Special Feature: Author Interview with Warren Hammond

Special Feature: Author Interview with Warren Hammond

By Lesley L. Smith

Warren Hammond is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. By taking the best of classic detective noir, and reinventing it on a destitute colony world, Warren has created these uniquely dark tales of murder, corruption and redemption. His latest release, KOP Killer, will be available in June of 2012.

Congratulations on the release of the third novel in the KOP trilogy.The KOP trilogy is an interesting combination of noir detective fiction and science fiction. What were your literary influences from the noir detective arena? Hammet? Chandler? What is it about 'noir' that you find so intriguing?

I absolutely adore anything written by Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler. And you can add James M. Cain, David Goodis and Jim Thompson to that list. I also really enjoy many of the newer noir writers like James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and Jason Starr.

Noir is a genre defined by the exploration of a thousand grey shades of morality. The genre's protagonists are far more likely to be drunk losers than white knights. Sam Spade is our hero, but he's going behind his partner's back to sleep with the man's wife. Many of Jim Thompson's and James M. Cain's protagonists are the murderers themselves.

I'm simultaneously fascinated and unsettled by what makes people do bad things. I really, really need to make sense of it. Most mysteries end with the reassuring conclusion that the bad guys got what they deserved. But noir makes no such promises. It's not a simplistic good versus evil arrangement. Instead noir is a much more introspective attempt to explain the good and bad in everybody.

Simply put, noir attempts to explain the dark side of human nature by actually indulging in it. Regular mysteries do the opposite. They tell us we don't need to understand the dark side of humanity, because when it comes out, the good guys will set everything right in the world before we close the back cover.

Both have their place, but for me, mysteries are entertaining, and noir is an obsession.

The KOP series reminds me a bit of the 1982 movie Blade Runner by Ridley Scott-- although less so of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. What were your influences from the science fiction genre?

In science fiction, my biggest influences are probably Frank Herbert's Dune, a masterpiece of world-building, and much of Orson Scott Card's early work. Like my stories, Card's tend to focus on a protagonist thrust into morally ambiguous situations.

Blade Runner had a huge influence on me. It's a great movie with excellent acting, but what really captured me the first time I saw it thirty years ago was the atmosphere. It's dark, dreary and oppressive, but like all great noir, the atmosphere is also incredibly stylish and cool.

When it comes to plot, the KOP novels don't have much in common with Blade Runner, but I definitely had that movie in the back of my mind as I developed the atmosphere for my novels.

When I travel, I love the thrill I feel when I wander down a twisting back alley and hear voices speaking a language I don't understand. I love to smell odors I've never smelled before wafting from kitchen windows, exotic music playing in the background.

Like a surfer looking for the perfect wave, I crave that sublime moment of the senses being totally overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of a culture I've barely begun to understand.

I really strive to capture that same sense of culture shock in my books. That right there is the reason I write science fiction. When I write, I want to go somewhere I haven't been before and I want the reader to experience that place on a gut level.

As a very (almost 800 years from now) futuristic noir thriller involving technological issues and their social ramifications, could KOP Killer and your other novels be considered quintessential neo-noir works?

Noir in science fiction is often called cyberpunk, but since my books don't deal with computers and cyberspace, I don't think my work qualifies. I did have somebody tell me recently that my books are post-cyberpunk. I'm not sure I know what that means, but maybe some of your readers can explain it to me.

My understanding of neo-noir (assuming a broad definition) is anything that borrows the tropes from classic 1940s noir, but implements them in a different time or setting. And if that's the case, then the neo-noir label most definitely fits.

I have to say Juno Mozambe is one of the best-characterized protagonists I've ever read. He's a bitter corrupt (eventually ex-) vice squad detective, an enforcer who's done many horrible and violent things and yet the reader still empathizes with him. How did you pull this off?

Wow, thanks for the compliment. For that, I will most definitely buy you a beer the next time I see you!

Juno is most definitely bitter and corrupt. He's also ruthless, vicious, and one mean son-of-a-bitch. As the corrupt police chief's enforcer, he spent so many years doling out violence that he barely knows the difference between right and wrong. As you said, he's not exactly the lovable type.

But at the same time, he hates himself for it. He knows he's a bad man and strives for redemption. I think that's the thing readers can really connect to. Despite it all, even though it's buried deep, he has hope for a better future.

