Friday, 14 March 2014

Guest Post | "The Dawn of Autumn" by Dave Hutchinson

I said as much yesterday, but it bears repeating here: Europe in Autumn is awesome; a canny concoction of sci-fi and spies which took me entirely by surprise, largely because I wasn't familiar with its author beforehand.

In the weeks since reading it I have, however, gotten my grubby paws on The Push, and it was bloody good too. So it was with high hopes that I approached Dave Hutchinson about putting together a guest post for TSS, and sincere glee when he agreed.

As is my habit, I asked the author a selection of questions, with my fingers firmly crossed that he'd be able to come up with something fun in answer to one. What I didn't expect was for him to answer them all! Here, then, is an absorbing account of how Europe in Autumn came about which also takes in the relevance of short stories on the novel form, Dave's personal favourite pocket nation, and—last but not least—his ideas for a potential sequel.


Years ago, a friend of mine—oh, why not drop names? It was Stephen King’s Polish translator—told me that I was, at heart, a short story writer.

This was a little disappointing, as I’d just finished what would be my first published novel, The Villages. It had taken me over a year of very hard work and I was rather pleased with it. But then I had a think about what he’d said, and I realised he was right. Virtually everything I’d written since I began to write somewhere back in the mid-70s was short-form. Some of it was very short indeed.

The Villages itself grew out of a short story which I workshopped with some other writers. In the course of the workshop it was suggested that maybe the story could be the seed of a novel. When I expressed doubt about this—I think I actually said, "Are you out of your minds?"—someone suggested a simple way of doing it. “Just look at it as a novella and keep going.”

Of course, it wound up being more complicated than that. The story got rewritten and rewritten and sort of grew backwards and forwards and sideways until it was sitting buried, a little to one side of the heart of the book, like the grit in a pearl and only I could tell it was there.

After The Villages, I went back to writing short stories. And as time went on, the short stories got longer and longer. Where I had once been able to tell a story in a couple of thousand words, now my stuff felt uncomfortably rushed if it ran to less than about ten thousand. I don’t think I was getting more verbose in my old age, it’s just that the rhythm of the stories I wanted to tell needed space to breathe.

Europe in Autumn started out as a completely different novel, set in three similar but separate versions of Europe. In the first, a journalist investigating what seems to be a routine Drugs Squad raid gone wrong in London suddenly finds himself in a reality where he never existed. In the second, a worker on the Warsaw Metro gets involved with a shadowy crime boss and a Continent-wide conspiracy. And in the third there was Rudi the Coureur, bless his little cotton socks.

The idea was to write the book in alternating chapters from the point of view of each of the characters, until somewhere near the end all their stories connected up, but early on I found myself more interested in Rudi’s story than the other two. Okay, I’ll put my hands up; the Rudi chapters were easier and more fun to write. Eventually, I shelved the other two stories and concentrated on Rudi.

I wound up writing the book the way I did for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the Rudi chapters I’d already written were quite self-contained because I still wasn’t sure how they’d fit into the original book and I wanted to be able to swap them around if I had to.

Secondly, though—and more important, I think—by that time, I was reading a lot of Alan Furst. In case you’ve never read him, Furst writes these wonderful, atmospheric, almost impressionistic espionage novels set around the beginning of the Second World War—what someone once called "the midnight of the century." Many of his books tend to be structured as self-contained chapters within the larger narrative, the way each novel itself is just part of a huge mosaic picture of Europe on the brink of war. I liked that, and though I can’t pretend to be anything like as good as Furst, I thought I’d like to try and pull it off with Europe in Autumn. It’s a structure I find rather pleasing, and of course it keeps me in my comfort zone, writing a string of short stories and novellas which add up to a larger story.

Of the locations in the novel, I’ve only really been to London and Poland. I live in London, and I’ve visited Poland quite a lot. It’s a country I’m extremely fond of, but I didn’t want to prettify it. That’s for another book, maybe. A friend of mine says I "get" Poland and that’s really quite a compliment.

The other locations in the book really come mostly from research. I’ve never been to Prague or Estonia, for instance, although I really want to visit Tallinn one day. Again, though, I didn’t want to prettify any of these places. The central premise of the book, the engine that drives it, is fantastical enough; I wanted to balance that with as realistic and rational a picture of Rudi’s Europe as I could come up with.

Having said that, I was a bit cruel to Scotland. I have no idea—and I suspect no one else does, either—how Scottish Independence is going to shake out [you're scaring me, mate!—Ed.] but for the purposes of the book I needed it to happen in a certain way, a way in which I really hope it doesn’t happen. The bit about it being bankrolled by the Chinese was meant as satire, but since I finished the book there’s been news of Beijing investing heavily in the Manchester Airport redevelopment and the Prime Minister selling a large part of the nation’s supply of pig semen to them, so I have to wonder...

The Europe in Europe in Autumn is one of proliferating pocket nations, a place where U2 fans can set up their own little country, for instance. I’ve been asked a couple of times whether I’d like to set one up myself, and to be honest the idea never occurred to me while I was writing the book. I rather like the idea of a national park that’s a sovereign nation, though, so if I were to do it I think it would be splendid for the Peak District to declare independence and strike out on its own. No motor cars, no heavy industry. Just a big quiet place. I could do with living in a big quiet place.

At the moment, I’m working on a novel which is a sort of companion to Europe in Autumn. It’s not a sequel so much as something that happens in parallel to the action in the first book. Since I started plotting that out, I’ve begun to see possibilities for a direct sequel, picking up the action in Europe in Autumn maybe ten or fifteen years down the line. But we’ll see. That’s a way away yet.

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