Rod Rees interviewed

Rod Rees’s debut novel, The Demi-Monde: Winter (Quercus) hits the shelves this week. Louise Morgan was despatched to interview the author. This interview is extracted from a longer piece, which will be published in a future issue of the BFS Journal.

The obvious questions: not so much, "Where did the idea come from?" but rather, at what point in the planning did the idea become recognisable as The Demi-Monde? Was there one character or situation which defined it? And as it's such a complex novel, how long did it take to go from that "What if…" moment to feeling ready to start writing?

Long answer: as an admirer of the writers of Classic SF and fantasy, I have always thought that attempts to update, or, as Tim Burton would have it, to re-imagine these stories have invariably been poor. But the nadir had to be the BBC’s Jekyll which managed to eviscerate the story whilst simultaneously making it risible. Worse: it didn’t ‘honour’ the story. Sitting watching this muddled mish-mash I had the same feeling every writer since the dawn of time has had at one time or another: I could do better than that! The result of that piece of hubris was a book called Dark Charismatic. DC must have had something because it persuaded John Jarrold to become my agent, but that ‘something’ wasn’t enough to entice any publishers to sign it (fools!). So I decided to try again but having done so much research on the Victorian world and on psychotics I was loath to leave this particular milieu.

Therefore I needed a story platform which encompassed both a Victorian feel and which allowed me to populate it with vicious madmen (or as they are in the DM, Singularities). Of course, it also had to be convincing enough to allow the reader to suspend disbelief. The solution I came up with was for the DM to be a virtual world, but again to make it credible this world had to have a purpose and the one I set upon was that its function was to prepare US Army grunts (my ’neoFights’) for the horrors of Asymmetric Warfare.

Concept decided upon before I began to write I needed to define the parameters of this virtual world and I did this by producing ‘THE DEMI-MONDE®: A Product Description Manual’: a faux brochure written by the company constructing the DM (ParaDigm CyberResearch Limited) when it pitched the DM to the US Armed Forces. This defined the purpose of the DM, set out all its parameters and described its idiosyncrasies (you can read it on the DM website. It was my constant reference throughout the writing of the book. The Product Description and the design of the DM map took me a month, background research on the ‘Pre-Lived’ characters, on fascism and other bits and pieces another month, so it was two months from ‘idea’ to writing the first line.


 

Three of your main characters are not just female, but relatively young: what was the motivation behind having young women as protagonists, and is it challenging to write not just one but three major players of a different gender?

This is an interesting question and one I’d never thought about. I really just wing it when I write, and having three rather feisty girls as lead characters just seemed the right thing to do. I never really plot my stories: I have a beginning and an end and then just write the bit that comes in the middle, letting the characters evolve as I go. I suppose that as I wanted one of my characters to be ‘in peril’ it was a natural (though somewhat clichéd) inclination to make her female, but then to have made the character male would have changed the dynamics of how I planned to have the story develop. Having a girl sent to rescue a girl made things fun and allowed me to have a less gung-ho outlook from my lead character: a man sent to save a girl would have been too, too predictable.

Looking back I suppose using girls in lead roles was a subconscious nod to the fact that I have two teenage daughters to use as templates for Norma, Ella and Trixie (I’m not going to be drawn as to which personality traits belong to whom). They are both smart, tough and ambitious girls and I wanted my protagonists to be smart, tough and ambitious so I just wrote from reality. And, of course, making Ella a jazz singer was a no-brainer: my wife Nelli sings jazz.

The Demi-Monde itself is described by one of the characters outside it as “the most extreme and the most pernicious of dystopias”. How do you as an author go about realising that?

The easy answer to this is that as the designers of the DM wanted the five city-states — the Sectors — making up that world to be always locked in civil war (‘the last thing we want is peace breaking out in the Demi-Monde’) then those factors which lead to the disintegration of civilisation and civilised behaviour had to be taken to extremes. That’s why the DM is overcrowded, that’s why the Demi-Mondians are blood dependent and that’s why every Sector is distinct linguistically, religiously and ethnically. Everything has been done to turn the DM into a living hell. But this is just mechanics of dystopia.

My own personal view is that a true ‘dystopia’ is one where everyone stops thinking, when the Orwellian condition of thought-crime prevails and it is deemed unacceptable to be critical of the politico-religious orthodoxy. This is what I had the most fun exploring in the DM, the way people can be coerced into believing nonsense and the convolutions the powers-that-be will undertake and the lies they will tell to make the ridiculous convincing.

Obviously, this book — Winter — is the first of four, and is largely set in just one sector of the DM: the Rookeries. How did you go about “designing” the world?

As you say the first book – The Demi-Monde: Winter – is set in the Rookeries, the population of which is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, the common language English and the dominant religion UnFunDaMentalism. The Dupes (digital-duplicates) populating the Rookeries are drawn from London, Berlin and New York. This is my version of Victorian London crossed with Nazi Berlin then dosed with a liberal helping of speed.

The great thrill for me as a writer – which I didn’t fully appreciate until I started Book Two – was that as each book is set in a different Sector I get to describe a whole new world and a whole new set of mores. The action of Spring takes place in the Quartier Chaud where the population is mainly of Mediterranean stock, the common language French and the dominant religion ImPuritanism (a rampantly promiscuous religion, dedicated to free-love). Gotta tell you I had a great time there!

The third book Summer is set in the Coven – the rabidly feminist Sector – which is perhaps my favourite in that I got to write a pastiche of ultra-feminism (HerEticalism) and a warped version of Confucianism (Confusionism). Bringing Mao ZeDong in as a character was a blast too.

Finally, sum up the world of the Demi-Monde in one sentence…. if you can!

‘There is little wrong with Man, save for a deficiency of courage to confront evil’: Norma Williams (from The Demi-Monde: Spring)