Chad Taylor

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RUTH TODD: One reviewer said Shirker is "part X-Files".

CT: I like that kind of science fiction. It's an aspect of the genre that isn't pursued much now which emphasises mystery and darkness and the characters rather than the technology.

I wondered how risky it was to bring in the fantasy element when writing a novel because people seem to want realism.

Shirker is a very real novel, and Heaven was very real, and Pack of Lies too. All my stories are very real, but this surreal aspect to the stories continues to emerge. I wouldn't describe it as fantasy.

And yet some reviews have mentioned that.

Shirker has a surreal aspect to it, a point at which things kind of split. That's part of it, but it's not what the story's about. It might be pretentious to say it's metaphorical but that does seem to be the case. In Heaven the title character was split and the book was split between her different worlds. In Shirker, that's Palmer's role as well.

Yes, let's talk about the Palmer character. He evolves very slowly and becomes more and more important and that built up a lot of tension.

He's a cognate, an expression of Penrose's subconscious. He does evolve slowly. It's difficult to talk about a mystery without giving away the ending.

I was pleased with the novel's composition. It changes like music. You have to have spaces in it, satori-like moments in which things hang. I think those are the best parts in a book or a film or a piece of music. The moments of stasis when things float are very important. They're the parts I enjoy the most.

The book does wind down. Someone at Canongate asked if the book was about entropy and I think it probably is, in that it doesn't really end with a bang. It winds down and energy is dispelled.

The dialogue between Tangiers and Penrose at the end is maybe a dialogue between the two types of characters in crime novels: the directional, clichéd investigator who ties up all the loose ends and the character who sort of fades away. I don't know if any of the characters at the end of the book are headed for anything better in their lives. Maybe a couple of them are.

So there's hope.

Maybe.

I wonder about the process of writing a mystery because you've written several now and they're getting more and more complex.

It wasn't until Jamie Byng at Canongate said to me they were thinking of bringing Shirker out as part of the crime series and what did I think of that - it wasn't until then that I started thinking about my books as mysteries.

Because that's what sells?

No, because they sit well in the genre. Pack of Lies starts off with a mystery that has to be solved and Heaven could be described as a mystery. So you're right, I have done that three times in a row, and I did that with some of the short stories as well. I don't know where you start off [writing a mystery]. Shirker became very complex. There was a point where I was tearing my hair out. It's a case of keeping track of everything. You have ideas and then come back later on and wonder 'Did I write that, or only think about writing it?'

One of the things about writing in the first person is that you have to be aware of what the narrator would know at any point. It's important to note what the character would not describe at a certain moment because they're not paying attention - what's essentially happening off-screen. If a character's pursuing one thing for three chapters, what's happening to everyone else during that time? Especially when you're talking about a narrator who's self-obsessed but not really self-aware. You have to be true to that form.

Let's look at Heaven, the movie, which has just been released in New Zealand. Did you take any part in transferring the novel to the screen?

No, I didn't. Once you've spent a couple of years writing something, the idea of going back to it is too much. It's not that it's dead for you, but it's not alive either. Raymond Chandler said that writing your own book for the screen is like turning over old bones.

– Ruth Todd, July 2000


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