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The Backlist: C.J. Tudor on the Wild, Inventive Noirs of Michael Marshall Smith

The Backlist: C.J. Tudor on the Wild, Inventive Noirs of Michael Marshall Smith

I love writers who mix genres. It’s like an athlete who plays sports and somehow, improbably, manages to be good at all of them. C.J. Tudor’s novels cross boundaries between mystery, horror, and thriller, managing to bring out the best in each of them while creating something wholly new. Her newest novel, The Gathering, delves into the aftermath of a grisly murder that may have been committed by an isolated community of vampires in rural Alaska. As one online review put it, “You never know what you’re going to find in a book from C.J. Tudor—other than a great read!” Recently we sat down to talk about another genre-crosser, Michael Marshall Smith’s 1996 novel Spares.

Why did you choose Spares by Michael Marshall Smith?

Well, it’s one of my favorite books. I love Michael Marshall Smith. He’s one of my top favorite authors, along with Stephen King. I picked up Only Forward first, and I absolutely loved it. It was completely different from anything I’d read before in the way it mashed up genres. It was crazy and inventive, and I fell in love with his writing. After that I was waiting for another book of his to come out, and then I saw Spares in an airport book shop. I loved it right away. It’s sci-fi, it’s noir, it’s a mystery. But I love most about it is the way Smith writes about the human condition. It’s very poignant and darkly funny at the same time.

The novel is set in a futuristic world, and the main character is a guy called Jack Randall, a washed-up cop and former soldier. Early on in the book, you find out that in this world, if you’re very rich, you can have a clone made of yourself. Then if anything bad happens to you, you can get a spare body part from this clone, essentially. The clones are kept in these places called farms, but it’s quite a horrific environment. They’re not educated or even taught to talk or walk. They’re living meat. Jack Randall becomes a caretaker at one of these farms, which are basically automated and run by robots, but he’s there to make sure everything runs smoothly. He sees guys come in the middle of the night, and they’ll take a clone away that will later come back minus a body part, and he decides he wants to help. He starts to teach the clones some things, but of course the more human they become, the more they realize what’s happening to them. Eventually he goes on the run with some of the clones, and then the book takes a turn and becomes more of a noirish thriller. The clones are kidnapped and he has to chase them down, and then he ends up in this place called the Gap where there’s a war being fought. It sounds kind of crazy, but he takes all these elements and makes them come together. It just works for me, because I love authors who take risks with genres. You can read it as a thriller, or sci fi, or a sort of social commentary. It’s just a great book. 

I’ve definitely never read anything like it. I wanted to ask you more about the narrator. When we first meet him, he’s addicted to a designer drug and kind of a mess, but later he redeems himself. Why is he an especially good guide to this world?

I think as readers, we quite like reading about flawed characters. We’re all familiar with this character of a cop who has a bit of a drink or a drug problem and a tragic past, but it works so well in this novel. Jack is a fairly unsympathetic character to start with. He doesn’t want to help the spares; he wants to be left alone to stagnate in his self-pity. Then they kind of bring him back to humanity, so to speak. His voice is very darkly comic, and the dialogue is great—Smith is really good at writing black humor. So I think we kind of warm to this character as things go on, even though he does some bad stuff.

That’s a great point. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that Jack fits into that ex-cop archetype, even though he’s in this really strange world.

Exactly. All writers use tropes, but it’s all about how you play with it. You could give half a dozen writers the same setup and the same characters, but they’ll each take them in a completely different direction. That’s what’s so interesting about writing fiction. 

I’d never heard of this novel before you chose it, but the concept immediately reminded me of a book I love, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Then when I was Googling the book, I found a Reddit thread that said it had a lot in common with Michael Bay’s film The Island. Do you think Spares could have been an influence on either of those works, or are writers just naturally intrigued by these questions about the ethical uses of scientific discovery? (Spares was published in 1996; The Island and the novel Never Let Me Go came out in the same year, 2005.)

I can’t say much about the novel’s influence, but I think it’s funny that you’ll often find that books that come out within a few years of each other will have similar subjects. Cloning was talked about quite a bit in the Nineties, so it was definitely in the air, but again, writers will approach it in different ways. It makes sense that writers wondering where cloning might go would arrive at the idea of human clones. Where there’s science and innovation, there will often be a dark side. 

We’ve talked a little about the mixing of genres and why that’s appealing to you. At the same time, the publishing world often wants writers to pick a genre and stick with it. Is it hard to market a book that mixes genres?

I think it’s getting easier. It’s nice to be able to put the book in a certain place, but I think that increasingly, people are mixing things up a bit. My books can be defined as horror or crime or thriller, because what matters to me is telling a great story. I read all kinds of genres, and I think it was Michael Marshall Smith who made me realize that you didn’t have to restrict yourself in terms of genres. You didn’t have to confine yourself to writing a particular type of fiction. And that has been one of the biggest inspirations and biggest influences on my writing. 

That’s really great. Do you think UK audiences are more friendly to mixing genres?

I think we’ve seen quite a few successful books come out in the UK lately that have been doing that. The current number one hardback here is The Last Murder at the End of the World by my friend Stuart Turton, which has done quite well in the US as well, and he really mashes things up. His first novel was described as an Agatha Christie mystery mixed with Quantum Leap, with time travel and body swapping. The new one is an apocalyptic murder mystery among the last one hundred or so people left in the world. It’s so fun, because the great thing about murder mysteries is you can set them anywhere. You can make them historical, you can set them in the future. Certainly in the UK, readers are really up for that. And I think in general, readers’ tastes are wider than we sometimes give them credit for.

In my opinion, horror and crime work especially well together. Some people call The Silence of the Lambs a crime novel or thriller, but of course it’s quite horrific, whereas I’ve read lots of books classed as horror or supernatural that are much more psychological. There’s a lot of crossover.

We’ve talked a lot about the mixing of genres, but is there anything else you’ve taken from this novel that you might use in your own work?

Well, I’ve never written sci fi, but I love futuristic stuff, and I have some ideas for stories in a futuristic setting. Every book for me has to be different. I’m always like, what can I do this new and exciting to me? Smith does that, and his books have been such a big inspiration for me. Without his books, and Stephen King’s, I probably wouldn’t have started writing what I write.