Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Interview with Oisin McGann, author of Rat Runners (Blog Tour)

At the beginning of this year I made the decision to pull back from taking part in the majority of blog tours that were offered to me. I mentioned this briefly in the introduction to the piece that Barry Hutchison wrote for me yesterday, and I said I would explain a little more today. I have a number of reasons for doing this. Firstly, I'm really not sure they are worth doing. I look at the hits my posts get, and author interviews and  outside of blog tours and my reviews of their books seem to be far more popular with my readers. Secondly, sometimes authors are visiting a huge number of blogs in these tours, and expecting them to produce high quality, original pieces for every blog is a huge ask. In a few of the tours I have participated in in the past I have almost felt disappointed with the copy I have been sent when I compare it with the work that author normally produces. And another, albeit less significant reason, is that when I visit other blogs I really hate seeing a side bar rammed full of blog tour banners.

If I look back through the blog tours I have participated in, author interviews are by far the most popular items (although there are a number of guest posts that have been incredibly well received). I would love to be able to say I would do a Q&A for every blog tour invitation I receive, but I will only do this for books I have read, and more often than not I simply do not have the time to guarantee a read of a book before the tour is scheduled to take place. However, occasionally a book will come along that I will TOTALLY LOVE, and if this coincides with a blog tour then I am more than happy to take part, and thus I have left that door slightly open.

One such book is Rat Runners by Oisin McGann. I absolutely raced through it, and so did not hesitate at all to accept Random House's kind invitation to take part in the tour by interviewing Oisin.

Firstly, how would you describe your book Rat Runners to a potential reader?

I tend to describe it as a crime story set in a near-future surveillance state. The idea is that these young criminals, the rat-runners, can do a lot of things that adults can’t, because of the massive surveillance system you become part of once you turn sixteen. When four of these rat-runners are hired by a powerful psycho gangster to find a case belonging to a murdered scientist, it doesn’t take them long to realise they’re involved in a very dangerous game played by some very powerful people. The kids are smart, tough and very fast on their feet, but way out of their depth.

What was the original inspiration behind the Rat Runners story?

It started with a very simple idea: What if, instead of all these surveillance cameras we see around us every day, there are masked, uniformed figures watching us instead? Because that’s what’s actually happening, when you think about it. You’d suddenly get a lot more paranoid. I then cranked it up, so they don’t just watch you, they can examine you with X-rays and thermographic sensors, highly sensitive mikes and chemical analyzers. And there are plenty of other forms of surveillance out in the streets and online too. Then imagine that kids can’t be tracked until they were sixteen, so a lot of kids end up being used by criminals for certain types of jobs. Imagine the types of kids they’d be. And they still have to avoid the surveillance, so you have an excellent means giving those kids a real advantage over a lot of adults. You also keep the action inventive by stopping villains from carrying guns and obvious knives – because they can be spotted by X-ray cameras – and just moving from place to place can become an action scene. Then I decided to make this the whole surveillance thing the setting for the story, rather than having it as the problem to be solved. The characters aren’t trying to bring down the system, they’re just living and working within it.

I loved your main characters in Rat Runners. Can you tell my blog readers a little more about Nimmo, Scope, Mannikin and FX?

They’re very different from each other, with a variety of motives and goals, and different ways of doing things, and this allowed me to have them sparking off each other throughout the story. Nimmo is the master thief, a loner with trust issues, whose first concern is always survival, but who has a code of sorts. He has few friends, but is loyal to those he has. Manikin is a con-artist and a frustrated actor. A student of human nature, but also prickly to deal with, she was being raised for a life in film before her parents died and the performer ended up living off her wits with her younger brother FX in the criminal world instead, putting her skills as an actor to use, changing her appearance and personality at will. FX is a coffee-addicted fidget and an expert hacker and tech-head. He’s a bit of an online anarchist too, and though he lets himself be pushed around by his big sister, he’s a genius when it comes to anything digital or electronic and runs most of the things in their hideout in Brill Alley. Scope is also a child prodigy, with a passion for science and an eye for detail that borders on obsessive-compulsive. She makes a living faking forensic evidence for a gangster. She seems the most innocent of the rat-runners, but has lived for too long in the control of that monstrous gangster to have any illusions of the criminal world.

What kind of research did you do when writing Rat Runners?

There were all sorts of things I needed to cover, from some of the different types of confidence trick to police procedures, from forensics to London’s geography, from hacking to action for social justice – and a lot about surveillance techniques. But I’d read a lot about this kind of stuff anyway, as I’m interested in it, and I’d written a darker, more serious book called Strangled Silence a few years back about how information is controlled and distorted, which had a lot of common elements. Most of what went into Rat Runners was just material I’d picked up along the way, rather than finding it specifically for the story. That said, I could rarely go more than a few pages without checking something. It’s part of the fun of writing, getting to read about stuff for work that you’d do anyway.

Rat Runners is full of all kinds of tech. How much of it is real and how much of it was a product of your imagination?

Actually, the vast majority of it is real, although I did enhance it in places, such as fashion for implants and the Safe-Guards’ ability to use X-ray cameras on the move. Apart from the brundleseed – which is based loosely on a theory, but nothing that actually exists yet – just about all the technology I mention is already in use. In fact, I actually had to tone it down in places, as the reality of surveillance is so overwhelming, I could spend the whole book trying to cover all the details. But that wouldn’t make a good novel – too much description really slows down the pace of a story. And it’d probably make my readers paranoid.

