When I was living in New York, I lived around the corner from Felix Gilman. Really. Just around the corner. We met at one of the KGB readings and had that funny thing where you slowly realize that you are neighbors. I picked up a copy of his first book, Thunderer, and was blown away by it. It’s like he takes the New Weird movement but makes it accessible. I am fascinated by his imagination.
The new book, the Rise of Ransom City, fascinates me all over again because it sounds like it was written a hundred years ago. It does not sound like Felix, but the richness of the world and the vibrancy of the characters is still there.
So what’s his Favorite Bit?
I love the cover design. The cover design is the only thing about the book that I can love unreservedly, without any equivocation or second-guessing or sudden attacks of anxiety, because I had nothing to do with it. Nice work, guys.
The hardback is also satisfyingly heavy. Heavier than a lot of other hardbacks, if I do say so myself. Not too heavy to read on the bus, but with a good solid heft to it. Feels like you’ve got value for money, you know?
OK: I loved writing in Harry Ransom’s voice, and I will miss him now the book’s done. I don’t really buy it when writers talk about characters taking over books and charting their own course – my characters go where I tell them, damn it, or I will know the reason why – but this was definitely a book that was built around a particular voice. (In fact, the first draft was very different, and it had to be painstakingly cut down and re-centered around that character; anyway, old wounds).
Backstory: Harry Ransom is the book’s narrator. “Professor” Harry Ransom, he sometimes calls himself. The book is his rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-who-knows-what’s-next story. Harry is a sort of genius, probably. He grew up in a small mining town in the middle of nowhere; a childhood sickness and a miracle cure left him with an obsession with light and electricity. As a young man, he heads out to the western frontier to make his fortune, looking for investors in his wondrous Free-Energy Lightbringing Apparatus. Later he does get rich and famous in the big cities back east, though not in the way he expected. He gets caught up in the Great War between the horrible supernatural forces of the Gun and the Line, and some bad things happen and he becomes sort of notorious. The book that’s in the reader’s hands is (this is the conceit) composed from the letters he sends back as he heads out west again, this time for good, to found his utopian community of Ransom City – he’s setting the story straight, he’s settling some old scores, he’s recruiting followers. He’s trying to strike a balance between salesmanship and sincerity. He’s an enthusiast, a high-energy salesman, a bullshit artist who is also almost as brilliant as he thinks he is, a utopian dreamer. All of this is fun to write.
What’s also been fun is seeing readers’ responses. Obviously Harry is not entirely reliable. (Who is?) Obviously he’s not just making it all up, either. (Who would write a 368-page book that is entirely unreliable even on its own terms? Not someone who wants it published, that’s who). Different readers have had very different takes on Harry’s precise level of sincerity and fidelity to facts. That’s satisfying for me as a writer, and also allows me to stroke my chin and say how interesting that you think that as if I wrote the whole thing as an elaborate psychological experiment; which perhaps I did.
Can I do another? I loved writing legal stuff into the book. In real life, I’m a litigator. I don’t care for legal thrillers as such but I like fantastic, absurdist takes on the law, and have always meant to get around to writing a proper Legal Fantasy. In prior drafts I had courtroom scenes — legal battles over Harry’s dubious patents. Very little of that survived the flensing process. Really just Chapter 25, “The Injunction,” which is only about two pages long, and is about an injunction. Probably for the best, really.
Felix Gilman is the author of three novels: Thunderer, Gears Of The City, and The Half Made World, which was one of Amazon’s Top Ten SF/F novels of 2010, and was described by Ursula LeGuin as “gripping, imaginative [and] terrifically inventive.” His new book, the Rise Of Ransom City, came out November 2012. He lives in New York.