Today we are wishing a very happy publication day to Matthew Blakstad. His thrilling debut novel Sockpuppet is book one of the Martingale Cycle, a series of interconnected novels exploring the life of computing pioneer and political radical Elyse Martingale – and her strange afterlife in the 21st century. To celebrate publication Matthew talks to fellow Prime Writer Graeme Shimmin (A Kill in the Morning) about what influenced the novel and his fascination with the politics of those who are set on changing the world.
GS: Matthew, I just finished reading Sockpuppet, which I found fascinating.
MB: Many thanks, Graeme. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
GS: I must admit though, it didn’t go where I was expecting it to. Similar books I’ve read tend to focus on the hackers as the heroes of the story, but Sockpuppet to me seemed like more of an ensemble piece and to spend a lot of time on the policy implications, political maneuvering and PR angles. I was wondering, is this your background?
MB: Yes, I did spend a bit of time working in a government department, and I currently work for a government-backed investment scheme; though mostly I’m private sector, red in tooth and claw. But I found government – its culture and constraints – fascinating. In retrospect, though, I think the main reason the book focusses so much on politics is that it’s all about people who want to change the world – in each case, in a way they believe is for the better. My hacker character, Dani, wants to create false places where we can all live, because she finds the real world messy and illogical. Government minister Bethany, believes central government needs to intervene to level the playing field so everyone has an opportunity to prosper. Sean, the entrepreneur, thinks it’s up to tech to ‘disrupt’ the world and build wealth. Then there are the anti-corporate protesters, who believe they need to tear everything down, though they haven’t thought very hard about what they’ll put in its place.
GS: The political focus reminded me a little of (fellow Prime Writer) Terry Stiasny’s novel Acts of Omission.
MB: Yes, Terry and I have compared notes on the many ways our very different books converge. As well as taking a similar look at the lives of politicians, there are some weird little coincidences in there – like the fact that both books feature a character called Colin Randell, and toys called Pigglies. So there was obviously some telepathy going on!
GS: Another author that Sockpuppet reminded me of was Neal Stephenson (author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon) with its combination of human story and technical detail. How do you approach the story to ensure the balance is right?
MB: You won’t be surprised to hear that I greatly admire Stephenson’s writing. Far more than me, he has the mind-set of an engineer, as do his characters. He often goes on for page after page of delicious geeky riffs, as his brilliant characters go about solving seemingly impossible technical challenges. He really understands tech and his passion for communicating about it is one of the great pleasures of reading his work.
GS: What other influences do you acknowledge?
MB: I read a lot of modern American literature, including David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers…I could go on! A lot of these writers share a distinctly North American way of absorbing and processing popular culture within a literary mode of writing. That’s something I can definitely see reflected in my own style.
GS: It was interesting to me that the story didn’t really have clear cut heroes and villains – no one came out of it all looking particularly good and there were a lot of compromises for everyone. I wasn’t really sure what message you’d like the reader to take away from the novel – how do you see it?
MB: In the current fast-moving environment of digital and data, it’s hard to work out who the villains are. The real world tech giants – Google, Facebook, and their billionaire CEOs – believe that they’re making the world a better place. The fact that, along the way, they’re drawing so much wealth to themselves on the back of our unpaid participation on their platforms is something they seem to spend very little time agonising about. And even well-motivated politicians inevitably end up making compromises. I very much wanted to reflect this ambiguity in the book.
GS: I enjoyed the references and influences of the imaginary book The Electronic Radical. I’m a big fan of false documents, and my own novel, A Kill in the Morning, includes several. And I see from the end papers that you plan to include this as an ongoing theme in your work. Do you have much of that book mapped out to reference, or is it based on something?
MB: Yes, I do have a fair amount more of The Electronic Radical written. Plus, I’ve nearly finished a first draft of a book set in the 60s, which has Elyse Martingale as a protagonist – and this features snippets of a futurology book written by Elyse in 1969, called This is Tomorrow. So there’s more of this intertextual stuff to come!
GS: Thanks Matthew and good luck with Sockpuppet and the whole Martingale Cycle!
Sockpuppet is published by Hodder & Stoughton and available now.