A Coffee with… Deborah Install at the London Book Fair!

CBJJ16 - Feb - A Robot in the Garden I’d spotted The Robot in the Garden in the Bookseller previews and made sure to include in our February Book Recommends. When I caught on Twitter that its author Deborah Install was attending the London Book Fair today I dropped her a line to see if she had time for a coffee and chat and we arranged to meet.
It turns out we’re both sitting in the London Book & Screen  Week area – just different one’s. Usefully they’re opposite across from one another on the National Hall Gallery so a wave from one of the pod chairs to the especially pink area where I’m sat and we’re good to go.

I already had the sense that despite the key SF element of A Robot in the Garden its appeal is far more general than genre – perhaps more in the territory of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, only in that territory’s levity district. That’s indeed how Deborah sees it, only she’s absolutely a genre fan herself and I’m pretty sure in all the media going. She tells me didn’t even mean to write a book with a robot, or anything remotely SF for that matter. The robot, I gather, is a different type of McGuffin: not the more conventional exotic (not an oxymoron) variety from which the plot unfolds, but rather something from which human interaction, drama and comedy plays off.

So what’s floating Deborah’s boat at the moment? Small-screen-wise its Marvel. She loves the interconnected universe they’ve been building up and is a particular fan of Agents of Shield and Agent Carter. I get the impression the latter is a particular favourite; Deborah likes its lower key nature and loves the 1940’s outfits. Character-wise its agent Phil Coulson though…

She loves gaming as well. Deborah and her husband moved house recently and top of their post-move appliance list was a PS4, moving across from Nintendo’s platform as friends were more invested in Sony’s. Current game of choice is the Zombie Army Trilogy in which Hitler has raised zombies as a last resort in the closing days of World War II. It’s not that Deborah has bought into the whole zombie phenomenon or The Walking Dead series; it’s the enjoyable daftness of guilt-free slaughter of Nazi undead. I mention the Zombies Hate Kung-Fu graphic novel that debuted at this year’s London Super Comic Con, where creator Ricky-Marcel Pitcher noted how ‘zombies are neutral’ – perfect non-conscience-challenging fodder for martial artists, sniper-bullets or anything else for that matter. CA - LBF 16 - Zombie Army Trilogy

Deborah’s living in Birmingham now and, being Midlander in the capital, I’m intrigued by the creative SFF scene of England’s second city (sorry Manchester). “It’s better than it’s given credit for” she tells me, noting in particular the very well-established writing groups there. It was being part of one that gave her the impetus to finish A Robot in the Garden and she’s still involved with the group. There are launches for books as well of course, but these tend to be more private than in the Big Smoke. I actually heard later that day of a certain well known author who does believe that being in the capital has been a boon to her career, but this certainly isn’t the case in Deborah’s mind. Besides, Birmingham is perfectly well connected in case you need to get to London or anywhere else for that matter, and I think we’d all agree that ‘content is king’ in the writing biz and that you’re best to be where you’re most comfortable to get that content pumping.

Anyway Deborah’s visiting the LBF and meeting foreign agents who’ve been involved in having A Robot in the Garden translated and put out around the world – it’s imminently being published in Spain, Japan and others. And what’s next? Well apparently Deborah’s just finished the next instalment of the family in ARitG’s story and has an unrelated third title on the way as well – also of the slipstream variety with an SF conceit I understand. She’s certainly happy with the Audrey Niffenegger comparison and we discuss how David Mitchell and Jasper Fforde also sit in this hard-to-name ‘category’.

