Interview: Nick Harkaway, author of Angelmaker

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IS NICK Harkaway trying to shake off the image of his father, John Le Carré, in his second novel? Yes and no, he tells Susan Mansfield

A STORY might begin something like this. You walk down a familiar street, say a street beside the Thames, and there’s a shop you never noticed before. But it’s old, has definitely been there for ever, and inside a clockmaker is stooped over his bench. He’s been asked to repair a device so elegant he barely understands it, but he believes it may have power to do great – or terrible – things.

Or like this. You walk down a busy street in chi-chi Hampstead. You ring the bell at a gate between two shops which you wouldn’t have noticed at all if you weren’t looking for it. And suddenly you’re in a house which is quiet and airy, topsy-turvy, old yet modern, and scattered with books and baby toys: the family home and writing lair of Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway’s 2008 debut novel, The Gone-Away World, signified the arrival of a rare kind of writer. It was ambitious, funny, fast-moving, a swashbuckling adventure with pirates and ninjas stitched into a post-apocalyptic world. It was highly acclaimed, earning comparisons to Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, a kind of bastard child of Wodehouse, Conan Doyle and Dumas.

His second novel, Angelmaker, does not disappoint. It begins with the clockmaker described above (his name is Joshua Joseph Spork) and accelerates into a world of magical machines, secret agents and an order of monks who worship John Ruskin. There are elephants, an opium lord and an aside about predestination and free will.

“There’s a saying in the movie industry that if your movie is about what you actually think it’s about, you’re in big trouble,” laughs Harkaway, 39, who was a screenwriter (“Not a very successful one!”) before he became a novelist. “I think it’s the same with books. Angelmaker is about a guy who accidentally switches on a doomsday device, but actually it’s about fathers and sons, about feeling bereft and lost in your thirties, about friendship, where identity comes from…” He breaks off, laughing. “Listening to authors talk about their own books is a bit like listening to people who are really into wine: ‘Oooh, it’s got an aftertaste of gunpowder and crispy bacon’, and you’re just sitting there going: ‘It’s wine!’”

A conversation with Harkaway is rather like his writing: enthusiastic, elegant, engaging, and a bit like a car chase through a library. We deal with the gangster in American pulp fiction, electoral fraud, the Arab Spring, digitisation – which is the subject of a forthcoming non-fiction book by Harkaway, The Blind Giant (“At the moment, we’re a bit like a bloke who’s just bought a hammer – we want to digitise everything!”) We start with a manhole cover (“There is sufficient material in how those came to be where they are and who made them that you could write a lifetime of books”) and end up with an ex-con, married to a nun with ten children. The stories come tumbling out on top of one another. But stories are in his lineage. His father is John Le Carré.

When The Gone-Away World was published, interviewers seemed almost more interested in this than they were in the book. Harkaway was careful to say he had no beef with his dad’s legacy, that his decision not to use the family name, Cornwell, was more to do with avoiding clashes with Patricia and Bernard, to whom he is not related. He secured his six-figure publishing deal before telling anyone who his father was. “It’s not that he casts a long shadow,” he wrote at the time. “It’s more that it seems pointless to stand next to a lighthouse and wave a torch.”

But in Angelmaker, he has written a book about a son trying to shake off the image of his father. “I know! I’ve done this to myself. I was so pleased with myself, because the question had almost gone away. And now I’ve walked nose-first into a fathers and sons discussion again. It’s an ongoing voyage of discovery, all that ‘child is the father of the man’ stuff. I think whoever your dad is, you find yourself trying to figure out how to be yourself instead of him.

“My dad and I compete on the pool table, that’s the most important competition of our lives. The fact that I’m writing and it works for me is one of the great joys for him. We talk about writing, and it’s great. But, particularly over the last 24 months, he has received awards of such extraordinary cultural significance from around Europe, really breathtaking stuff. It has recently occurred to me that it’s just conceivable that I was misleading myself after The Gone-Away World came out, and I do have a few points where I’d quite like to compete a little bit. He’s infuriatingly good, and still good at 80, so it really gives you something to aim for.”

Has he read Angelmaker? “No. I got him an early copy, he started reading it and just giggled and was delighted but now he’s working on his own book and he finds, as many writers do, that he can’t read other people’s writing while he’s trying to write his own.”

