Q&A with Rebecca Millar
Here's the recent interview I did with editor Rebecca Millar. I worked with Rebecca on The Jagged Edge and she was a fantastic editor, providing plenty of guidance and support along the way. You can visit her website here.
AJ, welcome! The Jagged Edge is your latest novel. Tell us a little more about it.
Mercurial madman, Victor Sagen, is hellbent on saving the world from escalating climate change. Sagen is convinced that the only solution is to launch a devastating cyber weapon, called Biblical, that will send humanity back to the technological dark ages. A once lauded ex-war correspondent, Dominic Elliston, is desperate to find his old edge. Through a series of heart-stopping events, he is dragged (willingly) into Sagen’s orbit and, ultimately, finds himself in a position to stop him from releasing Biblical. But the question even Dominic must ask himself is, should he? The answer will shock him.
The novel sees the characters flying across the world throughout the course of the book. Setting is such a strong presence in the novel – they are almost like characters in themselves. Is there a reasoning behind why you chose these settings?
Places have a personality, a dialogue and are transformational – just like characters. Given the environmental themes in the book, the settings needed to amplify the drama at each stage of the story. The effects of climate change was reflected on Mont Blanc; the timeless beauty of the natural environment captured by the French coastline; the ugliness of our industrial complex was borne out in Taranto, Italy; the obsession with consumption played nicely in London; a stark reality in the Outback and utter hopelessness in the Indian Ocean… these characters all played their roles.
You describe the novel as ‘a thriller with a conscience’ with Dominic Elliston as a bit of an eco-orientated Ironman, bearing the weight of the fate of the world on his shoulders. What inspired you to tackle this poignant and topical issue?
I’m a lazy activist who doesn’t like conflict. So, while all these amazing scientists, conservationists, environmentalists and policymakers have all stood up to make a change, my form of activism appears to be to sit down – for a really long time – and write. Because, for a topic that evokes so much passion and debate, there is precious little fiction that deals with climate change in an entertaining way. The only exceptions are the stories that focus on the dramatic consequences (the tsunamis knocking over skyscrapers and the storms that freeze a person solid in seconds). The intent of The Jagged Edge is to focus on the adventure of dealing with this complex, long-term issue we all face and to create (climate) action heroes!
Do you share in Victor Sagen’s belief that drastic action is needed now to stop our effect on the planet? Do you hope that in reading The Jagged Edge will cause people to rethink their lifestyle?
Sagen is a wonderfully conflicted and tortured man. His motivations are more complex and personal than just doing what’s right for the planet. So, no, I don’t agree with his extreme views. I’m no poster child for eco-living, so I’d be a monstrous hypocrite to try and encourage people to radically change their lifestyles. The Jagged Edge wraps some complex and difficult themes into an entertaining and fun package that, hopefully, provokes more serious thought and contemplation.
Who inspired you to start writing? Have your influences changed since then?
My friend and mentor, Kamal Sarma, first inspired me to write. For years he’s been my muse. I know the classic assumption of a muse is that they’re an attractive lover. Kamal is neither of those things to me, but he’s no less of an essential muse.
I struggle to be inspired by other writers. That’s not to say I don’t love other writers’ work (I do!), it’s just that I have trouble being inspired by anyone I’ve not met. I did share an elevator with Bryce Courtenay once when we worked at the same advertising agency in Sydney. It was a thoroughly dull exchange (youthful nerves on my part), but the brief interaction was enduring and, for some reason, I still find it motivating.
What is the biggest challenge you faced when writing The Jagged Edge? How did you overcome it?
It would be easy and more gratifying to simply call out the time pressures from being a husband and a father; or the distracting, energy-demanding company that I launched at the same time as writing The Jagged Edge. But that would be a cop-out. The truth of my greatest challenge is much uglier… It was my lack of confidence and subsequent self-trash talk. It’s a nagging force – like gravity – it’s always there, just easily forgotten… until you trip over. And when you’re writing, stumbles happen a lot! It’s not something I can say I’ve overcome. I’ve just learnt to stand back up and dust myself off.
This is your second novel, the first Dawn of the Tiger, was very different. Why did you choose to move from military action/adventure to write an eco-thriller/crime? Did you find you had to change how you approached the writing process.
I’m really drawn to stories that are built around fact. I loathe the implicit dichotomy of ‘fact or fiction’. I love fiction that is factual and facts that are wrapped in fiction are so much more relatable (okay, if this sounds like a Trumpism, I apologise). Dawn of the Tiger isn’t a war story as much as it is a social critique of how modern youth would react to the threat of violence. In the same way, The Jagged Edge is a story about the nexus of social inertia, digital technology and climate change. Both stories required a lot of research and a careful balance of realism and near-future extrapolation.
Do you like to plan the action of your novels (plotter) or do you just let them write themselves (pantser)?
I am an unequivocal pantser. The meditation of writing is, for me, a huge part of the joy that comes from creating. Allowing that sacred, mystical place in the mind to open a door and let an idea into your imagination. Whilst this might sound like I’m contradicting my answer to your question about challenges, I am supremely confident that the ideas will always materialise. Maybe not always at exactly the right time, or in exactly the right order, but the picture always forms as the picture gets drawn.
Did you have to do a lot of research for The Jagged Edge? Was it difficult getting the details right?
Research was a massive component of this book. There is a wealth of information out there on the topics I was playing with, which was a blessing and a curse. All books are like time capsules, written in a particular moment. Even the most futuristic sci-fi is still influenced by the moment in time it was written. For The Jagged Edge, I really wanted it to have both currency and a sense of timelessness. I wanted the time setting to be ambiguous; for the reader to think that it could be set now, soon, or in the future. I had to extrapolate much of the research to an ambiguous moment in time. Which gave the research an added level of complexity.
The novel ends on somewhat of a question mark. Is there more in store for Dominic Elliston and the gang?
Dom will be back! Picking up from where we leave him in The Jagged Edge, he gets a phone call that will set him on a hellish path. From South America to Norway, he’s going to be taken to the limit as he tries to fix a pretty major IT issue.
What is your desert-island read?
That’s easy… Papillon. It’s such an intoxicating story of survival against the odds and it might give me some good practical ideas for getting off this desert island. Then again, with lockdowns and covids, maybe I’ll just stay and read Charrière (surely my island can’t be worse than Devil’s Island?).
Do you have any writing tips to share?
If you haven’t already, put your TV in the bin. Remove it from the house and you’ll 10x your writing productivity immediately. If you can’t do that, move it into a closet for two weeks. After the two weeks you’ll wonder why you spent so many years staring at the thing.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine? A favourite place to write?
Routine is the glove into which evil slips its hand… Okay, that might be a bit dramatic! Though I don’t keep much of a writing routine, my writing mantra is: it’s all write at night. So, I tend to spend the evenings writing or doing something related to writing. For the last 3 months my wife and our two young children have been roaming Australia, so it’s been a real challenge finding a place to write. I’m now content with a chair and, ideally, a flat surface to perch my laptop. Anything else is just a bonus.
Also most important question. Favourite writing snack?
Because of my epic levels of procrastination, I’ve usually eaten a ton before I sit down to write. So I don’t usually snack when I’m writing! If I do, you can be sure it is something with a chocolate prefix: brownie; bar; milk…