Firstly, thank you for doing this interview at such short notice.
My pleasure. Thank you for taking an interest.
I know you’re on a tight schedule today, so I’ll make this as quick as I can. Your latest novel The Fantastilicious Episode of the Diminishing Error tackles the philosophical idea of mind-body dualism. Do you subscribe to dualism?
Absolutely not, and the novel is a sort of fiction-as-refutation of the idea largely attributed to the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, although dualism's origins are much older. Without wading into a pool of metaphysical jargon, this story sets out to counter the rather persistent belief in a disembodied soul or self that is independent of, or only tenuously connected to, the body.
So what is the story about?
Without giving away too much, the heroes are a young brother and sister whose parents, a scientist and an engineer, are charged with treason and sentenced to hard labour for life by a repressive theocracy that preaches dualism as a means of controlling the populace. But our irrepressible heroes meet some unlikely allies in their quest to find and rescue their parents.
Some reviewers have called it The Wizard of Oz meets His Dark Materials meets Nineteen Eighty-Four. Is this accurate, or fair even?
There are some elements, crucial elements, rather similar to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ but I won’t say which in case it spoils it for potential readers. I’m a fan of Philip Pullman’s work. I think he’s both brave for tackling religion in a subversive way and ingenious for doing it with such a deft touch that connects with young readers. I suppose the setting of a tyrannical theocratic state resembles Pullman’s ‘Magisterium’, but whereas supernatural forces are real in Pullman’s world, they don’t exist in mine, which is the crux of my story’s message. And my style’s more tongue-in-cheek, surreal even. At least that’s what I think. As for being compared to 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', why, I’m terribly flattered! I have a shrine in my room dedicated to Orwell. Each day I sacrifice a pig to him.
Your characters have really strange names, like Picollo Daimyo and Gumgum Gladjaw in The Tale That Made Her Gasp. How do you come up with such weird names that stick in the brain?
I have a system, which is a state secret. There’s a method in the madness. One thing I will say is that I avoid real-life names that carry a lot of cultural baggage, names that are too burdened by various associations. Made-up, silly names give me the freedom to set the agenda of my worlds, of their inhabitants and their cultures. Much like what fantasy and sci-fi writers do, except you’d be hard pressed to find truly original ‘fantasy’ names that aren’t either Tolkien-lite or something plundered from a European medieval history book, give or take a few vowels.
Comparisons have been drawn between your work and that of the Objectivist philosopher and writer Ayn Rand. You both expound on similar themes, like ethics, reason, individualism, naturalism, freedom and progress, both material and spiritual.
Ayn Rand was the first writer to actually make me feel like becoming a better person. Regardless of the dubious veracity, even practicality, of her philosophical ideals – for the record, I’m not an Objectivist – Rand created heroes for her readers to look up to, and she did that without feeling like she had to bring her protagonists ‘down to earth’ by smearing them with the dirt of realism, or rather cynicism. Yes, no actual human being can be exactly like John Galt, or Dagny Taggart, or Howard Roark. No shit! But I think her critics miss the point when they accuse her of advocating moral absolutism, this ‘my way or the highway’, black-and-white vision of the ethical paragon made flesh. Yes, she is guilty as charged for all that, but that’s not the reason why her writing is so compelling. Rand electrifies her readers because she refuses to make up excuses for them. And they can take it one of two ways: either they resent her for making them feel inadequate, or they are inspired to actually have a crack at coming as close as they realistically can to the ideals her heroes embodied.
Rand was a champion of the heroic life. If you want a writer to tell you it’s ok to be spiritually mediocre and ethically noncommittal, to validate the worst in you instead of encouraging the best, well, there’s an ocean of them waiting for your time and money. Go read them. Obviously writers like Rand and I aren’t going to rock your world.
I suppose this explains the larger-than-life characters that populate your stories. They seem to inhabit worlds that one unimpressed reviewer has disparagingly described as ‘caricatures’ of real life.
In my writing, I deliberately avoid acknowledging, much less celebrating, the banal. When Danny Boyle’s film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was criticized by Indians as romanticizing the poverty and misery of India’s poor, I sympathized with them. When you’re actually living in such abject conditions, you’re not going to be terribly impressed with a Western film that depicts your miserable reality as a mere backdrop to a star-crossed love story. I don’t write about the banal for the same reason. For me, being in a sense existentially forced to live amongst banality, it nurtures a fierce aversion to letting it contaminate the higher purpose of my work. I write in a philosophically aspirational style; my stories, my heroes, they serve as ideals to inspire my readers to better their spiritual condition. My work is a challenge to them, every paragraph, every sentence, every fucking word. Live up! If you’re going to grow materially, you’d better be growing spiritually too. Otherwise, what’s the point?
All your novels start with a character saying something, a speech-quote. How did you come to settle on this sort of, I guess, trademark?
Everything I know about memorable openings, I learnt from George Lucas. (laughs)
All you need is an accompanying score!
If only I had a John Williams-caliber anthem to accompany the first line of all my books, I would achieve immortality. Honestly though, I first used a speaking character to open my stories because I couldn’t write an introduction I was completely happy with. It tended to come out too cliché, or overwrought, or even, dare I say, pretentious. So I decided to just dive straight into things with someone talking. It seemed more natural to me. After all, that’s how we often initiate our real life encounters, isn’t it? With either us or the other person saying something. I grew fond of the gimmick and used it for the rest of my books. Incidentally, my awareness of it being, as you said, a trademark which I could use to my idiosyncratic advantage only occurred to me after finishing 'The Tale That Made Her Gasp', which was my third novel.
Alright, I'll wrap this up now. Just a couple more questions. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A fellatio critic. Or maybe a librarian.
Any advice for aspiring writers reading this?
Always finish your veggies. And if you’re serious about writing life-changing prose, read my books for inspiration and a demonstration of superlative technique. Or read Ayn Rand’s for the entry-level stuff.
It’s been a pleasure, Ms Land. Thank you for your time.
No, thank you.
L C Land is a writer, critic and turtle wrangler based in Kuala Lumpur. Her latest novel The Fantastilicious Episode of the Diminishing Error is out now in all good bookstores.