Author Spotlight – T. R. Napper (NEON LEVIATHAN)
T. R. Napper is a multi-award-winning author, including the Aurealis for best short story. His work has appeared in annual Year’s Best Anthologies, and he has been published in respected genre magazines in the US, the UK, Israel, Austria, Australia, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Before turning to writing, T. R. Napper was an aid worker, having lived throughout Southeast Asia for over a decade delivering humanitarian programs. During this period, he received a commendation from the Government of Laos for his work with the poor. Napper is also a scholar of East and Southeast Asian literature; he received a creative writing doctorate for his thesis: The Dark Century: 1946 – 2046. Noir, Cyberpunk, and Asian Modernity.
He does not own a cat.
Welcome to the Hive, T. R. Napper. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
For obvious reasons, I read The Plague by Albert Camus. I thought it was pretty good, and still relevant 70 years after he wrote it (Camus was really talking about plague as a metaphor for war, but the plague-as-metaphor also works for plagues, as it turns out).
The last great book I read was The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. A connected collection of short stories based on his experiences in the Vietnam War. Moving and powerful.
They both sound very interesting!
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Excellent question. I’ve played 5th Edition, but you must excuse me if I go old-school and take a 2nd Edition character (I currently run D&D for a group of players living with autism, for the local community service).
If I’m physically leading a party through a dungeon (rather than just the party leader), I guess I’ll go half-elf fighter/thief. I’ve got some good stealth skills for scouting ahead, plus as a fighter I can hold my own if I find myself toe-to-toe with a baddie. I’d wield a two-handed sword for shock and awe value.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?) Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I try to write 500 words a day, every day. I listen to music, but usually not music with any lyrics (this distracts me). The Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis is a good example. Music as zen.
I was a fan of writing in my pyjamas, but at some point in lockdown realised this wasn’t good for my mindset. I think I fell into the trap a lot of people did, at the start. Same clothes all day, bingeing on bad news, falling into a creative senescence as the world fell apart. With added booze. But I try these days to change into tracksuit pants at least, do some exercise, stay away from social media, and get to work. I still have a whisky at 5pm, of course.
I’m at the plotting end of the scale. I usually know what is going to happen in a story, though will sometimes have a plot strand dangling in order to surprise myself later with (I hope) a creative or serendipitous way of tying it in. I’ve tried full-pantsing with my most recent novel, and it’s doing my head in. Who the fuck can work this way? Not me, apparently.
In cyberpunk thrillers – as I often write – there are often big twists. I think it is easier to reverse-engineer a twist rather than just let one grow out of the garden.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
When I was young, I was a fantasy tragic. I devoured David Eddings (didn’t we all?), Belgariad and all that. I used to rush to the school library to get the one new copy when it arrived, trying to beat my other nerd mates to it. I had an obsession with the Many Coloured Land series, by Julian May. Gorged David Gemmell.
Fantasy is less an influence on me these days – as a writer, anyway – than is SF, hard-boiled, and even literary fiction.
Though I will say this, as boring as this choice may be to your readers: George RR Martin is very good. Game of Thrones is excellent, as are many of his other novels, like Fevre Dream. Martin is a virtuoso at presenting a character in a certain light, and slowly twisting the reader’s perception of that character. Jaime Lannister is a good example. A piece of shit that the reader hates at the start of the series, and yet who slowly slowly we begin to understand, and even root for.
Creators? Sure, a man can dream. I like to imagine Tarantino buying an option on one of my stories, or Bong Joon-Ho; I’d be happy for one of the big Anime studios to pick up my work. I’d love to be big in Japan.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
The Last Kingdom. I watched the first season years ago and gave up. Bit too vanilla. But Netflix kept harassing me to watch it and eventually I did, and man, I thoroughly enjoyed seasons 2 – 4. That’s been my main TV quarantine binge. I do love a good sword fight, doomed romance, heathens bellowing about victory and drinking ale around a roaring fire pit. It’s the simple things in life.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Normally I’d answer this type of question with: “hanging with my two young sons”. But the pandemic has meant I have had all the quality time I goddamn need.
