Peter Newman Interview
Stephen King may have had a point when he wrote that talk is “sneaky”. Although we’re often told that the majority of communication is nonverbal (93 percent is the popular figure), the concept of having a voice is often linked with ideas such as freedom, justice and identity that make being without it a huge challenge.
Launched in April to immediate critical success, Peter Newman’s debut novel The Vagrant embraces this challenge by snatching the protagonist’s ability to speak and thrusting him alone into a horror-filled world where the only hope for humanity is what he carries with him.
Crammed behind a tiny table in the corner of a central London Starbucks, Newman explains how this narrative device defines the entire story.
Choose Your Own Protagonist
“I was forced to write visually because I didn’t have dialogue to fill in the gaps,” he says, one hand guarding the paper coffee cup marked “Pete”. “I decided early on that he wasn’t going to speak… [and] I didn’t want us to hear his inner thoughts, ‘cause that’s almost a cheat; you can still get into his head even if he’s not speaking. I wanted the reader to focus on what the vagrant is doing.”
In 2012, Takao Unno from Nintendo revealed the reason the protagonist in all Pokémon games don’t speak is so the player can project their own personality onto the character for a “bonding” experience that brings them closer to the action. Newman’s development of the vagrant character offers a similar level of audience participation; a tabula rasa character that is more open to interpretation.
“If you don’t spell out to the reader exactly what the [character is] thinking and their reason for acting, they put their own in there,” he says. “Some people find him not speaking frustrating, some people really like it. Some people read a lot into the character that maybe I wouldn’t agree with but I think that’s part of the fun. People can decide for themselves what he’s like: choose your own protagonist.”
Relating To Aliens
In contrast, Newman’s exploration of demon species in his world involves the close invasion of their thoughts, offering a complete view of their motives and plans as antagonists.
As well as a practical narrative decision to reveal the complex hierarchy of the demon characters, Newman explains that the close contact also elevates the demons beyond “grunty” villains into complete characters in their own right.
“They are hellish in some ways and they’re monstrous in the way they manifest in the world but they’re not just monsters,” he says. “They’re also aliens in a new environment that doesn’t want them. They’re trying to survive as well. I don’t think the demons are exactly sympathetic but I don’t want them to just be hateable bad guys in black cloaks that laugh a lot.”
A Crazy Brain
Closing the moral divide between heroes and villains is a notable feature of grimdark fantasy but Newman doesn’t seem in a hurry to claim a label for his work.
“I’ve got mixed feelings,” he says with a smile. “I love books that are very dark and twisted but if I get attached to characters I also quite like good things to happen. I am a bit of a sucker for romance plots as well providing it’s not the main thrust of the book.”
I point out that, although there’s hope and humour in the form of characters such as the baby and the goat, a lot of events and creatures in the book can be disturbing and kind of gross. Is this abstract creativity contrived or is his imagination the culprit?
“No, I just have a crazy brain.” He says it sincerely. “I write stuff that’s interesting to me. I’ve got a love of mythology and those archetypical characters – I think that’s why I like fantasy – but also I’ve spent far too much of my life playing computer games, reading comics and things and that feeds into that.”
Instead of aiming for doom and gloom, Newman tries to write narratively realistic fiction that explores themes of identity and power. As we know, this often means killing off well-loved characters.
“One of the things I remember with A Song of Ice and Fire was that moment…” he says, referring to the main death in A Game of Thrones that now seems old news. “The effect of that is you know everyone’s up for grabs. And as a reader I was much more tense as a result. But it was more exciting. I don’t claim to have pulled that off in The Vagrant but I did want a sense of threat for the characters.”
Influenced by comics such as Sandman, V for Vendetta and Watchmen, and books by China Miéville, Newman penned three “bottom drawer” novels before his successful debut. He then wrote a fifth, about “immortals and mental illness”, while The Vagrant was out on submission so he “didn’t go mad” but feels there’s more stories to tell in this world before he moves on.
The sequel to The Vagrant, which Newman thinks is better, is completed in draft form and due to be released around spring 2016. He’s hesitant to give away any details but the chance of a happy ending is definitely on the table.
“I don’t think I wanted a book that had the reader questioning their own life,” he says. “I wanted something that was more uplifting at the end. But I also think that characters have to earn it.”