Thursday, 5 July 2012

An Interview With Samit Basu, The Author Of "Turbulence"

"Miracleman/Marvelman", a classic superhero comic from one of Samit Basu's favourite British superhero writers, Alan Moore. The scans from here-on-in are of superhero books from authors Mr Basu has expressed respect for.
           
I've been working for almost all my 50 years on the fine detail of what an ideal world ought to be like. But, just when I think I've got the constitution of Smithopia sorted out, life throws in an unexpected experience which suggests that those oh-so-deeply-caring, socially-minded plans need amending. One such unforeseen opportunity was the chance to ask a few questions of Samit Basu, the author of the fine and newly-published-in-the-UK superhero novel Turbulence, which was discussed on TooBusyThinking just yesterday. (You can find that review here.) Mr Basu was so helpful and generous with his time and thoughts, and the whole process so painlessly enjoyable, that my guilty middle class conscience now feels compelled to amend Smithopia's provisional constitution accordingly. And so, in amongst the essential big tent policies such as a fairer distribution of wealth and Rob Liefeld's compulsory enrolment in at least three years worth of life-drawing classes, all citizens of the future will, come the mission-accomplished speech marking the New Millennium's arrival, have the right to pick the brains of the authors whose work they've just finished and enjoyed.

Because that is a ridiculous privilege, isn't it?

I had what my grandmother used to refer to a right whale of a time, and my thanks go to Samit Basu, as well as to Sophie Calder at Titan, for making this interview a reality.
  

Some of your characters are very aware that there’s a tradition of superhero tales which is constantly threatening to influence their expectations and behaviour. How challenging was it for you to be writing in a genre which has been so well-mined in film, TV and books as well as comics? Was it ever difficult to ensure that “Turbulence” didn’t remind the reader too much of what’s gone before even as you were drawing from the genre's history?

Turbulence was supposed to be, more than anything else, a novel of here and now (now being late 2009, when I wrote it) and given how much superheroes are part of present-day pop culture there simply wasn't a choice in the matter. In Turbulence, the characters who'd have been aware of superhero tales in the real world have no choice but to be aware of what superheroes they are now like. If Aman, say, had popped three claws out of his hand, he would - like most pop-culture-aware people I know - have immediately thought of Wolverine, and I think this adds a layer of reality to the book. But Uzma, for instance, probably wouldn't know about superheroes beyond the ones in popular movies - she's just unlikely to have thought of superheroes at all in her everyday life. When stories are set in the real world, it's only natural that they should reference real-world pop-culture, and I always enjoy it when characters in fiction reference other characters - Joss Whedon's characters, for example, do this constantly, whether it's Buffyverse people talking about Scooby-Doo and Hogwarts, or Iron Man calling Hawkeye Legolas. Given how hyperlinked the whole world is now, creating hermetic-seal fictional universes which are supposedly set in the real world simply doesn't make sense to me.


I think I was only able to write a superhero story with a degree of confidence because I knew I was writing a book - the prospect of doing a superhero comic is actually far more intimidating, given the amount of fantastic material out there. The very first thing I realized when I started working on this was that coming up with new superpowers is next to impossible - even the ones I think are new, like Bob's and a few others, are probably powers I'll find other characters have if I read enough. But then, Batman and Spiderman aren't two of the most popular superheroes in the world because of their powers - it's completely about the men behind the masks. Which simplifies matters a great deal, because you can focus on telling the story, and enjoying the characters. Readers who've read comics extensively aren't going to be impressed by powers - they've seen them all before.

Whenever I did intentionally reference other superhero universes, it was usually a character who knew about them explaining them to a character who didn't - the point of this was to have the theory explained to readers who weren't superhero-literate but also assure more well-versed readers that I knew, just as they did, that other, more famous superhero stories had trodden the same paths, and that my interest was in exploring these common themes within the context of this particular story.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Turbulence plays with the conventions of the superhero book. Were there any of its traditions which you particularly enjoyed referencing, or perhaps any which you regret not having had the chance to put to use this time around?

