Thursday, 6 June 2019

Interview with Jem Tugwell - Author of Proximity

Q&A for Jem Tugwell

This interview was conducted for
My thanks to Jem Tugwell for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Firstly, let me get my fangirling out of the way and say how I thought Proximity was wonderful and how I struggled to believe it’s a debut novel and how compelling I found your writing! I did research a little into your background; moving from investment management to novel writing is quite a leap. Can you tell us a little about that journey?

 Thanks so much. Such positive feedback really means a lot to me. I’ve had the writing itch for years, but there was always something else to do. It may not seem it from the outside, but designing software for investment management firms is creative. When I stopped working, I struggled without a creative outlet for my mind. Now writing gives me that, and I can do it anywhere. I can even think though ideas while mowing the lawn. I did a creative crime writing MA to give me the framework and help to write a complete book. Proximity is the result.

 One of the many things I loved about Proximity was that unlike many dystopian, speculative fictions there was no attempt to create some stylised, futuristic landscape, so events took place in the readers’ frames of reference. Was this always your intention or was there ever a desire to go for a more science fiction flavour?

I wanted to make readers feel ‘that could be me’, so it was important to describe a world that was an alternate ‘now’. In the 1990s, the jobs, cars, commuting, clothes, etc. were all broadly the same as today, but the technology is fundamentally different. The world of Proximity is a similar transition. Making the landscape more science fiction would have made it feel more abstract and lost a lot of the sense of threat. 

I found Proximity chillingly prophetic, with SMART technology, our reliance on devices and social media, the levels of current surveillance, it all seems just one step away from reality. What kind of research did you do to render the technology so utterly believable? 

The research was easy as so much of it already exists. We already have company employees with embedded chips, fitbits, devices that stream blood sugar levels via Bluetooth, phone tracking, ‘smart’ motorways, sugar tax, signs that flash warnings at you, and a health and safety directives that treats us as if we are stupid - like the announcements on the Tube to hold the handrail. Our searches, purchases and preferences are already ‘data’ to be used and sold. Would you really want a separate embedded chip for home, work, your car, bank, credit cards, and each shop? One centralised chip makes most logical sense. Then who runs it? The government would seem more secure than a company, but what else might they use it for? 

I think another important point that the book makes is the fallibility of any technology and the potential chaos that can ensue when that technology is compromised. Do you think that, as a society, we place too much faith in technology? 

I think we believe in it too much, and I’m fascinated by unexpected consequences, especially in technology. For example, Social Media is meant to connect people and enable communication, but people sit in restaurants staring at their phones and ignoring the people next to them. So often the technology’s designers will have an idea on its use, but other people see different uses for the idea. Social Media wasn’t designed for trolling or catfishing. 
Technology isn’t infallible. Upgrades are always seen as improvements, and we somehow ignore the glitches, crashed systems, reboots, and cost. We buy a promise of convenience and ease, but don’t read the Terms and Conditions.

Proximity deals with an embedded technology that controls all aspects of life it seems, but it also produces a paradox. Life with no crime, no obesity, a healthy population, all this sounds very desirable. But at what cost to human rights and freedom of choice? Were you intentionally offering a kind of moral dilemma for the reader?

Yes. Like now, I think our future world will be imperfect, not dystopian. I wanted to show the benefits of the technology and also show a potential downside. I wanted readers to think about their stance on personal loss versus the wider gain. It’s interesting how everyone seems to have a different opinion about which parts of the world are good or bad.

 The crime story is engrossing, thorough and very original. I was wondering what came first? The desire to write a crime story? Or a desire to write a technology story? And how did you plot such a tight story? 

 I always wanted to write crime and the technology is the ‘setting’ for the story. Maybe it’s the years in IT, but I have a very logical mind and before I wrote the book, I agonised over the plot, characters and the story’s internal consistency. I spent a lot of time on world building, and have pages and pages of notes, very little of which comes out directly in the book. In the world described by Proximity, only a few types of crime are possible, so the crime story itself was a function of its environment. 

 I enjoyed the dynamic between Clive and Zoe. It was just right and developed so believably throughout the novel. How did you arrive at these two characterisations? And, dare I ask or even suggest, that there might be future (no pun intended) stories featuring them again? 

 I liked the idea that Clive should have created his own problems and lived without all the technology for a lot of his life. That meant he had to be older. Zoe being younger and having grown up with the technology, gave a way of exploring the world from different perspectives, and added natural conflict between the two main characters. They will be back - see below.

 How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place to write, a special time, or any special writing routines and rituals? 

I start by plotting and character design. Once that is done, I have a sentence or two on each chapter, and an outline on how the characters think and behave. When I move to the writing phase, the outline acts as a prompt for each chapter. 
I prefer to write each morning as the flow is better day to day, but that is hard to achieve. Taking breaks gives time for ideas to come and think them through. At the beginning, I did try reading each chapter as I wrote it, but I ended up in an endless loop of changing the first three chapters. Now, when I write the first draft, I don’t read it at all. The editing should find the issues, and just writing means that the word count grows. This is a very positive motivator, especially in the early stages when I still have most of the book left to write.

I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer, so a question I like to ask authors is whether you can remember the first book you read that moved you in any profound way? And which writers do you admire or are influenced by?

The first book that moved me was Silas Marner by George Eliot. It was set as a school book, and I couldn’t get into it but when my mum read the whole book to me, and I was hooked. I really admire Lee Child’s Reacher series for the clarity of the stories, and the way the action scenes are written. I also loved all the Dick Francis books for the great stories, fast pace and the sense of threat and menace without gratuitous violence. 

And finally, I’m wondering what you’re working on at the moment and if you can tell us a little about it?

My current work in progress is the sequel to Proximity. It will be a crime story again, but  I also want to look more on the impact on visitors to the UK and the health service. I also have a plot for a standalone book sketched out.

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