Interview with Sylvain Neuvel
I was lucky enough to get a super-early Advanced Review Copy of Sleeping Giants. It was a book that immediately grabbed me and kept hold of me until I turned the final page. For anyone who has read The Three by Sarah Lotz, the style is rather similar. We are presented articles, transcripts and logs that tell they story (as opposed to a narrator). It’s not just me who liked it either, because just like Pierce Brown’s smash hit Red Rising trilogy, Sleeping Giants was picked up for a movie adaption months in advance of its release.
Today I will be interviewing the author, Sylvain Neuvel. Here’s what I knew about him before we got chatting: “Sylvain Neuvel dropped out of high school at age 15. Along the way, he has been a journalist, worked in soil decontamination, sold ice cream in California, and peddled furniture across Canada. He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago. He taught linguistics in India, and worked as a software engineer in Montreal. He is also a certified translator, though he wishes he were an astronaut. He likes to tinker, dabbles in robotics and is somewhat obsessed with Halloween. He absolutely loves toys; his girlfriend would have him believe that he has too many, so he writes about aliens and giant robots as a blatant excuse to build action figures (for his son, of course).”
Quite the résumé! Well, here’s the interview:
Could you tell us the general premise of Sleeping Giants and what inspired you to write it?
Sleeping Giants is about the search for giant metal body parts buried all over the world thousands of years ago, what that discovery means for humanity, and the power struggles that follow. More than anything, it’s a story about a handful of people whose lives are inexorably linked by what might be the greatest discovery in human history. It’s a treasure hunt with cool science, political intrigue, and a giant conspiracy to boot.
The idea came about after I asked my son if he’d like me to build him a toy robot. Somehow, getting a new toy wasn’t enough, he had to know everything about it: who made it, where it came from. I couldn’t come up with an intelligent answer on the spot so I put the whole thing on hold. A few days later, I was watching Japanese anime about a giant robot from outer space and I asked myself what it would be like in real life.
The book is told primarily through transcripts with a number of news reports and diary entries giving further inside and outside perspective of the various events relating to the hunt for giant body parts. What led you to choose this format to tell this story?
I knew I wanted this story to feel as realistic as possible given the fantastic element. I like epistolary novels to begin with, so to make it a collection of documents was an easy choice. I was really happy when I thought of the interviewer. With him involved, I could let all the characters tell the story, not just one. He would be the common element, the glue that binds it all together. He also meant I could use a lot of dialogue. I like books that let me figure some things out on my own, and dialogue is great for that.
In addition to the above, the majority of events within Sleeping Giants do seem like very real possibilities should such an artefacts be discovered; further adding to the novel’s realistic feel. How much research did you do into global affairs, political systems, biblical history and so on to give it such an authentic feel?
I’m not sure I really want to know how much time I spent on research. I can tell you it was a lot more than for my Ph.D. The science part comes easy. I’m not a physicist, but I really love science, so that was fun. The military side of things was completely unknown to me, so that took some time. I spent hours on conspiracy sites looking for convincing arguments on where the government might have built a secret base. I mapped every route the characters take, looked at the menu where they eat at. If it’s in the book, I researched it. A whole lot of it will go unnoticed, but it feels more real to me. I hope it transpires on the page.
Of course, when speculating about potential futures, you do have to toy with ideas of disputes, conflicts and wars (that could potentially happen). Did you ever feel uncomfortable writing and thinking about this kind of thing?
Not really. It’s pretty obvious watching the news that we don’t need an alien discovery to distrust and hate each other. We’re pettier than this. I was much more interested in whether or not that kind of discovery could bring us together in a new way, so this was a very positive experience.
What are your own views on the possibility of human life? Do you think we will ever have opportunity to interact, should you believe there is something out there?
