Trucksinging: an interview with Andrew Macrae

Andrew Macrae can be found skulking around inner city Fitzroy, Melbourne’s home of good coffee and designer boutiques. Andrew is a quiet, unpretentious man with his hand in several art forms at once. A while ago, he was designing typewriter art. He currently pays in the instrumental band, Television Sky. For some time he’s been writing science fiction and his debut novel, Trucksong, has just been launched by Twelfth Planet Press.

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So Andrew, the most striking things about your book – for me at least – are the sentient trucks. They’re these things with their own desires and drives, but also have a kind of symbiotic relationship with humanity. How did you come up with this idea and how did it play out in your planning?

Okay, the trucks.

The trucks started out as this rather cartoonish idea I had for a story that involved AI trucks, which was going to be a science-fictional genre-bending take on the 70s trucking movies I loved as a kid, films like White Line Fever or Convoy and of course the ultimate AI truck move, Duel.

These films are a cheesy, oil-age extension of the Western genre, with a dash of noir – a flawed but ethical independent operator is struggling to make a living in a corrupt world, and comes up against big transport companies and the authority of the highway patrol.

Already you can see that we’re in cyberpunk territory here, so then it occurred to me: what if the trucks reproduced in a quasi-sexual way, like the robots in Rudy Rucker’s Software? So they became not just artificially intelligent, but artificially alive – self-reproducing and self-repairing.

As soon as sexual reproduction is in the mix, things get interesting. The trucks compete for the best match, which involves elaborate displays of custom paint-work and detailing, and the evolution of massive sound systems to attract partners with desirable characteristics.

So the trucks have evolved according to this set of outlandish cultural practices, and they’re incredibly vain – they hate getting dirty or scratched. As the novel developed they became like SF dragons: unpredictable, inscrutable, avaricious and seductive.

From early in the life of the concept, I had the notion that there would be a subculture of humans who are fascinated with the trucks.

These people – riders – have developed software ‘patches’ that are like upgrade boosts for the trucks, and the trucks have evolved biochemical systems that produce narcotics to attract riders. The most powerful trucks have the most interesting drugs, and can lure riders who have the strongest patches.

These transactions all take place via a biochemical link – the rider is literally ‘jacked in’ to the truck with an IV needle, sharing blood and chemicals to create a symbiont that’s stronger than either individual.

So that’s the basic idea of the trucks and their weird culture and relationships with humans. I hope I’ve done it justice in the execution.

I must admit, I love the trucks, and the way you’ve implied they’re quite like wild horses. The other things that are striking are the voice and the phonetic language. Why did you choose to write in that style? Is there some kind of underlying point to it, cultural or political perhaps?

The short answer is that’s just how it came out and I had very little control over it.

When you’re starting out as a writer, people tell you should avoid first person, but I couldn’t help it.

I had that voice in my head and it’s remained constant through various iterations and experimentations with the orthography over six years.

One version I wrote was written in heavy non-standard English, a kind of invented dialect like you see in Riddley Walker, A Clockwork Orange, or even mundane texts like Trainspotting and True History of the Kelly Gang.

But when I was looking to pitch it to a publisher and hopefully find a wider audience for it, I decided to tone down all the weird spelling because it really does ask a lot of the reader.

So I basically rewrote the whole thing in standard spelling, and I was shocked that my narrator’s voice stayed the same. It was amazing to me that such a radical change on the surface of the text could have so little impact at all on the quality of the voice.

There’s definitely something mysterious about that, the way voice works in text. As a reader, a strong and interesting narrative voice is what draws me in and keeps me reading. I love that a written work can produce the effect of a human voice speaking into my ear.

It’s fascinating that the simulation of this experience still resonates with us, even in these intensely mediated times. Voice and story are so primal to the human condition.

I don’t know, maybe it takes us back to our childhood, sitting safe in our parents’ arms, being read to. Or maybe there’s some deeper phylogenetic memory of songlines stretching back through millennia.

Do you have any emerging advice for writers who are trying to pin down a voice for their work? Were there any tricks you used to keep it consistent and working with the plot? 

