Interview with Stephen Palmer

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002

Stephen Palmer is the author of 13 novels, published variously by Orbit, PS Publishing, and Infinity Plus. His latest novel, Tommy Catkins, will be released this week.

Interview by millymollymo:

Tommy Catkins is set in 1915 but takes us to the unusual world of Onderwater. Portal fiction it might be, but based on Stephen’s previous work, this isn’t likely to be a Narnia-esque fantasy, nor is Stephen Palmer an author who sticks to one style. Just like Alice peering down the rabbit hole, I was curious to know more about his upcoming novel.

m: What made you veer toward World War 1 for your starting point in Tommy Catkins?

SP: After writing the Factory Girl trilogy I knew there was more to tell about Erasmus Darwin, one of the two main characters in that work. So in December 2015 and early 2016 I wrote The Conscientious Objector (which remains unpublished), a novel set in 1914 - 1915, and which follows Erasmus through his wartime experiences.

During the writing of that novel I discovered a lot about shell shock, which in those early months of the war was something entirely unexpected, and, indeed, unknown. One evening, having taken a year off writing because of the huge effort I put into those four books, I was pondering what novel to write next.

As I lay on my sofa with the lights down and Genesis’ album A Trick Of The Tail playing, I began to realise that one of my prospective books was somehow being reinforced by the themes of the songs on that album, particularly Entangled, Squonk, Mad Man Moon, Ripples and A Trick Of The Tail. It really was quite an odd experience.

So as I carried on listening, the whole scenario popped into my head – the main character, the setting, the feel of the novel including its relation to Tommy’s psyche, a couple of the other characters, Onderwater and much else besides.

I’ve had these sorts of experiences before, most notably with Factory Girl and my debut Memory Seed. So at the end of the album I grabbed an empty notebook and wrote everything down that had come to mind. From those moments of inspiration I later developed the novel, which I then wrote during December 2016 – January 2017.

m: As you were developing your character, what surprised you about Tommy?

SP: Nothing really, to be honest – which is unusual. I always leave plenty of mental space in character development so that I can discover things as I write the first draft, and therefore pass them on to the reader in as immediate and vibrant way as possible. But Tommy isn’t my usual sort of character.

I can’t say exactly why that is because it would spoil the plot, but, let’s say… Tommy is the source of what the reader grasps about the island, its mental hospital and Onderwater. So he was intimately known to me before I wrote the first sentence.

There were a few details about him that popped up out of nowhere during writing – for instance his relationship with his next door neighbour, Pier, who turned out to be a bit of a con-man – but all his other relationships were known to me, as was the truth about his experiences on the Western Front.

m: How did you go about creating Onderwater?

SP: As I mentioned above, some of the defining characteristics were taken from Genesis songs, but its main aspect, which is its watery nature, was inspired in part from reading about soldiers’ experiences at the Western Front and in part from my own imagination.

I imagined Onderwater to be at once an impossible place, a fantastical place, yet also profoundly real. Exactly how that reality is conveyed to the reader I can’t describe, but I can say that it becomes apparent as Tommy’s experiences develop. He is not the same man at the end of the book as he is at the beginning, and yet his ultimate fate is foreshadowed in one of his early experiences.

I suppose this novel is in many ways a mystery novel. Tommy’s name itself – the title of the book and the first thing the reader knows about it – offers a mystery, since it is so similar to the generic name for a World War 1 solider: Tommy, i.e. Tommy Atkins.

m: Why use a 1915 hospice as a portal?

SP: Again, that was very much taken from the Genesis song Entangled – one of Steve Hackett’s finest compositions for the band – which is about a soldier being healed. The lyrics led me to imagine the enigmatic mental hospital and its dream-like atmosphere. Once I had that settled, my imagination did all the rest…

m: How would have the characters experiences have been different if the novel had been set recently?

