Interview with T.R. Napper (36 STREETS)
T. R. Napper is a multi-award-winning short story writer, including the Aurealis twice (Best Short Story, 2016; Best Novella, 2020). His work has appeared in ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies, and in highly respected magazines in the US, the UK, Australia, and Singapore. His work has been translated into French, Hebrew, German, and Vietnamese.
T. R. Napper is also a former diplomat and aid worker, having lived and worked throughout Southeast Asia for over a decade delivering humanitarian programs. Napper is a scholar of East and Southeast Asian literature, and has a creative writing doctorate in Noir, Cyberpunk, and Asian Modernity.
These days he has returned to his home country of Australia, where he works as a Dungeon Master, running campaigns for young people with autism for a local charity
Your debut novel 36 Streets recently came out with Titan books. Would you be able to tell us a little about it?
Well, it’s called 36 Streets. It’s my debut novel. It’s out through Titan Books, cyberpunk set in Hanoi in about the year 2100. The title is the ancient name for the old quarter in Hanoi. 36 streets for the 36 guilds. This city is thousands of years old. The silk guild had one street, and the silver guild had another street, and the bamboo guild had the third, and so on. So there were 36 streets originally. There’s a hell of a lot more than thirty-six streets now in the old quarter.
In the novel, China occupies Hanoi, and the northern part of Vietnam. The main character is Lin Thi Vu. She’s a gangster but occasionally she’s a private investigator. She’s second in command of the of one of the big criminal gangs in Hanoi. An Englishman comes to town looking for answers to the death of a friend, she investigates, and then as the story progresses, as in any good cyberpunk novel, she finds herself deeply immersed in a grand conspiracy. That’s the broad strokes of it. I lived in the 36 Streets for three years and started writing the novel towards the end of my time in Hanoi.
Both 36 Streets and your short story collection Neon Leviathan feature Vietnam and Southeast Asia not just as a setting, but you’re interested in the social situations there and how it might change in the near future. How much of that was inspired by your time living there?
Oh, absolutely. So my background is that I only started writing fiction in my mid-30s. I came to it a lot later than most. I was an aid worker before then. I was in Southeast Asia for about a decade in Vietnam, and Lao, and Burma. Mongolia’s not Southeast Asia, but I was there for a year as well. So absolutely, I draw on that, as a writer. It helped shaped me. Of course, many things shape your worldview, but if we’re talking about science fiction, it shaped my view of the future.
I think science fiction in general is very good at exploring different facets of where we might be going. There’s some pretty good stuff focusing on climate change, for example. But what we’re lacking in, I think, is imagining the sort of world we would live in if China was the preeminent superpower. It’s certainly a plausible scenario. I think it’s an interesting thought experiment. And I think that when you live in neighbouring countries [to China], you get a view from these places. They don’t care about America, or certainly not as much as everyone else. They care about what China’s doing.
For example, when I was living in Vietnam, a survey came out in around 2015 asking, who do you trust? It was one of these Pew surveys, and it was talking to Vietnamese people and asking them all these questions, and one of them was: which nation do you trust more? And there was far more trust in the United States than there was China. Now, a lot of people from the West in particular, they go, what really? Well, what about the Vietnam War? How can you trust Americans? Well, it’s because from the Vietnamese perspective, the Americans are lightweight. The Chinese were there for 1000 years, the Yanks were there for maybe 20. So they have an acute grasp of their own history, and they are deeply concerned about what the future looks like. So when you live in these countries, of course you empathize with the population, and you start to share their interests and share their concerns. That’s just natural.
When I was living in Vietnam, I was a stay-at-home dad, that was awesome. I got to do the dad duties, but when my infant slept, I got to write. That period was when I started my writing career. And I got to explore the city. It was fantastic. But before then I was an aid worker, so when I was living in Lao, and I was working in education, I was working in these communities, which are the poorest in the country. Ethnic minority children in the most remote areas of Lao are basically some of the poorest people on Earth. So you get a very different perspective, and very different sense of priorities from doing that sort of work. And I’m sure that’s influenced some of the thematic concerns I have in my work. The interest in China comes from partly through my university study in geopolitics, but also from living in the region and sharing the same concerns of people who are its neighbours.