Probably not. I don’t think the math is on our side. I’m fairly certain there’s life out there. Let’s be generous and say one out of every thousand planets can support some form of life, and that one out of every thousand of those actually does. A lot of it will probably be microbial, some plants maybe, things closer to a worm, or a fish. If we’re looking for something that resembles us, even in some small way, the odds get a lot lower, like one in a bazillion. For us to interact, they’d need to come here, so space monkeys won’t do, and they’d have to start from somewhere “close enough”. The universe is a pretty big place. There’s a lot of space in between things. Then there’s time. Humans have been around for about five minutes, and we’ll be gone in another five. So what we’re really looking for is a space-fairing sentient life form who lives on that one in a bazillion planet, near-by, to take a trip here in the next five minutes. It’s not impossible…
As much as this novel is about the search for giant body parts and the political ramifications of locating them, it is also about very interesting, out of the ordinary characters. Perhaps the most intriguing for me was the faceless, nameless protagonist who drives many of the events. Does this character have a source you based him on and was he ever difficult for you to manage as an author?
Difficult, yes, but I love the guy. He’s so challenging, and so fun to write. Here’s someone who makes a living hiding anything even remotely personal about him. I want the reader to get to know him, but he won’t help, at all. I have to get him so involved in these events that he’ll slip and let some of his personality show. He’s good, though, so expect some mystery to remain.
After having finished Sleeping Giants, I read up a bit about you, your education and your work. It’s funny, because in hindsight I feel I see numerous qualities and experiences of yourself in a number of the characters (characters with a talent for linguistics, having attended the University of Chicago, being from Quebec, having interests in building things – just some examples). On reflection, do you see this too?
Oh yeah. It’s not Adaptation, but there certainly are bits and pieces of my life throughout the book. Vincent is the most obvious, but I share some experiences with all of them. Personality-wise, there’s a lot of what I am and what I wish I were in there as well. I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I see myself a lot in the interviewer. Yes, I’m a bit of a control freak (in a good way?).
I was not surprised, based on the transcript quality and format of the novel, to find that you are a linguist. That said, these transcripts don’t read like the ‘real’ transcripts that I experience at work or studied during University (English Language): these being far more readable. How did you go about balancing realism and readable prose?
I didn’t want people who are used to a more traditional narrative style to feel completely lost, so I played a lot with the rhythm of the interviews. Some are really fast paced exchanges, some are slower and feel more like a first person account. It’s a juggling act, but I’m proud of the end result.
Just to expand on that question a little (seeing as you are an expert!): We’ve got a lot of writers on Fantasy-Faction, what kind of advice would you offer to them in terms of writing fluent, readable dialogue that passes as realistic?
Probably to talk to someone who knows what they’re doing. I just say things out loud, a lot. One line at a time at first, to make sure I get the words right. If I have to slow down in the transitions (or if I feel like an idiot), I rephrase. Then I act out the whole exchange. It’s not about the words there, more about the music, getting the right rhythm. I do it many times and I adjust along the way. A bit longer here, a bit shorter there…
I was excited to see Sleeping Giants has been picked up for a movie prior even to being published (just like Red Rising – and we know how well that has done!). Do you have any thoughts based on why the film industry finally seems to be taking notice and looking towards the SFF genres for movie scripts?
With genre fiction becoming more mainstream, and cheaper, better special effects, spending tens of millions on spaceship or dragons makes a lot more sense than it did before. I think they’ve always been interested. They just didn’t have the tools to do it right, at least not in a way that made financial sense.
In terms of your book specifically, have you thought much about what it would be like should a movie happen? Is there anything or anyone specifically that you are excited to see brought to life on the big screen?
I’m mostly really, really curious. My book’s a book, and while it does read like a movie, they’ll have to make a whole lot of choices to put it on screen. David Koepp wrote a script. I haven’t read it yet but I hear it’s fantastic. I can’t wait to see what he did.
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about the possibility of Sleeping Giants toys. I like toys, in a totally normal and adult way. I did end up making a robot toy for my son, but it’s not all that it could be. I would love to buy him some cool Sleeping Giants action figures at the store on our way back from the theater.
Finally, if there is one thing you hope a reader takes away from Sleeping Giants, what would it be?
To me, this one is about human nature, how it takes over no matter what’s at stake. It’s also full of hope. That’s what it means to me, but I really wrote it so people would have fun. There’s plenty of food for thought in there, but I’ll be happy if people enjoy themselves for a few hours.
Sleeping Giants is available right now and be sure to check back in with Fantasy-Faction tomorrow for a full review and a bonus video too =)