Friday, March 6, 2015

Author Interview: Oliver Sparrow

1. When did you first know you wanted to write?
I’m not sure that the question is meaningful: when, after all, did you first know that you wanted to walk, to dig in the garden?  Utilitarian things become recognised as pleasures through gradual steps, and it is the refining of those steps which point up the pleasures. I must have written several million words before I began on Dark Sun, Bright Moon, chiefly on analytical, technical matters: should we invest in Colombia? Please explain the new Russia to us, the Chinese economy, India. The audience for this thinks very well of itself, but it doesn’t know what it needs to know, is impatient with attempts at academic education and, in general,  has the attention span of an amphetamine-saturated gnat. This imposes its disciplines, with harsh penalties if you step off the invisible line drawn by their tolerance for you. 
 The liberty that writing fiction brings does not at all free one from these disciplines: the requirement of narrative precision, of careful context building, of gradually extending the cantilever of the reader’s understanding further out over the dark river of ignorance that they must bridge. And it is this, of course, which is the creative challenge, and it is from satisfying that challenge that the pleasures of creativity flow. In a commercial audience, it is the palpable illumination of light bulbs over heads, in fiction it is the look of dreamy disconnect in the reader, as they move from their world to the one your are building for them. 

2. Which authors inspire you the most?
I have struggled to analyse what pleases me. I greatly enjoy Big Picture fiction – not least, some science fiction – but then there’s Jane Austen, Barbara Pym; roman a clef texts that put a veneer of elegant rhetoric between the reader and the writer’s quotidian reality. I read a great deal of history, and long narrations that sit in their period context – here, I am thinking of the O’Brien Aubrey and Maturin series as an example – can keep me riveted to the page. But so, too, do readings from several angles around complex events – the origins of world war one, for example, a tale of institutional failure and elite incomprehension of the changed world that they inhabited. I trained as a scientist and have decades of immersion in the social sciences, and it is that anatomisation of complex situation that get to the trunk nerves, the very essence of the issue that still delights me. 

3. How did you get the inspiration for your novel?
Dark Sun, Bright Moon is set in the utter social and political isolation of the Andes as they were a thousand years ago. After millennia of separation, the Quechua people had developed a complex society that had very little in common with the rest of the world, and which would, four hundred years later, give rise to the Inca empire. The Spanish conquest did its best to eradicate this culture, but perhaps the best preserved of the remnants is the utterly alien metaphysic which they developed.
I have lived in Peru, but I still retain commercial interests there and have, of course, visited all of the accessible parts the country, often many times. The landscape, the enigmatic peoples of the Andes, their beliefs and aesthetics have always fascinated me, and I have spent some time researching and disentangling their metaphysics. Under a cap of syncretic Catholicism is to be found a set of views which amount less to a religion than a technology. It offers a worldview in which the individual counts for little in comparison with the community, and in which community harmony is of overwhelming importance.
There are stark reasons for this. Our daily world is sandwiched between two other domains, neither of them heavens of hells but rather alien and self-contained universes. A given community – indeed, everything tangible – is reproduced continuously by one of these domains at the direction of information that is stored in another. This information is extremely important. Infidelity in the reproduction of the community leads to further disharmony, sickness, its ultimate collapse into oblivion.
The domain of information is inhabited, and one such vaguely sentient entity is the apu. Apus form around communities and “farm” them for these flows of information, managing people’s attitudes and behaviour to ensure harmonious flows. Apus communicate amongst each other by means of what we would call ley lines, and if an apu goes to the bad, becomes greedy, if it over-exploits its community, then there exists the possibility of a chain of collapse that spreads out into the wider population. The book opens with just such a plague spreading across the Huari empire, resisted by characters who become central to the books’ story.  

