Interview With an Author: Lavie Tidhar

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Lavie Tidhar and his latest novel, Neom
Author Lavie Tidhar and his latest novel, Neom

British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Award-winning author Lavie Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming, Unholy Land) is an acclaimed author of literature, science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and middle-grade fiction. Tidhar received the John W. Campbell, Xingyun, and Neukom Lit­erary awards for the novel Central Station, which has been translated into more than ten languages. He is a book columnist for the Washington Post and recently edited the Best of World Science Fiction anthology. Tidhar cur­rently resides with his family in London. His latest novel is Neom and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Neom?

It was really, I think, our second lockdown over here, in the middle of winter, and I was supposed to be writing this big historical epic, Maror, which is out now in the UK...But I just couldn't concentrate. And I had this image that came into my mind, of a robot holding a flower. I didn't know anything else about it, so I wrote what I thought was a small story about the robot, and then realised I had no idea what it was doing, so wrote more to find out, and eventually realised I was writing a novel! The city I explored earlier in a short story, "Neom," that is more or less the first chapter here, and the whole idea of the Ghost Coast and the Green Caravanserai came from a visit to the Sinai quite a long time ago, when the whole coastal area seemed half-built and abandoned. And I woke up for the sunrise as it emerged from behind the Saudi mountains on the other side of the Red Sea, and I thought, you know, I'd love to go there. So I did, even if it's in the far future of my own imagination.

Are Mariam, Nasir, Saleh, Elias, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I don't think so! They sort of just made their way onto the page.

How did the novel 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?

There was a whole chapter that got cut out! It was a bit of an argument with my editor...It was really fun but I guess it wasn't strictly necessary so we took it out, but I might keep it for the collectors' edition! And we restructured some of it, moving things around from the original draft, adding a few bits, and cutting others...You know, the usual! Usually, about 95% of what I write makes it into the finished book, and the other 5% is editing.

You state early on that your Neom is based on or inspired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's development of the same name in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia. You also state that there isn't much there and that most of the construction is still ongoing. Have you had the chance to visit? What was it like?

I came across the idea for Neom a few years ago, when it didn't really have anything much beyond a marketing video on youtube behind it. But I was talking about the novel recently at an event, and someone came up to me later, who was a civil engineer, and was considering a job in Neom! So they're definitely building Neo-Mostaqbal, and sure, I would love to visit one day...

Robots and other types of cybernetic beings have been a staple of Speculative Fiction literature, movies, and television for almost as long as the genre has existed. Do you have a favorite robot from a short story, novel, movie, or TV show? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don't. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

I put all the robots I love into Neom! So you get your "Fondly Fahrenheit" robot (from the Alfred Bester story), you get your Tasso (from Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety"), you get your Asimovian robots and your Simakian robots, even a mecha! I think my favorites are probably Clifford Simak's robots. I'm not sure how much he's read these days, and I think it's a shame—he was a wonderful writer of a very different, very gentle kind of science fiction. So Neom includes a few shoutouts to his work (like the "Websters," the desert hermits named for the family in his classic novel, City).

I don't think there's a robot I don't like, other than in real life! I got to visit a robotics lab in Shenzhen shortly before the pandemic, and they were building tapeworm robots there—terrifying! You can google them. I still have nightmares!

Neom ends with the beginning of what seems to be another new adventure or chapters in the lives of several of the characters. Are you considering other works that will follow them on those journeys?

Not really, though I do wonder about the robot's time on Titan. It might turn up again...I'd like to keep writing novels in the wider world, though. But that's easier said than done!

What's currently on your nightstand?

I’m reading Martin EdwardsThe Golden Age of Murder. Just a wonderful book about the authors of the Golden Age of mystery. I never knew the young Agatha Christie was a surfer! Not an image one usually has in one's mind...They all just had such fascinating lives.

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

I really can't! There are so many.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I don't think there was ever just one! Again, there were so many. Still are. I only recently re-read Moominland Midwinter—what a wonderful book.

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

I didn't really, though I remember picking up my first adult SF novel—I think it was Robert Silverberg's Across A Billion Years—and I wasn't supposed to have books from the adult library yet! So I was sort of keeping that one under wraps.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Quite often, people mention books I never read as clear inspirations to some of my stuff, and I always just nod politely!

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

Why else would you buy a science fiction paperback if not for the cover? I recently bought another copy of Barry B. Longyear's fabulous Circus World in the 1982 British paperback, which is just a glorious, glorious illustration. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, though!

Is there a book that changed your life?

It's a weird question to ask an author! Osama, a novel I wrote throughout 2008, was rejected by every publisher there was, and only came out from a small press in the UK in 2011, and I was pretty sure it would just vanish. Instead, it won the World Fantasy Award, got me my first major book deal, and continues to be published—most recently in a Russian edition, and in a new 10th Anniversary edition in the UK. So in a very practical way, I guess, that's a book that did change my life—I've been lucky enough to be a full-time writer since!

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

I think different people like different books, so the idea that everyone should read something—the same thing—I'm not sure that works, and I certainly don't want to force books on people! So no, not really, but I would love it if people pick up my Best of World SF anthologies and then seek out any books by the authors there, which are all pretty wonderful. I think you'll discover a lot of new and exciting writers if you do that.

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

Not really, but it's because I think there's almost as much pleasure, or even more, in re-reading something you love, sinking back into it, anticipating what's to come but also discovering new things as you go. I find a lot of joy in re-reading books I love, these days.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I watch a lot of animated shows—can I recommend Dead End: Paranormal Park? It's so joyful and silly and fun, with a wonderfully diverse cast, and there's a musical episode that's just out of this world. Also, ghosts!

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

Right now, honestly? If I could stay in bed and read a book that sounds like heaven!

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

"Would you like some money for that?" and "Yes, please!" respectively.

What are you working on now?

I just handed in my next literary novel, Adama, a historical family epic set across four generations of a single family. So that more or less wiped me out! It's coming out next year in the UK. And we finally signed off on The Circumference of the World, the next novel to come out from Tachyon in the US, also next year. It's a mix of literary fiction and noir and science fiction—short but punchy, I hope! And The Best of World SF: Volume 3 should also come out next year. So that's quite a lot! Plus, I've recently been working on animation projects, with a short series and a short film already completed and another one in the works, so that's been a lot of fun. So maybe take a short break and start the next novel in January—there's never enough time!

Book cover for Neom
Tidhar, Lavie

Lavie Tidhar’s Neom is a story of extremes: the past and the future, solitude and companionship, wealth and poverty, war and peace. Tidhar sets his story in the dream city of Neom, an actual city being built in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia. And he populates the novel with characters, not always biological, living in an undesirable extreme and follows them as they attempt to gain what they desire. He speculates about the measures we all take to gain what we feel we are lacking and raises questions for which there are no easy answers. All of this is done with marvelously drawn characters, sparkling prose, a strong sense of humor, and a growing sense of impending dread, because if some of the characters achieves their desires, it could mean the end of all life in Neom for ages to come.

Neom is a thoughtful, beautifully written story about what we have, what we want, how we achieve our desires, and what, and whom, are we willing to risk for our own benefit.