Under the pseudonym of Claire North, Catherine Webb has emerged as one of our finest genre writers. She’s given us The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August, Touch, The Gameshouse novellas and The Sudden Appearance Of Hope. Her latest, The End Of The Day, might just be her best yet.
Charlie is the Harbinger Of Death. His job takes him all around the world to meet interesting people while keeping in touch with his central office in Milton Keynes. Sometimes he’s sent to witness the death of a concept, an idea. He sees the march of climate change at the North Pole, witnesses the expulsion of a family from their London home and travels to warzones. It can be a terrifying, cold world, and Charlie is just an ordinary bloke…
Do you remember how this novel started?
It always started with the Harbinger of Death, the idea of that job. Charlie emerged as a character from the importance of having someone who a) wasn’t evil and b) didn’t fall into the obvious narrative trap of being all ‘I know this person must die I shall save them despite fate!’ because neither option interested me. Thus the necessities of the plot required someone who could both find the good in his job, and regard as it hugely important, while remaining humble enough to not think he was somehow above it all and empowered to screw around with God-like abandonment.
Was the social component always key? That idea that the deaths Charlie is honouring aren’t necessarily specific people’s but something greater…
I think so. It made for a more interesting premise, as well as a more flexible one. It also solves the inevitable Father Christmas problem – if there are billions of children to visit on Christmas Day, how does he get round in time? Charlie had to be human for the story to be what I wanted, and there was no way he could visit everyone on the planet who was going to die. Instead, his job became about Death choosing to honour people who either Death regarded with esteem –those who had perhaps drunk whiskey with Death while the bombs fell, the medics who greeted Death when their supplies ran out, or who walked a while with Death across the desert – or to honour ideas. To go and pay a living respect to a changing world, and the idea that things will never be the same again, forever.
It opened up the story and lifted the narrative from the danger of being one of grief.
Is there something liberating about addressing issues like climate change and the housing crisis, and attitudes towards those issues, in a genre story?
Hum… not sure… I was always taught to put the story first, but in this case the story seemed doomed to bump heads with bigger issues, by the very nature of Death and change.
I suspect genre allows you to touch on these things in a different way. Take climate change – it’s an idea almost too big and too scary to humanise. We struggle to express or emotionally relate to things that take twenty years to happen, and grow used to the idea –as I have – that the snowmen I made at Christmas when I was a child, and the icicles that used to hang off the pipes outside the kitchen, no longer happen. I haven’t made a snowman for years, but the slow pace of change… the sense of disconnect from that reality… makes it hard to write about or express.
Genre allows you to approach these things in a different way, but as the borders around genre grow wobbly, I imagine anyone with similar ideas can use similar tools. Perhaps genre permits a lightness of touch, or even an expansion of ideas, that might not otherwise be available. SF in particular has always been talking about big ideas – eugenics, genetic modification, death, life, memory, climate change, population growth, resource scarcity – through the medium of the ‘what if’ question, looking ahead, or to the past, to paint a picture of ‘what if’ these things are the case. It makes stories from ideas, uses imagination to make issues into something emotionally relatable. Whether I’ve done that here… not sure. Fingers crossed.
Was it important to keep Charlie’s personality and home-life rooted in something very familiar? He’s great company and very relatable.
Very much so. He needs to be human, but more importantly he needs to be humane. He can’t make his job about him; it’s not his life that’s ending, not his story that he feels matters. He is there to honour the lives that have gone before, and he takes that work very seriously, but also runs the risk of being consumed by it.
Like everyone who risks being consumed by their work, it helps to have a hobby and friends! But with his work already being extraordinary, it makes sense that he should have a familiar place to go back to, and more to the point that the familiar can become for him something wonderful. It’s almost like that moment the day before a holiday ends – you’re sad to be leaving this different place where you’ve got away from it all, but you’re also excited by the idea of sitting at home in a familiar place in your pants eating crisps in front of bad TV. Both these two things – the distant and the known – have value to us.
It’s very easy, particularly in SF, to de-value the mundane. We surround ourselves with tales of princes and kings and space-adventurers and so on. We tell, out of necessity and drama, their tales of adventure, and innocently or not, the janitor on the second floor and the girl who grows the potatoes are only of note if it turns out that they’re also sorcerer supremes. But our ‘ordinary’ lives are things of wonder too. We build worlds around us that express our identity in every way, from the clothes we wear to the friends we keep, and that expression is something unique, and full of importance. ‘Ordinary’ is important, as escapism and heroism and wonder is too. Charlie felt like someone for whom ordinary needed to matter.
Where did those snatches of conversation come from?
My deep and passionate authorial inspiration and…
… no, it was almost entirely eavesdropping. You can work out almost to the day which bit of the book was written in what month. For there are the snatches of overheard gubbins from Southwest Trains when I was commuting to a theatre outside London, and there that really painful gig I lit where a teenage boy was tasked with standing over me and telling me exactly what to do next, even though he didn’t know what lights were and couldn’t see the colour blue….