[We can highly appreciate this response]
Let me reframe your question (cheating, I know) and add the caveat ‘and not allowed to spend any time online’. Honestly, I’d probably read.
Second choice: mega D&D sessions with mates.
Third: A day long Kumdo (Korean sword-fighting) camp. I’ve taken this martial art up in recent months, and find it satisfies both my nerd urges and need for physical exercise.
But don’t let the last, more energetic example fool you. The truth is I’d probably read. Snacks would be involved. A nice single malt.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
Yeah, I’m writing a third novel set in the same world as my short-story collection (Neon Leviathan). The previous two novels (The Escher Man and Thirty-Six Streets), found good agents in the UK, but unfortunately failed to sell. You’d say they were cyberpunk thrillers. The current work in progress is more Military Science Fiction / Cyberpunk. A wild journey on a titan tank in Chinese-occupied Vietnam. Drugs, rock-and-roll, explosions, loyalty, betrayal, ultraviolence, mind-boggling tech, and ruminations on the nature of being. All the good stuff.
The manuscript’s a fucking mess (see pantsing, above), but I recently received a grant to finish it from a local arts fund (that came about because of the pandemic). So I am being paid to finish a novel, which is a good feeling.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
There’re all the usual ones about reading and writing every day. And writing the things you love, not to placate others or to service a market. All that.
A more unusual, and very simple, piece of advice I’ve found helpful is this: if you have a good idea, use it straight away. I used to hoard my ‘gems’, waiting for the right moment, the right story.
And you know what? Fuck that. Most good ideas can be included in a story straight away. And if you’re really a writer, you’ll have more good ideas, more flashes of inspiration down the road. Don’t hoard them because you’re scared you’ll run out, or because they’re so inspired you must simply wait for the perfect moment. Screw that. Use everything. Empty the clip.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I just bloody well write. Even when I hate it, even when I’m sick, I write. I almost always find satisfaction when I do. A small sense of achievement. Which in turn is good for my mindset. The motivation is knowing I’ll feel better at the end of it.
But when I just really cannot keep on with the current project, I might do a short story or article on the side to make sure the words keeping coming. For example, I found myself blocked up with my current mess of a novel. So I wrote a short story and a few articles for my website. I’m just about to go back to the work-in-progress and when I do, it’ll be with fresh eyes.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I should point out that I could cheat here, and include future history, but I won’t say ‘twenty years into the future’, as much as I’d like to. But I will cheat by giving you more than one.
I’d love to see the samurai Miyamoto Musashi duel, circa 1600, Japan. He was undefeated over 61 fights, and later in life he wrote the influential martial arts tract The Book of the Five Rings about his method. The culture, the traditions, the era. Fascinating.
I’d love to live in a classy hotel for a week, in the noir era of the 1930s, New York. Go to a jazz bar, get wasted at a speakeasy.
I’d want to spend a day with the French underground during the Second World War, alongside Camus, while he was editor of Combat in 1943.
I’d like to be in the NASA control room when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, 1969.
I’d like to be in the crowd, on the ground in Sydney, cheering, when the Raiders won the rugby league grand final in 1989.
And I’d like to watch Nelson Mandela walk free from Robben Island prison, in 1990, South Africa.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
My collection, Neon Leviathan, is getting stellar reviews. If you liked Blade Runner, or Black Mirror, or Ghost in the Shell, you’ll like my work. Richard Morgan, author of Altered Carbon (now a Netflix series) called it ‘achingly beautiful’.
A collection of stories about the outsiders – the criminals, the soldiers, the addicts, the mathematicians, the gamblers and the cage fighters, the refugees and the rebels. From the battlefield to alternate realities to the mean streets of the dark city, we walk in the shoes of those who struggle to survive in a neon-saturated, tech-noir future.
Twelve hard-edged stories from the dark, often violent, sometimes strange heart of cyberpunk, this collection – as with all the best science fiction – is an exploration of who were are now. In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Philip K Dick, and David Mitchell, Neon Leviathan is a remarkable debut collection from a breakout new author.
That’s brilliant! Thank you again for joining us today T. R. Napper, and best of luck with the release of NEON LEVIATHAN