In this Q&A session, Jacaranda Books asks author Nikhil Singh about the creative background and influences for his book Taty Went West, the science fiction titles that he would recommend, and what advice he would give to young and upcoming writers.
1. How would you describe Taty Went West in twenty words or less?
An inter-dimensional Alice in Wonderlandy jungle road-movie hitchhiker sci-fi epic (with robots, zombies and dinosaurs).
2. Taty is an ordinary young girl who falls into a less than ordinary situation with extraordinary characters – where did the inspiration for the novel and its cast of characters come from?
Well, Taty is a kind of smorgasbord of references – to the point where I literally found myself introducing William S. Burroughs as a character! I first had the idea for the story when I was Taty’s age (15/16) and noted down a rough structure, which I later resuscitated. At that time I was somewhat obsessed with road movies, primarily due to the fact that I was hitchhiking around South Africa a lot and listening to music from the late 60’s/early 70’s on headphones while I was doing it! In this way the novel acts as a kind of playlist for things that I was into at the time – a kind of homage to (primarily retro) sci-fi, comics, music books and films of my teens. A hundred things come to mind: Grant Morrison/Rian Hughes collabs, early Wim Wenders pictures like Alice in the Cities and straight cheese like Surf Nazi’s Must Die, Iron Maiden/Uriah Heep/Budgie vinyl covers, the ominous undertones of ‘California Dreaming’ (as a concept), Brendan McCarthy’s ‘Freakwave’… the list is endless.
In terms of the characters, I was also getting into Merchant Ivory productions when I was a teenager and reading a lot of, I guess what you could call ‘roots of goth’ literature like Northanger Abbey, The Castle of Otranto, Vathek etc – I took one thing directly from these books, which I played with in Taty: the concept of ‘castle intrigue and how groups of characters are often set in motion within (or around) a single, monolithic structure. I’m not sure where the majority of the characters all come from though. Many just sort of arrived and announced themselves; others I based loosely on people I knew when I was a teenager in order to maintain a kind of nostalgic umbilicus with my former self – but after the radioactive meltdown of translation, even these have mutated beyond recognition…
3. Taty Went West includes your own brilliant illustrations, and you also composed a playlist for the novel – was it important to make the book into a multi-media project? Can we expect a Taty Went West graphic novel soon?
Well, I started working seriously on the novel version of Taty in the middle of the Witch House/Seapunk explosion (2010-2012), in which I played a small part (recording as Witchboy). Carmen Incarnadine and I had spent some time in a strange old house in Ramsgate (a small town on the south coast of Kwazulu-Natal). There, across the road from a crocodile sanctuary and a banana forest, we had an idea to record an album (under Carmen’s nom de plume Coco Carbomb). We wanted to capture a sort of experimental pop sci-fi experience of an alien jungle. Yet as the book developed, I began referencing the songs we were making as atmospheric markers in the story. The songs occasionally described/ran concurrent with events in the narrative. Taty began to ‘listen’ to our music, as she travelled through the Outzone. It became part of her existence as well, which I decided to symbolically manifest through her Walkman downloads.
Originally the album developed as a sort of separate entity, but as the projects drew toward completion I began to see how intertwined the projects were. It made sense to release them together so that a reader can partake of this strange symbiosis, thereby experiencing a greater immersion in the world. To answer your question about a graphic novel, Taty actually started out as a film script – I wanted to do a small movie with a friend of mine who happened to be called Taty, where she would be hitching through the jungle in Umhlanga (on the north coast of Zululand, just outside of Durban). Later, I decided to start working on a graphic novel version of this script. I reproduced around twenty pages when I realized that the entire story would run into hundreds of pages. I made another attempt later, when I redrew these pages with the intention of starting the graphic novel again, which led to a second, more detailed screenplay version. The novel was a weird hybridization of these former incarnations…
4. In the book, Taty travels through interesting, strange lands. Were the book settings (The Outzone, the Lowland, etc) inspired by real places?
There is a lot of Zululand in the book. I wrote the novel overlooking the mangrove sanctuary in Umhlanga. The nature there has been heavily abused by property development and this sanctuary is one of the last refuges of the slow, dreamy wildness permeating that region. Further north and south, the tropical forest and swamp-lands take hold quite majestically. It is a landscape which does not immediately assert a presence, but over time grows into almost everything you produce within its sway – like greenery re-colonizing a ruined structure.
5. What is your creative process? Could you give a piece of advice to young writers out there?
Read as diversely as possible. In fact, force yourself to read things that you do not immediately like in order to broaden your palate (and palette!). Most importantly, read literature from the past – it is far more valid as a creative touchstone than contemporary literature, which is all too often coloured by market trends. That said, it is also vital to read first person historical documents (autobiographies, etc) from the distant past. This is to remind oneself that as a reader/writer, you are part of a literary lineage. All too often, once you get past the syntax, one is shocked at how contemporary these ancient documents can sound – for, in truth, they were ‘modern’ when they were written.
6. Who are your inspirations? Which sci-fi or futuristic book would you recommend to our readers?
John Varley – The Barbie Murders/Millenium
Phillip Jose Farmer – Venus on the Half-Shell/Strange Relations
ER Eddison – The Worm Ourobouros
Lucius Shepard – Life During Wartime
Lawrence Durrell – the Revolt of Aphrodite
Alfred Bester – Golem 3000/The Demolished Man/Tiger Tiger
Steve Aylett – Accomplice
John Harrison – the Viriconium books
Thomas Ligotti – the Nightmare Factory
7. Are you already working on your next project? Perhaps a follow-up for Taty Went West?
I’m working on several books. Taty is part of a trilogy so I’m working on those, as well as two other separate projects.