Once I had done away with the need for capes, masks, costumes, names (I really wanted to give them names, but all the good ones are taken, and in this century even professional wrestlers use real names) and secret identities, and skipped over the traditional origin story, only referencing it when necessary, it was more a question of picking a few superhero tropes - I love genre stereotypes, and the chance to celebrate them - and finding out how they would play out in the supposedly real world. The way I saw it, Aman's essential objective is to try and bring some sanity into the use of their superpowers, because every comic suggests that if there's one thing inevitable after superpowers appear, it's a big climactic fight, and this is the direction the world slides towards all through the book, the standard comicbook ending, and Aman's battle is against that because if people really had superpowers, they could genuinely make the world a much better place. But working together to fix the world is something ordinary humans haven't managed yet, and comicbook conventions arrive out of human nature, which governs any world real or fictitious. Sorry, I'm digressing - yes, I knew I had to have big power-vs-power who-would-win-in-a-fight-between moments, fabulous villain lairs, ray-guns, monsters, big-moment uppercuts, people vanishing, people flying, and everything that could make the book as visual as possible.

          
By chance, I was reading R. C. Harvey discussing efforts to portray the superhero in novels at the same time as I was enjoying Turbulence.  He writes that “books (aren’t) quite up to the task of depicting superheroes’ incredible feats … Books lacked the conviction, the authority and impact of visuals.” I think the grand set-pieces in “Turbulence” work very well. Yet I wonder if the “Combat-Useless Powers Brigade” were in part your way of showing that the novel has its own advantages when it comes to super-heroes and their powers? Bob’s ability, for example, would be hard to make consistently compelling in a comic, but it’s fascinating in prose.

Yes, absolutely. But the primary reason why most of the heroes' powers aren't very combat-worthy is simply that old-school powers like super-strength simply aren't that relevant in today's world, at least from a broader perspective, but less visually appealing powers like Aman's, or Bob's, or Sundar's are, in a much more connected, self-aware world where issues are more complex and broader than Captain America punching Hitler. Having said that, you're right, I did try to tell a story for which the novel was the best medium, so that it woudn't simply be the case that I had a superhero story, but no artist, so I did the best I could.

Novels are more about ideas, and there are only so many visual set-pieces you can have before it all goes a bit stale. You could watch Hulk and Thor battle it out on screen or in comics pages pretty much indefinitely, but you can't really do that in prose - you can have those scenes, but you have to end them before they get repetitive.

         
Books have several advantages too - they're much better for really looking at the big picture than comics are, and for setting scenes in tense moments that aren't necessarily visually strong. The scenes where Aman changes the world, for instance - you could do them in comics, but it would be one of those panel sequences where the story's essentially told in a series of captions, with some dramatic image just filling in the space. Well, I've seen it done effectively in many stories, but in those bits you're not exploiting the power of comics, which you can only really see when image and text are working together. I think Alan Moore combines the two media very well in Watchmen and League, with those chapters of text in between comics chapters. There's no question about comics being the best medium to tell a superhero story - even film can't match it. But books can (I hope) do anything, if the reader's imagination is strong enough to make up for the lack of fantastic visuals.

Having said all that, I would have found it impossible to write this book if I hadn't written comics, and understood a little bit about how superhero stories work in terms of pacing, big moments, arcs and so on.

You have Aman reference “manic, dark, deeply post-modern superhero comics written by insane British writers” (page 138). Could you give an example or two of the British writers whose superhero work has most inspired you?

Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Ennis, Ellis and Carey. I've read most of their work, as much as I could find. Such fantastic minds, so many brilliant ideas and characters. I didn't grow up on their work, or with any particular knowledge of superheroes, but discovered them as adults and was immediately hooked. I had the absolute privilege of co-writing a comic with Mike Carey a few years ago, and it remains one of the very best work experiences I've had. He was completely sane, though.


         
I found your portrayal of India fascinating. Without in any way coming across as tub-thumping, Turbulence seems to be one more important corrective to the negative stereotypes which have so often been used to represent India in the West. Were you conscious of wanting to reflect the dynamism and complexity of modern India, or was that more a reflection of the fact that that’s of course the world in which you live?

