The Big Idea: Lavie Tidhar
(is passed note)
Oh, wait, that should be, is definitely clowning around. Well, sort of.
Look, he’s here to explain it all, I’ll just let him do it, okay?
I’m loathe these days to try and give the “big idea” for my books, as all my elevator pitches sound like parodies of proper ones. A Man Lies Dreaming? “Adolf Hitler as a Private Eye”. Central Station? “A science fiction novel where nothing happens”. By Force Alone? “The Matter of Britain as a gangster saga” (OK, that one at least sounded more commercial, I just forgot to mention the Jewish kung-fu and the aliens when I pitched it).
There is something very appealing to me about the inverse-pitch. The absurdity of concepts put together that should never, in truth, be put together can lead to a sort of new illumination, even profundity. Or it can slip on a banana skin and fall head first into a custard pie, of course.
So for The Escapement, I blithely went around telling everyone I was writing a “clown western”. What I didn’t take into account – simply because it never occurred to me! – was that people in publishing really, and I mean really, hate clowns. It turns out it’s not just people in publishing, either. So I would watch publishers edge away and run from the table at what was, after all, yet another ridiculous elevator pitch. You know, the ones that really shouldn’t work.
It becomes a running theme in the book, of course. This hatred of clowns. Their alienation. That uncanny valley. “I cut and I cut, trying to find the answer,” says Professor Federico The Magnificentearly on to the Stranger and Temperanza, standing over the dissected corpse of a Whiteface. “Why aren’t they funny!”
Alone of all the people on the Escapement, it is only the Stranger who has a strange love of clowns. That love might come from the ambiguity of what the Escapement actually is. Is it a secondary world, filled with god-like forces, circuses and bounty hunters, train robbers and clowns? Or is it a projection, an imaginary construct created by a nameless man as he sits by his dying son’s hospital bed?
Perhaps it’s both. I wanted to write a very simple book for once. A linear adventure story. A fantasy without The War on Terror (Osama) or the Holocaust (A Man Lies Dreaming) or Israel and Palestine (Unholy Land). I wanted to write about train robberies and murderous magicians (in the stage performance meaning of the word), of people hanging for dear life from a clock tower like Buster Keaton, of buried clocks still ticking life and of train engines powered by ghosts. Instead I wrote a fairytale about a father searching for a flower to cure his son’s illness. The heart of the Escapement is in that doomed quest. It grew in the telling (as old Professor Tolkien once said) and it became its own thing. So…
Somewhere there’s a place where clowns roam the land and toy trains run along toy tracks across vast distances. It is a place anyone can visit but few do. It is full of hidden dangers, a place where a chthonic bomb could turn the people of a city into pink flamingoes, a place where giant statues roam and circus people flourish. Somewhere out there the Stranger rides in search of the Ur-Shanabi, the Flower of Heartbeat rumoured to grow beyond the Mountains of Darkness. But the road is long, and directions often change on the Escapement. He has been searching for a long time… And somewhere else a father sits by a hospital bed, where a boy with a clown doll clasped in his hands lies hooked up to machines, and the clock on the wall ticks relentlessly.
Welcome to the Escapement, Stranger.