We also talk the Watchmen movie, agreeing that basically it’s a fine film and adaptation of the comic. Deborah likes Zack Snyder’s work in bringing specific comic panels into the movie. The point of adapting works into other media seems lost on people she feels: for one thing if you try to be too close to the original it just doesn’t work. Despite obviously being a fan of the written word Deborah’s quite against bibliophiles who insist that one should ‘just read the book’ rather than going to see whichever film adaptation. It’s a more communal medium as she puts it and who says you can only enjoy something in one form? This takes us on to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which of course began as a radio play and was then adapted to book form and brought into just about every form of media you can imagine. (Pleasantly my interviews at the LBF continues in an anti-snobbery creator vein with Pat Mills the next morning). Gen - Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Deborah’s of the opinion that for a good film to actually come about “It takes people being allowed to get on with it,” she tells me, talking particularly about the Director and finds it amazing how films ever get made in the first place. She’s a real fan of JJ Abrams in particular: “You know he know’s what he’s doing from the first shot” and that he’s a fan himself.

I can’t resist seeing if we’re of a similar mind of another franchise director and her immediate response, which indeed entirely mirrors my own if I happen to be asked, makes me laugh. Michael Bay?

Oh God” she says dropping her head. We’re talking Transformers of course. “I’ve no idea what’s going on. It’s basically a 2-hour explosion.”

We’re in agreement that many effects (not just in Mr Bay’s films) are just unnecessary. Now they’ve reached a certain level of sophistication they’re not so much a big deal as they once were Deborah believes, also that we might well be seeing a focus returning to good storytelling instead.

Moving on to YA and while it’s a perfectly appealing segment to read regardless of age, it’s not one that Deborah feels is the right one for her to write in. It sounds like she’s come to the conclusion that comedy is an integral part of author’s voice and – and it only really hits home as we talk on this – YA fiction is very much dark territory. Actually she feels teenagers have a really rough time of it partly because you’re meant to ‘know stuff’ that you don’t. ‘Life makes sense when you’re 12-13. Then you become a teenager and nothing feels the same.’ So the significantly darker tone of YA, quite aside from reflecting an emerging awareness of the imperfections of the world, is the more appreciated by teenagers as an expression and release of the confusion and difficulty they’re facing at that point in their lives. Anyway Deborah certainly loves reading YA, middle grade also – and perhaps one day we might see her applying her writing skills for the latter audience.

CA - LBF 16 - The Finding of Martha Lost As for recent reading, she’s understandably been focused on moving house so has been reading less. Her most recent recommended read however is Caroline Wallace’s The Finding of Martha Lost (Waterstones link) published by Transworld which sounds absolutely fabulous. It’s the story of a girl who is found in a suitcase in a Liverpool train station and spends the first sixteen years of her life living in the lost property office. Now she has to solve the mystery of who she is before it’s too late – she’s got other mysteries to solve mind, including the secret tunnels beneath the station.

Of course this is another slipstream title. Nothing fantastical in the traditional sense as I understand it, but very much a modern fable: a fantastical set-up rather than a supernatural one.

Which brings us back to the matter of categorising Deborah’s work and those on which we’ve talked. Speculative fiction maybe, she suggests, reclaiming the term somewhat from its particular appropriation by the SF crowd. Maybe: it’s a discussion that could – and probably will – run and run but we’ve both got other things and people to catch at the LBF. CA - LBF 16 - Deborah Install
Before we part I’m introduced to Tang the Robot – and yes that’s the name of the robot of her book – which she takes with her to fairs and conventions; in all that time I hadn’t spotted the little fellow. Well I’m more here for the words than pictures but I thought that deserved a photo.

A big thanks to Deborah for taking the time for a coffee and all the best to her and Tang on their travels…


More from the LBF:

General coverage with links to feature articles – The London Book Fair 2016 [To be released]

A Coffee with Abaddon & Solaris at the London Book Fair…

Women in Comics: Is the Graphic Novel Industry Failing to Recognise Female Creators? Panel at LBF 2016

A Coffee with… Deborah Install at the London Book Fair!

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 1

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 2 [Imminent]

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 3 [Imminent]

The Graphic Galaxy: Science Fiction in Comics – A Panel at LBF 2016 [To be released]

A Coffee with Hodder Editor Anne Perry at The London Book Fair!