And yes, there’s the trip up through the USA that I did with my partner, and here’s the nervous girl I saw crying on the bus and there’s getting a referral for athlete’s foot and….
Eavesdropping. Sometimes verbatim, sometimes a compression of ideas and general sentiments that seem to be floating in the air. It felt important to have words that were true to people – and when you separate out the things people say into single lines, it can feel like it’s deeply reductive, but it can also be full of character and truth. I find humanity endlessly inspiring and interesting. Often a right pain in the backside to work with or get your fridge fixed by or anything of that ilk – but even at the worst of times, the worst behaviours tend to come from a place of fear, or anxiety, or insecurity, and beneath all that noise is something fundamentally extraordinary. How miraculous that there is this species which is so complex as to feel insecure in its own identity! How incredible that we have the imaginations to build so many prisons for ourselves, and yet no matter who we think we are, truth always seeps into language.
I find listening to people endlessly wonderful. I love the tricks of language and the depth of character that can be revealed in even the shortest sentence. I like hearing all the feeling beneath the trivial gumpf, and even the most trivial is usually soggy in feeling. I have yet to meet anyone who I regard as shallow; we hide secrets that we are fearful of, truths about ourselves, beneath the most incredibly trivial sounds, but the truth is still there.
So yeah. A lot of eavesdropping. Hopefully with as much love as sneakiness.
Apart from the gratuitous tongue twister I put in to screw over Peter Kenny, the (truly excellent) reader of the audiobook, which I did ‘cos it makes me cackle.
Was it fun to take these horsemen of the apocalypse and show them in a modern, everyday setting like a long-distance flight?
Totally. For the book to be anything other than high fantasy, it was important that the Horsemen were accepted as an ordinary part of this world. And what is more ordinary than getting frustrated at an airport or angry when trying to find your exit off the motorway? It was also important that these weren’t figures who were somehow above or beyond, or even God-like in their relationship with the world. At the beginning it’s made clear that Death feels it’s important to walk down the paths that the living do, in order to honour the lives that now are coming to an end. There’s an idea that all our lives, death is waiting for us, is unavoidable; extending this into the idea that Death, or the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are with us always even when we’re waiting for the damn 43 bus, seemed inevitable.
It was also a chance to have fun. Because let’s face it, having the embodiments of Armageddon trying to work out what to make of colonic irrigation is always a gift.
Were there any particular inspirations for this story?
I’ve had the phrase ‘Harbinger of Death’ at the back of my mind as something I’d like to write about for several years. I think it may even have cropped up while in a conference centre, and felt instinctively like it needed to come from that grey, mundane place.
Anyway – it sat and stewed for a few years, and then in 2015 I spent over a month in the USA over a couple of trips, and in 2016 spent more time in other countries by myself than I have before, and somewhere in all of that time it sorta clicked. That sense of being a stranger in a strange lend, dependent on the kindness of others; when you are a stranger conversation sounds different. The banalities that I talk 99% of the time are, to my ear, necessary and interesting conversation because that’s the world I live in. When you leave that world, and listen to others around you and change what you say because you’re so far from home, words sound inevitably different. You are different.
I think it was that – hearing the words as something different – and realising that it could be a big part of what the book was – which made the story into what it was, even if the idea had been doing a low orbit for a while.
Was there a genre novel that you remember being particularly important to you growing up?
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny, blew my tiny mind. Then the Chronicles Of Amber, also by Zelazny, made me sit back and re-assess everything I thought I knew and understood about what high fantasy had to be. The Discworld books by Terry Pratchett were also a staple of my childhood, as was the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, but also the Ship Who Sang and several others from her SF series. As a kid, my Dad both published and was a friend of Douglas Adams, so one of my earliest genre memories was being fed a diet of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but unfortunately I was always too shy to do anything but hide behind my Dad whenever Adams appeared at the door. Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin also changed my entire understanding of what high fantasy could be, as in fact did Tombs Of Atuan….
… sorry, you asked for one book. There’s um… well… quite a lot. Including, technically, a ten-book compound series. We haven’t even got onto how Garfield got my through my A-Level exams….
Which authors are you most excited about at the moment?
Becky Chambers and James Smythe are both awesome, as is Sarah Lotz – though don’t read The Three on a plane. I really enjoyed the Metrocity books of Simon Morden, and Poison City by Paul Crilley. Monica Byrne’s Girl In The Road was strange, brilliant and powerful, and I’m looking forward to more stuff from her, and will always go out of my way to read the next thing by Dave Hutchinson. I’m also always keeping my eyes open for the usual suspects – Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey and Ruth Ozeki. There are never too many books….
What is your favourite portrayal of Death?
Terry Pratchett still takes the win, I suspect. This may not necessarily be because his portrayal of Death – which is genius – is the best portrayal. But it’s the portrayal that defined my childhood years, and my God it’s so good. From skeletal Grim Reaper through to one of the greatest, most fully-defined and oddly humane characters in the Disc, it’s just so damn good. Truly a way of showing Death that does proper honour to life, while being hilarious at the same time.
The End Of The Day by Claire North is available on 6 April from Orbit Books. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.