After reading the new novel Birds of Paradise I spoke to author Oliver K. Langmead and asked him a few questions about the project. The full review for Birds of Paradise can be found here.
Birds of Paradise could probably fall into the Urban Fantasy genre, as it sees readers discovering a world of magic or the fantastical inserted into our own, but it feels very different to that, as it seems to be a story where these immortal beings who have had to deal with humanity taking over their world. Did it ever feel like you were creating something unique when you were writing it, that you were going to be challenging expectations and conventions?
A few folk have described Birds of Paradise as “mythical fantasy”, and I think it would probably be intrusive fantasy under Mendelsohn's classifications, as well – but I always feel as if genre is more for publishers, critics and readers than writers. There are genre conventions to play with, certainly – but more often than not, I think that writers just want to be able to tell the stories they want to tell without worrying about where it fits into the broader literary world.
Still - no book is written in a vacuum, and all books are written in conversation with other books, which is probably where the emergence of genre comes from. I think Birds is in conversation with the likes of American Gods, and The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Vorrh trilogy – and if there's anything in it that challenges genre, then it comes from the way that it thinks about the themes those books address.
The book chiefly follows Adam, the First Man, a character that has been depicted a lot in various incarnations. Despite this your Adam felt incredibly fresh and original. I felt this was in part down to the way that he seemed to walk a fine line between incredibly violent and destructive and deeply sensitive and caring. Was this a difficult character to balance?
That's very kind of you! Adam was difficult to write because he is the sum of his experiences – all the things he must have seen and done over thousands of years of existence. He's effectively lived hundreds of different lives, through so many different eras in so many different cultures. If he succeeds at all, it's because I wrote him largely at the scene level – making sure that the character felt right in each interaction he had – instead of thinking about him from a broad perspective (which would, I think, have been overwhelming and unworkable).
Most depictions of Adam and Eve are shaped by Western Christianity, and they’re often portrayed as white, yet you chose to have them be Black people, a decision that I thought was the most realistic way for the characters to be depicted. What was your reasoning for breaking from conventional depictions of them, and have you experienced any pushback on that?
Birds of Paradise is an exercise in literalising a myth. As a part of that process, I had to address the fact that white skin only became a dominant feature in Europe at around 3000B.C. Obviously, there were thousands upon thousands of years of human history before then, which Adam will have been a part of. It felt absolutely right to give him dark skin, and I like that it challenges conventional ideas about what the first man should look like, especially when those conventions come from institutions that have a history of racial oppression. So far, I haven't experienced any pushback.
|Oliver's Dark Star was amongst the Guardian’s |
Best Books of 2015
The book features several characters other than Adam and Eve who were present in Eden, as you’ve given human form to the various animals that lived there. Were there any of these animal beings you were interesting in using who didn’t quite make the cut, or ideas of interesting character that you never got to use?
Absolutely! In early drafts, Butterfly had a sister – gentle, near-sighted Moth. And I did, at one point, script a spin-off comic about Barracuda – sharp, quick and cold. I had a lot of fun with Barracuda. The script was called Barracuda Smile, and it was about his poor attempts at setting up a private detective agency (with the help of Rook, of course). It's something I hope to revisit some day. There's something really fun about the idea of an immortal fish private investigator.
You’ve mentioned in the past, with your work like Dark Star and Metronome, that you like writing broken people, was it always your intention to make Adam such a broken man or was it something that happened naturally as you were developing things?
When I start writing a book, I begin by writing a keystone scene – a scene that will inform the rest of the book with its style and form and pacing and character. It's always a scene I can return to when I'm feeling a bit lost, to tell me what the book should be. For Birds of Paradise, that scene is the opening to the first chapter, and it took a couple of months to emerge. But as soon as it did, I knew that that was what I wanted the book to be – I knew that that was what I wanted Adam to be. In that scene, Adam has trouble connecting with the world he finds himself in, and he's clearly disconnected from his descendants. I wanted to explore that disconnection, discover the reasons behind it, and find out what Adam was still connected to.
|Metronome is available from |
Adam goes through a journey of healing over the course of the book, after going through some incredibly traumatic and harmful things. Do you see this as the beginning of a happy ending for him, or do you think he would end up going through similar cycles of apathy and the finding of small comforts in the rest of his life?
I'm not sure that a happy ending would ever have worked for Birds of Paradise. I like a good happy ending – don't get me wrong – but I'm not sure that happy endings are quite reflective of the reality we live in, and it was important to me that Adam feels as if he lives in our world. I think that a core part of the human experience is the way that everything is fleeting – the good and bad both – and it's easy to imagine Adam continuing much along the same lines. Good days and bad days, good months and bad months, good years and bad years, just like his descendants.
At the end of the book you say that it took you a decade to write it, what was it about this story that kept you going on it for so long, that you felt you needed to come back to over such a long period and finish?
The book comes from a short story I wrote in about 2005, about a man who sells his soul to the devil for a flower from Eden. Since then, the idea stuck with me and developed, producing some really wonderful characters. The problem, since I started writing the first version of Birds back in 2009, was that I just wasn't doing justice to the idea behind the book. The idea was great – what if the first man was still alive today? What if pieces of Eden were scattered all across the world? How far would Adam go to recover them? But it would take another decade before I was skilled enough to produce a book worthy of it. The Birds of Paradise out today was a labour of love, and I can tell you that it was worth every second of work I put into it – I am proud of what it is.
The book has a strong message about environmentalism in it, as you depict a Britain where massive floods and extreme weather affect the country. I know you’ve studied terraforming and ecological philosophy in the past, as well as working with the European Space Agency. Is environmentalism and the preservation of the planet something that you feel informs your work?
Birds of Paradise was definitely written in part to express how I've been feeling about the climate crisis. We're at the point, as a species, where we really need be rethinking our place in the world. My villains may feel a little bold in their assertions of dominion and dominance over non-humans, but this is exactly how we're still acting as a species; as if all the world is ours to plunder, instead of care for. Anthropocentrism is ruining our planet, and destroying so many beautiful things, and it is rooted in religious ideas about the world being created for us to rule over. It felt good to have Adam, the first man, summarily reject that notion.