4. What is your favourite part about being an author?
The many acts of creation that bring about the whole. 

5. What is your least favourite part about being an author?
Proofing, editing, marketing. 

6. Could you write a bit about what your publication process was like?
I have a number of friends who are literary agents. They advised me that publishers had, as a group, hunkered down in the face of Internet-based rivals, of low economic growth and of falling margins and heightened risk. What books that were being published in 2014 were by well-known authors who had placed themselves in middle ground of taste and around easily defined subjects. In brief, if your genre was contemporary romance and your hero was not a tennis professional with a tousled love life, and if your heroine did not focus on suntan products and handbags, then your chance of conventional publication was essentially nil.
That, of course, brought me to consider the alternatives. Amazon’s CreateSpace offers an service which, if you are capable of managing proofing, editing, layout and cover design, will let you go directly to print. I was able to let some of these activities to third parties and did the rest myself, being modestly proficient in the relevant Adobe packages. It proved necessary to buy a professional PDF editor, which proved a steep gradient to climb but which delivered the end product. All of that cost, I suppose, several thousand dollars and a couple of months of my time.
Physical publication is, of course, the least of the necessary steps to a commercial success. Holding your new book as it gleams between its silky covers is as emotionally overwhelming as acquiring a new puppy. All those months, distilled into this elegance! Yet the bulk of the work lies ahead. Worse, it is work that you as the author are ill-fitted to undertake. You need help, and help can be expensive. Your budget must be there, and the more you spend the more connection you will make with the book retail and reputation network. 

7. Do you have any upcoming projects?
I have been rather ill, and am currently as full of tubes as a set of bagpipes, so plans are on hold. I have, however, been turning over the extraordinary events of 1532 in which the illiterate Pizarro with his lightly-armed 167 thugs felled the highly militarised Inca empire of eleven millions. Unlike Cortez in Mexico, he did not have subject tribes to fight for him – or as they would have seen it, the Spanish to fight for them – and unlike Cortez, success was essentially instantaneous until the Spanish began fighting each other and the puppet Inca Manco staged his revolt. Incomprehensible, although seen through the filters of the victors’ pen. Nevertheless, there were only around a million indigenous left, a hundred years after the conquista

8. Describe in three or fewer sentences what makes your book unique and why a reader should buy it.
The book combines a strong narrative with strong personalities, taking the reader from the pretty, unchanging Andean village communities through the murderous, slaving societies of the coast to the remote Amazonian jungle. However, the true plot engine is the metaphysic, and our heroine Q’ilyasisa comes into an uneasy partnership with an embodiment of this, a figure determined to establish a tyranny of controlled minds and rigorous, unchanging social practice. She defeats him, but only after he has placed his stamp on the far wider world, creating the societies from which Pizarro – and probably you, reader – have arisen. It is a big book with very big concepts indeed and, if you like that sort of thing, then Dark Sun, Bright Moon is for you.
Well, four sentences: but punctuation will have its way. 

About the Book:
In the Andes of a thousand years ago, the Huari empire is sick. Its communities are being eaten from within by a plague, a contagion that is not of the body but of something far deeper, a plague that has taken their collective spirit. Rooting out this parasite is a task that is laid upon Q’ilyasisa, a young woman from an obscure littl
e village on the forgotten borders of the Huari empire. This impossible mission is imposed on her by a vast mind, a sentience that has ambitions to shape all human life. Her response to this entails confrontations on sacrificial pyramids, long journeys through the Amazonian jungle and the establishment of not just one but two new empires. Her legacy shapes future Andean civilisation until the arrival of the Spanish.

Dark Sun, Bright Moon explores the unique Andean metaphysic: not one of gods and heavens, but a cosmology developed over millennia of isolation, developed over generations by its practitioners but at constant war with the various state religions. It has been systematised from current beliefs, but is essentially authentic to them. As described in the book, therefore, this cosmology is a concrete thing, neither magic nor religion but a technology with a logic of its own that drives the story line. However, this is above all an adventure story in which credible people undertake rational if desperate acts in the face of extreme threat.

Dark Sun, Bright Moon is illustrated with over a hundred images (B&W, engravings and maps) and consists of around 170,000 words set in 40 chapters and an appendix, which last gives extensive background material. The author knows modern Peru very well, and has visited all of the physical sites that are described in the book.

Oliver Sparrow was born in the Bahamas, raised in Africa and educated at Oxford to
post-doctorate level, as a biologist with a strong line in computer science. He spent
the majority of his working life with Shell, the oil company, which took him into the
Peruvian jungle for the first time. He was a director at the Royal Institute for
International Affairs, Chatham House for five years. He has started numerous
companies, one of them in Peru, which mines for gold. This organisation funded a
program of photographing the more accessible parts of Peru, and the results can be
seen at Oliver knows modern Peru very well, and has
visited all of the physical sites that are described in his book Dark Sun, Bright Moon.

To learn more, go to



Disclosure: this post contains links to an affiliate program (Amazon), for which I receive a few cents if you make purchases.

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