Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Matthew Blakstad?
Former child actor, then a director of fringe theatre, more recently a specialist on digital communications – and now, novelist. I’ve lived in South London most of my life. I’m married, no kids. No cats (allergic spouse). As you’ll guess if you’ve read my book I’m very much into tech culture but perversely I also love the natural world and wild places.
Your new novel, Sockpuppet, will be published by Hodder. It looks rather interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
It’s a thriller, set in the very near future. An online celebrity starts dishing dirt on a politician, but this online voice is nothing but a chatbot – an artificial persona created by software. So how is a fake personality causing mayhem in the real world? Two very different women – a middle-aged politician called Bethany Lehrer, and a young software developer called Dani Farr – need to find out fast who’s behind this malicious campaign before it takes their lives to pieces.
Along the way, the book asks questions about how our online life is changing us – at the erosion of our privacy, the trolling of women, and the shift of power away from governments and towards the big technology companies.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Sockpuppet is the first in a series of interconnected novels called The Martingale Cycle. Between them, the books will tell the story of 20th century computer pioneer and political radical Elyse Martingale – and her strange afterlife in the 21st century. Over the last few years, Elyse – this brilliant, reckless, uncompromising character – has become an obsession. She first grew out of my fascination with the female computer pioneers who’ve often been ignored when people tell the history of technology, from Ada Lovelace through Grace Hopper and Steve Shirley. These women must have had real guts to break with the conventions of their times, by simply rolling up their sleeves and creating things – things that have subsequently transformed our world.
I’m also fascinated with the utopian futurists of the the early computer age. When I was a child my father produced the BBC TV series Tomorrow’s World. Every week I’d watch it go out live and I think this must have brainwashed me into believing I’d grow up into a perfect sci-fi future. I’m still waiting for that to happen. The prophets of that era believed that computer technology would liberate us all, freeing us up to live lives of pure leisure, assisted of course by robot butlers and hover cars. But sadly things didn’t turn out quite the way they imagined.
This is where the Martingale series originally came from – I wanted to contrast all the hope and expectation of these tech pioneers with the reality that’s since emerged. Today it often seems that we’re ruled by technology, rather than the other way around.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
By reading Asimov; Heinlein; Herbert; Dick; Gibson; and Stephenson – in roughly that order. From the age of nine or ten I became an obsessive reader and re-reader of the authors, and all of them have laid their stamp on my own writing.
Another important starting point was comics, an obsession that peaked when my ex briefly ran a comic shop (yes – free comics!). The Frank Miller run on Daredevil – especially the Born Again series with David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis – is something I keep returning to. It’s great to see Miller’s storylines and characters referenced so much in the new Netflix series.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
As a yet-unpublished debut novelist I’m still wrapping my head around that question. Maybe I should get back to you!
But of course it’s a huge change. The moment when you meet someone at a party and they ask you what you do and you go “Oh, I’m a writer!” – that feels pretty good. And above everything, I just really, passionately enjoy the process of writing – losing myself in the world and the characters I’m creating. So it’s wonderful to be given the license to do that. But it’s also great to feel part of the publishing community, which I’ve found incredibly welcoming and engaged. Also there is a lot of cake.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
For me a novel is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. I start by writing out a ‘backbone’ – pen portraits of the central characters and an outline of the main beats in the story. So I know how the book begins and ends and the main stopping-off points on the way. But once I start actually writing, the process becomes an improvisation around this central theme. The characters come to life and start doing things I didn’t predict – and I keep finding new obstacles I can throw in their paths. This is the most exciting thing about the process for me: it’s a constant series of surprises.
I never really stop researching. Because I write about tech and politics and big business, there’s a vast amount of detail that I need make sure I get right. Many writers say you should do all your research upfront, then put it away before you start writing. For me, though, the process of writing is more of a dialogue. It keeps opening up new questions to which I need to track down answers. So I tend to keep piling up research throughout the writing process. research for me means reading as widely as I can and – of course – a liberal does of googling – but I also like to track down knowledgeable people that I can have a conversation with about the subject. That way I can test out my ideas, by asking ‘what if this thing happened?’ or indeed ‘Is this something that could happen?’
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
As mentioned, I started out as a child actor. This was something I stumbled into when i was young – the BBC came and auditioned at my school for a TV drama. I went on to get a fair few roles throughout my school years and even though I was never a very good actor, I ended up simply assuming this was my vocation. Then when I got a bit older and the acting work dried up, I graduated to directing. Again, I was never very good at this either so I never broke through.
The thing I failed to notice throughout all this TV and theatre work was that the I most fascinated by was always the text. The story structure, the characters, the dialogue. Maybe if I had, I would have started writing fiction then, but I missed the moment and went and got a ‘proper’ job in communications. I thought that was that. Then one day – I forget why – I started to write down this story that was knocking around my head, about a character called Elyse Martingale. This grew into a monster of a novel, which spanned 6 decades and tried way too hard to be clever. I showed it to a few people and they kind of put me straight about its potential. I still have this book buried deep on my hard drive and I’m currently picking its bones to feed the various Martingale stories that I’m now writing from scratch. So I definitely have a fondness for for this first attempt – but it is BAD.
I think this is probably true of most writers, though. You have to get the bad books out of your system before the good ones can hatch.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’m sometimes unsure exactly which part of the genre spectrum I fit into. There are definite near-future and cyberpunk elements in Sockpuppet but it doesn’t really play by the rulebook of these genres. This reflects my own reading tastes, which are very eclectic. I love classic speculative and fantasy tales but I respond best to books that experiment with genre and form. So a writer like David Mitchell really excites me, because he’s a wonderful writer who grew up on genre stories and finds it totally natural to use this in his writing – but when he writes a dystopian future or a parallel universe, he does it in a twisted, unexpected way that makes it feel fresh and new. What’s wonderful about genre publishing today is that writers have a lot of permission to inhabit this kind of crossover territory.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I have three other Martingale titles in the works, which are set in the late sixties, the year 2000, and the near future. At the moment I’m focussed on writing the sequel to Sockpuppet. This is set six years in the future, in a world where ’sharing’ services like Uber have invaded every aspect of our lives. The working title of this story is Lucky Ghost.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Fiction-wise, I’m reading Day Four by my Hodder stablemate Sarah Lotz, which I am loving – she’s one of those writers who has the ability to make my spine tingle in an entirely non-figurative sense. Before that I read The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley which is an astonishing re-imagining of the classic gothic novel. I also just finished reading the Marvel reprints of Alan Moore’s classic 80’s comics series Miracleman, in preparation for the new Neil Gaiman/Mark Buckingham arc. It’s every bit as daring and beautiful as I remembered.
I’m also reading a lot of books about money and digital cash, because the idea of people creating their own currency is an important theme in Lucky Ghost. Money is something we all take for granted, but the minute you ask yourself ‘what actually is it?’ your realise it’s much, much weirder than you thought. Good titles here are Money by Felix Martin and The Age of Cryptocurrency by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Anyone brave enough to dig out my performance in the made-for-TV Hammer Horror film Growing Pains will definitely be surprised by my ‘acting’. The word ‘horror’ doesn’t begin to do justice to that performance.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I’d have to say publication day (May the 19th!) The idea that I’ll soon be holding in my hands an actual physical hardback copy of my book still blows my mind.
SOCKPUPPET by Matthew Blakstad is published in the UK by Hodder, on May 19th, 2016. For more on the author’s writing and novels, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.
Matthew Blakstad in Growing Pains