SP: That’s a difficult question to answer! Part of the fascination for me in writing this book was that it is set not only at the beginning of our understanding of the phenomenon of shell shock, but at the beginning of our understanding of psychology itself. Only a decade or two earlier Freud had made his ground-breaking discovery of the unconscious. (Readers familiar with The Girl With Two Souls in particular will recognise this theme in my recent work.)

So I used this setting of psychological pioneers by having two doctors work with Tommy, one more traditional, and indeed military in background, Dr Snell, and the other the more radical Dr Hendriks. Tommy’s experience with Dr Hendriks is something that would have been impossible to write in a contemporary novel, as we know now so much more about the unconscious than we did in pre-War times.

Actually, a lot of real soldiers sent back to Britain to be healed of shell shock were well aware of the fact that their doctors were under a lot of pressure to comprehend shell shock and find what the top brass called a cure. Those soldiers knew they were to a certain extent being exploited as guinea pigs. Tommy’s frustration at this realisation emerges in the novel’s later chapters.

m: Is there an author you admire, but hasn’t influenced your work?

SP: Interesting question! Well… I suppose I could mention Robert Holdstock, whose pagan-inspired novels of ancient forests and early British cultures I loved. But I was never inspired by his work, or really of any fiction author in the way I am inspired by non-fiction authors.

I suppose there are hints of Gene Wolfe and William Gibson in my earlier SF work, but more by theme or setting than anything else. The authors who truly influence me are people like Nicholas Humphrey, James Lovelock, Dorothy Rowe, Susan Cain (author of Quiet, which had a great impact on my personal life after I read it about 5 years ago), and others in the evolution/psychology/philosophy world.

Nicholas Humphrey in particular has had a deep impact on my own thinking, and therefore on my novels, which is why I dedicated The Girl With Two Souls to him.

m: Should readers be worried about possible stereotyping in Nurse Vann?

SP: Not really. As with all my books, I begin with my characters as human beings. The social milieu of those characters and their attitudes may be part of old-fashioned mores if I’m writing a “historical” novel, but I don’t think stereotyping by the author is an issue.

As a free-thinking liberal that kind of attitude is no part of me. I’m known for promoting diversity etc. There is a related issue however that I’d like to mention, which I confronted when writing The Girl With Two Souls, and that is the issue of historical accuracy. Kora, a mulatto, faces the racism of Edwardian Britain, including use of the N-word. I wrote a blog about the importance of using such language, which my editor and I decided would be good to place at the back of the book. We cannot censor the bad parts of history by looking at it with our politically correct, liberal minds. We have to present it accurately, including the appalling language.

m: As well as creating fiction you’re also a self-taught musician, do you find one influences the other?

SP: Only in that I think a lot about music and why it is so important to human beings, thoughts which then have an influence on my fiction. I’m especially interested in melody and how that affects our emotions. I recently completed a new AI novel, The Autist, and that musical theme is a significant strand in the work.

m: Recommend a book you’ve read recently.

SP: My main research interest is the nature and evolution of consciousness and the human condition. One of the best books I read recently on these topics was Thinking Big: How The Evolution Of Social Life Shaped The Human Mind by Gamble, Gowlett & Dunbar, the latter being Robin Dunbar, who is well known in the field (creator of the Dunbar Number) and whose books are all excellent.

The book begins with descriptions of our earliest ancestors, and here there is a certain amount of speculation, but it is highly informed speculation from leaders in the field. Later chapters deal with the relationship between brain size and community size, with human skills, and with the relationship between such phenomena as burial rites and artistic expression and consciousness. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on this subject or indeed on any other for absolutely ages. Highly recommended.

m: Tell us something we don’t already know about you.

SP: I own a collection of about 150 musical instruments from around the world, which I began in 1992 with an mbira.

Tommy Catkins, published by Infinity Plus, is due to be released on 26th July.

Stephen Palmer

author of novels
Dec 22, 2009
Ironically, the kora is right-handed owing to the placement of the higher pitch strings, which makes learning it problematic for me (a shame).
Some of my guitars are made left-handed, a few are converted.
Most of the instruments can be played by left or right handers, eg flutes, reeds, percussion etc.