How I wrote the Everness series by Ian McDonald

Every ten years (or thereabouts) I get bored with myself, my writing, my view of the world. It’s time for a small revolution in the head. It’s time to challenge myself. I’d done three-and-a-bit well received Big Fat SF novels set in the developing world in the near future. They met with a degree of critical and popular success but I didn’t want to be repeating that formula forever. I could see myself coming to hate writing that kind of book. And if you hate what you’re writing; you’re really better off selling sandwiches. The drudgery of the pen is still drudgery.

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There was an idea I had rattling around in an ante-chamber of my head –it had been there for years (I have ideas that are decades old: like buried fossil water, they come up under their own pressure, in their own time.) It started with an image: an airship that can travel between parallel universes. I’ve always loved parallel universe stories. I love their unique sense of estrangement –the realisation in some small detail that, all of a sudden, you’re a very long way from home! Worlds at once familiar, and very unfamiliar. It’s (almost uniquely) an SF that can exist in our world today –the world we live in. No big spaceships, no time machines, no future world necessary. Alien worlds just a step –a ‘brane—away. And increasingly, I like writing about the world we live in. I like domestic details, I like the mundane. It shines the extraordinary up all the brighter.

From that initial airship image –it’s Everness, of course—I knew instantly that this was going to be a swash-buckling adventure story, plot-heavy; and in the same instant realised it was going to be a book for younger readers. And that it was going to be fun: fun to read, fun to write, fun to imagine. I thought a long time about the demographic –I didn’t want to get trapped into the conventions of much YA –it didn’t seem, well, fun. My chief memories of being YA-demographic kid was how little fun it was. Bloody miserable, in fact. I’d’ve hated the cool, beautiful, capable protags –who always got the boy/girl. How different, how very different, from my own experience.

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And it would be a challenge. A completely new form of writing for me, with different structure, language, emphasis. I’d written for kid’s TV (Ceebeebies, Sesame Workshop) and I was a showrunner for a while, so I understand a couple of things: never write down, always write up. It’s better to reach up than squat down. And: adults watch kids’ TV (and read books for younger readers) so it needs to work for them as well. Second level references and humour are glints of gold. 

And so I began. I had the protagonist –Everett Singh. His world fell in around him quickly and clearly. He was a geek, yes, but not an über-geek. So: the football (I made him a goalkeeper because they’re always the last to get picked when it comes to choosing teams –weird individualists, goalies). The Anglo-Punjabi heritage –to me, mixed is a very interesting racial and cultural identity. The fastest growing minority in the UK. That’s interesting. And it fitted my theme of parallel worlds –Everett’s English and Punjabi worlds. A broken family –you always have to get the protag away from the family. The Maguffin of the Infundibulum –the key to the myriad worlds of the Panoply of All Worlds—to get him off this world, and keep him on the run –trying to find his missing father, staying one jump ahead of the villainous Charlotte Villiers.

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Ah, Charlotte Villiers. Her very name suggests villainess. Villainesses are always much cooler than villains –Cruella de Ville is definitely in the mix, though Charlotte Villiers’s look is a mixture of Alison Goldfrapp and Anna Calvi (who I saw freeze a rude audience member at a gig with one killing look from the stage) in 1940s clothes. Because the 40s is a fantastic look. And from that detail –Charlotte Villiers’s clothing—Earth 3 –the parallel world with no oil—appeared. Question: what kind of world would routinely use airships (and we must have airships) rather than aircraft? Only one with no access to aviation fuel. But not steampunk; something cooler. Tesla-punk. And it fitted beautifully with the 1940s.

This was fun: ideas fissioning from idea, then fusing with other ideas. The crew of Everness appeared all at once: Captain Anastasia: I wanted a woman captain, and I wanted her to black, and I wanted her to be stern and scary, but true of heart and kind. Sen: she morphed out of images I’d seen of Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord. Then came the idea of her having her own personal oracle: the Everness tarot: the card deck she made up herself and connect her to the multiverse in a very personal way. The rest of the crew appeared in the same instant: now I had a new family for Everett. On a personal note –I’m a foster carer and it was only as I was writing book 3, Empress of the Sun I realised that fostering is a key motif for the whole series. Young people come to you traumatised, hurting, confused. They’re on their best behaviour –of course they are: they want to be accepted, to have a place and a new family. It’s over time that their true natures come out. And I wanted to do that with Everett: he’s given up his family, his friends, his world, to try and save his Dad. Of course he’s going to be good as gold when he first arrives on Everness. But as time passes, and he’s accepted, and things go wrong for him; that hurt and trauma works its way out.

The fun thing about writing series –I do have it all plotted out—is that you have longer to develop character over the long term. In Empress of the Sun you’ll see what Charlotte Villiers is really about –and a hint at her secret. You’ll see Everett competence fail; him riven with doubt, and act in very unheroic ways –and you’ll see his Earth 4 double –Everett M (okay, so I have to explain the Iain Banks joke since no one seems to have got it) –move from villain to hero. Huge tectonic shifts in the lives of our characters... 

One of the last ideas that came to me –and came out of the blue, which is always a delight for a writer—was the slang. I wanted the Airish –the airship folk of Earth 3’s Hackney (and Bristol) Great Ports—to have their own language: a Thieves’ Cant. I didn’t want to make it up –you can always tell when a language is made up, it lacks the comfort and fit of habitual use –and I didn’t want to use contemporary talk –in five years it would sound like ‘get hip, Daddy-0’. I was stuck –and then I remembered polari –the secret gay argot from the 50s and early 60s. So much of it has passed into common use: naff, clobber, cod, zhoosh –but there was much that was impenetrable to outsiders. It was a lived language parallel to the English we speak –and I like the joke as well. It was a fun idea.

So: why did I start the Everness series? Because I needed a change. I wanted to push myself, and I wanted to do something that was pure, unalloyed fun. No eat-your-greens about these books! And I’m still having fun with them. And I hope you have had fun too –and will continue to have fun. I know I am.

Ian McDonald
Order "Empress of the Sun" here:
Amazon US | Amazon UK 

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