-Can you tell us a little bit about Nik Korpon?
I’m from Baltimore and have two beautiful kids who are slowly trying to destroy me. (My parents told us we have the kids we deserve, in both a good way and a karmic way.) I watch way too much soccer (¡Visca Barça!) and I’ve been reading a lot of books recently about Spanish history. I think Shaun of the Dead is one of the most perfect scripts of all time and taught Raymond Chandler and Paul Tremblay to my Freshman Comp students. I tried to move to Spain fifteen years ago but my wife made me fall in love with her, but I’m trying to get her to run with me so we can justify a trip to Barcelona and San Sebastián to run their marathons.
-Where did the idea for stealing memories come from?
I’d been on a thief writing-kick. I used to tend to write in blocks, like writing a couple boxing things, then a couple thief things, but I wanted to write a different kind of thief story, where they stole something esoteric or abstract. After working through a couple ideas, I settled on memories, partially because the idea of memories/identity has always fascinated me and the visuals were really cool, and partially because I’d never seen anything like it. So I spent a couple hours sketching out all these ideas and characters, then decided to treat myself to a movie as a reward.
The movie was Inception, where they steal dreams.
-What were your inspirations for this series?
That’s an interesting question because there are a lot of different answers. Traitor was initially much more dystopian—think post-Katrina NOLA but worse—until my agent suggested it might work better in a sci-fi world. I’m not terribly well-read in SFF, so I asked a bunch of friends for recs and ended up landing on books like Made to Kill by Adam Christopher and Altered Carbon. Shows like Black Mirror and Orphan Black were also influences, more aesthetically than plot-wise. In a different way, I read a ton of Celtic mythology when I was a kid and those larger-than-life stories crept their way in.
In terms of real history, I took a lot of cues from events like the Easter Uprising of 1916 in Ireland and various other civil uprisings/revolutions (things like the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Tupamaros in 1970s Uruguay, and too many other South American popular rebellions to name). Something about the idea of people liberating themselves has always struck a chord in me—which is more prescient now than ever—and I keep finding myself coming back to that in one way or another.
-What music were you listening to while writing these books?
I tend to listen to the same records over and over while writing, most of it without lyrics so it doesn’t distract me. It helps get me in the right mindset. Usually it’s Nick Cave scores—Assassination of Jesse James is a go-to and Hell or High Water has been on constant repeat recently—or Trent Reznor and Flood stuff like the Gone Girl score.
I’ll also mix in Clint Mansell or the Orphan Black score. Sometimes I’ll listen to records in preparation of writing, something like Fever Ray or Apparat or INVSN. A lot of INVSN, actually. It’s funny in retrospect because Fever Ray and INVSN are both Swedish, and Brusandhåv, the country in Queen, was vaguely based on Sweden. I don’t know if that had any influence or just fit the aesthetic.
On a side note, I work as a copywriter at my day job and my office mate thinks it’s hilarious to walk into our office and see a pretty heavily tattooed dude rocking Shakira while writing copy. But that’s a different part of my brain.
-What should we watch or read after reading these two books?
Altered Carbon and Black Mirror on Netflix (though to be fair, I don’t have Netflix so I haven’t seen AC yet, but I watched BM on YouTube). Orphan Black too, to mention it for the seventh time. The Helsinki comic run they did about Topside is really good too. I don’t have a ton of time to watch TV, and most of the TV I watch is telenovelas to improve my Spanish, which is kind of interesting because I’ve noticed myself taking for narrative leaps that I wouldn’t have taken before and wonder if it’s the telenovela influence.
-I found this to be grounded more in reality than your usual sci-fi novel, why did you decide to stay away from flying cars, lasers, and robots?
I should feign some kind of grandiose explanation that taps into critical theory and whatnot, but the truth is I don’t have that great of an imagination. Or rather, I don’t have the brain for crazy, other-world settings. I enjoy reading books like that, but what interests me most while writing sci-fi is exploring the relationships between people, how this extreme world has shaped and changed the way we relate to one another, the way we raise kids, stuff like that. Though it is funny saying this because I’m editing a book I keep pitching as Die Hard in Space that’s filled with flying cars and lasers and planet-hopping ships, but they’re all very nonchalant, just a normal part of the world.