I don’t have any advice, because for me it wasn’t really a conscious choice. It just came out that way.

All I’d say is trust your instinct and don’t let other people’s opinions of what works and what doesn’t sway you too much.

When you’re getting down to the nitty gritty of copy-editing and proofreading, create a word list and style sheet for your editors and proofreaders to help streamline the process and keep everything as consistent as possible.

So you’ve been putting together a soundtrack to accompany the book. What’s the idea behind that? How is it turning out? 

Well music’s been a big part of my life for a long time. I’ve played in indie bands since I was 18 and my current band The Television Sky has just released our second record, which you can check out on bandcamp or on iTunes through MGM.

I’m really interested in instrumental music. I love the challenge of trying to create an emotional connection through sound, without voice or lyrics to fall back on. I can’t sing and I don’t do lyrics or character-driven songs, which is kind of ironic since I’m also a writer.

So I had the idea of writing and recording some instrumental music to capture the emotional tone of the novel. Music also features quite heavily in the book. The trucks make and mix music and use it as part of their strange culture, so it seemed like a cool thing to attempt.

In the end it was a fairly crazy idea and it was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. It took about a year to get it finished, working on it by myself in fits and starts.

It’s a varied mix of sounds. Guitar is my main instrument, so there’s lots of that on there, but there are also piano and organ pieces as well. It goes from ambient soundscapey stuff to noise to melancholic loops.

It’ll be interesting to see what other people make of it, so if you happen to check it out let me know what you think.

So Trucksong has just been published, how are you feeling about it? What’s at stake for you in the publication? And – if you’ll give it a shot – what do you think is at stake in the publication of any novel?

I’m really happy that the manuscript found a home, and I think Twelfth Planet Press is the perfect place for it.

This book is probably a riskier punt than many a first-time novel – the weirdness of the very Australian voice might make it less appealing in bigger markets like the US or the UK, for example – so I’m delighted that Twelfth Planet took it on and I’ve really enjoyed working with them to get the book to this stage of production.

The stakes question is a good one.

On a personal level, it’s the result of six years work and significant investment of time and opportunity cost, so I want the book to do well and find a readership. I think the concept of the book – a strange post-apocalyptic Australia featuring self-repairing and self-reproducing AI trucks that have evolved symbiotic relationships with human riders, and their own specific culture and desires – is a strong one, and I’d like to see it reach its potential.

Obviously my publisher has also a big stake in the project, so I want it to do well for them as well. It would be great if it could make them some profit to offset the risk they took on it.

But the world is harsh and stormy. It’s a crowded marketplace and there are many other things competing for potential readers’ time and attention. I’m a full-time writer and editor – mostly corporate stuff – so I’ve learned to hedge my bets. Multiple income streams is the key. If this one project doesn’t do so well, there’ll be another.

On the broader question of what’s at stake for any novel, man, that’s really a tough one. I think it goes to the heart of the tension between art and commerce that cuts right across our industry.

From an artistic point of view, every novel has potential value as a cultural product that can give a unique perspective on the human condition. That’s a pretty big stake. Sure there are arguments that some books are ‘worthier’ than others, but that depends on who’s reading them and why.

However there are also commercial and institutional realities. The vast upheaval in production and distribution, the acceleration of participation fuelled by network culture and easy access to tools and platforms previously so capital-intensive that they were the sole domain of big companies, changes to bourgeois life and a growing class of educated producers – these conditions have led to a massively flooded marketplace. The reality is that most books will sink without reaching an audience.

So I guess the answer to the question of what’s at stake is everything and nothing.

It’s as vital as the answer to what it means to be human, and as banal as a mass-market paperback with the black stripe of death in a remainder bin. For me, this means make every piece as good as I can, have as much fun with it as I can, and move on to the next one.

So are we going to see more sentient trucks? Or do you have another writing project?

I’m working on something completely different at the moment.

Never say never, I suppose, but I feel as though I’ve done all I want to do with that particular world.

 

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