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Aidan Truhen and Nick Harkaway Discuss the Morality of Fiction, the Descent of the World, and the Addams Family


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Aidan Truhen is the author of Seven Demons, the sequel to The Price You Pay. Here, he talks to Nick Harkaway (Gnomon, The Gone-Away World) about writing, identity and the world.

Nick Harkaway: You described the first Jack Price book as “morally disimproving”. Do you feel a moral duty as a writer?

Aidan Truhen: Bam. No small talk. Just like that.

NH: I don’t picture you as someone who likes small talk.

AT: That’s fair.

NH: So… morally disimproving.

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AT: Yeah, if we say that books in general matter—which we do—and we say that they uplift and they create empathy and they teach… if books can affect the self, then it follows that some books could also be bad for you. That’s the consequence of saying that some books can be good for you. If they can affect you positively, they can affect you negatively.

NH: Do you really think that the Jack Price stories affect readers in a negative way?

AT: I think they are books about a guy who is funny and good company and takes care of his friends and is super-cool and sympathetic and just happens to be a dangerous felon who kills people and wrecks the world because he wants to do a given thing. In the end, the idea that that person can exist is a hole in the universe that lets all the air out.

NH: Yeee-eees. And yet. There’s a value-inversion gag, isn’t there? It’s the Addams Family: Jack is a good father trying to look after his unruly kids and take care of his wife and –

AT: But Gomez and Morticia don’t actually murder anyone. They do slapstick Gothic, if you like, but in the end it’s all about love.

NH: Maybe that’s the difference between 1961 and 2021.

AT: I love Jack and these stories. Don’t get me wrong. And in all seriousness: yes, of course, you’re right, they are ultimately about friendship, and love, and they are comedic. They take all that horror and make it benign, and maybe that’s a good thing. But when I stood on stage for the first time and did a reading from The Price You Pay, I just felt like: wow! Books are powerful. Writing matters. If I get this right, in five minutes these nice people will all be rooting for a guy who is by definition a bad guy, and that’s a little weird. That’s a strange way to make the world better. Is that what I’m doing? I don’t know.

NH: So where did these books come from?

AT: Anger and pain. That’s the first thing. Jack Price was the first time I ever wrote a book from a position of anger and pain. Always before I came from a place of joy, in one way or another. Playfulness, use of language, worlds and signs. But with The Price You Pay I was just raging. The world stopped making sense to me in 2016 and that has not changed since. Not like it made a lot of sense before, but I thought I understood the track it was on. Then I just didn’t. It was like flipping over a table. Suddenly the topography is unknown. Hey, don’t get me wrong: that’s a privileged position. Get over yourself! But I was angry, so I wrote a book where a guy gets confronted with a sea change in his circumstances and he goes for it. He adapts instantly and wholeheartedly. And he punishes the world for being an asshole until a new normal is established.

NH: But not the old normal.

AT: No, you can’t go home again. So now in the second book, he’s like “Well, who am I now?” And this is the answer.

NH: He definitely feels like he’s the same person.

AT: You think? Well, I’ll let everyone else judge that one. I think he’s on a journey.

NH: What about you? Are you on a journey?

AT: Sure, I’m on a journey. Knock yourself out.

NH: Okay, so who is the real Aidan?

AT: The real Aidan.

NH: Yeah.

AT: We’re doing this?

NH: We are.

AT: I mean, short answer, I’m just a guy who writes books, but that’s not what you’re getting at. So, okay. Yeah. “Aidan Truhen” is an anagram of “Diana Hunter”, who is a central character in a book you wrote called Gnomon. In her story, Hunter is a novelist who dies under interrogation in a medicalised police cell. She’s also a bunch more than that, but you can talk about that another time if you want to. The point is that when I wrote The Price You Pay, I was seriously considering putting it out as a free ebook or something under the name Diana Hunter. Gnomon is a reality-bending story, so it would have been cool if when people Googled that name they found an actual novelist writing the novels mentioned in the book.

NH: You were going to call it “Mr Murder Investigates”.

AT: Still think that’s a great title. Maybe that’s Jack Price Vol. 3.

NH: But the point is that you and I –

AT: Are by any obvious measure the same person. Yes. Shall we hug?

NH: Except.

AT: Except that we have different writing styles and different ways of being in the world and I’m massively antisocial and live in a houseboat on a middle-European river and you live in London and you’re basically a soft touch.

NH: I think we’re growing together somewhat now. Although I do wish the houseboat thing was real sometimes.

AT: Maybe we’re growing together. I’m not sure.

NH: I just wrote a book for NaNoWriMo in November 2020 which I think exists at the Harkaway-Truhen borderland. A crime novel with a single bioscience fictional twist which also makes it a little subtextually social comment-y, but which is mostly a cool story about a detective.