-What made you decide to put this story in the future? It feels like it could almost take place today.
It was actually a deliberate choice to make it not feel like today. The earlier drafts were much more pedantic and had more rants about Marxism and how capitalist societies and oligarchs feed off one another until they create dictators, coupled with more environmental gloom-and-doom about pushing our planet beyond its reach. After some talks with my agent, we decided that it was coming across as a little heavy-handed or trying to make a point (over and over and over and…) so to sort of hide my soapbox, we set it a couple hundred years in the future and moved it from a vaguely US setting to a vaguely UK setting (which then influenced the Irish uprising and mythology bits, as well as the soccer stuff). You can get away with more stuff if it’s set in the future too. That said, it has been a little disconcerting to see stuff I made up a couple years ago come across my Twitter news feed.
–Queen of the Struggle seems to be a much more personal introspective story than The Rebellion’s Last Traitor, what made you decide to go in this direction?
Thanks for saying that. I appreciate it. There were a couple things. I think it’s really fun to see stories where a bunch of scrappy rebels take down an authoritarian behemoth, but a lot of those stories don’t explore what happens after that. Once the good guys win and everyone’s done celebrating, what happens then? There’s a line in one of the books akin to “You need oppressors because having something to push against is the only way you know where you stop.” I think I just bastardized my own quote, but so many rebel heroes (and hell, politicians for that matter) are mainly defined by what they’re against, not what they’re actually for. You see it all across the Democratic institution now—Hey, we’re not Trump, so vote for us. It’s not that inspiring a message. So the idea of having our heroes actually have to build something, instead of just tearing everything down, was really interesting.
Added to that, Henraek now has a completely different life situation he has to deal with. He’s spent the last ten years doing his rebel thing, when it was basically just him, and later, him and Emeríann. But once Donael is brought into the mix, how does that change things? I think it’s also partly me trying to come to grips with my son getting older. Donael idolizes some of the parts of Henraek’s life he’s not too proud of, and Henraek obviously wants to make Donael proud and be a dad he can look up to, so how does Henraek navigate this new terrain?
-Your action scenes are great and intense, any advice for authors trying to add bits of action to their story?
Thanks! I work really hard on those, but I don’t know that I have too many tips. I try to let it play out in my head like a movie and record what I see. One of the things I’ve found useful, both in action scenes and regular-old writing, is using tiny, specific details, ideally very evocative ones. If someone is hunkered down behind a wall, having a close shot throw a bit of dust into the air and land on their lips is a good way to both increase the stakes (like, oh shit, I almost got shot), give a tactile, relatable detail, and maybe have it trigger some other reaction or memory that informs character. It’s a trick I took from Amy Hempel. She has one line about a woman coming back home “at the age where she began to pronounce vase as vahs.” It’s such a simple thing but tells you so much about the character. Same thing with Raymond Carver in “They’re Not Your Husband,” where the husband fastidiously counts their coins to buy a scale for his wife. It’s one interaction but speaks volumes about both characters and their relationship. Adding that bit of detail also pauses the scene a second and lets the reader catch their breath, as it were, while providing some sensory detail to put them in the moment.
It’s probably because I grew up watching a lot of Black Belt Theater and 80s action movies on Saturday afternoons.
-Who is more evil, the Ragjarøn or the Tathadann?
The Tathadann is the more obviously evil because they’re so brutally repressive that they would ban memory from their country (which, you know, we’re kind of what we’re seeing play out in eastern Europe right now). But I think Ragjarøn is the more interestingly evil group, because they’re more insidious. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling things, but the way things play out with them reminds me a lot of the political situation in Spain over the last fifty-odd years—a connection I didn’t intend while writing it but, given my preoccupation with Spain and South America, I guess it’s not that surprising. The subconscious works in strange ways.
