Thursday, July 24, 2014

An Interview with Toby Ball

Toby Ball is the critically acclaimed author of THE VAULTS and SCORCH CITY. INVISIBLE STREETS, available July 24, is the third in the thriller series.

This is your third novel, and it follows some of the same characters as the first two. Was it challenging to write a book that stood alone from The Vaults and Scorch City but would also please fans of the first two books?
Spacing the three books about fifteen years apart has allowed me to bring returning readers up to speed with what has happened over the intervening years at the same time as I introduce new readers to the characters and the world they inhabit. I’ve noticed that a lot of more traditional series need to reference the previous book or books, because they are so close in time that it would be strange not to. If a character had a harrowing experience six months ago, you can’t simply ignore it in the next book because it will still affect that character. Fifteen years past, however, and the experience is more of a memory—a flicker of something, rather than the thing itself. So the challenge is to imagine how these characters have changed since we last saw them. I certainly don’t think about things the same way I did fifteen years ago, so it makes sense that the returning characters would change as well, while at the same time remaining themselves.
I took a similar approach to the book’s setting. All three books take place in the City—a gigantic, ethnically diverse, extremely corrupt, and nearly ungovernable urban expanse—and I wanted to figure out how fifteen years of mismanagement and chaos would transform it. The answer, as I saw it, was that in response to decades of corruption and economic stagnation, the municipal government and business leaders were going to push a major project to remake the City around the needs of business and the wealthy people who run them. The plot really flowed from that idea: who supports the project? Who opposes it and why? What does this conflict look like?

It’s obvious that the character of Nathan Canada, a man more powerful than the mayor or the chief of police, bears some resemblance to Robert Moses, the controversial urban planner who transformed New York in the middle of the twentieth century. How did you become interested in Moses, and how much did the details of his life shape the character of Canada?

For me, the crucial thing was that a guy like Robert Moses could really exist. I’m fascinated by people who are so clear in their vision for change and so convinced of its rightness that they are willing to really steamroll any opposition. I first found out about Moses when a friend gave me a copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. I read the first fifty pages and just stopped because I didn’t want to know any more. I didn’t want to write a book with Moses in it. I wanted to write a book where someone plays the same role in the City that Moses played in New York. 

Speaking of which, the City in Invisible Streets looks and feels a little bit like New York, but it’s also clearly an invented landscape. What were the challenges you encountered as you brought this world to life? Were you concerned with making things feel realistic, or just interesting?

This was an issue that I confronted when I was writing my first book, The Vaults. Would it make more sense to drop clearly fictional institutions and events into a real city with a real history, or would I be better off creating a fictional city that gave me more freedom of plot and atmosphere? In the end, I decided that I didn’t want readers to be distracted by guessing games (did New York really have a huge underground library of criminal records in the 1930s?), and once I made the decision to set The Vaults in a fictional city, I felt liberated to create a setting that was not entirely realistic, but which, I hope, adds to the mood and plot of the books. What’s different about Invisible Streets is that the City has become more of a character, a sort of damsel in distress that everyone in the novel tries to rescue (mostly unsuccessfully). 

I intended for the New City Project—the urban renewal scheme at the heart of the book—to be a little bit over-the-top in terms of its ambition, with Nathan Canada as Robert Moses on steroids. But the strange thing is that people are either thinking about or actually enacting even more grandiose plans—Turkey’s plan to build a canal parallel to the Bosphorus strait; the development of Astana, Kazakhstan’s new and remarkably weird capital; and, of course, Dubai in all of its spectacular grandeur.

Invisible Streets is brilliant at juggling a compelling, fast-moving plot with a textured and rich landscape. What are books that you’ve read that you feel manage to pull this off especially well? They don’t need to be thrillers!

I actually just finished a book called Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, which is very fast-moving and takes place in Area X, a forbidden zone that was abandoned after an environmental catastrophe. Part of the fun of the book is following the main character as she tries to figure out the secrets hidden by this beautifully described landscape. Another book is The City and the City, by China Miéville. Again, the unusual, even surreal, setting is affects not just the mood of the book, but also the plot. I realize that both of these are books with imagined landscapes, and that might be part of their attraction for me—it’s interesting to see how other authors tackled the same challenge of creating a somewhat surreal setting from scratch. 

Was writing Invisible Streets a different kind of challenge from the first two books, or has your process remained basically the same throughout?

I keep waiting to stumble upon a process that I can use more than once! Each book has been its own challenge and, in some ways, it seems to get harder with each book. With The Vaults, it was almost dumb luck in that, writing by feel, I managed to get the pacing and the transformation of characters more or less right—or at least enough so that I didn’t have to make a lot of huge changes to the manuscript afterwards. Both Scorch City and Invisible Streets required a significant amount of playing with the plot and characters, so that the final product ended up being quite a bit different in both instances than the first couple of drafts. With Invisible Streets, the plot ended up being much more focused after the editing process, with some of the subplots left on the cutting room floor.

Did you plan to write a series when you started out, or has that evolved over time?

The answer is both yes and no. When I started The Vaults, I was working at a humanities organization that spent a lot of time on Big Issues. I’d read somewhere that Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson had envisioned Chinatown to be the first of a trilogy with each movie representing water, fire, and air, respectively. I had in my head the idea of writing a trilogy based on memory, ideology, and perception. I don’t know if those themes jump out at you as you read the books, but that was the concept.

On the other hand, the odds are so long that you get even one book published—much less three—that I didn’t think during the writing of either The Vaults or Scorch City that these were the beginning of a trilogy or series. I was taking them one at a time.

Any chance that we’ll get another book set in the world of the City?

I wouldn’t want to close the door on it, and I’ve been bouncing around some ideas about what a next book might look like. I really like writing about the City, I like the characters that populate it, and I like the potential for future books. That being said, the project I’m working on right now is not the fourth City book. Stay tuned!

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