Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Tom Chatfield?
I’m a British geek in his late thirties who has written a number of books of non-fiction exploring digital culture, and is now embarking on a parallel career as a writer of techno-thrillers with (I hope) a satirical edge. I’m also the father of a couple of small children and a keen jazz pianist, both of which help keep me sane in different ways.
Your new novel, This is Gomorrah, is due to be published soon by Hodder (UK) and Mulholland (US – as The Gomorrah Gambit). It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
In five words: Jason Bourne meets Edward Snowden. In slightly more than five words: Azi Bello, a hacker who’s spent much of his life hiding in a shed in East Croydon, finds things getting very real very fast when dangerous knowledge about the darknet marketplace known as Gomorrah drags him into the world of terrorism, political extremism and technological manipulation. With a side order of sardonic wit and romantic incompetence.
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I know a lot of thinkers, researchers and experts in the tech space, and I’m in more-or-less constant awe at the stories that come out of that world: the ways in which current realities are stranger than any fiction. As someone who has spent years writing about technology and its significance, I’m desperate to tell a story that bridges the gaps between the things I find most fascinating, the things I’m afraid of – and the kind of narratives I love. I’m a huge fan of genre fiction, and the ever-more-complex kinds of storytelling that’s taking place today in video games and television, and for years I’ve been trying to find a way to become a small part of that creative world.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I started reading sci-fi and fantasy books seriously as a teenager: Isaac Asimov, JRR Tolkein, Ursula le Guin, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Margaret Atwood, everything I could get my hands on. I wrote, and wanted to be a writer, from when I was six or seven years old — and I studied and then taught literature at Oxford (with a bit of philosophy thrown in). But I always loved genre fiction most deeply and purely: for what you can do by playing within and against its expectations; for its obligations of plot and pleasure.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I read a lot, widely, mostly things that have nothing to do with what I’m working on — because otherwise I risk drowning out my sense of my own voice and characters. It’s important to me to be reading, thinking, responding to others’ work; and going for walks and drinking lots of coffee when the writing stalls. Given the presence of a five-year-old and a three-year-old in my life, it’s not like I have a marvellous routine. I work whenever I can, and I love to work, and to revise and to work on a text — there’s an agonising satisfaction in iteration.
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?
I started writing poetry when I was six or seven years old, and short stories soon after that. I was incredibly lucky. My house was packed with books (and no televisions until I was about ten years old), my parents were incredibly supportive, and I had a magical teacher at my school who pretty much came out of a book himself: he taught classics, wrote children’s books, played the piano and encouraged me to take writing seriously — and pointed me towards me my first Terry Pratchett, Mort.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’m someone who reads more speculative fiction than thrillers, although I greatly admire the technique of pure practitioners like Lee Child — and the dark wit of Mick Herron and Christopher Brookmyre. Perhaps most of all, I’m excited by what I feel is the melding of genres and approaches practiced by authors like Naomi Alderman, Julian Gough, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jeremin, Ben Aaronovitch, China Miéville, Charles Stross, and many others working somewhere between fantasy and horror and science fiction and literature: they write worlds that are packed with ideas and beauty and intelligence and possibility, that refuse to be pinned down, and are simply great to encounter.
When it comes to myself, however, I do love the promise that the word “thriller” offers: that you will be thrilled, you will be driven onward to find out what happens next. I’d love my novel to do this for its readers, while perhaps imparting some ideas that feel urgent to me.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a sequel to This Is Gomorrah, picking up its characters and taking them in what I hope is an exciting direction. Although, starting to write it while having no idea what the world will make of the first book is somewhat daunting. I’m also working in parallel on a textbook called How To Think, which will be my third book for the social science publisher SAGE, for whom I write books about Critical Thinking skills in the 21st Century, as well as designing online courses and resources. And I have some plans for other books of non-fiction and fiction, although I’m trying not to get carried away given the amount that’s already on my plate!
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I tend to read a lot of things in parallel, partly because I need different things at different moments to spark me into words. I love reading philosophy and books of ideas, and am working my way through some Kant and Hume as well as David Robson’s fine new book The Intelligence Trap. On the genre front, I just finished Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi, whose Quantum Thief trilogy I adored, and the Imperial Radch trilogy by Anne Leckie. I’m re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for its sheer linguistic force, alongside Lillian Ross’s reportage for the New Yorker, and Steven Strogatz’s book about the history of calculus, Infinite Powers. And there are quite a few more, most of them recommendations. My favourite thing to do with books is to ask a friend or someone I admire, “what one book should I read next?” I’ve found plenty of amazing things that way.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
In non-fiction, I have a very soft spot for Bryan Magee’s masterful book about Karl Popper (simply called Popper). In fiction, it is of course an impossible question, but in my current mood I’d have to say the first of Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, Consider Phlebas. For those who haven’t read it, it introduces a fictional universe that I love very much, and that’s a huge and strange and ultimately uplifting place to explore. I still can’t quite believe he’s no longer with us.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I care a great deal about what they think.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Finishing the next novel!