Andrew Mackay on Satire and Social Commentary in his new novel, Somnambulist

You’ve returned to your horror roots. What prompted you to seek the dark side of Chrome Valley again after the Star Cat series, the hilarious Space Race novels, and your weight-loss journey, The Hunger Diaries?

As anyone who’s been following me and my work for more than, say, a year, will know by now – my mind and attention is all over the place. Much like movies, my tastes vary. I know genre tastes aren’t always as malleable for books as they are for movies, but I do find myself asking “What are they reading when they’re not reading sci-fi?” – I refuse to believe readers stick ONLY to one genre. Do those who stick to just one book genre only eat one type of food? Watch one type of movie? Well, maybe they do, but I’m willing to gamble my career on they do not.

Now, I can understand if someone loves romance, westerns, and wants to avoid horror. I get that. But there are two reasons why I write multi-genre: 1) as above, my mind just won’t sit still, and goes through phases; and 2) I like to think my ideas aren’t confined to just one genre. If anything, there’s only one common theme throughout all of my close-to-thirty-books-in-my-catalog at time of writing, and that theme is “satire.”

I look back at Stanley Kubrick’s movie career. He made a war film (Full Metal Jacket), a horror (The Shining), a romance (Lolita), a comedy (Dr Strangelove), perhaps the seminal sci-fi movie ever (2001: A Space Odyssey) and so on… and all of them are celebrated and highly-regarded. There’s a reason for this – Kubrick was a master storyteller, treated his audience with respect, and gave them just enough to ensure they felt rewarded. Am I the Kubrick of self-publishing? No. But in my mind I am, and that’s all that matters …

You confess to an obsession with dream states and hyper-reality, as well as your own instances of childhood sleepwalking. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

My mom reads all my books. She’s a big fan, and she’ll tell me when she doesn’t like something. She also doesn’t want to know about my work-in-progress, and loves the surprise of whatever the next book will be. When it came to Somnambulist, she got the paperback, and I happened to be there when it arrived. She tutted to herself and told me, there and then, that I used to sleepwalk when I was younger.

I had absolutely no idea about it.

Maybe if I hadn’t written this book I’d have never known. It got me thinking, though, that something about dream states and sleepwalking fascinated me, and perhaps I’d unearthed something in my subconscious – or something? Who knows. I’m fascinated by what makes people tick. I was told I should become a social worker by my tutor at school. I’m hugely interested in psychology and psychiatry. I love the idea of getting inside a person’s mind and controlling them, which, I guess, is why drugs, disease, illness, fevers, mind-control etc gets my attention. If you really want to stretch the idea further, you could say it’s about getting “inside someone” and controlling them from within. A metaphor, perhaps, that goes beyond sex. I’ve never felt having sex with someone is ever enough … at the risk of sounding somewhat psychotic, sex is a bit lame, by my standards. I want in the person’s head, too. I want everything. I’m greedy.

Now, with hyper-reality, it all comes with the territory. Do you know the real reason why A Nightmare on Elm Street works? It’s because you don’t know when Nancy is asleep or awake – and that’s what builds the tension. She thinks she’s awake, and runs up the stairs to avoid Freddy, and the steps turn to oatmeal. Genius. Studying at film school, and having been a screenwriter for 20+ years, you get a lot of examples. I’m not inventing anything especially new with my books. If anything, I’m a bit of a thief. The trick is to tell the story in a unique way. With Somnambulist, I experimented with the thought process in italics. As long as it was clear who was speaking in someone’s mind at any given time, then I was happy to play with it. For me, it worked. For some, it took some adjustment.

I dunno, I’m a bit of a rebel at heart really. The Roman numeral even-numbered chaptering in Somnambulist apparently has some meaning. I’ll let you into a little clue – the real reason every even-numbered chapter is a Roman numeral is because I felt like doing it, it looked cool, and I’d never seen it done before, lol – so I just dropped a reason for it in the narrative. The Roman numeral clocks during the day. Easy as that. Most will come away from Somnambulist thinking “Wow, the connection between the character Toe Tag and Sammy’s Babar elephant toy was great” – in reality? I just liked the name Toe Tag, lol – no more complicated than that. As I was writing the chapter where Iris leaves Lester’s apartment, I decided I wanted her to run into a black man wearing a wedding dress and shifting a corpse. I didn’t know why, it just felt right – and trusted myself to explain it later. Things like calling him Cind’rella, and then going through the book and dropping little hints at it.

