Apr 09 2021

An Interview with Oliver K. Langmead, author of Birds Of Paradise

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. Birds Of Paradise had a particularly long gestation, as you note in your afterword. How did this novel evolve?

A. In the end, it took me more than a decade to finish writing Birds of Paradise. It began as a colourful explosion of a book called Eden Rose, which was so full of ideas that I still sometimes turn back to it today. Of course, it was completely unpublishable. But over the years, I would occasionally turn back to that original idea (What if the first man was still alive today? What if all of Eden was scattered across the world? How far would he go to collect the pieces of the garden together again?) and write an entirely new draft from scratch, learning from each draft along the way. Back in 2016, after the publication of my second book, Metronome, I sat down again for a fresh new draft and made a promise to myself – no more compromises. It would take me another three years to finish writing it, but I can tell you that I did what I set out to do. I finally have a version of the book worthy of the idea behind it.

Q. As a person of faith who takes as metaphor the scripture on which you based your novel, I was particularly impressed with the layers of metaphor you continued to layer on here, particularly with the flooding and with humanity coming together at Pride. What inspired that for you?

A. My partner says that fantasy is an act of literalised metaphor, and I think there’s a lot of that here. Eden is (largely) regarded as metaphor in scripture (though Milton would disagree), and Birds of Paradise is an exercise in literalising it. What if Eden was real? What if pieces of it were still around? How would the first man feel about the world we live in today? But also – how would Adam express himself? Of course, he would use metaphors himself, because he’s human, and humans have always used metaphor as a significant means of understanding themselves and each other.

Q. Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?

A. I had to really reflect on this question, which probably indicates that audience isn’t much of a consideration for me when I’m writing. If anything, it always takes me (pleasantly) by surprise when people read my work. I’m happy enough to let my publishers identify audiences who will enjoy it.

I’d say that when I’m writing, I’m writing for myself. At the end of the day, I need to be happy with my work, but if other people find something they like in it – well, that’s a massive bonus.

Q. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow, how does your research into terraforming and ecological philosophy inform your speculative fiction writing?

A. I’m doing a DFA, which is a doctorate in fine art, and means that my research directly informs my writing. In fact – for my doctorate, I am just in the process of finishing a long-form science fiction poem called Calypso, based directly on my research into terraforming and ecological philosophy. It’s a grand, epic piece – a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost – and I’m looking forward to being able to share it. I wrote a lot of Birds of Paradise during my time on the DFA, and I am absolutely sure that my research impacted it as well. I wrote Birds in part to express how I’ve been feeling about climate catastrophe, at least.

Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”

A. I grew up on a diet on fantastical books – from Pratchett, to Pullman, to Brian Jacques and beyond. But strangely, I think the first book that really showed me what it was to be a writer was Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I was reading it for an English Literature course, and it completely took me by surprise – the richness of it, and the power of its language. I don’t think I’ll ever write a book anything like Cormac McCarthy, but his book made me want to write more than any other had before. I could clearly read his love of writing in his craft of language, and I wanted to express my own love of language in my own way.

Q. How did you learn to write?

A. I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been able to put a pen to paper. But in all that time, there are only two things that have helped me to improve. Writing regularly is the best way of developing your craft, and reading regularly is the best way of informing it. The more you do of both (within reason, mind you – pacing yourself is important as well), the better your writing will be. Of course, this is a process that takes years and decades – writing is an art that takes development, as much as any other. But developing good habits helps a lot. Write lots, and read lots: it’s as simple as that.

Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?

A. I like to develop a particular set of habits and rituals for each different book I write, to maintain a certain headspace. For Birds of Paradise, that meant a long walk before sitting down to write. I would always order a particular coffee from a particular cafe, as well – so that the flavour would immediately put me in the right place. It’s really interesting to see writers with rituals and writing spaces that they have maintained for years and years – especially authors who write consistently in the same universe, over trilogies and series. I’m intimidated by the idea of maintaining a regimen for such a long time!

Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?

A. A little of both. I think it’s more of a spectrum than a clear divide between two different kinds of writers, anyway – it’s always worth knowing where your story is going, but it’s always worth leaving yourself something to discover along the way, as well. For me: I know where my story begins, and I know how it should end, but I’m along for the journey just as much as the reader is. I like leaving myself open to surprises – and every so often, one of my characters does manage to do something I wasn’t expecting.

Q. I am impressed by the versatility it takes to go from long-form verse, as with your previous novel Dark Star, to the prose of Birds Of Paradise, and am excited to see what you’ll be gifting us readers next. What can you tell us about your next project?

A. Apart from Calypso, as mentioned above, my next book with Titan will be Glitterati. It’s a dystopian satire in prose, about fashion, family and the feckless billionaire class, and if Birds of Paradise expresses how I’ve been feeling about climate castrophe, then Glitterati expresses how I’ve been feeling about capitalism. I’m looking forward to unleashing it on the world.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. I’m just finishing off Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace after A Memory Called Empire – I usually only have the time for one or two trilogies or duologies a year, but I just had to read the second after the first. What a splendid political web she weaves! Hugely impressive and absorbing stuff – sometimes vast and sometimes intimate, in the ways that the very best epic science fiction can be.

Q. Are there any new books or authors in speculative fiction that have you excited?

A. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Aliya Whiteley’s Skyward Inn. My copy has just arrived, and I’m so excited to get stuck in. I’ve been such a big fan of Aliya’s ever since The Beauty, and Skyward is being touted as her best yet. It’s certainly a gorgeous looking novel, and I’ve been avoiding spoilers as best I can. Well worth checking out her stuff.

Q. What made you choose speculative fiction as your means of expression?

A. I like fiction that takes me somewhere new. Whether it be just down the road, or all the way to Mars – I want to go to places I’ve never been before. Fantasy lets us explore impossible realms, and science fiction lets us explore strange new worlds, and I think that writing, at least for me, is a form of exploration just as powerful as reading. Writing a place lets me go there, stay a while, and learn about it. And what better time than in a pandemic, during lockdown, to escape and go somewhere new.

Q. Tell us why you love Birds Of Paradise!

A. Birds of Paradise was a labour of love. As mentioned above, it took me more than a decade to finish. But the end result a piece of fiction that I am so proud of. To me, it stands as a testament to the power of persistance. I hope, if you choose to pick it up, that you can read my love of craft and language in it. And I hope, if you choose to pick it up, that you enjoy spending some time in the vivid alternative version of our world that I’ve made.

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Author Links

Oliver K. Langmead

Twitter

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Birds Of Paradise by Oliver K. Langmead was published March 30th 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers. Check out my review here as well as the other stops on the book tour above!

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

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