Although you are writing about a fictional future police state, is the book intended to be a commentary on the present levels of surveillance in the UK?

I suppose it’s more about asking questions than any deliberate kind of commentary. I’ve found when I’ve tried to make statements or try and explain things with a story, the writing can get very preachy, which is never good, and also, I’m just not that smart that I can figure it all out. But I do have questions. Every story is a thought process – my mind is in among those words, mulling it all over, but the first aim is always to produce a thrilling plotline. If the reader keeps thinking about stuff in the book after they’ve finished reading and put it down, that’s a bonus. Certainly, I think we should be asking ourselves how much surveillance we want in our lives, and how much of our privacy we’ve already surrendered to people we don’t know and shouldn’t trust.

You produce small illustrations for all of the chapter headings in Rat Runners. How did this come about? Could you tell us something about the process you go through when creating these?

This is something I do with all my novels. Since I was a kid, I’ve had the conviction that stories need pictures, although I fully accept that novels can work just fine without them. I just really like pictures too. The chapter icons are a way of making the inside of the book look distinctive, while also showing things that might be hard to describe, or simply add an extra feature to the narrative. And, to be honest, it’s a good excuse to draw pictures. I tend to draw them after the writing’s done. I pick the things I’m going to draw out of each chapter during the first proper read-through, and do the final illustrations towards the end of the editing process. The ones for Rat Runners were drawn in pencil first, then inked with an isograph pen and a brush. You can see more about the process on a blog post I put a while back, here:

Rat Runners works as a standalone story. Are you planning to write any more books featuring Nimmo, Scope, Mannikin and FX?

Absolutely, I’ve outlines for two other books so far. I’ve also done a short prequel, a novella entitled The Eyes Behind Glass, that’ll be published as a free ebook, and possibly in episodes online.

Who are your greatest literary influences?

Where do I start – there are so many! Certainly, when I was young, there was Richard Scarry, Dr Seuss, and Enid Blyton, then Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Willard Price and then Tolkien. I wanted stories about monsters and detectives, soldiers and spies, nastiness and humour, cool vehicles and chases and fights and thrills. I loved Jules Verne, who was just so far ahead of his time, classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, Watership Down and Masterman Ready, and I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but as I got older, Stephen King was probably my biggest influence. He isn’t just a horror writer, he’s a fantastic writer of any kind of story. There were comics writers like Pat Mills, Frank Miller and Alan Moore. I read westerns by Louis L’Amour, Len Deighton’s war stories and cold war thrillers by the likes of Craig Thomas, John le CarrĂ© and Tom Clancy. Later influences would include writers like Ray Bradbury, Michael Crichton, Neil Stephenson and Ernest Hemingway. Nowadays, I like Iain Banks, China Mieville, Chuck Palahniuk, George MacDonald Fraser, Lee Child and Terry Pratchett among many others.

The books you have written include elements of fantasy, science fiction and crime thriller. Are you a fan of all of these genres as a reader?

Yes, though I like to read all sorts of things, and I’ll try anything once.

Why did you decide to write for the Young Adult market?

A writer wants to have an effect on their reader, and the writers who had the greatest effect on me were those I read in the first few years of reading novels, when I was able to understand complicated plots and the difficult issues a character could be faced with, but my imagination was still free – I wasn’t worried about tax, or politics and I wasn’t watching the news. I wanted to do for other people what those writers did for me. I just that would be the biggest buzz, and it is! There is also one major advantage in writing for young adults, and that is you don’t get pigeon-holed. If I write a crime thriller, a science fiction story, a fantasy story, a historical drama and a horror, they’ll all get shelved together. If I were writing for adults, they’d all be put in different sections, on different shelves. And besides, I consider a young adult book to be a story both young and adult readers can enjoy.

Which books/authors did you read as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare with the children’s/YA books available today?

I’ve covered most of those in my answer about my influences, but back then, there were no ‘Young Adult’ books really. You went straight from Enid Blyton, Willard Price or The Hardy Boys to adult books. Really, the only difference between a lot of YA books and adult books of the same genre now is that the YA book has to have a young person as the main character, although I think that has more to do with what grown-ups think kids want. When I was young, I didn’t really care what age the characters were. Actually, I wanted to read about adults a lot of the time, not kids. So in Rat Runners, the kids live as adults, taking care of themselves because that’s the world they’ve found themselves in.

If you could pose one question to any writer, living or deceased, who would the writer be and what question would you ask?

I suppose it would have to be my dad, who wrote a lot of non-fiction. He died back when I was in college. I think I’d just like to have a chat about books, now that I’ve gone from being the kid who filled copybooks (exercise books) with stories and pictures, to doing it for a living. That’d be a cool conversation to have.

Thank you for your time Oisin. Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of The Book Zone?

Just that it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you’re reading what interests you, excites you, whatever floats your boat. It’s not the format you read the words in, it’s how it sets your imagination playing, and the experience it creates in your head. Reading is just the means to the end – it’s what enables the DVD player in your head to turn books into movies. I hope you read Rat Runners, and I hope you enjoy it.


Huge thanks to Oisin for taking the time to answer my questions, and I am so glad I used my 'no blog tour get out clause' to host this Q&A. Take it from me, Rat Runners is a superb, fast-paced hi-tech crime thriller set in an all-to-believable future Britain. Rat Runners was published at the beginning of March, and you can continue your journey with Oisin on this blog tour tomorrow at Book Passion For Life.

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