My Favorite Bit: Grant Price talks about BY THE FEET OF MEN
Grant Price is joining us to talk about his novel By the Feet of Men. Here’s the publisher’s description:
WANTED: Men and women willing to drive through the valley of the shadow of death.
The world’s population has been decimated by the Change, a chain reaction of events triggered by global warming. In Europe, governments have fallen, cities have crumbled and the wheels of production have ground to a halt. The Alps region, containing most of the continent’s remaining fresh water, has become a closed state with heavily fortified borders. Survivors cling on by trading through the Runners, truck drivers who deliver cargo and take a percentage.
Amid the ruins of central Germany, two Runners, Cassady and Ghazi, are called on to deliver medical supplies to a research base deep in the Italian desert, where scientists claim to be building a machine that could reverse the effects of the Change. Joining the pair are a ragtag collection of drivers, all of whom have something to prove. Standing in their way are starving nomads, crumbling cities, hostile weather and a rogue state hell-bent on the convoy’s destruction. And there’s another problem: Cassady is close to losing his nerve.
What’s Grant’s favorite bit?
Flashbacks are a risky tool to use in any novel, let alone one as relentlessly linear as By the Feet of Men. I generally see it as cheating: they’re a way to flesh out a character or build a world without doing the heavy lifting in the narrative in which we’re spending the majority of our time. The worst are the ones involving a ham-fisted segue: “The radio. Green Bakelite, just like the one she had in her box room near the Champs-Élysées. So many years ago now…”. After that, we’re treated to an entire chapter about a girl with a green Bakelite radio who won’t appear in the novel again, all so we can learn the protagonist is a hopeless romantic. Not especially efficient, and a test of patience for the reader.
Recently, I struggled through The Night Manager by John Le Carré, the first few chapters of which are spent introducing the undersexed protagonist, Jonathan Pine. Instead of learning who he is in the present, though, the reader is treated to flashback after flashback of Pine’s time in Cairo and a certain *no spoilers* incident that establishes a shaky motive for him to go gallivanting around the Caribbean in pursuit of a shady businessmen. Now, as everybody loves Le Carré and he’s light-years ahead of me in terms of ability, this is both sacrilegious and cheeky, but I couldn’t help viewing his use of flashbacks in the novel as lazy. The first third of a book should be reserved for setting the scene, building the world, establishing subtext, developing the characters, making them consistent, and encouraging the reader to love, tolerate or despise them. By contrast, the flashbacks in The Night Manager tell us immediately who Pine is and exactly who we can expect him to be over the next 400-odd pages. No reveal, no build-up, no effort to earn the reader’s affection.
All this to say that when I wrote my own barely-three-page flashback chapter, I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. As I said, By the Feet of Men is nothing if not linear. A to B, start to finish, no side quests or tangents or baggage to slow things down. I wanted it to be high octane like Neuromancer or The Death of Grass, flying from devastated location to devastated location, fresh horror to fresh horror, a dystopian road novel right down to the book binding. Even so, at the point in the story where the flashback appears, I felt like everybody needed a breather—me, the reader and the characters. After all, ecological collapse takes its toll on everyone. And seeing as I’d already had the drivers of the convoy sit around in drosscapes and dust bowls waxing lyrical about how nature had finally turned its back on humanity, I needed something different. Like, for example, the bleakest flashback I could think of.
Without getting into specifics, my flashback fills in a bit of backstory, in this case about how the ‘Change’ instigated widespread civil unrest, mass migration, lawlessness and a breakdown of basic human values, leading people to do despicable things to one another in the name of survival. So far, so standard. But here’s the twist (if you can call it that): it’s written from the perspective of a character who is already dead. Their story is being remembered by another driver in a moment of monotony out on the road, just as we might find ourselves thinking of something a loved one told us before they passed away. What I like about the flashback’s appearance at this point in the narrative is that we’ve already learned—over the course of half the book—who that character was and what they represented. We formed a bond with them and we felt something when they perished. Afterwards, we think that’s it. The character is gone, the narrative pushes on and the sense of loss starts to fade into the background. My idea, though, was to use the flashback as a kind of aftershock of misery. Just as we have readied ourselves to move on, that sense of loss is sprung on us again and the wound is forced open once more.
How often do we experience a traumatic event and then squirrel it away in the back of our mind, never to be touched again? Rarely-to-never, would be my guess. We can be reminded of it at any time. The most banal sight, sound or smell can trigger a fresh wave of emotion that overwhelms us before we have the chance to get a grip on it. It’s something we can never truly prepare for. I wanted to capture that feeling through the flashback and, in doing so, bring the reader closer to the surviving drivers and hopefully make the world they inhabit slightly more real.
As far as actual readers’ responses to the flashback is concerned, the jury is still out. One reviewer told me that it doesn’t work at all and that the editor should have wielded her red pen like a rapier and slashed it to ribbons. Fair enough. But another said the flashback resonated with them, all the more so because of how unexpected it was. I appreciate both responses. Whether it works or not, it’s something that—for me, at least—is a little different and takes a bit of a risk. It allowed me, just for a moment, to step away from the convoy as it races into the heart of darkness and view the story from a new angle. At the same time, it maintains enough of a link between ‘past’ and ‘present’ to land an emotional sucker punch.
In social situations, Grant Price introduces himself as “Grant, like Hugh Grant, only it’s my first name”. As well as writing novels and short stories, he is a translator of German and Dutch and does the kind of copywriting that Bill Hicks would have hated him for. By the Feet of Men is his first published novel.