To celebrate this week’s UK release of The Coldest War, the folks at Orbit Books recently asked if I’d like to interview Charles Stross about his excellent Laundry series. (I think they knew it was a slam dunk, since I’m a fan of the series and not above begging copies of Laundry novels from them). Charlie was game for it, too. Since the Laundry and Milkweed series reside in a similar neighborhood — after all, to put it rather broadly, we’re both writing about British spy organizations that contend with occult forces, albeit very differently — it turned into a fun conversation.
Our wide-ranging interview/discussion about espionage, the Cold War, the occult, and plush Cthulhu bedroom slippers is posted here.
This was a blast. I find it very interesting, too, that Charlie and I have taken similar approaches to the Cold War. (In fact I’ve been ruminating on that a bit. It’s fodder for another blog post that should go up here, or on the Orbit site, before too long.)
We’ve also had similar experiences when it comes to readers drawing parallels between our work and others’. Charlie has mentioned how, when writing the first Laundry novel, he was advised to avoid Tim Powers’s phenomenal tour-de-force novel, Declare. And later he discovered Delta Green, a popuar espionage-flavored variant of the Call of Cthulhu RPG.
When I started to work on Bitter Seeds, people who heard the one-sentence concept would say, “You know Tim Powers did something similar, right?” (To which I liked to respond, “Well, it’d be a shame if Powers had never written Declare just because Dennis Wheatley touched on the same ground over 30 years previously.”) Or even, “Oh, you must play a lot of Delta Green.” But unlike Stross, I’ve also had people assume, “Oh, you must have been influenced by the Laundry series.”
I strive to avoid cross-contamination when I’m writing. So while I became aware of the Laundry books while chipping away at Bitter Seeds (thanks to comments like the above) I didn’t actually pick up The Atrocity Archives until after I submitted the manuscript for The Coldest War. At that point the storyline of the Milkweed Triptych was 2/3 finished and rocketing on a ballistic trajectory — I couldn’t have changed it if I wanted to. Plus by that point the world was pretty well set, so I figured it was safe to dive in to the Laundry series. And promptly became a huge fan of Bob Howard and his hilarious-yet-terrifying misadventures.
It always strikes me as odd when people trip over superficial similarities in the “elevator pitch” synopses of different stories. I’m convinced that if you gave 10 writers then very same concept, word for word, and asked them to produce a story or novel derived from it, you’d get 10 radically different tales. Different in the underlying ideas, the characters, the plot, and narrative style. I couldn’t write a Powers book if I tried — there’s only one Tim Powers. Likewise, I certainly could never write a Strossian novel. I’d like to believe that there’s plenty of room for small fries like me, even when those big fish are swimming in the same tributaries.
All one has to do is read the Laundry series, Declare, and the Milkweed books side by side — as well as They Used Dark Forces, and Lammas Night, and Thor vs. Captain America — side by side to see they’re all unique.