Thursday, September 13, 2012

Outage (Darkness Falls, Book 1) by Mathieu Gallant: Interview & Excerpt



Darkness Falls is a frame novel, a story within a story. Primarily, it tells the story of one man, Robert Hendricks. We first meet him in 2179 onboard an alien star ship approaching Earth. He is the lone human on the ship and it will be the first time he sees his planet in over 150 years.

He has been away so long, in fact, that Hendricks has very little in the way of actual memories of his home. The only thing he knows for sure is that his feelings about going back are far from positive. This is a problem for his extra-terrestrial hosts, the Gulran. The Gulran have a growing interest in this sector of the galaxy and Earth is vital to their plan. With Hendricks as an ambassador the Gulrani High Arbitor, Gorak, thinks the mission has a good chance of success. Without the human’s help, he’s not so sure. In order to ensure a positive outcome – but also to help his troubled friend – Gorak hypnotizes Hendricks and, through his recollections, travels back with him to the Earth of 2026.

For Hendricks, the end begins with a total blackout of North America. It doesn't take long for him to learn that the line between order and chaos is as thin as a stream of electrons flowing down a copper wire.

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Excerpt from chapter 37,  this is the point where the main character decides to leave his apartment due to safety concerns (the building across from his burned down the night before) and try his luck living in the outdoors.
One hundred and ten hours after lights out, there are no vehicles going through the intersection of Lansdowne Avenue and Main Street. The only cars I see are parked, and most of them appear to be damaged. Generally, this amounts to busted tires and broken windows, but there are also a few burned-out hulks that attest to rougher handling. And unlike two days ago, there is no sign of music coming from any of them. In fact, the streets of the North End seem to be nearly deserted on this early morning.
I wonder where the tenants from building one ended up.
Moments later, I have a partial answer; I see some familiar looking tents set up on the parking lot of the double-decker McDonald’s. It certainly doesn’t account for everyone, but it seems as though at least some have been able to adapt. There is no movement from the encampment at this early hour.
The McDonald’s itself has taken a good beating; its windows have been smashed out, and there’s graffiti all over its eggshell colored exterior. The same goes for Place 400, a little farther down Main Street. Normally well kept, the commercial complex’s main entrance has been reduced to shards, and a large plastic garbage can has been knocked over, spilling its contents on the ground.
One of the other people out and about on this day is picking through that mess. I recognize her immediately. How many times have I passed this woman in my cab as she pushed her ratty old shopping cart full of garbage bags around town? Hundreds, surely. Yes, I’d recognize that face anywhere: the missing teeth, the puffed out skin covered in patches of psoriasis, the cracked and dirty glasses. Most notably though, and the thing that has always set this lady apart from the others like her, is the bright orange mesh of the construction vest she puts on over the winter jacket she wears year round and the Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap, encrusted in ancient filth, that is perpetually pulled down to eyebrow level.
Initially, my thoughts are the same dismissive ones I usually have when I see her: dirty garbage-picker. But it dawns on me that today she’s more than that. This woman, as distasteful as she is to me, is a survivor. She’s used to making due with the bare minimum and has been doing so for years while others have been enjoying the good life. As I watch her pick at some fast-food wrappers and sniff the contents, it strikes me that, given the current circumstances, this woman is in her element. She does not need to learn anything that the world has not already taught her. And while the rest of society seems to be crumbling into a God awful cesspool, this woman, this dirty garbage-picker, endures by doing the very things she was taught to do by living on the margins of a world that often made a joke of her and treated her cruelly.
Who’s got the last laugh now, buddy boy?
The truth is that, even though on many levels I’m undoubtedly more intelligent and more capable than this woman, when it comes to the really important things, she’s a master while I’m a novice. She can turn garbage into survival, something I have no clue about.
I’ve had things too good, too easy. Personal tragedies—like losing my parents—aside, I’ve never been homeless or had to scrounge for my next meal. So while I’m facing the prospect of learning the hard way, for her it’s just another day of picking life out of refuse and surviving. Finally I put the sight of her behind me as I continue down Main Street, but I know the thought of her, unchanged despite the turmoil going on all around, will stick with me forever.
A few hundred meters up is the CBC station. Here, like nearly everywhere else, the glass smashers have had a field day. So have the arsonists. In the small, front parking lot, the remains of a news van sit, torched, in the shadow of a large, billowy maple tree. This station is normally where I get my news. Seeing it like this, smashed and broken, speaks volumes and brings on another round of information withdrawals.
Using the deserted six lane viaduct, usually off limits to pedestrian traffic, I cross over to the uptown. I take the first left, up Union Street. Here as well there is a great deal of broken glass and garbage strewn about. But in amongst the more tightly packed buildings and the higher curbs, the windswept trash is gathering in piles. On my right, the Brunswick Square parking garage, six levels normally packed full on a work day, is nearly empty of vehicles. That is not to say that it is deserted; some have opted to set up camp in the vacant parking spaces.
I pass the Scout Shop, a sporting goods store focused on selling camping gear. The plate-glass has been totally peeled away by looters, and the shelves have been picked clean. Even the kayaks and canoes, for which there is hardly a need in the midst of all this concrete, have been carried away.
“Looks like we got here too late for the clearance sale, Hooper,” I say, kicking at the shards of glass disappointedly. Part of me had held out hope to find a shelter here, preferably a tent that I could set up once outside of the uptown core. But it’s obvious that the time for getting such things from this place has now passed. And I imagine the story will be the same everywhere. By this point, only four days in, the easy pickings have already been had by looters. If I want to get my hands on something useful, I’m going to have to try a little harder. Luckily, my work as a cab driver has taken me to the deepest, darkest parts of the uptown where nobody really likes to go. In the back of my mind, I feel a tickle, the beginning of a thought that will lead to my goal. I backtrack a little bit and take a left onto Charlotte Street.