One of the parts I found so compelling and so disturbing about 36 Streets is the way that you have that physical colonization of the land juxtaposed with the colonisation of the mind, quite literally through the Fat Victory game and the Kandel-Yu. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about those ideas and those themes?
Themes are interesting, because very often a writer writes, and afterwards someone says: this is your theme. And you go oh shit, yeah, that is my theme! Because of my work, and because of my study, I do think about colonization. And I think about it, not in over the last hundred years, but over the last thousand years. Or in the case of Vietnam, thousands of years.
But in terms of colonizing the mind, this is where cyberpunk comes in. Because this is the nature of surveillance capitalism. And this is the nature of the modern society. Taking away the Vietnam question for a second. We have technologies now that are designed to manipulate us and are designed to shape our actions. To intercede on our free will and push us down maybe another path, and this other path might make us more amenable to buying certain products, or acting in a certain way, or voting for a certain party. Now, this has always happened, of course. We’ve always had propaganda; we’ve always had marketing. But what we’ve never had is this is this system of surveillance that is so pervasive. We are quantified and analysed, every minute of the day we’re walking around with a smartphone (I don’t have a phone connected to the internet, because I’m paranoid). These companies develop profiles of us that in some ways understand us better than we understand ourselves. So in a sense, this colonization of our imagination, this intrusion in our day to day and this attempt to exert control over us, is already all around us. We’re living in a cyberpunk present.
So the question is, could an occupying force try to do that? Absolutely. I’m trying to use the maxim of Ursula Le Guin, who said science fiction isn’t predictive, it’s descriptive. We find something that’s already here, and extrapolate the DNA strands of the future that exist now. And so the idea of, in terms of the psychological warfare and the colonization of the mind, the colonization of memory, that manipulation of memory, really, that’s just an extension of what invading armies always tried to do. But it’s imagining that with far more powerful technologies. And of course, we see the information war at the moment, going on in Ukraine, and the misinformation war in Russia. Ukraine is actually winning. It’s quite interesting to see how it’s playing out.
Let me give you an example. This was for my PhD; I was reading a Vietnamese scholar who was talking about Hollywood film and Vietnam. He was a young child in the Vietnam War. He got to a point where he couldn’t remember what was his memory [of the war], and what was from film. That’s with crude technology. That’s colonizing the mind. Minds are already colonised. And if you look at what’s happening in China, I think minds have also been colonized there, to some extent, in a very Orwellian way. Tiananmen square never happened, for example. So I think this idea of a kind of total warfare, where it’s not just the physical, it’s not just land, but it’s minds. It’s extrapolating on what people are already trying to do now.
The short stories in Neon Leviathan work as short stories on their own, but when you put them together in the collection you have this larger mosaic narrative of the next hundred or so years, and how it’s shaped by that memory altering technology. When you were writing the individual stories, did you have this future already mapped out? Or did the structure fall into place afterwards?
Yeah, I can’t plan that exactly. The reason I started writing short stories is because at the start of my writing career, I tried to write a novel. And it was fucking terrible. In every dimension, but one of the reasons that it was so bad, was I started writing, and I didn’t know how this world works. I couldn’t situate characters. I can’t build a story if I don’t know, what what’s the basic communication technology? What’s the basic geopolitics? How far surveillance gone? All these questions. So I stopped. So at the start, it [the mosaic world] was an accident. It became more structured, and more deliberate later on when I was writing short stories.
And now when I write a short story, I’m like, how does it fit? It might not fit in, but about probably four out of five short stories are in this world. And the connections are all a lot more deliberate. But when I started, I was like, well, how does the world work? This is this technology. And this is this political system. And of course, I always wanted to have an interesting short story. The characters are the most important thing, but in the background, I wanted to get into a habit of, what’s the energy system? How far along is climate change? And then after a while, I wanted to make it internally consistent between the short stories.