AT: But at the same time I think you’re always going to need me as a valve. You try really hard to please everyone and sometimes that just makes your head explode. You’re not really very good at accepting the world as it is.

NH: And you are?

AT: I believe the world is fundamentally fragmentary. Shrapnel in the wind. You think it can be put right.

NH: Yet you’re the one who said “morally disimproving.” It’s a little bit like Jack Price. He says he’s just a guy trying to get along, but actually he’s constantly trying to reshape the world in a way that suits him.

AT: That’s what supervillains do. Gangsters in black and white movies onward: they carve out a space where they can hold their physical environment to their own rules.

NH: Isn’t that what good kings do in fairytales?

AT: Sure, but that’s because the world is full of dragons. When you’ve got the dragon population under control, then that guy is a dictator, not a protector. It’s about where you set your expectations for the world. Mine are not high. Yours… were, at least.

NH: So, okay, assume everything is broken, then –

AT: Oh, you are not going to –

NH: Of course I am –

AT: Did you hear nothing I just –

NH: Then how do we fix it?

AT: The world?

NH: Yes, how do we fix the world?

AT: I have – and this is something I have no trouble saying because I am not the one who writes the big meaningful books about human society – I have NO IDEA. Why would I possibly have any answer to that?

NH: Well, okay, how will Jack Price handle the pandemic?

AT: Jack is probably right now sitting on a private island counting his money from funding vaccine denial documentaries.

NH: Is he though?

AT: … no, because Doc would kill him. In fact Doc would kill him and then everyone he had funded and every streamer and cable network and movie theatre which showed anti-science TV at this time. Doc has a very low threshold for retribution on that kind of thing. She’s like if Dr Fauci went totally Killing Eve.

NH: So…

AT: Okay, the pandemic is going to be weird for writers. I mean, it’s going to be weird for me. How do you encompass that? Am I just going to ignore it? I mean, I probably can. Seven Demons is coming out this year and it’s a “before” book. If I go ahead and write a new book this summer, then it’ll come out, what, 2023? So I can probably just skip it. Unless everything goes completely to hell again, SARS-CoV-2 will be old news. But aside from that being creatively dishonest, it also feels like a missed opportunity. Jack’s problems are the same problems everyone has, but seen through a weird refracting lens. There must be something that can happen to him that is sort of everyman-cathartic.

NH: There is that weird bit in Seven Demons where Doc threatens someone with a global pandemic.

AT: It’s a cow pandemic and she doesn’t actually do it.

NH: She talks about disruption of agriculture, international travel and trade… it’s not prophetic, but it’s definitely familiar.

AT: And it’s a huge problem for organised crime because all those restrictions make smuggling and so on that much harder. I’m guessing there are advantages too. There’s been a surge in digital crime. Jack wouldn’t be so very into that, but there is a plotline I’ve been considering which would work within that frame. But I think probably Jack has amnesia. I have a friend whose memory is just a mess now, after COVID. So I think Jack is in Australia and he believes he really is his cover identity. And I’ll go from there. We’ll see what the world looks like when I get started. Crime goes where the money is. Or vice versa.

NH: What do you think it will look like?

AT: Honestly, I think it’ll be a lot like it is now. Confused. Pulling in all directions at once. There’s a big fight going on between, basically, a tendency to say “fuck it” and just let everyone do whatever they want, which boils down to rich people doing whatever they want and other people dying; and another tendency towards people being nice to each other and paying attention to actual reality, which the first tendency doesn’t like because it impinges on its ability to take coke and have sex on a rug made of polar bear skins if that’s what it wants to do. But it’s fascinating to me right now. Like: for some weird reason the UK government—which is basically a service industry for oligarchs—has somehow got itself into the business of banning foie gras. I’m assuming they’ll do caviar next. Maybe cigars and silk suits. In the last five years the conventional politics got twisted around some kind of made up culture war and all the assholes who made that happen think they’re really clever. But I wonder whether the sides in that artificial war are about to get accidentally coopted and realigned to feature things that actually matter. Assholes like that always believe they can control the populism they create. They always think it will love them forever. And they are always astonished when it turns out that the people they tricked don’t love being cheated and they would now like a refund or they will let this pitchfork do the talking. So who knows?

NH: I think you’re an idealist.

AT: If I am, brother, we are in more trouble than you have ever imagined.

NH: Thank you for talking to me.

AT: You know that having a detailed conversation with yourself between two distinct personalities is not something most people would advertise as a professional positive, right?

NH: Nonetheless.

AT: Well, you’re welcome. It was a great chat. Hey, everybody, buy my book.

NH: I think maybe you just ruined it.

AT: It’s cute that you think that.

NH: Thank you, Aidan.

AT: Thank you, Nick.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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