Interview - Alec McQuay

Emily nation

After reading and raving about Emily Nation, Steve Taylor-Bryant got to talk to the author, Alec McQuay, about writing, Cornwall and being batshit crazy...

You can read Steve's review of Emily Nation here.

I first came across you a few years ago when I received a review copy of Spares, my very first book review by the way, which I thought was a great concept and the work of a polished and experienced author. It was your debut though if I'm not mistaken? Was writing something you always wanted to do or did a natural migration towards words happen?

I didn’t realise I was your first! I feel special now, but you never called... Spares was my second published story after a piece of flash-fiction I did for a horror anthology that is no longer in print. The short was about a guy with eczema who literally scratched himself to pieces, because I’ve always been a big fan of happy endings. Disney didn’t want it so it was published through Cruentus Libri press instead. I grew up in Cornwall where it rains a lot so having an indoor hobby (that you can talk about) was a must – mine was reading and that fed into wanting to have a go at writing my own stories. I didn’t really think about having anything published until Spares came along, which I started writing before the short story that Cruentus Libri published.

Who did you read growing up that stuck with you as an influence?

Terry Pratchett most of all. I had never read about such a detailed world before and with such a huge cast of characters, not to mention the humour and affection he had for what he did and those who loved his work. I met him once and all I could think to mention was the queue – probably the most socially awkward and British sentence to ever come out of my mouth. But he smiled, saying that for some reason his queues always seem to stretch across the doorway to a Mothercare sooner or later and get in everyone’s way. He wrote “even better wishes” in my copy of Making Money. As an author and as a person, Terry Pratchett has influenced me hugely. Sorry, having a slightly misty-eyed moment here…

I’m also heavily into Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, Deadpool and in general Alan Moore’s work. That won’t surprise anyone who has read my stories. They’re not similar but there are aspects there, I hope.

Talk to me about how Emily Nation came about? I used the technical term 'Batshit crazy' when recommending to a friend recently and said in my review that it came across like you had the time of your life writing it. Was it as entertaining to write?

I’m putting “Batshit crazy” on my next business card… I really loved writing it – the first draft was written as a NaNoWriMo entry or for “kick yourself right up the ass” month as I like to think of it and it was a hell of a month. Very little sleep, sore hands from typing (honest, no giggling) and more caffeine than anyone should ever consume. Emily as a story is the illegitimate daughter of Mad Max, Judge Dredd and Tank Girl and it all sort of fell into place quickly with no real planning done, besides enough to pitch it to Fox Spirit as a concept. I had to cut out a LOT to get it down to the 120,000 words it finished up as. There was probably another 30,000 words of crap, knob jokes, tangents and lines from Jemima that were too close to the bone that were great to do but ultimately made it a mess. A fun mess though.

Why did you choose to stick close to home and use Cornwall for the locations, rather than going for somewhere more urban or, dare I say it, exotic? After all, the Redruth loved by tourists doesn't automatically scream Mad Max - or does it?

I was really harsh on Redruth, to be fair. It’s a lovely little town really but local rivalries being what they are (and being a Hayle lad living just outside Camborne) I couldn’t say nice things about it, but if you think the place has no resemblance to Mad Max you’ve never been to Maccies car park on a Saturday night…

I wanted to set it in Cornwall for a few reasons – mostly, being realistic as a newbie writer a lot of your readers will be people you know and I thought it would be fun for them to see places they knew, twisted out of context and plonked into Emily’s world. The other thing is that as a post-apoc world I wanted to build on the idea of the people there living in the ruins of an older civilisation. In Cornwall, with all the abandoned mining works, engine houses, single remaining walls from factories that helped drive the area’s industrial revolution, hills that are actually man-made spoil heaps from mining, quarrying and china clay… it wasn’t far from the truth. I’m mad about Cornwall and I wanted to use it in my work. For instance, the house that Emily lives in at the beginning of the book is the house that my youngest son was born in. The Redruth bar is actually my favourite local cinema and is hardly ever on fire.

I also commented that your writing style is very visual for those with an imagination. Is that just natural or do you work at giving your prose a filmic quality?

It’s definitely what I was going for so that’s a relief! I try and make things work visually as best I can – the fight scenes and action pieces I certainly go through carefully to try and get them right without upsetting any other armchair fight-choreography experts. Every fight in Emily Nation has been acted out in my living room (with the door closed) to make sure I’ve not accidentally given a character an elastic spine or retractable elbow. I hate reading fights that sound like each combatant has three arms, an extra set of knees, four arses… You don’t have to be an expert but at least go through the motions a bit. I want people to see something like what I see when they read my work, though if I’m honest about 80% of the way through I cursed myself a bit for making the area a (mostly) desert wasteland. Jemima popped into my head and started shouting “yes we get it! It’s sandy! There’s sand! And dust! And lots and lots of fucking SAND!”

One thing I was grateful for was that Emily Nation just skirted the Steampunk genre rather than fully embracing it. I really don't like Steampunk novels. Was this done on purpose to garner a wider audience or just the way that it fell out of your head?

I love Steampunk aesthetically (proper steampunk – not just a box of cogs and a hot glue gun ffs…) but I’m just not into it enough to write something that would feel authentic, plus the idea of writing a novel with a particular genre in mind is quite limiting to me. I quite liked the idea of having different types and styles of technology throughout the book because after an apocalypse, people probably wouldn’t have much of a handle on anything beyond fairly simple scientific principles and wouldn’t really know how things worked. Most of what they have in Emily Nation has been found, scavenged or put together from books with only limited real understanding. It tickles me a bit how advanced humanity is but how un-advanced ordinary people are. I’ve known people who can barely tie a knot but then you see them using a PC or an iPad at blistering speed and the damn thing could be full of gnomes for all they know. You’ve almost got stone-age man using space-age tech, only stone-age man could fashion an axe head from knapped flint, lash it to a shaped wooden shaft with leather he’d made himself and chop your fucking legs off. Most people would take one look at the rock, throw it, miss and be in deep trouble. Modern man is a bit shit. We’re all waiting for the zombie apocalypse but while we all think we’re Bear Grylls and we’d get by fine, most of us would be fucked as soon as we lost the tin opener.

What's next for Alec McQuay? I'm seriously hoping for more along the line of Spares but can't say I'll be disappointed with another Cornish 'Mad Max' style adventure with Emily.

At the moment I’m working my way through Emily part 2 but I also have a superhero-themed novella coming out as part of a project by the name of “Outliers” that I’ve been working on with a group of other writers. I’ll definitely be coming back to Spares at some point in the future though but probably not in the form of a sequel – when I know more you’ll be among the first people I tell!

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