BLOG Return To The Failed Cities
We all have fictional places we’d like to spend time in. One of my best friends spent a lot of time training to run very fast across 50m because that’s about as wide as a BBC studio and that way she and the Doctor could always get into the TARDIS in time.
Personally, I have two. The first is Narnia, because I’ve lived in a lot of houses with big spooky wardrobes and instinctively find myself checking the doors for snow and the sound of tiny, cloven-hoofed feet. The second, is the Failed Cities.
The Failed Cities are the setting for the Failed Cities Monologues, one of the best podcasts of the last ten years. Written by Matt Wallace, the Failed Cities Monologues detail a street-level war in two near-feral cities of the near future. From the foot soldiers to the generals and the not-so-innocent bystanders caught in the middle it’s a story which is one part Blade Runner, one part Dashiell Hammett and quite unlike anything else you’ll hear. Or read, because author Matt Wallace has assembled the original stories along with a huge chunk of extras and is about to release The Failed Cities Monologues: The Definitive Edition. I talked to him about life in the cities, writing, how he got his start and his nefarious plans for all things Tesla…
The Failed Cities Monologues is an unusual project; tell us a little about it?
“In simplest terms? It’s my selective schizophrenia spilled into your ears and now onto the screen of your preferred digital reading device.
“The story of the Failed Cities is told through the revolving voices and perspectives of eight different characters. It’s dystopian, it’s bloody, it is funnier than it probably should be, it’s utterly human, and its goal is to entrench you in the minds of these people as deeply and viscerally and realistically as possible. You’ll understand them in a way you rarely understand people. You’ll feel what they feel, know the world around them as vividly as they do. They’ll become real to you, or I haven’t done my job.
“The whole thing began as a serialised podcast performed by a full cast of actors and became a novel. Well, a novel hybrid. In audio form it gathered a shockingly rabid and devoted following of fans out there who’ve all been waiting almost six years to experience it as a novel and actually read it. That’s finally happening when The Failed Cities Monologues: The Definitive Edition hits all digital formats as an ebook on 14 November 2012.”
How did it come about?
“The story itself came about after I began podcasting my fiction in 2005. It seemed like everyone in podcast fiction was either doing straight audio drama or books-on-tape-except-now-on-the-internet. I wanted to write something that bridged all of that and really exploited this new medium for all it was worth. I had no aspirations of innovating or breaking new ground or any of that lofty crap; I was just having fun.
“The end result was and is something that’s not exactly a novel and not really a radio play or audio drama. But it’s an experience people seem to like and connect with on a lot of levels.
“This new Definitive Edition ebook came about because in six years I couldn’t come to terms with a publisher, big or small, to get a print edition out there. It got close several times, but the deal always ended up falling through because of money or because they wanted too many changes to the format of the work itself. Fortunately technology and my audience have come to a place where there was no reason I couldn’t create a quality product that would satisfy everyone and that I could successfully distribute myself.
“I’m using this opportunity to do more than finally release the text of Monologues; this edition will collect all of my Failed Cities writings from the past six years, novellas and short stories, as well as extra content penned by some very special guests and me.”
Why do you think you had such trouble finding a publisher?
“My expectations of the publishing industry are probably unrealistic, in that I’ve always expected to be paid well to write what I want to write. No-one was able to meet those basic criteria. Which sounds like pure sour grapes on my part. And they are.
“No. The truth is that it was just a hard sell and I wasn’t willing to compromise. It’s a very non-traditional novel, and this was 2006. It got close a few times, but the deal always fell through for one reason or another. Apex, who published my first short story collection, wanted to do it. But they were a small publisher that had just branched out into hardcover books, and they didn’t have much money or any brick-and-mortar distribution for their products yet. I didn’t see the point. Harper Voyager was into it, and they obviously had the money and the distribution to make it worthwhile, but they wanted a whole battery of changes. None the least of which was doubling the word count of the novel because… reasons? I still don’t know. In the end I just couldn’t do it.
“Considering how much time and effort I put into it and what the story means to me, I’m glad I ended up sitting on it until I could see the book published exactly the way I wanted. The alternative would have been a marginal product for a marginal audience, all for the sake of being able to hold it in my hands. Vanity presses come in all forms.”
What were the influences on it?
“If I’m being honest the whole thing really started with Garth Ennis’ Preacher. Jesse Custer – the chain-smoking, ass-kicking, collar-wearing reverend with the moral code of the Old West – I just loved that character. I loved the dichotomy and the contradiction and strange, poetic, fun harmony of all those traits.
“I started thinking about the iconography of the collar and the priest’s smock. I considered that in an urban environment where all social rules and moorings have been stripped away the only authority would and could be religion. In that way I used religion in its original and intended capacity: to maintain social order. I wrote a short story called ‘Steel Gospel’ about Ethan and the street preachers. It became the first monologue of the book.
“When I began building the cities themselves I used New York as a template. Ilived in the city for five years a long time ago. You could call the Failed Cities an alternate version of NYC. The geography and the names of things are all screwed up, but if you know the five boroughs you’ll recognise nods to specific places.