Somnambulist is utter bullshit (not quality-wise) from beginning to end. A series of cool, weird shit I wanted to see – and an attempt to justify it afterwards. So I wrote the night stuff first, and dropped all the cool things I wanted in there. Things like the truck mowing down the pedestrians looked brilliant in my mind, so I wrote it. And then I wrote the day half, and justified it all. And that’s where I wrote the school drawings stuff.

Sorry to burst your bubble if you’ve read way more into Somnambulist than was necessary, lol – the entire book is me just having a party with myself. I think that’s worth $3.99, or a Kindle Unlimited read, of anyone’s money. How many times do you get to see that from your friends?

You link Willy Gee from Convenience to Iris Goddard, the sleepwalker of Somnambulist, in a scene that appears in both books. What sparked that connection?

The fact I could do it sparked that connection. It’s as easy as that. I’ve written thousands of characters in Chrome Valley, and I love, love, love the idea that characters can run into each other from various books, and even genres. In Somnambulist, Iris meets so many others from other Chrome Valley Books.

She runs into Charlie Ferrari in the street, who’s the star of the Pure Dark series, about a coma-induced junkie.

She runs into Johnny and Sam at the Kaleidoscope fountain, the two kids who decide to kill their teacher, in Let’s Kill Mr. Pond. Mr. Pond himself is in Somnambulist, too, as Iris’s teacher when she was younger.

At the vending machine, she runs into the two girls who star in Vicky & Lizzie’s First Period – a musical (yes, a musical!) dark comedy about bullying and child abuse.

Freddie and Ahmed are the stars of Versus, my thriller about a brainwashed Muslim kid who plots to blow his school up on the same day a white kid plans to shoot it up. That white kid, Daryl Kelly, has a younger brother, Daniel, who taunts Sammy in the playground.

Joy, the private investigator, is Joy Attwood – star of my first series In Their Shoes – a documentary series on different professions.

I could go on … but I won’t. Chrome Valley is a vast, multi-layered, multi-genre crossover … all designed to prove my point that if you came to the Valley via horror, you may find yourself in humor. Or crime. Or thriller. Or romance. It’s not the genre I’m selling here, but me.

Do you see yourself as a writer of magical realism?

I see myself as a writer of everything, magical realism included. I don’t even know what magical realism really is, to be honest. Is that where reality meets magic? I guess I can write that. What I write first and foremost is conflict and relatable drama. Without those two things, you may as well be writing chalk-based-milkshakes.

As long as you understand the rules, you can break them. As long as you understand narrative structure and form, you can bend them to suit the style and tone you’re going for. In my humor book In Their Shoes: The Nurse, there’s a part where Joy starts dreaming, and you don’t know it – and things get very strange, before she snaps out of it. So magical realism, if you like, can exist in any genre. As long as it’s justified, I guess.

You handle the use of racially charged language respectfully — it never feels gratuitous. How do you walk the fine line between using charged language appropriately and wantonly letting it fly?

I remember seeing an interview with Welsh actor Michael Sheen when he was asked a similar question about playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in the movie The Queen. He said “Just say your first line 100% accurately, and then your impression of the person can be less-good after that”. He was imitating a real-life figure, so, essentially, his very first line was an attempt to mimic the person, and after that he could relax.

So, my approach to the racially-charge language was similar. Iris meets a bunch of black gangster who use the n-word, f-word, and so on, quite liberally. But it’s quite a while before you get to that section of the book, and so earlier on I absolutely had to establish that Iris hated the n-word (of course) and give her son some grief for simply saying it in an innocent context. Once I’d done that, I had license to use it in a less-forgiving way later on. In fact, installing this early gave me another reach from the day world to the dream world. Iris hears these words a lot later, which you could read as an affront to her character. She doesn’t deal with all the cursing and racial slurs, and just absorbs them – possibly to dampen her sympathy for the characters when they eventually kill each other.