Still, empathy can be a tricky thing when writing a character as dark as Juno. My best advice is to keep the reader clued in to what the character is thinking at all times, especially when he or she is about do something decidedly un-heroic. I've found I can really push the boundaries of acceptable protagonist behavior as long as the reader understands my character's motivation.

In other words, in order to empathize, the reader must first understand the character's thought process. True in life. True in writing.

In KOP, Juno's relationship with his wife was handled very well via a series of flashbacks. Why did you decide to use a non-linear chronology?

Because I was too stupid to know better! I'd never written anything before, so I had no idea how hard it would be to pull off. If I'd known, I never would've tried it.

I can tell you that at the time, I thought it was important to show how my grizzled ex-enforcer became an enforcer in the first place, so I came up with this scheme of telling two intertwined stories in parallel. The main story being Juno's current case, while the secondary plot focused on how Juno met his wife and became the corrupt chief's enforcer twenty-five years earlier.

Suffice to say, it was incredibly challenging and caused many a rewrite. Every time I tweaked something in one of the two stories, it would cause a major rewrite in the other story. Maddening. In the end, I'm happy I did it, but I don't know if I'll do it again.

The plots in KOP, Ex-KOP, and KOP Killer just keep getting better and better. How did you manage to ratchet up the drama and make each series of crimes more and more horrific?

I like to think it's because I've become a better writer with each book. Hopefully, my next novel will be even tighter than my first three. I wrote KOP mostly on instinct. I hadn't taken any classes. Hadn't read any books about writing. Hadn't joined a critique group. I really had no business writing a novel at all.

Since then, I've learned so much about character, and story, and even line-by-line word-craft that it couldn't help but have a positive effect on the finished product.

SF academic Edward James has said "the ability of the writer to imagine a better place in which to live died in the course of the twentieth century, extinguished by the horrors of total war, of genocide and of totalitarianism." Do you agree? Disagree?

I've never heard that before, but I have to agree. I don't think it's true for all writers, but it is for me. I've seen the ovens of Auchwitz and toured S-21, the Khmer Rouge's infamous prison that held an estimated 17,000 prisoners between 1975 and 1979. Of the 17,000 prisoners who went in, there were only seven survivors. Seven.

The truly horrifying thing is knowing these atrocities were committed by regular people. Not all Nazis were monsters. And not all Khmer Rouge were monsters. Many were patriots. Many were idealists. Many were just scared to stand up to authority.

Knowing how easy it is for humans to kill each other, I find it impossible to imagine a future where our problems will all be solved.

That said, I'm glad not all writers are like me. Many have a positive view of the future, and without them there would be no Star Trek.

Would you say your novels are dystopian? Why or why not?

Absolutely. I just Webster'ed it.

DYSTOPIA: an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized or fearful lives.

Sounds like Lagarto to me. However, the one thing that separates the KOP series from most dystopian novels is my future is really pretty positive for most of humanity. It's just this one particular colony world that's seen the collapse of its economy and technology. In many ways, that makes the plight of its people more poignant because they can see how the rest of humanity is leaving them behind. They're forced to feel the jealousy, resentment and shame associated with being a have-not in a galaxy of haves.

It's the same plight of Earth's Third World when confronted with the successes and excesses of the West.

A considerable number of characters in these novels have experienced physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse at the hands of their parents or siblings. Certainly there have been many low-tech cultures on Earth and they haven't been so negative. Why are the people on Lagarto so filled with despair and desperation?

Lagarto is loosely based on the Congo at the turn of the last century. The Congo was one of the few places in the world where rubber plants grew naturally, and for that reason, it was colonized by King Leopold II of Belgium. Millions of Congolese died during his reign as the native people were forced to collect rubber or face horrific punishments such as having their hands chopped off.

Then when plantation-grown rubber came onto the world market, the price for natural rubber plummeted and the Congo was promptly abandoned.

I tried to replicate this on Lagarto (substitute brandy for rubber) by creating a world that was originally settled in order to harvest a resource that was unique to its jungles. Then once other worlds gained the ability to grow their own brandy fruit, the market collapsed leaving all of Lagarto's settlers with no resources of value to trade.