“My two major literary influences were The Sprawl from most of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels and Frank Miller’s Sin City comics. The book gets compared to the latter a lot, for obvious reasons. Although I like to think my character’s voices are more individualistic. Miller’s interior monologues always seemed to me to be in the same voice with the same dialect no matter whose head we were occupying.
“As odd as it sounds, I also wanted to give a lot of it a tone and feel similar to Our Town, particularly the third act, which I always found starkly different than the rest of the play. Wilder’s language and concepts become more abstract. It’s so eerie and morbid, and yet strangely comforting. He really connects the characters to a specific place at a specific time, to the point where you can’t really imagine any of those three elements without the others. That was important in the Failed Cities because we only experience the world through the characters. We only know it through them.
“I knew I wanted to interpret classic noir archetypes in weird ways. All of that came from consuming Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels as a kid. All of those character types are there, just warped slightly. In some cases more than slightly.”
Your mention of Our Town is fascinating as Failed Cities reads very theatrically. There’s also, under the violence and the grim, a real sense of community. This is where these people live, this is where they stand. Did that evolve or was it always intended to be there?
“Probably both. The whole thing definitely grew organically as I developed the story, and I didn’t know exactly where it was going as I wrote it. I let the characters kind of figure all of that out for me. But I knew I wanted it to be a real city. A city is a concrete galaxy with millions of little worlds, and the people who inhabit them are so tight-knit and individualistic in their behavior and world-views and customs that they’re almost different species. Those people, all people, everyone seeks a brotherhood or a sisterhood or a like-minded community. Even if they never actively seek it, or do seek it and never find one, it’s something we all want.
“I’ve also never been a fan of unisex jumpsuit sci-fi or Star Trek-esque ‘theme’ worlds where everything is the same despite the enormity of scale. It seems to me most dystopian societies in fiction are always broken down into, at most, three groups: a totalitarian government of some kind, a band of rebels, and all the muted vanilla Eloi-esque citizens standing quietly and obediently in long lines. I think, in the end, authors do that for reasons of simplicity. When you’re writing about the fate of an entire society you can’t break it down to every man and every woman. So you tend to generalise. One of the good things about writing a story this way, through so many different characters, was it allowed me to dig into all of those many different shades and avenues and social groups any real society like that would have.”
It’s one of those projects that straddle the line between noir and cyberpunk, science fiction and crime – where would you put it?
“I wouldn’t. It’s a story. That’s the only merit on which it should be judged. It’s the only merit on which any story should be judged. Genre labels, quite honestly, just f**k everything up and relegate some very good novels to sparsely-trafficked sections of the bookstore and ensure they won’t be taken seriously by mainstream critics or given exposure in mainstream media outlets.”
Where would you live, if you had to, in the city?
“Probably the Stacks. The character of Sterne is easily the most literal version of me out of all of them. I mean, he’s a writer who supplements his income by pit fighting. That was me for several years. And the Stacks – the neo-bohemian ghetto populated by futuristic artists and weed-smoking Rastafarians and Dutch ex-pats where he lives – is very much my version of utopia. One of them, anyway. Ever since I read about Montmartre around the turn of the century and Ballard’s Vermillion Sands, I’ve always fetishised urban bohemian meccas to a degree.
“I also drew a lot of it from neighborhoods I actually lived in and the places I went in New York and the people I met there. The building Sterne lives in is the building I lived in back in Brooklyn, right down to the tiles in the foyer. That’s probably why the Stacks is a focal point of the plot and comes to represent sort of the ‘common people’ of the Failed Cities.”
What’s the soundtrack to the Failed Cities?
“Choral whale orgasm set to strings? I don’t know. I was listening to Billy Idol’s album Cyberpunk a lot when I wrote the monologues. That was some of my favourite writing music back then. I actually have a vintage poster of that album framed on my office wall. Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack and the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure soundtrack (best guitar soundtrack in movie history) were also on tap a lot during that period. I guess it speaks of my headspace and focus and interests at the time. That’s all very classically ’80s music trying to approximate a futuristic sound. These days I’m much more likely to stick a Leonard Cohen album I’ve heard ten million times in my ears and let it loop for three hours. And even then it’s not for inspiration, it’s just to block out the rest of the world while I write.
If I were creating a Failed Cities soundtrack today I’d probably do what Jodorowsky wanted to do with the four main planets in his failed Dune adaptation and have a different composer or band give each one its own unique sound. So David Guetta would score the mega-skyscraper Co-Ops, Michael Franti or Jack White would score The Stacks, Seether would score Industrial Row where the street preachers live, etc..”
Are you done with the Failed Cities?
“I think so. Those characters and that world were very much born of a specific time and place in my life, and I can’t really go back there. I’m not sure I’d even remember how to be them anymore, and you have to take it to that level to write from their heads in any kind of meaningful way. I worry I’d just be doing an impression of what they sound like at this point.
“Of course, if the Definitive Edition does well and demand is there then all of that may change. My ultimate dream is to own a giant industrial Tesla coil and a Tesla Motors convertible and combine the two into a sexy roving death ray on wheels. That shit isn’t cheap.”
The Failed Cities: The Definitive Edition is released as an e-book on 14 November. Details of Matt’s other work can be found at: http://matt-wallace.com/