An interview with author DJ Cockburn.
Hi! Welcome to Zigzag Timeline. Can you tell us about your background as an author?
When I was about three, my parents taught me to read and put a pencil in my hand.
I didn’t write anything anyone would want to read for two or three decades, and I leave it for others to judge whether I made it or not. I never did any formal training so if I did make it, it's largely down to reading prodigiously and learning as much as I could while I was doing it.
I also owe a lot to a very long list of people who have given me honest feedback at one time or another, and pushed me to write, revise and improve.
What got you into writing?
The voices in my head demanded more space, so I needed to find a way to give it to them.
To put it more prosaically, I needed to do something with all the ideas chasing each other around my mind. I've always enjoyed a good read, so letting the ideas out by writing them was a natural progression.
What was the first idea you had for your book, and how did the story grow from there?
I went to a talk by Jon Ronson who was promoting The Psychopath Test at the time. He'd delved into what he called 'the madness industry', talking to psychopaths and the psychologists who study them and discovered two positions in society in which psychopaths are over-represented: in the prison population and at on the boards of major companies. It seems that a lack of empathy and a tenuous relationship with objective fact gets you a long way if you start in life with the right advantages.
Someone in the audience asked him about whether there is any chance of a cure for psychopathy. Ronson answered that there isn't, but also that most psychopaths don't want to be cured. While most personality disorders make their sufferers deeply miserable, psychopaths tend to be happy people and being unable to experience deep emotion, they cannot suffer from depression.
Having a warped imagination, I inverted the question and asked myself what would happen if someone came up with a way of causing psychopathy: you too could be happy, successful and immune to depression. What could possibly go wrong?
Among your characters, who's your favorite? Could you please describe him/her?
The character I most enjoyed writing was Beatrice Tshabalala, in spite of or perhaps because she's a minor character. When she first appears, she beginning a downward spiral. I won't say where she ends up; suffice it to say that it's not where she expected.
What's your favorite scene from your novel? Could you please describe it?
Probably the scene in which Edward is being wined and dined by the investors, because that's the point where his disorders come together.
Getting myself into Edward's head was a gruelling process, and that section was the most difficult because it's where he experiences the changes in himself. He sees himself as escaping from a dark place, although he'll later come to see it as going into one. I don't know if it's the best section to read, but I wouldn't want all that effort to go to waste so it'll have to be my favourite section!
What's your favorite part of writing? Plotting? Describing scenes? Dialogue?
Writing the first draft. That's when the characters come to life and the setting develops details I'd never thought of. When I finish it, there's a lot to take in, a lot to take out and the prose will be so clunky that I'll have to rewrite most of it, but that first draft is still the most fun I can have with a blank page.
How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have a writing process, or do you wing it?
Between the planners and the pantsers, I'm very much a planner. I spend a long time scribbling outlines on pieces of paper and throwing them away before I come up with something I'm happy with. While I'm doing that, I'll be mapping out the characters so I know far more about them than I'll ever put into the story.
The trick is to come up with an outline in enough detail to give the story a skeleton, but not too much that it constrains the flesh and blood I create in the first draft. If I get it right, I'll at least have who does what to whom in the right order by the time I finish that draft, and then I can concentrate on improving it so it hurts them more.
When it comes to my characters, I'm something of a sadist.
What is it about the genre you chose that appeals to you?
Science fiction lets me ask 'what if…?' and come up with an answer. Not necessarily the right answer; I hope we'll never know the answer to the question of 'what if you could take a pill to become a psychopath?'. I'll settle for an interesting answer.
Are there any books or writers that have had particular influence on you?
Too many to name!
Caresaway drew directly on The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson, as well as Snakes in Suits by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare.
If there was one story that really got me writing science fiction, it was Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang so I've been really happy to see it recognised when it was filmed as Arrival. With the emphasis on 'recognised'. Ted Chiang's fans will know what I mean!
To list other books that have influenced me, in no particular order: The Comedians by Graham Greene, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, Our Game by John Le Carré, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, The Tesseract by Alex Garland, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, River of Time by Jon Swain, The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman…
And so on. Ask me on a different day and you'll get a completely different list.
Did you ever surprise yourself when you were writing your book? Characters who took on lives of their own? Plot elements that took unexpected turns?
Yes, that's one of the most fun things about writing fiction. It usually happens while I'm in the planning stage, but I try to leave space for it to happen while I was writing. In Caresaway, I one of the most satisfying moments was when I realised I could combine several characters who came in to deliver statements into the single character of Beatrice, and I felt I was just sitting back and watching her sculpt herself in front of me.
Thanks for stopping by!
ABOUT THE BOOK
If there was a pill that made you successful, would you take it? What if it also made you a psychopath?
If your psychopathy comes from a pill, you can always stop taking it. But will you want to?
Edward Crofte was a dedicated scientist who wanted to cure depression. After years of work and sacrifice, the Caresaway drug he developed seemed to work wonders… but at what cost?
Years later, Edward’s wonder drug has helped people with depression. But has it also helped destroy the world economy? And what has it done to him?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DJ Cockburn is a British author with stories in Apex, Interzone, and various anthologies. His story “Beside the Damned River” won the 2014 James White Award. He has supported his unfortunate writing habit through medical research on various parts of the African continent and drinking a lot of coffee.
Earlier phases of his life have included teaching possibly unlucky children and experimenting on definitely unlucky fish.
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