The Disestablishment of Paradise – An Interview with Phillip Mann, part one

disestablishment of paradiseTo mark his return to the Gollancz list after a far-too-long absence, we asked author Phillip Mann a few questions about his new novel, The Disestablishment of Paradise, which is released on Thursday 21st February (this Thursday!). The first part of the interview is here, the second part will follow tomorrow, and the final part – dealing more with Phillip’s remarkable backlist, all of which are now available as ebooks – will be found on  the SF Gateway blog on Friday.

The Disestablishment of Paradise tells of the final days of human involvement on a lush and welcoming colony world. Despite the planet’s remarkable scientific possibilities, the decision has been made. The finances don’t work, there is no benefit to human civilisation, and so Paradise is to be Disestablished. All human trace will be removed. But Dr Hera Melhuish, the scientific leader of the colony, has other plans…

Gollancz: How did the idea of Paradise come to you?

Phillip Mann: Like many people, I have the sense of a time, long, long ago,  – so far ago indeed that it blurs into mythology – when man lived in harmony with Nature. To live then was to live in Paradise.  Nowadays, this is a somewhat misty ideal, obscured by the reality of what we have done to this lovely earth of ours, but potent none the less because respect for Nature is the foundation of all our ethics. Love and nurturing are as real in their own way as birth and death.

It was thoughts such as these which were in my mind when I came to write The Disestablishment of Paradise. Undoubtedly my own love of Nature informs this alien world, but I was reaching to go beyond Earth. I wanted to discover a new place which, while it may resemble Earth superficially, is profoundly different in all the ways that matter. I had no idea at the outset that the story would become so complex, and it is, in many ways, the most satisfying book I have written. I enjoyed the  freedom of writing about so many different lively characters and in creating so many strange creatures!

My desire as a writer, was (as ever) to entertain, to carry the reader into this new world, and reveal the truth of things as I see it. The name Paradise bothered me a bit, but it seemed the right name. However, I wanted to avoid any too direct biblical associations as they would be misleading. Nor is the book an allegory, at least not consciously, though it may be seen as a warning.

Paradise is both a name and an ideal. At its simplest, it is just the name given to the planet by the people who first discovered it and signifies little more than a pleasant and stimulating place to live, though there are people, mainly women such as Hera or Sasha, who sense a deeper reality. Paradise satisfies some of their deepest spiritual yearnings.

As an ideal, Paradise relates to our present situation on earth. We are, in a way, disestablishing our own Paradise. The sad truth is that our world is already damaged and polluted, and we live with the monstrous threat of climate change hanging over us. I do not need to stress this in the book. It is evident to anyone who reads the news or walks along a beach.

On a physical level, the planet Paradise has great similarities with the deep green native bush of New Zealand. When you walk there, especially if you are alone, you can feel the immense presence of Nature. It is present in the bird song, in the creak of branches, in the smell of gum and the constant presence of water, whether in a tumbling stream or a quiet lake. The mysterious North Yorkshire Moors where I grew up are also present in the book, as is the desert in the heart of Australia.  The truth is, of course, that you can encounter Nature almost anywhere where you can be alone and listen, as it were, to the silence.

However, lest all this seem too fey, let me add that I am quite down to earth and scientifically minded – I have a microscope beside my desk and that is a constant source of wonder and inspiration, whether I am studying the sting of a wasp, a torn leaf or the fleas from my cat. At day’s end, it is the mystery of it all that intrigues me most…. and that I try to communicate.

Gollancz: Did you sit down and work out all of the details before writing, or did you see what your mind came up with as you were working, and then tidy it all up afterwards?

Phillip Mann: The book is revealed in the writing. My starting point is always an event which, for some reason – not always clear – matters to me. This event might later prove to be the climax of a novel, but is always a turning point in the narrative to be. It is, in a word, crucial.

In the case of The Disestablishment of  Paradise, there is a moment when Mack and Hera are looking for the Dendron and they finally see its footprints in the desert sand. That event, which occurs about halfway through the book, was one of the starting points. The question I faced (and always do in my novels) was how do the characters get to that point, and what happens then?

Incidentally, that event also occurs in a short story that I wrote many years ago and that I put away in the drawer unfinished, and never thought about again. I was not ready to embark on a book such as the D of P at that time, and timing is important. As with athletes wanting to run a marathon, so writers too have to build up their experience in order to write a big book. Well, I re-discovered the story recently and re-read it and there, staring at me, was the name Dendron, and the footprints in the sand made by a creature in need, and a human being, a man, who was prepared to risk his life to save it.  So, the imagination and the memory work in mysterious ways, their wonders to perform.

Years later, the time was right for me to have a go at writing the novel, and the footprints in the sand and the idea which they express became very important to me, very passionate, very alive.. As Hera says, when she is talking to Mack and trying to persuade him to stay with her and help save the Dendron:   “Well… there may be one such creature still alive. One. One only. ONE in the whole of the entire universe. ONE. Think of that. One. The last. The only. The never, ever, ever to be repeated. And you and I are here to help it.”

So, the starting point is an event which (for whatever reason) matters to me. The next thing I discover is the first line, which is more or less a gift. I have no idea where it comes from. But one line leads to another, and suddenly I find that incidents are taking shape and new characters are suggesting themselves or even marching boldly into the story and demanding to be heard. At times the writing can be like taking dictation.  It is as if the story has started to tell itself.

I know this may seem a strange procedure, but this is more or less exactly how my novels are made. Of course there is a controlling intelligence (mine) and I am very strict with myself and I do a tremendous amount of research … but the novel-to-be generates its own momentum.  After a certain point the shape of the plot becomes very clear, and that is when I begin to make notes. Ideas about the future development come thick and fast, but there is always an element of the unknown, and the unpredictable.

Two last things. First, I do not believe in making plans and character sketches etc. I did once try to plan a novel and it just did not work, it felt like trying to do a painting while wearing a straight-jacket.

Second (and here my practice is at variance with the ideas taught in writing classes),  no matter how long it takes I do not leave a chapter unfinished before moving on to the next one. If I hit a problem, I never say “I’ll come back and sort that out later.” Just occasionally I have to go back and start again, but not often. Some writers I have talked to write drafts which they then correct when the book is finished. I can not do that. If I were to do that I would end up writing a new book. In the D of P, I found myself completing chapters and then turning aside and writing the sections which I have called “Documents”  These were written in different voices. So the novel grew in a strange way. I once watched someone making a carpet. They did not do the whole thing from bottom up, but worked in different blocks of colour. Well my practice resembles that.

My ideal and my practice is to have, at the end of a day’s writing, several pages that are more or less finished. The next day I read them and tune in to the novel. It is not unusual for me to forget exactly what I have written on the previous day – which is a bit strange, I admit, but is something to do with concentration, I think.  The novel takes place in a world of its own, and one gets back into this world by reading the last few pages one has written. Then I place the pages face down to one side – and I take pleasure in watching the little pile grow as the weeks pass.

To me it is important that I do not think of my pages as temporary or incomplete – for me they are building blocks and they have to be finished if they are to take the weight. As a consequence it takes me quite a long time to write a novel, but I rarely have to make major changes… that is until the editor gets to work.

There’ll be more here tomorrow, so come back for a chance to read more from Phillip Mann