And then Grimdark Magazine, Adrian Collins, who’s the publisher said, oh, let’s do a collection. And Adrian’s the one who said to me, let’s do dates. Let’s do the year at the start of each story. And coincidentally, I’d started to map it. So I was like: this is the timeline, this is where the stories go. And again, that was not quite post facto, but it was in the middle of it all [that I started to connect all the stories]. I put a structure so it would fit a bit better in my mind. So if I write a story, the technology sort of lines up. Or if I’ve made it more advanced I’ll have to put that further in the future, so what else has changed? All these ripple effects all the way through. So when I started it was purely an accident. It was purely that I was being instrumental in the sense of I have to build a world before I write a novel. But in the end, it’s not perfect in Neon Leviathan, but I’m quite happy with the fact that, sometimes deliberately and sometimes through accident, it does fit together in this mosaic story.
Your characters in the novel and the short stories are very well realised, they have their own personal past and histories that shape who they are now. Can you tell us a bit about character and how you go about creating them?
Well, thank you. How do I do it? When you start out as a writer, a lot of it’s blundering into things. Of course, you do a lot of research to see what the greats do. I listened to interviews with not just the great science fiction writers but some of the great so-called literary writers, just see what their approaches are. For 36 Streets on my wall here, I would have all the main characters, and I would have their name and the physical description and their age, roughly. But then I would have their way of speaking, because you gotta make that consistent. And then I would have their background. Hemingway says that if you know the ending to a story, and you know the beginning, but you don’t tell all that, you just tell this bit in the middle, the reader will know it. It’ll all be there, and be true, the reader will feel it.
So what I try and do is, I have a history. And I don’t necessarily put it all into the novel itself. It’s a fascinating thing. Because when I don’t do this [history or background], or I forget to do it, say for a short story, the reader will go, this character, I don’t know why they’re doing this. So what I do is, for example, there’s an incident in the novel where three or four times they refer to what Bao did the last head of another gang. The reader never finds out what that is. So I wrote that incident, and just like 1500 words of what happened. And then when you come to write the other scenes, it’s true. And the history is there, and it shapes their behavior. And you as the reader go, oh that thing really happened.
So the short answer is, it’s a lot of extra work. And it’s constant in a novel, especially. I try and do with short stories too. But with a novel, in particular, because you have to have so much to hold in your head, you have to keep reminding yourself. So I had the dramatis personae, a dozen characters that I would put on the wall. But then I would have more, I would have pieces of history. And I put that up there as well. But to go back to your initial question about character, it’s writing that backstory, but trying to have the confidence not to just shove it all into the story. So that there’s not some information dump at some point where they go, and when I was a kid… and you vomit out their history. You want to try and write the way where the reader feels they are in a safe pair of hands.
Like with world building, the world feels lived in and layered. For a character, the shoes feel lived in, and they feel layered, and they’re not two dimensional. I haven’t done that for a while now that you’ve mentioned it, I do need to start sticking stuff up on the wall in front of me again. But I’ve been editing for so long now. On 36 Streets, and then another novel and then another novella, which I’ve been working on for quite a few months now. So it’s interesting, I kind of forgotten about some of the things that I’ve done, but obviously I’ll keep doing that because it’s been successful so far.
You avoid infodumps in your worldbuilding as well. It seems to me one of the ways you do that is by having this close character point of view so you just see what the character sees and the reader figures it out from how the character interacts with the world around them.
Yeah. This is a point that that is debated [among writers], and some people like infodumps. I, personally, stylistically don’t like it. Cyberpunk is a descendant of hard-boiled literature, going all the way back. And hard-boiled literature was notable for being so spare and so evocative with a single sentence that would tell you so much about character, and so much about the milieu. Dashiell Hammett is extraordinary. I try and read one of his novels once a year, just to see the master at work. When it comes to world building, I want to do that. I want to paint a picture for you of how this world works as efficiently as possible, without lingering on it at all.
Now, I don’t like infodumps in the story. But some people do it well, like Kim Stanley Robinson. In his book 2312, he has this bit where it’s a pure chapter of infodump. This is how Mercury was terraformed, this is how Mars was terraformed. I liked that. That’s kind of cool. In general, though, I don’t like it in my work. I kind of don’t like it much in the works of others unless they do it really well. I’ve heard the explanation that the problem with the infodump is not necessarily the infodump itself, is the fact that it can be used so lazily. So it’s that someone hasn’t done the work. They haven’t done all the world building. They’re doing it on the spot. And they’re like, I don’t quite understand it enough yet. So that means the reader won’t, so I’ll put it here.
