An interview with Sam Kates – author of The Cleansing

At the end of last year, we were treated to The Cleansing, the first part of Sam Kates’ Earth Haven trilogy and one of the finest, and most frightening, apocalyptic visions that I have read for a long time. This is a genre that pulls me to it but The Cleansing is different. It combines the tension and horror of the plague apocalypse with something original and surprising. You can read my review here. I am delighted to host on the blog today an interview with Sam, in which he discusses trilogies, favourite and inspirational books and authors, and all things apocalyptic.

The Cleansing by Sam KatesCongratulations for The Cleansing, which is a thoroughly enjoyable apocalyptic tale. What attracted you to writing an end of the world tale?
Thank you. I enjoyed writing it. I’ve held a fascination for end of world tales since I was a boy. Books, films, computer games… some of the most memorable have been based in apocalyptic worlds. Difficult to pin down quite what the attraction is. I guess it has something to do with it being this world but not as we know it. All bets are off. No laws, no society, no civilisation, no checks or balance. What morality remains has to struggle to make itself felt amidst the anarchy and struggle to survive. It’s man reduced to his basest, most bestial form. The end of world scenario provides the writer with a blank page that he or she can fill in a wide variety of ways. I think that’s the main attraction of the genre to a writer. The possibilities are endless.

I particularly enjoyed how The Cleansing was set around the world, featuring a range of different countries. How else did you try to make the novel stand out from other apocalyptic fiction?
It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it different from other apocalytpic fiction I’ve read. Of course, I was well aware of its similarities to other stories. If I’d thought, however, that I was merely rehashing tales that had been done before without bringing anything new to the party, I wouldn’t have bothered sending it to my publisher. I still would have written it as it’s the only way to dislodge a story once it’s taken up home in the rattling space within my head. And The Cleansing had well and truly settled in for the duration. It was either write it or be stuck with a nagging lodger for the rest of my life.

As to how it’s different from other tales, I’ve not read a book that tells of humankind being wiped out deliberately to make way for new inhabitants. If such a book does exist, I haven’t read it but then I’ve only read a small fraction of the end of world tales that have ever been written. So it was a new take on the genre to me. I hope it will be to some readers, too.

The forces opposing mankind range from being downright evil to feeling sympathy towards people. This means that the novel is exciting and fun to read while also being tragic and upsetting in places. How important was it for you that The Cleansing should move your readers as well as entertain them?
Vitally important. As a reader, I better remember books that have moved me than those that have merely entertained me. As a writer, I want readers to feel some sort of emotional reaction to my work, though I’d settle for them being merely entertained over feeling indifferent. I don’t deliberately set out to provoke particular emotional responses. I think that they are a natural by-product if a story is worth telling and is told well.

The Cleansing is the first part of the Earth Haven trilogy. Do you know exactly how the final book will end or is it still evolving?
I can see in my mind’s eye the climactic scene that occurs at or near the end of the third book, but I don’t yet know how the characters will reach that point. They may take off at tangents that will result in a different ending – characters can be untrustworthy like that – or unforeseen events could occur that push the action in a new direction. That’s part of the fun of writing without an outline; it’s also a little scary.

Is the structure of a trilogy restrictive and why do you think trilogies are so popular?
This is the first series I’ve written, though I didn’t set out to write one. It quickly became obvious when I was writing The Cleansing that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. I didn’t want to write something the size of a brick because I felt that nobody would take a chance on buying a book that size by a virtual unknown. So a trilogy seemed the natural solution. As for being restrictive, I’m actually finding it to be quite the opposite. Instead of trying to condense the plot into one novel, I have the freedom to explore the world more fully. If characters choose to deviate, that’s fine. There’s time and room for them to get it out of their system before finding their way back to the main action.

I’m not so sure that trilogies are universally popular among readers. As a keen reader myself, I understand why. If the first book in a trilogy is captivating, the reader naturally wants to read more immediately. By the time the sequel comes out, readers will have moved on and some will have lost their sense of wonder at the first book. It may not be recaptured on reading the sequel. However, from a writer’s point of view trilogies are attractive. For a start, writing the first book is nowhere near as daunting as writing a book three times longer. Moreover, the writer will have some idea how well the first book is being received while he pens the sequel. He will have the benefit of reader feedback that may shape the direction the sequels take. He will have the opportunity of answering questions posed by readers of the first book as he develops the sequels. Those questions may even prompt ideas that will enrich the sequels in ways the writer might not otherwise have envisaged.

When is the second novel published and does it have a title yet?
I can’t tell you when the second novel will be published for a very good reason: I haven’t finished writing it yet. When it has been finished and edited, it will then be up to my publisher, Smithcraft Press, whether to accept it for publication and, if so, where it will fit into its schedule. I can tell you that the full title will be Earth Haven Book 2: The Beacon.

The Stand by Stephen KingI’m a huge fan of apocalyptic novels. Do you have any favourites?
So am I, though I’m an avid reader of many genres so haven’t read as many apocalyptic novels as I’d have liked. Too many books, not enough time. Of those I have read, the three that instantly spring to mind that I’d have to name as my favourites are, in no particular order:

The Stand by Stephen King. Many apocalyptic tales begin after – sometimes a long time after – the apocalyptic event took place. What I love about The Stand is that the novel opens just before the event begins so we watch it unfold. I also liked the fact that it was not a traumatic event such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war so that our infrastructures remained intact. (The Cleansing is very similar in these aspects.) Certain elements of the tale didn’t appeal to me so much and I would have liked to have seen a little of what was happening outside the United States, but as a whole the book is a fantastic read.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the book has a haunting lyricism and sense of mysticism that stayed with me long after I finished it. Just writing this is making me want to read it again.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Bleak, depressing, pessimistic… I found it utterly compelling. This seems to be a Marmite book, but I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It’s not often I find a book to be truly unputdownable, but this one was. Simply superb.

What was your favourite read of 2013?
My reading highlights included catching up on some classics such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury; my first, but not last, venture into the world of John Le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl; and the moving Joyland by Stephen King. But my absolute favourite read of the year, though I did not anticipate it being so, was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction but picked this up on a whim as a holiday read. Boy, am I glad that I did! The structure is unusual: a series of interviews with key players or witnesses in the zombie war that has recently ended. The advantage of the format is that we get to see the war unfold through many different points of view. Thoughtful, intelligent, it dragged me in and kept me totally engrossed to the end. Wonderful.

Links
A review
Buy The Cleansing: UK: Kindle, Paperback; US: Kindle, Paperback
Sam Kates on Twitter and Facebook

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