Tell us about your current release.


The Outage Series Book 1: Darkness Falls.


Where will you be when the lights go out?

My debut novel is part of a series that will stretch out for at least four books. Darkness Falls, like the second book, When the Levee Breaks, is a frame novel, a story within a story. Basically it’s the story of a homecoming of galactic proportions for the main character, Robert Hendricks.

We first meet Hendricks in 2179 onboard a huge star-ship approaching Earth from the galactic center at high speed. It will be the first time he returns to Earth since leaving one hundred and fifty-three years before, in the midst of a cataclysmic nuclear war. It is a conflicting time for Hendricks; although the thought of returning home is appealing, it also stirs up long-suppressed feelings about the circumstances behind his departure. In hopes of setting the man’s mind at peace before arrival, the ship’s commander – High Arbitor Gorak – decides to help him get in touch with his past.

Through Hendricks’ recollections, we return to 2026 where he’s a computer-scientist-turned-cab-driver in Saint John, New Brunswick. He’s a homebody who goes out of his way to avoid personal relationships. Hendricks’ carefully constructed world comes crashing down when some dirty dealing in the Oval Office causes a total blackout of North America. Along with everyone else, he’s forced to come to terms with a world that is ill equipped to deal with life ‘unplugged.’ He learns the hard way that the line between order and chaos is as thin as a stream of electrons flowing down a copper wire.


Has someone helped or mentored you in your writing career?


Outage wouldn’t be what it is today without the help of Dr. Anne Compton. Until recently, Anne served as the writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick (Saint John campus). She’s the winner of the 2006 Governor-General award for poetry and has released a number of works over the years. I started working with Anne when I was at my lowest as a writer. The first draft of Outage was complete and I shopped it around to publishers… with precisely zero luck. I was ready to give up on it totally when, out of desperation, I wrote Anne an email. She replied within a few days and a couple weeks later I started making bi-monthly trips to her office to go over my work. After two years of hard work, Outage was transformed. Anne forced me to take my blinders off and see my work for what it really was. She also helped me notice the parts of my writing style that I could do without (example: I used to write things like “Hendricks considers the offer but finds he really doesn’t feel like going.” Anne made me realize that it’s much more effective to write “Hendricks decides he doesn’t want to go.”) In short she pushed me to keep things simple and not bury my ideas in a bunch of words that don’t need to be there.


What does your significant other and family think of your writing career?


All my friends and family are quite supportive. My mom and dad have recently read Outage. My dad’s not what I’d consider the “reading for pleasure” type. He reads the newspaper and things like that. He’s the kind of guy who’ll work twelve or more hours a day at doing masonry and come home to paint the living room. His work ethic is legendary. That’s why I was so touched when he finally took some time to sit down to read Outage. I was even more surprised when he finished it within a week and even discussed the plot development with me. Dad’s certainly not the sci-fi type, but he made it through and enjoyed it.