Combine the resulting poverty with rampant government corruption and vast swaths of territory fallen to warlords, and you have a dysfunctional society that breeds despair. I know it sounds bleak, but a big part of the reason why I made the world so dark was I knew I wanted to write a very dark protagonist. As violent and vicious as Juno is, when you see him in the context of his world he begins to make sense.

You also asked about sexual abuse, a theme that I've come back to several times in the series. When I was younger, I spent a year working for a children's home that specialized in caring for sexually abused children. Those kids made a big impression on me. I watched a ten-year-old attempt to kill himself by jumping in front of a moving car. He was TEN! I couldn't imagine how hard his life had been that he actually wanted to die at age ten. More than twenty years later I'm still trying to figure it out.

One significant difference between historical Earth cultures and Lagarto is Earthlings have religion. Do your novels imply human beings have no moral compass, no sense of right or wrong, without religion? Are you indirectly promoting theism?

If I am, it's not intentional. I do make references to Christianity from time to time in the series. In fact, Juno spends a few nights sleeping in a church in KOP Killer. So religion is a part of Lagartan society, however, religion is not a theme I chose to focus on in the books.

You do have a good point that many of my characters have weak moral compasses, and perhaps they could all benefit from some old-time religion. I don't know. I've always found religion to be an unreliable gauge for the morality of a person. I've known atheists with incredibly strong moral codes, and I've known people I wouldn't trust with my back turned who go to church every Sunday. The reverse is, of course, also true. It's a crapshoot.

What does your colony world have to say about imperialism on planet Earth?

It says it's a destructive force. The very nature of imperialism is to steal the right of self-determination from the conquered. Thousands of years of world history have taught us it never ends well.

In KOP Killer I enjoyed the symbolism, including The Big Sleep, particularly at the end of the book. How did you implement this?

In the previous book, Ex-KOP, Juno suffered the loss of his wife but never got the chance to mourn her. Knowing how critical she was to his overall story, I felt strongly that it would be cheating to start the next book with an emotionally recovered Juno.

So I set KOP Killer just a few months ahead in time and made sure the book opened with Juno still torn up by raw emotions.

I decided to amplify those dark emotions by making Juno's entire world dark throughout the entire length of the book. Despite the hot temperatures, Juno's home city is actually near the planet's northern pole so I was able to declare this particular three-week period a time when the sun doesn't rise at all.

All I needed was a name for my three weeks of nightfall, and when The Big Sleep popped into my head, I immediately knew it was perfect. Besides being a euphemism for death, it was also the title of Raymond Chandler's first book. It was like noir's perfect storm. Every once in a while, things just come together to make me smile.

I get the impression that the path to publication wasn't entirely smooth for these novels even after you got the contracts. What can you tell us about this?

In most ways, I was very lucky. KOP landed me a two book deal with Tor Books. And after the second book we agreed to do a third. That entire process went incredibly smoothly.

What's been tough is the waiting. I turned in KOP in 2003 and waited until 2007 to see it released. Ex-KOP went much more quickly, but KOP Killer took two and a half years between turning in the book and seeing it published.

I try not to complain, but I still do. What can I say? All of us writers have our crosses to bear.

Do you have much experience writing short fiction like we publish in ElectricSpec? How does it compare to writing novel-length fiction?

I've published exactly one short story. It's called CARNIVAL NIGHT, and you can find it in the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 3. I have written four or five others, but never tried very hard to publish them. I'm one of those writers who started with novel length fiction and other than a little dabbling in short fiction, pretty much stuck with it.

In many ways short stories are harder to write than novels. They have to be tighter due to the limited word count, and they really have to grab a reader right from the first line. You don't have the luxury of letting the story develop over the first few chapters. You have to hit the ground running.

On the other hand, a short story doesn't require you to dedicate the next year or two of your life to a project that may or may not ever be published.

Some writers are better at one or the other. Others are good at both. Me, I think my brain functions best in novels.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Spend as much time as you can around other writers. Join writers' groups and share your work with writers who can help you improve your craft. Never stop reading. And never stop writing.

What's your next project?

I'm working on a novel tentatively titled TIDES. It's a spy novel set in a science fictional world that has no connection to the KOP series. I've written two thirds of the book, and I'm pretty happy with how it's turning out, but I have a long ways to go.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

Thanks, Lesley!

Thanks, Warren! This has been fascinating!

Check out Warren's webpage:

http://www.warrenhammond.net/