The Big Idea: Daniel O’Malley
Posted on January 12, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 34 Comments
There’s an observation, made by humorist Robert Benchley, that says that a man may do remarkable things, so long as it’s not the thing he’s supposed to be doing at the time. Daniel O’Malley has put that into practice — from a series of boring meetings has come the idea that animates his novel The Rook. And the idea? Well, let’s just say it’s something like identity theft, only much cooler and with more intriguing implications. O’Malley will explain it to you now.
How well could someone fake being you?
Put aside the issues of looking like you, or having your fingerprints, or matching your voice. Those things are taken care of. But how well could they walk into your place of employment, wearing your clothes (and your body), and conduct your business, without anybody suspecting that there was something extremely suspicious going on?
The reason I initially asked myself this question is that, in the course of my education and my career, I’ve had to attend a lot of meetings. And I tend to get bored during meetings. Not every meeting, you understand, but a lot of them. And when I’m bored, I will occasionally pretend that I’ve just been placed into my body, and now must pass for myself. It’s not necessarily the most professional of pastimes, but it keeps me entertained for a little while. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that, in order to take someone’s place as them, to take over their life, you’d really, really need to plan ahead.
Now, personally, I like to plan ahead. I don’t enjoy flying by the seat of my pants. I’m not the kind of person who, on a vacation, will just breeze into a town, and assume that a bed will present itself. This may be the result of my once failing to book accommodation in New York City during a layover, and ending up sleeping in the airport. I was woken up by a security guard who ordered us to move on (‘us’ being me and the homeless gentleman who had apparently curled up next to me while I was asleep), and I spent the rest of the night drowsing fitfully in one of those chairs where you sit when someone is polishing your shoes.
In any case, I like to plan ahead. The idea of planning out everything you’d need to take over someone else’s life seemed like a cool idea to me.
In my novel The Rook, a woman with no memories takes on the identity of her former self, a woman named Myfanwy Thomas. Myfanwy Thomas (the former) knew that she would be losing all her memories. She also liked to plan ahead. She has left behind letters and files and dossiers, prepping her successor for the mission of, well, being Myfanwy Thomas. Also for the mission of figuring out who has betrayed her and stolen her memories.
This was the big idea, out of which everything else spiraled. It kept prompting questions. How could Myfanwy Thomas know that her memories were going be stolen? For that matter, how can you steal someone’s memories, anyway? And how many suspects can there be wandering around for whom memory theft is a viable modus operandi? And who the hell are these people? And why don’t we (the normal people) hear about them? And what do they do all day?
Seriously, I had no idea what the answers were going to be when I started writing this book. The first question in particular, gave me some real problems, even though it ended up defining what sort of book it was going to be.
So, Myfanwy Thomas (the one with amnesia) has to come into work, pretending to be her former self. Naturally, work ain’t a normal place of business. When you’re Myfanwy Thomas, you’re a high-ranking commander in the Checquy, a secret Government organization that fights (and is staffed by) the supernatural. If you’re masquerading as her, you’ve got a lot of high-level responsibilities. Plus, you also have those first-day-at-work nerves, compounded by the fact that you’re faking pretty much everything. Which is a feeling that everyone has probably experienced at one point or another. I was able to tap into some pretty gut-churning memories when writing those parts.
And it isn’t just the big things, like dispatching troops, or briefing the Prime Minister. It’s trying to keep track of the multitude of little things that make us who we are. How you like your coffee. How you interact with specific people. How you sign your name. How you activate your supernatural ability to control others. Can you stay in character all the time? And for how long? And really, what proportion of who you are is defined by what you remember, by your experiences? And how long can you angst about all that while Belgian alchemists are invading the nation?
In the course of answering all these questions (and many others, which insisted on presenting themselves), I wrote The Rook.
The Rook: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt (pdf link). See the book trailer. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
I look forward to reading this. I’ll leave myself a note just in case someone steals my memory.
Currently reading an ARC of The Rook that I was supposed to get in November and instead received late December. My wife saw it, said ‘What’s this?’ and started reading. Couldn’t pry it from her hands until she was finished.
I’m about a hundred pages in and I can see why. Aside from the whole ‘Who Am I’ bit, there’s some good humor and nice tension. Whole lot of fun so far.
I don’t typically go for thrillers, even techno-thrillers, even more sf-nal cyber-thrillers. Then I saw The Rook listed on Lev Grossman’s list of most-anticipated books for 2012 (http://entertainment.time.com/2011/12/07/seven-books-im-looking-forward-to-in-2012/) and I was already very interested. But: “Belgian alchemists”? Even more interested. Any audiobook news for The Rook?