For me it comes down to what Hemingway was getting at, you know the world so completely that you just have to give these clues, and the reader’s imagination will fill it in. And all the clues you give will be internally consistent. And it’ll build the world. Also it’s a stylistic choice, of trying to write a scene or do some world building or have an exchange as efficiently as possible, while still not losing anything. That’s the skill, that you don’t you don’t lose emotion, or you don’t lose information. We don’t confuse the reader. Mark Twain wrote [in a letter to a friend], “Sorry, I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” That’s the thing. It’s actually harder to write a shorter because you have to do all the editing and you have to go over it again and again, and again, to condense it down to the information that is still good to read and still evocative. I’m definitely in that school of trying to write with some elegance I suppose.
It’s like how the thing about short stories as an art form is that it’s fewer words but you have to make sure every word is doing its work, so in some ways they’re more difficult than novels.
Yeah. And another reason to write them, aside from worldbuilding is they’re great at training you as a writer. They’re great at teaching you how to introduce a character, or a storyline, or a world with efficiency. So the decision to work on short stories for some time, before going to a novel, I think was for me, a very good one because it improved my writing. And it also made by the time the novel comes around, the worlds layered and lived in. And you’ve done all that groundwork.
Cyberpunk seems to be having a bit of a resurgence at the minute, with a new appreciation of its relevance.
Yeah, we’re living in a cyberpunk present. If you take a show like Black Mirror, a lot of the episodes were super near future. I think you can still call it a cyberpunk show. But it was terrifying. And one of the reasons it was terrifying is because so many episodes felt so plausible. I’ve heard people say cyberpunk is having a resurgence. And I always feel that cyberpunk is so niche. And if it’s a resurgence, the scales are smaller. I feel like if you look at the fantasy genre, or even grimdark and fantasy, the market is so much bigger. It’s huge. So sometimes I do wonder what a resurgence in cyberpunk means. It feels small scale to me still, but I could be wrong.
There’s not a million cyberpunk novels out there. There’s not that many, you know. And I was thinking just recently, what’s the classic of the past decade? I’ve got some personal favourites from before the last decade, but what’s in the last 10 years? And I had to really look it up, do some research. Coincidentally, I don’t read too much cyberpunk. I kind of read everything: crime, fantasy, science fiction, literature, nonfiction, but I try to not read too much cyberpunk. Partly because I think I fear two things. One is that my ideas will be polluted by someone else. But also, maybe it’s a fear that I’ll read something and go, oh fuck he thought of it already? I thought I was such a genius but this guy was talking about 10 years ago! But coincidentally to your question is I was like, what’s a really good cyberpunk book from the last decade and I found this one. It’s called Waste Tide, by Chinese author Chen Quifan. It’s in translation. And Lavie Tidhar, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Charlie Jane Anders and David Mitchell have given author quotes for it. I haven’t started reading it. But this is in the last 10 years. And there’s Transmetropolitan [graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson], which everyone also recommends. I haven’t read that. I don’t think this is in the last decade.
Cyberpunk is super relevant. But I do wonder how big it is as a as a genre. And I do wonder about, if you ask someone: give me a list of awesome grimdark fantasy novels from the last decade, they’ll probably take you a year to read. If someone said to you, give me the best cyberpunk of the last decade, the classics. How many would you get? And I don’t necessarily know the answer to that question, in part because I try not to read so much cyberpunk. But you know what I’m getting at it. It’s when we say resurgence, it seems like a small thing. But look, the broader point is true, we are living in a cyberpunk present. So much of the things that were being warned about, and decades ago, have come to pass. The surveillance is extraordinary. The surveillance state that we live in is remarkable. And there are so many cyberpunk moments that we have day to day. Here’s a funny one, there’s this one going around on Twitter, where the are showing a nuclear power station being shelled in the Ukraine. And then it goes to some American fast-food ad. But then it’s there on the screen. And then on the side [of the advertisement] is shelling the nuclear power station. So we have cyberpunk moments every single day. And for those of us who know the genre, and those of us who read it, you could laugh if it wasn’t so dystopian.