I actually tried to use all the standard subcontinental stereotypes - religion, politics, Bollywood, cricket, India-Pakistan conflict - for the same reason as I tried to put in as many superhero tropes I could convincingly fit into the story. I've never written about India before, and it was an interesting process.
      
Those interested in Basu's already considerable career can find a brief bio here. (Photo appropriated from The Times Of India http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-12-11/people/28265720_1_book-talks-superhero-turbulence.)
      

If it does act as a corrective to negative stereotypes (thank you, by the way, that's a wonderful thing to say) I'm happy to say that it comes from trying to depict reality, or at least imagined reality based on places I've seen and/or lived in, as closely as possible. Again, the basic objective of writing Turbulence was to write a novel about here and now, and after several years of writing I believed I might have a shot at capturing the 'here'. All my long-form work before this had been about completely imaginary worlds, so it was a pleasure actually describing places I knew and just having these strange characters inhabit them.

I didn't want to reflect the dynamism and complexity of modern India at all, because I'm only too aware that there is no real India to represent, and every attempt I've seen to capture, analyse and understand it has fallen on its face. I guess that awareness of my incapacity to really comprehend this country comes out of living here as well. Having said that, I don't think this is unique or specific to India. It could probably be said about any country - both the admission of complexity, and the inevitability of stereotyping. Last year, I was at a literary festival in Bhutan, where a few Indian writers, having spent four days in the country, spent half an hour with the Prime Minister, an exceedingly pleasant and sharp man, telling him how to run his country better. There are a few places in the novel where I do make broad generalisations about the subcontinent. I cringed while writing them and I cringed while reading them but I did think they were necessary.

      
I’d love to hear why you choose to stage the final confrontation in London when the rest of the novel is set mostly in India. (Obviously you studied in London and know it very well.) I can think of a great many reasons why you did so, but having the chance to ask you would help me sidestep any pretentious ideas!

Several reasons, some entirely superficial, some only partly so. The most superficial one being that if you have to destroy a city, Michael Bay style, and expect the world to be interested, then it should be a city whose landmarks everyone in the world is immediately familiar with. The only Indian monument we have that qualifies is the Taj Mahal - and I've never seen the Taj Mahal in real life. The world media wouldn't really pay much attention if superhumans run amok in Indian cities - it wouldn't fit the India brief, which is exotic culture, the coexistence of poverty and super-wealth, religion, spirituality and so forth. London under threat, though - that is global news.

Also, I've always been very amused at a prevalent trend in India - it's been this way as far as I can remember - to be big in India you have be validated by the west, whether you're a model, a writer, a doctor, or anything else. We take inordinate amounts of pride in people of Indian origin who do well in anything abroad - their triumphs are our triumphs, even if they've never set foot in the country. So it made complete sense that these characters needed to make a big splash in the West before anyone in the world, Indians included, took them seriously.

The other theme, which I actually talk about in the book, is that the Indian response to the sudden arrival of superheroes would be far less dramatic than in the West. As with bombings, floods, epidemics and various other disasters, people would gossip about it, but essentially move on. And that's really not what you want at the end of your book.

Indeed. Thank you for all your help.

Thanks very much.

Samit Basu, Titan Books, 7th July
       
There's information about a chance to win of copy of Turbulence to be found over Geek Native, and since it's a long way back to the top of the page, you can acces the TooBusyThinking review of Turbulence here;

And next up on TooBusyThinking, there's a look at how to write New 52 comics the Rob Liefeld way. No, really ...

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4 comments:

  1. Fascinating review and interview. I'm genuinely intrigued.

    Mikesensei

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    1. Hello mikesensei:- from the words we've swapped over the years - :) - I think you really would find Turbulence intriguing. I suspect you'd enjoy it as well, but you'd certainly find it intriguing.

      I hope all is well, good sir.

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  2. Great interview this, Colin. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Very much looking forward to reading Turbulence and then, after that, your review.

    I'll probably have something more useful to add when I have...

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    1. Hello Mark:- Thank you :) You'll soon be the expert here, so please do feel free - in amongst all the important aspects of your life :) - to let me know what you think as events occur!

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