Anyway, I find politics in Spain endlessly fascinating. When Spain was formed, it was a forced union of several kingdoms that didn’t necessarily want to join, which then added other conquered nations/regions like Catalonia in the 1700s. That sentiment of independence, though not as prevalent as before, still remains today. You have a centralized government with several regions (the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia) retaining some semblance of autonomy, but even those are at different levels. So you have the majority of the country wanting to stay as a “country” while these regions rather consistently rally for independence. You saw this recently with the Catalan referendum, and from the 1970s–2000s with the Basque separatists. And while you can understand the drive for these people to be free and live according to their own traditions, you also have to say—from an objective point of view—that they are generally better off staying with the union. Even within those communities (though maybe not quite as much with the Basques) there is division as to whether they are Spanish or Catalan, or Catalans who want to remain in Spain. So there’s a constant struggle between, I don’t know, cultural survival and cultural autonomy that I find endlessly fascinating.
-What’s next for Henraek, Emeríann, and Eitan City?
Gotta buy the next book to find out, dude.
-Is this going to be a trilogy or a series?
There’s a great quote by a favorite author of mine, Will Christopher Baer, that goes,
“Never write a trilogy on a two-book deal.”
Of all the things I picked up from Baer, that wasn’t one, because I did that exact thing. Originally, this was planned as a trilogy because I like the way that feels—beginning, middle, end. Then I accidentally pitched a fourth book to my fantastic editor Phil, and I think that idea has legs. But we’ll see how these sell and go from there. (So, *cough cough*, if you like these books and want to see how it ends, leave a review on Amazon and coerce your friends into buying a book too. *cough, apologies for blatant self-promotion*.)
– What authors would you recommend?
Oh, man, where do I start.
Rob Hart, Chris Irvin, Angel Luis Colón, Eryk Pruitt, Jen Conley, Scott Adlerberg, Gabino Iglesias, Todd Robinson, Lee Matthew Goldberg, Axel Taiari, Chris Novas, Ben Whitmer, China Miéville, Gabriel García Márquez, Fernando Vallejo, Gonzalo Baeza, Sean Grigsby, Tristan Palmgren, Don Winslow. I could name another two dozen just by going through my Facebook friends but even then I’d miss someone. I wish I had time to read all the books I want to read.
– What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, who also wrote Cod and Salt, among others. I’m currently reading Doce Cuentas Peregrinos by Gabriel García Márquez (Strange Pilgrims is the English name) and Cuentas de la Selva by Horacio Quiroga. I prefer short story collections in Spanish unless the books are easy (like Escalofríos [Goosebumps]) because it’s harder for me to retain all the information in a novel. Next to my bed are The Dispossessed by LeGuin, Blindsight by Peter Watts (on rec from Axel Taiari) and two more history books, The Struggle for Catalonia—which covers some history of the region and the current struggle—and Ghosts of Spain, which addresses this fascinating phenomenon in Spain where they essentially agreed to not talk about the atrocities committed by Franco’s fascist dictatorship, at least until they uncovered a mass grave and could no longer ignore it. The book looks at coming to grips with that. I generally tend toward fiction but have been on a big history kick recently.
– If you could have a billboard in every shopping centre around the world, what words would you have printed on it?
Just take a breath, man.
It sounds stupid, or like something you’d say while holding a healing crystal, but it really is underrated. So many problems or missteps could be averted by just taking the time to take a breath and not react with your first instinct. I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for the last seven years, sometimes more disciplined about it than others, but that’s one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from the practice: Take a breath then reevaluate. And hey, I guess if the Buddha started his path to enlightenment by paying attention to his breath, it’s a good enough place for me.
Interview by Matthew Brandenburg
‘The Rebellion’s Last Traitor’ was published by Angry Robot Books and is available here.
Nik Korpon is the author of several books, including The Soul Standard and Stay God, Sweet Angel. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two children.
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