As the publication of monkeypunk sequel Hive Monkey approaches, we quiz the novelist about the world of Ack-Ack Macaque
Let the monkeying around begin! Bristol-based author Gareth L Powell has written four novels and a collection of short fiction, and his short stories have featured in Interzone magazine as well as numerous anthologies. You can see his Book Club articles frequently in the pages of SFX . His novel Ack-Ack Macaque , starring the eponymous furry Spitfire pilot, has spawned a sequel, Hive Monkey , out next month. We caught up with the author to quiz him on all his monkeying around.
SFX : What can readers expect from this second Ack-Ack Macaque novel?
Gareth L Powell: Hive Monkey picks up the story a year after the events of the first book. In order to hide from his unwanted fame, Ack-Ack Macaque has been working as a pilot on a world-circling, nuclear-powered Zeppelin. When an exact double of one of the airship's passengers turns up, and is then murdered, our hairy hero finds himself caught up in another mystery, and facing off against a bizarre technological cult and an army of homicidal Neanderthal assassins.
What I've tried to do with this book is to take all the fun and excitement of the first novel and crank it up a notch. Writing it was just as much fun as writing the first. In fact, it was probably more fun, as I had become very fond of the characters, and so it was a pleasure to spend more time in their company - especially Victoria Valois, who really comes into her own in this book; and Ack-Ack, who has to make some really hard choices.
SFX : What was the response to Ack-Ack Macaque like and how pleased were you with it?
Powell: The response to Ack-Ack Macaque has been phenomenal. I haven't read a single bad review. I think readers have gone into the book expecting a fun romp, and then found themselves swept away by a plot that asks some pretty serious and challenging questions about the nature of humanity and how we define what it means to be human. One reviewer said it was "more William Gibson that Terry Pratchett," and I think that about sums it up. At heart, the book's a murder mystery, but it soon unfolds in all sorts of unexpected directions, and the readers who've come along for the ride have raved about it. The word of mouth on this book has been superb.
SFX : Ack-Ack Macaque himself felt like a really high concept - how difficult is it to keep coming up with new ideas for him?
Powell: Actually, it's not difficult at all. As a character, the monkey's such a force of nature that it's hard to stop him from taking over every story I write. He's permanently lodged in my head, so all I have to do is drop him into a scene or situation, and watch him run riot.
Writing him gives me a certain freedom. He doesn't have to conform to the conventions of fictional characters. If he gets bored, he goes off and blows something up. For all his world-weary cynicism, he's very childlike, as well as very childish. He doesn't know how to curb his behaviour. He's like the Hyde to my Jekyll. If he wants something, he'll go and get it; and he'll probably bite you if you get in his way.
I think readers really respond to that side of him: the side that's a little lost and confused, but also fierce and uncompromising and not constrained by social niceties. He doesn't care what anybody thinks of him. If somebody annoys him, he punches them in the throat, end of story.
That freedom provides a lot of the comedy in the books. We all have rage monsters dwelling within us, but most of the time we have to keep them shackled. Ack-Ack never does. He has a brutal kind of honesty that makes even his most despicable deeds somehow understandable and forgivable.
SFX : And how has the character of Ack-Ack Macaque evolved since you first created him?
Powell: He made his first appearance in a short story I wrote for Interzone back in 2007, and he was portrayed as a fairly one-dimensional cartoon character. However, there was enough there that people warmed to him, and I knew I had more to say about him. So, when I got the chance to include him in a novel, I knew I had to flesh him out. I gave him a past, and a kind of weary self-awareness. In the first book, his whole world changed. Everything he thought was real was taken from him, and he was angry and out for revenge. In the sequel, he's had a year to adapt and get used to his new life. Like the rest of us, he's trying to find his niche in the world. He's also slowly beginning to realise the importance of the people around him. He's starting to become vulnerable, and he's not sure he likes it.
Throughout the process, it's been very important to me to try to portray him as a monkey, and not just a man in a monkey suit. Because of that, and despite his best intentions, his simian reflexes and behaviours will sometimes get in the way of what he's trying to do. For instance, he takes prolonged eye contact as a direct physical challenge, which can be tricky when dealing with humans who don't understand primates. Monkeys are social and hierarchical creatures, and he comes equipped with a whole range of instinctual motivations and responses that affect his judgment in ways that human character might not have considered. I think that's why he and Victoria Valois make such a good double act: although she's a strong and capable individual, and his equal in many ways, his hardwired instincts don't see her as a threat. He may be the alpha male, but she's definitely the boss.
SFX : What have you got planned for the third part?
Powell: Without giving away too much about the first and second books, I can say that the third part ( Macaque Attack , due from Solaris Books in January 2015) will feature more monkeys - a veritable army of them, in fact - and it will continue the themes and character arcs from the first two novels. Loose ends will be wrapped up; there will be explosions, gunfights and aerial battles; and a Gatling gun-wielding gorilla named "Cuddles".
SFX : The monkey has his own twitter feed: how does he find time amid all his adventures?
Powell: I believe he's employed a very small spider monkey to sit on his shoulder and take dictation.
He's been tweeting as @AckAckMacaque for around a year and a half now, and in that time, he's amassed almost 1,500 followers. He refers to them as his "monkey army". They send him funny monkey pictures and retweet his rude jokes. There's something about him that people warm to. They treat him as a real person. Sometimes, they even tweet me to ask if I know what he's been saying…
SFX : What's the strangest request Ack-Ack Macaque has had from a fan?
Powell: I blush even thinking about it. Suffice to say, some female followers seem to have developed rather a crush on our hirsute hero. They say they want a big, strong, heavily armed and dangerous monkey to keep them safe. One even offered to share a futon with him! Luckily, Ack-Ack has absolutely no sexual interest in human women. Although he's flattered by the attention, they're completely the wrong species for him. His usual response goes something along the lines of: "Thanks but no thanks, lady. I'm a fictional character, and I smell like a zoo on a hot day."
SFX : Thanks Gareth!
Hive Monkey is published by Solaris Books in January 2014. You can follow Gareth L Powell on twitter as @garethlpowell