There was this very funny tweet someone put out, which was like cyberpunk, here to tell warn you about the atomization of the individual in an era of late stage capitalism, and the dehumanization we all face with these dizzying advances in technology. And then the next slide is a tech bro saying, Oh, look at those pretty pieces of technology they imagined! We’re gonna copy them! The social consequences get kind of forgotten, and they just want to make all the cool stuff we saw on the cyberpunk film.
So, if it is having a resurgence, I guess that’s a good thing. And it’s a good thing because Cyberpunk is a literature of rebellion. It’s a literature of warning. It’s an anguished cry against the dehumanization of all of us. And a warning of about how worse it could be to come. So if it is having this resurgence, that’s fantastic. But it also must be surely that one of the reasons is that we live in a cyberpunk present. And if you look at a movie, like Blade Runner, which is a fascinating film because except for flying cars, it’s a modern looking film. If you look at other films in 1982, when it was made, they still have the silver jumpsuits. They still have the styrofoam sets in a way, and then you’ve got Blade Runner. In that sense, it’s visionary because it’s captured the aesthetics of our present 40 years later.
What’s next for T. R. Napper?
It’s interesting. I haven’t had this much editing all in one piece in ages. But when you edit for so long, the creative energies and ideas build up. And kind of already I feel like I’m ready to burst. I just wrote a short story like two days, which I never do. It usually takes me weeks, and I think that’s a symptom. What am I doing? I do have a novella. I’m going to pitch it. I want to see if my agent likes it, but I’m going to pitch it as Mad Max meets Johnny Mnemonic. I like the pitch, we’ll see if he does! I want to get that to him next week. I’ve been stuck here because of the pandemic so I haven’t been able to get back to Southeast Asia for a while. So I’ve noticed a lot of my short stories and this novella is set in Australia, which is, in some ways, great, but I do miss living in Southeast Asia and writing about it. I just got to force myself just to write to go back there again, in my imagination.
I have a couple of short stories, sending them around, as usual. And I’ve got four novels that are kind of on the go. Two have full drafts. I don’t even know if I’m allowed talk about it. But of them is a novel that I wrote previously. And for whatever reason, I didn’t publish it. And I went back to read it. I don’t want to give too much away, but the novel is sets in Macau. It’s a standalone novel. And it’s about an Australian guy there. But one of the characters is Lin [from 36 Streets]. She’s a minor character. And in fact, she’s not quite, but it seems at the start that she’s the antagonist. Anyway, I wrote that novel. And then at the end of it, I was like, well, who’s this Lin? I couldn’t get her out of my head, like, how did she become the woman she is in this novel? So then I wrote 36 Streets. So this novel, I went back and read it about two months ago, and I thought it would be I would be underwhelmed, but I reread it. And I’m like, actually, this is pretty good. In fact, I thought it was super exciting, but I could see it needed a lot of revision, so I revised it for two months. And I’m going to submit that very soon. That’s pretty much done. I’m going to submit that to my agent and see what he thinks. It takes place five years after 36 Streets but it’s completely standalone. So we’ll see if I can resuscitate this novel. And then there’s a third one, which is called Howling Metal, which is also set in this world. It’s cyberpunk but you could also call it military science fiction as well. It’s actually dealing more with the war that’s happening. That’s done but it’s a fucking mess! And not a mess as in, oh, I’m not convinced by it at this stage, as all writers do. It’s a fucking mess. So I’m not feeling confident about that. And then I have two others, a time travel novel and a fantasy novel, but I’ve only done like the world building on those, like a few thousand words of plot.
So there’s two more novels in the pipeline that are cyberpunk and with close-ish links to this world and stand alone, but I know this this business is fickle. And I hope 36 Streets does well, the reviews are good. I guess when I was talking before, when you asked your question about the popularity of cyberpunk, in my mind, I’m like, how many readers can this book find? I’m proud of it. And like I said, I’m proud that it’s getting very good reviews, but it’s just a question of the readership. And I don’t care that it’s going to be smaller than fantasy. I don’t give a shit about that. It’s just whether it can find enough readers. I think it will. But I don’t know.
I’m selfishly hoping that it does so that we get to read these other books!
Well, I am selfishly hoping so as well!
Thank you for talking to us, T. R. Napper!