As long as I’m true to the language, that’s the most important thing. People do speak like this, even in the UK. I still visit Bean There Done That to consider my life and future books, and just the other day, I heard a gaggle of teenagers spray these epithets around like a water gun. I envy those readers out there who get all angry when a book simply reflects the reality of the world. Just imagine … how cozy and comfortable (re: fucking boring) life would be in your own little world like that.

What’s the symbolic meaning of the Freeway Five?

Here in the UK we have council estates – which in the US, you’d know as the slightly-meaner-spirited term projects. Those who don’t work, or have some state benefit of some kind, live on estates here. Some have jobs, too. We have a class war on here like you wouldn’t believe. Where I live, there’s a rich part and a poor part. Those council estates are populated with dollar stores, gambling shops, cheap grocery stores with a focus on liquor, and all sorts of pawn shops. It’s indicative, of course, of the people who live there and keep those types of store alive and well.

Now, I hate the massive disparity between the well-off and less-well-off in this country. It couldn’t be more stark, in my eyes, and the Freeway Five estate is a sort of ironic symbol of what I’ve written above. Five ghastly towers, blocking the sun of the rest of the poor people below it. Also, the five tower blocks in my mind look like fingers on a hand. The third block is a giant middle finger to the poor and society – a reminder, as is frequently mentioned in all the books set in Chrome Valley – that if you don’t do well, you end up at Freeway Five.

The smog created by the freeway is thick and black, and contributes to the ill-health in the Valley. The children are obsessed with their smartphones, pornography, and are being brought up by social media influencers, not their parents – because their parents are doped to shit on drugs and alcohol. It’s a satire, of course, but as I’ve been writing these books, elements are seeping into reality via the news. We’re all under the assumption we’re about to be rich, thereby we eschew the plight of the poor.

But we won’t be rich.

We’ll stay poor.

We’re the arbiters of our own fucked-up destiny, and we deserve everything we get for not following our passions, and putting the work in to achieve greatness.

As in Convenience, you feature a male-to-female transgender person. Gender fluidity seems natural to both novels. Give us some background on Cind’rella and what inspires you to include transgender characters in your novels?

It always fascinates me how readers interpret some of the more esoteric elements of my work, and you’re no exception. Cind’rella, as a black man in a white wedding dress, in my mind, isn’t transgender at all.

I’ve had transgender characters in other books. In Their Shoes: The Dealer, for example, features a character called Beth, who’s the lead antagonist’s partner – a male-to-female character, who’s a bit of a bitch. Cind’rella is simply a black guy dressed in a wedding dress. There’s nothing to indicate he’s transgender, except for a line about him being disappointed about not being able to marry one of the immigrants in the back of the truck.

Now, I wrote Convenience over two years ago, and I’m struggling to remember everything (lol!) and I don’t remember a transgender character in it. Umm… (Editor’s note: It’s a nameless woman in a bathroom about to meet a very bad end.)

Well, look, the reason I have transgender characters in my work is, because, why not? They’re just as much of our society as us non-trans people are. I am an extremely liberal, yet very conservative, individual. I believe in total and utter freedom. But I also believe in rewarding hard work and skill. It’s a bit of a dichotomy, really, because that makes me a Democrat and a Republican. An equal fifty-fifty split, one side pulling on the other. It’s quite conflicting, and I think it makes for some interesting drama.

Do you think you could have written Somnambulist in a less globally troubled time?

I think so. I’m not sure we live in as globally troubling times as we think we do at this point in time. I’m of the mind that the future is much worse, and we’ll get to the point where we’d do anything to return to the good ol’ days of 2019! Anyone’s main motivating factor is acquiring wealth, and until that changes, nothing will get better. Education, health, you name it … it’s all going to suffer in the pursuit for a buck, or millions of them. We’re about to have a general election in the UK. It’s a big deal. For the first time in my voting life I don’t know who to choose, because one is promising the world, and the other is promising the world plus the moon. How are they going to afford to do this? The answer is us. We’re going to pay for it.

Still, it’s all fertile ground for someone with an imagination and the ability to form coherent sentences …

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