more questions, thousands more, but then I think better. I ask the bartender to unmute the TV. Greg and I sit back and watch the rest of Jackie Brown together.