Matt Hill Q&A: Graft, Manchester and flatpack furniture
Matt Hill has dropped in to talk about his upcoming sci-fi novel Graft and his ambitions for evolution-based multitasking.
Graft takes us to Manchester, 2025, where mechanic Sol scrapes a living by stealing old vehicles. But when his partner steals the wrong one, Sol is embroiled in a human trafficking conspiracy that spans multiple dimensions.
Trapped inside this car is Y, a three-armed woman with no memory and no voice. Together, Sol and Y must escape the wrath of her traffickers and bring down their operation before it’s too late.
Find out more about the book and Matt Hill’s internal workings below, and then read our review of Graft.
BC: Having three arms like Y seems like it could be handy. How would you use an extra appendage?
MH: I’d probably go full Rick Wakeman and get an extra keyboard for my desk. I could do with writing a bit faster than I currently manage to. I’d also be able to wind my son while reading a big hardback book or playing games. And it’d be useful for flatpack furniture, which I’m rubbish at. I realise these aren’t lofty ambitions, though now I’m thinking about it, I’m a bit gutted we only got two to start with.
She’s also mute. What were the challenges of writing a character that doesn’t speak?
I doubled down on Y’s voicelessness from the very first line of the novel. I guess it was a way to demonstrate how completely her traffickers wanted to dehumanise her. This meant I had to show her interacting and communicating in other ways – with her eyes, her body language, her third arm, her actions – as well as clicks and crackling sounds she makes with her mouth and throat. So while she might not speak, her emotions and character still come out.
It was tricky in places but I’m quite a visual writer and I always had a good picture of what Y’s expressions looked like. And, of course, she still has her inner voice.
With so many interweaving threads, Graft is a rich tapestry. How did you create your dystopia?
With a banging headache, mostly. My approach to structuring the novel was messy at first; I would’ve saved myself a lot of sleepless nights if I’d planned better from the start. Luckily, I realised before it was too late that I’d be better off going back and re-trenching. I think doing that saved it, though the first drafts still needed a lot of work.
In terms of viewpoints, I tried to write each character’s strand as its own complete piece, then broke these down to interleave them. When the first draft was done I numbered all the scenes and a set of corresponding cards, which let me move things about.
Beyond this, creating the setting and story was really about taking a horrible vision of Manchester and populating it with real-seeming people. You can’t just lob in a few burned out buildings and a curfew and call it a day. The crucial thing is aiming for believability – of character, feeling or otherwise.
I probably get away with some of the more “out-there” stuff in my work because I’ve at least been consistent with it. And lots of it is really just extrapolation: if this happened now, then this might happen then. The small details add up.
Your interpretation of 2025 is a dog-eat-dog world. Do you think the cutthroat ethos of Graft’s universe is something we could be heading towards in reality? How much of the story is based on real events and experiences?
Hopefully we’re not. But even if you take away the general disarray, the harshness of life in Graft, then I think for a lot of people this way of living is already a reality in many places, including here in the UK. So yes, it’s a generally bleaker, more desperate picture in Graft, but here and now, in 2015, it doesn’t take much to notice that something’s breaking down behind all the shiny stuff we enjoy.
That said, I was keen to show that people will always adapt to survive, and that resilience and even humour can still be extant after that shift.
As for experiences and real events, there’s plenty of research in there. Many scenes dealing with Y’s trafficking are drawn from my non-fiction reading; it wasn’t necessary to imagine them. And of course there are all the little anecdotes and sayings pilfered from friends and family, or overheard on public transport, that naturally weave their way in.
What role does the inter-dimensional element play? Could Graft have been set in one universe?
Graft picks up seven years after what happens in my first novel, The Folded Man. It’s not a direct sequel, so it isn’t necessary to read both (even if there are links), but inter-dimensional tech was a key part of that first book. I wanted Graft to take a look at how that kind of technology might be misappropriated should a certain type of person get hold of it.
The concept gives you a freedom to play about, too, so much of the stuff in the ‘sister-world’ is pretty weird and outlandish as a result. Could it happen in one universe? Possibly. It would just be a very different novel, and likely wouldn’t allow me to explore some of the things I wanted to explore.
Brits are known for maintaining a stiff upper lip. How important is the idea of “Britishness” to you? Why did you feel compelled to set the story in your home city of Manchester?
If I think about my background, my influences, and even what’s contributed to me as a person – whether that’s experience or education – then obviously I’m writing from a British perspective, with a British outlook. Inevitably I want to write in a way that’s true to that, even if it might be seen as myopic.
As for the compulsion to write about Manchester: I grew up in and around the city, is the simple answer. I enjoy writing about it. I enjoy the voices and dialect. And when I think of some of the more Mancunian Mancunians I’ve met, or know, I have a good idea of how they’d react to the world falling down around them.
There’s probably a mild contrarianism at play, too. London is often the default setting for this kind of science fiction, so why not focus elsewhere?
Austerity is a prevalent theme throughout the book. Why did you choose to focus on this?
I’m interested in how people react to broad shifts in policy and living conditions, and we’re discovering that austerity has massive human consequences. I mean, I’m not trying to be an economist, a futurist, or even an activist with Graft, but you’d have to be wilfully ignorant to believe that things are really going to get better for certain groups of people in this country, and across the continent.
I get the why of austerity as a policy – not least the mad pursuit of ‘growth’ above all else – and I get that a state can’t just throw endless money at things (unless it’s war, of course). But when (or if) we manage to get to 2025, I think the social effects of austerity as we understand it will be a lot more acute and frightening than they already are.
What was it like returning to this universe after The Folded Man? How many more stories are you planning to tell there?
The danger is finding it cosy and not pushing yourself. On one hand, you’ve got a pre-drawn world and a choice of minor characters you want to say more about. On the other hand, you don’t want it to feel like a rehash to anyone who did read the first one. And since you know it’s not a full sequel, it has to stand on its own. Mainly, though, it was just satisfying to expand things, to show how life had developed on the ground, and to tell a different kind of story with some of the same tools, plus some new ones.
I’ve nothing else planned for Graft-world at the moment. I’m about three-quarters of the way through a draft of a new novel which isn’t linked in any way to the first two, which was very intentional, so that’ll probably be on the boil for another year or so.
After that, who knows!
Graft will be available in all good bookshops, and some bad ones, from 11th February 2016. Read our review here.