Monday, February 27, 2012

An Interview with Author Daniel O'Malley

by Megan S.

I've been putting off writing the introduction to my interview with The Rook's Daniel O'Malley for weeks (WEEKS!) and, now that push has come to shove, I've re-written this first paragraph no less than five times.  Why?  Because I want you to go out and buy this book.  I want the power of my words alone to compel you to read The Rook and love it.  LOVE.  IT.  And, if you don't love it (which I will find hard to believe and secretly suspect you're just being contrary,) I will patiently explain again why it's so much fun and, at the very least, why you should appreciate the subtly layered science fiction story that is actually laugh-out-loud funny with a solid mystery and a deeper exploration of what dictates our choices and forms our personalities.

The Rook, written by newcomer Daniel O'Malley, begins with Myfanwy* Thomas standing in the pouring rain late at night, ringed by bodies wearing rubber gloves.  She has no idea where she is, who the people on the ground were, why she appears to have been beaten, or in fact, who she actually is.  What Myfanwy does have is a letter that begins, "Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine."

In The Rook, Myfanwy is a senior administrator of Chequy, a secret organization staffed by individuals with unusual superpowers and charged with protecting Britain from preternatural threats. With help from her former self** by way of extensive letters and files, Myfanwy must uncover which of her colleagues betrayed her and who is behind the most recent string of attacks on her homeland, all while not letting anyone know she has no memory of her past.

O'Malley's book is funny and not the usual kind of "funny" where the author resorts to using characters in the novel to tell you just how witty the heroine is and, by extension, the writer, nor does it rely heavily on snark (which is definitely a step up from using self-compliments to get the point across but still isn't comedy).  I actually laughed out loud several times while reading it, something I rarely do, The Rook is that good.  O'Malley's freshman effort is more than just a humorous novel, however.  It's also an intriguing mystery and exploration of how our memories define us and who we are in spite of them.

I was lucky to get the chance to chat with Dan about his first book the other day and here's the result.  Don't worry.  There aren't any major spoilers.  It's just enough to get you itching to read it.

M: You've mentioned previously that you were worried you may have made mistakes in your attempt to write a believable female character. I think you actually did a better job with Myfanwy than a number of popular science fiction and fantasy women writers do with their heroines.  Our Rook has friends she's both open with and relies on, a rare trait in genre main characters despite it being true for most real women.  Why did you buck the trend?

D: I didn’t set out to buck the trend, and hadn’t really realised that I had. But, Myfanwy’s friendship with other characters, especially with Shantay and Ingrid, was important – partially because I didn’t want her to be defined solely by her power (both supernatural and Governmental), and partially because she’s a person, and people need friends. From the beginning of the book, Myfanwy is very alone, both because of her rank, and because of her amnesia – she knows no one at all, and she’s concealing the truth about everything. In that situation, I would have needed people that I could rely on.

Plus, of course, there is no concealing anything from one’s Executive Assistant.

M: One of my favorite characters in your novel is pre-amnesia Myfawnwy (whom we meet through a series of letters she writes to her post-amnesiac self.)  Did you always plan for her to be a character in her own right or was she mainly a clever way to relay exposition?

D: Pre-amnesia Myfanwy (Thomas) needed to be a few things. Firstly, she was going to provide a lot of info-dump (and I’m not being pejorative here, I love a good info-dump.) Secondly, I wanted to demonstrate how different new Myfanwy was from old Myfanwy. And also she helped to show how the Checquy (my super secret supernatural spy service) worked. I just found myself getting fonder and fonder of her as the book went on, and, yes, she demanded more attention, and commanded more affection, than I had originally intended.  So it was a little sad that the whole story had to be based on the idea that she would cease to exist, as a person.

M: Myfanwy is such an uncommon and difficult to pronounce name. Even she mispronounces it.  I just gotta ask, why did you name her Myfanwy?

D: There was a Myfanwy and a Bronwyn who lived across the street from me, and I used to babysit for them. And I’d never met a Myfanwy before, so I was always rather taken by the name. The Myfanwy across the street pronounced it to rhyme with ‘Tiffany’, at least, I think she did (she was always just ‘Miff’), but the proper Welsh pronunciation is a bit more complex. The thing is, the real Myfanwy and Bronwyn are identical twins, but I couldn’t put that in the book, because I thought it would be kind of a horrendous cliché.

M: Though you wrote The Rook when you were in graduate school, you currently work for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, a government agency.  What do your coworkers think of the Checquy, your ass-kicking administrator heroine, and your burgeoning international fame?

D: They have been incredibly nice about it, and almost no one has asked if any characters are based on them. In fact, the local bookstore has reached the state where if someone buys the book, they ask if they’re from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau or the Department of Infrastructure.

M: You introduce your readers to a wide array of supernatural powers that haven't been seen before or, at least, aren't common in current genre literature.  What were some of your inspirations for them, especially for Gestalt and the Grafters/Belgians?

D: Gestalt came to me when I was helping a friend move, and I thought rather wistfully that this would be much less of a pain in the butt if I had a few extra bodies. And voila! I was so thrilled with the idea that I had to put down a television set so I could scribble down the concept. The Grafters tapped into all my squeamish feelings about surgery, and how much you can do to a person before he or she might cease to be a person.

M: If you were to have a power like most of the characters in the book, what would yours be?

D: I’ve often thought that flight would pretty cool, but I get a little nervous around heights. And I’m easily distracted, so I’d be worried about it cutting out at an inopportune time. It’s not going to be a good scene if I can fly, and I never go higher than the top of my house. So maybe super-jumping. Like Spider-Man. Or super-speed when I want it.

M: A sequel to The Rook is already in the works, is there a chance we'll be seeing pre-amnesia Myfanwy again?  Any other hints about what's next for the Checquy?

D: I’m terribly, terribly fond of pre-amnesia Myfanwy, and her letters were a blast to write, so there might be a couple of those scattered in. But she won’t be returning as a person at all. I don’t think.

I’m really excited about the sequel. At the end of The Rook, the Checquy were facing some significant changes, and as any public servant can tell you, change means a lot of work. There’s a merger that going to happen (maybe), and a lot of suspicion and paranoia floating around.

Have a question for Dan? Both he and Myfanwy are on Twitter.  Check out their accounts at @DenimAlley and @RookFilesYou can also read the first four chapters of The Rook on Dan's website!

*Myfanwy says it like Tiffany with an M as opposed to the traditional Welsh pronunciation of Muh-vahn-wee.

**Myfanwy's pre-amnesiac self is referred to by her last name, Thomas, in the book to lessen any possible confusion.
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4 comments:

  1. Just got this book and cannot wait to read it! Great interview.

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  2. You've compelled me to read it! ;) Awesome interview Megan, I'm definitely looking forward to reading The Rook.

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  3. Read it a while ago, LOVED it! I'm a fairly picky reader, but I didn't stand a chance against The Rook. This will definitely become a story I re-read at least once a year, if not more.

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  4. Great interview. I have read The Rook a couple of times now, and have become an evangelist for what is a terrific read! I totally agree, Megan, that if someone doesn't love this book there must be something wrong with them!

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