I’ve seen some reviews and heard some buzz about this book, but they didn’t really interest me the way this little essay does. I mean, there’s a lot of urban fantasy out there right now. This introduction – the sense of humor and everything – makes this one stand out. I’m intrigued! Looking forward to it. Thank you.
Sounds like the Laundry, but serious…
Sounds like a lot of edge-of-the-seat tension. Like Samuel, I’m not usually a thriller type, and this sounds thriller-ish, but GREAT essay selling it. I’m quite intrigued and will put on my ‘to buy’ list. And my ‘to read’ list. ;-)
Sounds very fun, and reminiscent of the Philip K. Dick short “Paycheck,” which is way, way better than the terrible film.
Even knowing your memories are going to be stolen and trying to write everything down in advance, it would probably not occur to you to put down in the notes “1/2 packet Equal. Not that Splenda crap!”
Neat idea. I look forward to reading it.
On a slightly different note, I have one very simple question:
How the bloody HELL do you pronounce “Myfanwy”?
It’s pronounced like “tiffany” according to the book. It’s relly good. I’m about 100 pages into it as well.
I love this premise and am looking forward to reading the book. The reason I find it so compelling is because I frequently daydream a very similar scenario: I would like to be dropped back into my body in high school, but knowing everything I know today (a common enough fantasy, I know) but here’s the problem with that: I don’t remember anything about my day-to-day functioning in high school, like my locker combination or class schedule. How do you prepare for that?
I seriously need to stop reading these. Or figure out how to get ARCs sent to me…
That sounds really neat. I just bought a copy for my Kindle and look forward to reading it.
Based solely on this post, I have downloaded a sample to my Nook. I will most likely go ahead and get the full version later today. So…The Rook is in my Nook. Yeah, if I was in Graham Norton’s Red Chair, I’d flip me back too.
Hot diggity dang, this sounds like a great book! Can’t wait to read it.
Wow, that sounds totally awesome. And thanks for giving us something pretty quickly about what your book is really about (vs. “here is the experience I had with an orangutan when I was 11 which led in a very roundabout way to this book about glow-in-the-dark pixies”).
Great essay–those meetings must have been really boring! 100 pages in and it is fantastic–the author has a terrific sense of humor and it really comes through on the page. If it wouldn’t be insulting to call someone with a Master’s degree in Medieval History “The Next Dan Brown,” I’d call him “The Next Dan Brown.” Read it!
Blammo. Kindle version purchased based on this post. Can’t wait to read it.
Okay, I gotta know the significance of the coat of arms on the cover. It looks like the family crest of Cthulu Lord Snuggleston, Scalzi’s rabbit…
That’s one big Big Idea. Bravo! A novel take on the “amnesiac protagonist” schtick, shades of the Laundry Files … I approve and will be checking this out.
Sounds like a great book, will keep my eyes out for it!
In long meetings, I try to peg which person in the room, if we all got locked in there, would be the first to turn cannibal.
I’m a sucker for amnesia as a hook (Nine Princes in Amber remains one of my favorite book of all time), and the description here definitely makes it sound like it’s up my alley. Just put in my interlibrary loan request.
Wow! I just read the first 40 pages or so in iBooks and LOVE it! Just purchased and can’t wait to read the rest.
Bought this book on Kindle (damn not having a decent local bookstore with new releases coming out) after seeing this post. LOVING this book so far!
On the basis of this “Big Idea” entry, I bought the iBook. Enjoyed it. Recommended it to my friends and family.
John, you totally owe me a vacation. I bought the book based on your post, and started reading it on my plane out of town. I couldn’t put the book down, and I actually skipped out on a vacation dinner plan to finish a few more chapters! :) It was worth it!
I just finished reading this, and it just gets better and better as you go along. The amnesia plot allows you to get a lot of exposition without bogging down the flow of the story. It’s seriously (or not so seriously, actually) one of the best reads of the year.
Great book and thanks for the suggestion. I ordered the hardcover after previewing some of the first chapters here, then once it arrived stayed up late/got up early to keep reading.
I just finished it to and thoroughly enjoyed it. Lots of unexpected twists and turns and some very wry humor. Can’t wait for more from this author.
jeez, make that “too”.
Fantastic Novel, both my and I agreed this book was excellent start to finish.
What they said. Just finished and enjoyed it immensely. There’s subtle humor but the book never veers into comedy. I admit I was eyeing it a little critically because it is a Thick Hardcover, but it moves along nicely.
Bought the book on Kindle because of this post. Loved the hell out of it! I don’t usually enjoy mysteries, or stories about fictional government agencies, but this was wonderful.
I’ve been thoroughly tired of the “secret group saves mankind from supernatural baddies”, but this book worked for me (just finished it). I think it’s the author’s voice I connected with.
Thanks for putting this book in The Big Idea. Fun stuff!!