It will be interesting reading when he does, because Angelmaker is at least partly about spies. International (wo)man of mystery, Edie Banister, may be 90 with little to call her own but a bad-tempered pug, but she has plenty of glory days to recall, and a trick or two up her sleeve still. “It’s very naughty, actually,” says Harkaway, chuckling, “because what my father did is unravel the James Bond-Bulldog Drummond vibe of spy stories in the UK, take away the Boy’s Own adventure feel, and turn it into the real, sad, thoughtful, grey world of men like George Smiley. And of course what I’ve done is revitalised Modesty Blaise and James Bond and the high-kicking international man of mystery thing.

“I grew up on the Roger Moore and Sean Connery Bond movies, so the DNA of my spies is extremely ridiculous and goofy. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that during the Second World War, spies did stuff which was crazy, and brave: parachuting into machine-gun fire; hiding bits of your radio in the back of your shaving brush. I admire those crazy people and they make great stories. I would rather tell the stories of derring-do and make my moral points like that than try to ape my father’s style, which is an idea which serves neither of us, and would bore everyone and embarrass most.”

There is something elegantly nostalgic about Angelmaker, whether in the derring-do adventure of it, or the loving invocations of artisanship – there is an Arts & Crafts-era steam train and submarine, designed by an engineering order of monks called the Ruskinites, as well as more modest objects like a clockwork gramophone. Rather like, in fact, the one sitting in Harkaway’s lounge, its huge green horn pointing towards us. He winds it up – “they’re amazing, crazy things, incredibly loud” – and a brief burst of crackly parlour music fills the room, turning the clock back with its sound. “I’m a child of electronic age, so I regard anything that can produce music through a sheer physical process as a weird magic. I don’t do a lot of research exactly, but I’m constantly wandering through the world finding things incredible and remembering them.”

For a man with a magpie imagination, you are never more than a stone’s throw from a story. The old lady who eats lunch at a nearby cafe, telling anyone who will listen about her work at a listening station during the war. The child playing with a clockwork toy which reminded Harkaway all over again of the beauty of clockwork, and started in motion the cogs and wheels of Angelmaker.

It’s a gleefully postmodern book in its weaving together of genres with imagery from comic books, film and TV, and its richly imagined setting of a London with underground passages and secret markets. But it is also peppered with echoes of a very contemporary world: dwindling oil, global warming, government misdeeds. Harkaway’s wife, Clare, is a director of human rights charity Reprieve, and the day we meet, he reminds me, is the tenth anniversary of Guantanamo Bay. Their 15-month old daughter is named Clemency. “I couldn’t write something without those concerns because they’re part of me. I worry about those things, I’m irritated by them. One of the great liberties of fiction, particularly goofy fiction, like the crazy stuff that I come up with, is that while people aren’t looking you can feed them a thing and say, ‘By the way, while we’re having fun, isn’t this crap?’ That’s as close as I can get to doing any kind of message writing.”

A story’s underlying “creepiness” should come, Harkaway believes, from something we all feel. In The Gone-Away World, it was the Matrix-like sense that the world may be other than we perceive it. In Angelmaker, it is the sense that we are inheriting the trouble sown by earlier generations. “I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t feel that we’ve inherited trouble right now. And we all feel a bit cut off from some of the things we feel we ought to have to help us deal with it.”

Harkaway enjoys breaking the unwritten rules of contemporary fiction-writing: if you want to be taken seriously, don’t add ninjas; don’t talk about epistemology during a car chase. “Where does the urge to be taken seriously come from? There’s a piece of advice in The Book of the Samurai which says that matters of great importance should be taken lightly. It’s a very good point.”

In fact, he believes, seriousness is an enemy of creativity, “As you learn in school and in life, you’re encouraged to stop considering ridiculous possibilities. So when you’re at school, you look out of the window and see someone on horseback, you’re encouraged to think: ‘Oh, a policeman on a horse’, as opposed to, say, a man stealing a zebra from the zoo. But every so often it is a guy stealing a zebra from the zoo. You can miss the zebra. There’s a sadness about that. If you want to be taken seriously, don’t mention the zebra possibility. But the zebra is always where the good stuff is.”

Not a problem for him, I suggest. He grins. “Oh, I can barely see the ordinary stuff. I look out of the window and I can almost not see the policeman on the horse. I see mostly zebras.” As I walk out into the dusk of Hampstead, I half expect the gate I’ve come through to disappear. I cross the road though the home-bound traffic, keeping an eye out for zebras.

• Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is published by William Heinemann this week, priced £12.99