As far as my mom, I recall seeing her read for pleasure many times as I was growing up. A couple weeks back I was in the car with her driving to family function and we had a good conversation about what she thought. Overall she liked it, but I was a bit embarrassed when she brought up my main character’s colourful language. “You know, I have lots of friends who read. But I don’t know if I can suggest your book to them because you use the f-word too much in there. Can’t you tone it down a bit?” she asked. Immediately I felt like I was 12 again and about to be sent to my room for swearing. Keeping that in mind, in subsequent edits I’ve cut back on the expletives a bit.


How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula? Do you have any suggestions for beginning writers? If so, what are they?


I consider my writing technique to be a hybrid of the old and new schools. For the most part, I have no problem sitting in front of the computer screen and pounding out copy via keyboard. But when I’m starting to feel blocked or struggling to find the right words, I go back to pen and paper to stimulate my brain. I have a journal I keep handy and it has been indispensible getting me past the difficult times. It’s also great to keep complicated plot points straight and to jot down new ideas I may not be ready to work on just yet. If I only have one piece of advice for someone who is serious about becoming a writer, it would be to get a journal and use it often. 


At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to be a writer?


I think I realized I had a facility with words and an aptitude for writing pretty early on. I went to a French school from kindergarten to graduation. English classes started in junior high school (although the city where I live is mostly English, so I was comfortable with the language well before that.) Anyway, I always did really well in English classes, especially in composition. It seems that while most of my classmates were struggling with the minimum word count, I was presenting my teacher with multiples of it. My first real writing project outside the assigned curriculum was a story I wrote shortly after seeing the movie Die Hard. It took up a whole Hilroy notebook (32 pages handwritten) and told the story of one kid defending his school against a nasty group of terrorists and – of course – saving the beautiful girl at the end. The story was actually confiscated by the administration and my parents were called in to speak to the principal. I’m lucky it was pre-Columbine or else I might actually have been expelled. Over the years I’ve also started a number of other novels I never finished. Sometimes I wish I could go back and see that work again to measure it against what I can do now, but it has long since been lost.  


What would you consider to be the best book you have ever read?


I just read this one again after a long time. I found it on sale at the local Indigo bookstore: The Stand, by Stephen King. If you’ve ever read The Stand you know it’s a real tome of a book, especially the uncut and unabridged versions. What I like most about the novel is how the author took the time to write all these little side stories that don’t fit into the main plot, but that build up a world that’s chillingly real and hard to tear yourself away from. I know it’s the story of a deadly flu that kills 95% of the population, but part of me wishes I was in that world because Stephen King did such a good job creating it. It’s the little details that do that. I think The Stand also turned me onto the apocalyptic genre and got me to thinking about how little it would take for society as we know it to break down.


What are the most important attributes for remaining sane as a writer?


You always need to find time to practice your craft. Even if you’re working full-time and have a family to take care of, remember to make time to pursue your interests. Personally, that usually happens late at night when everyone else is in bed. I prefer a quiet environment to work in and find inspiration in the peacefulness of the dark, looking over the city lights from my kitchen window.


Say your publisher has offered to fly you anywhere in the world to do research on an upcoming book, where would you most likely want to go?


I’m currently working on another novel, straight fiction this time, where part of the action takes place on an island off the coast of Chile called “Isla Mocha.” I’ve done some research on the place. Apparently it is closely related to the novel Moby Dick and the island served as a base for many notorious pirates. On top of that, it looks like a beautiful place to visit. I saw this one picture, taken inside a forest setting, where the trees seem to be growing intertwined like corkscrews and they’re covered in fluffy green moss. There’s a path that disappears into the bushes that sets my imagination into overdrive. I could stare at that picture for hours. I’d love to go there and let my senses take the place in so I can write from a place of first-hand knowledge instead of pure imagination.  


Mathieu Gallant (1979- ) lives in New Brunswick, Canada. He started work on the Outage Series - his first full-length novels - about six years ago while attending journalism school in Woodstock, NB. Two years ago he started working with Governor General Award winning poet Anne Compton (UNBSJ writer in residence.) Mathieu is currently working on the third part of the Outage Series, tentatively entitled Earthship Phoenix.


1 comment:

Sarah Aisling said...

This book sounds like it's right up my alley. I have an unhealthy obsession with apocalyptic scenarios. Sometimes I give myself nightmares. :-)

The Stand is my favorite book ever. Probably the only book I've read over and over (other than Charlotte's Web when I was a kid).