Let’s start with an introduction: Who is T. R. Napper?
My website has, as a subheading: “writes, plays poker, smashes poverty with his bare hands.” This is a decent summary.
The last, obviously ironic reference, is to my previous career as an aid worker in Southeast Asia. I worked on projects that delivered basic education to some of the poorest communities in places like Laos and Burma, where children would never otherwise have set foot inside a school.
I did once play a lot of poker, I was what you’d call a ‘semi-professional’, meaning I derived part of my income from cards. I quit for a few years, but just recently got back into it with gusto.
These days I work in the community sector with ‘at risk’ teenagers and with people living with autism. I’m a professional dungeon master, as well.
More than anything I’m a dad. Which sounds kinda boring and twee. But I love it. I share duties 50/50 with my wife; we’ve organised our life so we don’t miss anything as the kids grow up.
Your new book, Neon Leviathan, will be published in February by Grimdark Magazine. It’s been getting a lot of great early buzz, and I’m really looking forward to reading it: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
The blurb’s a good place to start, which I’ve added to the end of this answer.
If I’m talking to someone who likes science fiction, but who’s not really hard core, I’ll usually compare it to Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell. I’ll ask them if they’ve watched Altered Carbon on Netflix and if they say yes, I’ll tell them that the author of the novel the series is based on, Richard Morgan, blurbed the collection and loved it. It’s got a bit of all those things, plus some Philip K Dick. If you like any of those, or you’ve a longing for SF short stories set in Australia or Southeast Asia, I reckon you’ll like Neon Leviathan.
A collection of stories about the outsiders – the criminals, the soldiers, the addicts, the mathematicians, the gamblers and the cage fighters, the refugees and the rebels. From the battlefield, to alternate realities, to the mean streets of the dark city, we walk in the shoes of those who struggle to survive in a neon-saturated, tech-noir future.
Twelve hard-edged stories from the dark, often violent, sometimes strange heart of cyberpunk, these stories – as with all the best science fiction – are an exploration of who were are now. In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Philip K Dick, and David Mitchell, Neon Leviathan is a remarkable debut collection from a breakout new author.”
What inspired you to write the stories in the book? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Sometimes I’m issue-driven. I see a present and future of staggering inequality and want to send a warning about it. The problem with issue-fiction is that it can very easily fail as a story. It becomes so didactic and unsubtle that the human narrative can get lost. So I’m careful with this, I do try for nuance.
Sometimes I’m idea-driven. Usually it will be thinking about the implications of technology or geo-politics for our future. Science fiction writers tend towards either techno-optimism or scepticism, and I’m in the latter camp.
Sometimes I’ll get a snapshot of inspiration for a cool scene – a fight, a conversation, or whatever – and think fuck it: I want that. And I’ll build a story around it.
But all the time I’m driven by humanism, when it comes down to it. Fumbling for human dignity among the cold hard certitudes of technological progress. Focussing on that thin sliver of humanity – the humour, the resilience, the self-sacrifice – that struggles to stay alight in the dark.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
God. I could not remember mate. I’ve been reading genre fiction since forever. I was obsessed by all the David Eddings books when I was in my early teens, I guess, and a series by Patrick Tilley called The Amtrak Wars. Philip K. Dick even earlier than that.
But I can’t remember who introduced me or what author pulled me into this world. I doubt any one author did it. I just think I was meant to be a part of it, deep down in my DNA.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand it is an incredible privilege, to write and create like this. There is a kind of freedom inherent in it that cannot be replicated in almost any other profession.
On the other hand it’s hyper-political, and not in a good way. I find the scene pretty toxic at times. Plus, writers have this pressure to give themselves wholly over to self-promotion, which I personally loathe (he says, while giving an interview to pimp his collection).
The industry is struggling, and authors are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, which is tragic. We have a society that now undervalues art and expects it, more often than not, for free. While we seem to have more works from diverse authors (a good thing), the downside is a lot of poor and working-class writers are being shut out of the business.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I’m the tortoise. I write every day. I work when I feel like, when I don’t; when I’m happy or sad, sick or healthy. I usually aim for 500 words. Doesn’t feel like much, but voilà, a year later and you have a novel draft.
I am a compulsive researcher and fact-checker. Plus I’ll usually have someone very knowledgeable with the subject matter – cultural or otherwise – read my work.
I’ve been fortunate to live on and off in Southeast Asia for about a decade, which is in itself a form of full-submersion research.
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?
Geez, not even sure if I feel like an author now. Orwell had it partly right when he said:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Writing a novel (or a collection of short stories) is also an intellectually and creatively rewarding experience. Unparalleled, in my opinion. And god damn it feels good to hold a book with your name on it in your hands. Especially if, like me, you kinda worship books (I wrote about this experience here).
Do I look back on it fondly, this decision? I wouldn’t use that word, no. But I’m glad I did it.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
There are brilliant writers out there writing important stories. The range of ideas and subject matter has never been wider. However, I am concerned that the industry is very US-centric. In terms of awards lists, sales, the focus of discussions live and online. I think we’re missing a lot of important works from the rest of the world.
This is not to diss my American friends. For all that, I have some US writer mates who do deserve to be far more widely read than that are.
Cyberpunk has always been pretty niche, and Australian/Southeast Asian cyberpunk I suppose is a niche within a niche. Which sounds like I might be lamenting a lack of potential audience for the work, which is not the case at all (he says, hearing his publisher gnash his teeth).
In the end, I believe you can only write the best story you can, and in the genre you love. You hope it will find an audience, and that they’ll find the meanings I put into it, but it is something that is out of my hands at that point. It’ll be out in the world mid-February; I guess we’ll see how it fits then.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
My agent, John Jarrold, is currently trying to sell a novel called Thirty-Six Streets (I pitched it as Ghost in the Shell-meets-Apocalypse Now). It’s about a Vietnamese-Australian gangster living in Chinese-occupied Hanoi. I hope he sells the bloody thing.
I’m about 70,000 words into a shockingly disjointed first draft of the next novel. It’s less noir than I’d normally write, and more batshit crazy military science fiction.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy. I came to crime fiction later in life as a reader. For some bizarre reason I turned my nose up at it as a ‘lesser’ form. Much the way some literary types turn their noses up at science fiction. Stupid, hey? But it’s been great for me, to have this belated love affair with crime fiction.
Dashiell Hammett, in particular, has been a big influence on me.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Travelling to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker.
T.R. Napper’s Neon Leviathan is out now, published by Grimdark Magazine.