Print this page

Interview With an Author: Ian McDonald

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Ian McDonald and his book Time Was

Ian McDonald was born in 1960 in Manchester, England, to an Irish mother and a Scottish father. He moved with his family to Northern Ireland in 1965. He has won the Locus Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He now lives in Belfast and he recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was the inspiration for Time Was?

I’m always wary of that question because there is never an inspiration, there are dozens of inspirations. For me as a writer there are thousands –millions—of bright glittering moments, some of them decades old, that coalesce into a story or a book. This one grew out of some pieces of music –Kate Bush’s "Snowed in at Wheeler Street", Goldfrapp’s "Clay" (which pointed me towards a WW|2 letter posted on "Letters of Note" which became the basis for the letter Emmet finds in the book, Thomas Dolby’s "Cloudburst at Shingle Street" (of course, a poster I saw pasted to a streetlight by the Circus Maximus in Rome which read: "Have you seen this man? Poet, adventurer, free thinker and possible time-traveler..." Into my grandfather’s war-time experiences in Cairo and Alexandria, close friends we visit in the Fen country –the problem is keeping the ideas down, rather than struggling with inspiration.

Are Tom, Ben, Emmett, Thorn, any of the booksellers/collectors or any of the other characters inspired or based on specific individuals?

Emmet’s book-collecting stories were based on a lunch with my agent, who dabbles in bibliophilia, and Thorn shares some life-elements with two family friends in East Anglia. Friends learn pretty quickly not to ask writers, ‘am I in this?’ Are you sure you want to be? Directly appropriating friends into your narrative is a pretty shabby thing to do.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

It was a nightmare. A nightmare. I went through four drafts with my very long-suffering editor, Jonathan Strahan. The thrust of the narrative changed several times –I realized early on that to focus solely on Tom and Ben would have made the novella about three hundred pages long and involve a lot more historical research than I could do in the delivery time, though if I ever revisit it, I might tell some of their story. There was a section set in Karelia during the White War after the Russian Revolution I was loath to lose. The second version reduced Tom and Ben to letters, diaries and history, finally I decided to look at their ‘meet cute’ and explore how two queer men might discover and unfold a love for each other in the middle of the greatest war in history.

If you were able to travel in time, into the past or future, where is the first time/place you would like to visit or event you would like to witness?

When I think of time travel, it conjures up images of bad sanitation, communicable diseases, inadequate hygiene, random acts of senseless violence and insecurity. I can’t think of any particular time I especially want to visit, but I tend to think of the past because when we talk about what eras we’d like to visit, we seem to default to the past. In H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the assumed direction was into the future.

Do you have a favorite used bookshop that you wish was still open?

There was a wonderful bookshop in the town where I grew up, Bangor, in Co. Down, on Hamilton Road. Proper bookstore, it smelled of wood and paper. I bought by first SFF books there –there was a special shelf –very well stocked. Long gone, and I can’t remember the name, alas. I bought the two volumes of Isaac Asimov’s Hugo Winners. The first story was Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters. The rest of history.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Long Hangover: Putin's New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, by Shaun Walker

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

It changes all the time.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I read Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books when I was 14. Made me the man I am.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I prefer not to because that makes it sound as if I have a definitive list, and it is closed and set for all time, when I find new and thrilling writing all the time.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I didn’t fake it, but I am quite out about never having read Harry Potter, nor desiring to.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The 1976 Orbit edition of The Forever War from a shop in Drogheda, while coming back late from Dublin.

Is there a book that changed your life?

All of them. Isn’t that the point?

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The most recent one was Horatio Clare’s Down to the Sea in Ships, one of those classic books that shows you how the modern global economy really works and hides in plain sight. Hint: shipping.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Good question! Though I re-read it regularly, I’d like to rebirth John Crowley’s Little Big. On a related point, I recently re-read all the Tove Jansson Moomintroll books for the first time since childhood and alas: It. Didn’t. Quite. Have. It. Any. More.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’ll pass on this as it invariably involves sunshine and martinis.

What are you working on now?

Right now? Right right now? Lopping and pruning the untidy overgrown mess that is Luna: Moon Rising.

McDonald, Ian, 1960-