Momenticon by Andrew Caldecott is a true joy to read – a unique novel set in a dystopian future around a museum and its unusual occupants, with a strong streak of Alice in Wonderland woven through. Read our review of the novel here, and read on to hear Andrew Caldecott talk more about his new novel, his writing process and museums more generally. His answers are just as much a joy as his novel is!
Can you pitch Momenticon in one sentence for our readers?
An adventure story which sets misfits against a corrupted establishment, a riff on the Alice books and the role of art in our lives, and an off-piste examination of how mankind might fare without nature.
I loved how much the story referenced Alice in Wonderland (my favourite classic) – what inspired you to craft your story around those references to literature and art?
Tenniel’s Alice illustrations match the characters as well as any graphic novel. And what characters: the psychotic, the monstrous, the kind, the eccentric, the bossy, the put-upon and the plain disturbed. When young, you were bewitched and thought them fantastical. As you grow older, you discover they have their real-life equivalents; even Cheshire cats who appear and disappear when you least expect it. And topicality too: as an image of despoiling Nature for avarice, what can beat the Walrus and the Carpenter? The Alice books have lived on because they are internally coherent but externally bizarre which is the hallmark of the best speculative fiction. Gormenghast still grips for the same reason.
As this is partially a story about museums and archives, what are your favourite ones to visit, or exhibitions that have left lasting impressions?
If you have a time machine to hand, I recommend the marvelously chaotic Cairo Museum of Antiquities before it entered the twenty first century, where you half-shared the experience of Howard Carter stumbling on the jumble of Tutankhamun’s tomb. For an exhibition, perhaps the Royal Academy’s bumper Van Gogh show of 2010, which married his letters with his work and showed what the self-taught and mentally troubled can conjure up against the odds. For a permanent oddity, go see Francis Bacon’s exactly preserved studio in Dublin or at least view it online. You’ll never feel untidy again.
Do you have any favourite characters or bits in your own work?
In the moment of writing, maybe, but you forget; afterwards, not really.
How did this writing experience differ from your last trilogy? Did you work similarly or did you create a completely new routine for the new project?
The Rotherweird trilogy had a multitude of starting points in time and place, which slowly came together, and was set in a broadly recognisable English market town. This has a diametrically opposite scheme which pitches a single character into a macabre dystopian setting where he thinks he’s the last man standing. He isn’t, of course, and it mushrooms outwards from there.
As to routine, it’s the same and old-fashioned – scribble in manuscript, then type up. Coffee shops work best; real people passing you by without intruding.
What is your favourite part of the writing and publishing process?
To list the ingredients first: a founding idea, lesser ideas from which the story is woven, description, character and finally the craft of polishing and pruning. I suspect they engage quite different parts of the brain. Most satisfying perhaps is removing a false step (in my case often one character too many), because the pain of losing hard hours gives way to the realisation that clearance has allowed other characters to grow. That said, nothing beats the afterglow when a storyline appears from nowhere which you instinctively know should work (if you can do it justice).
As for the publishing process, get-togethers with the like-minded. And covers. In a perfect world they wouldn’t matter, as the label on a bottle shouldn’t. In the real world they don’t get you the purchase, but they may earn the glance which does. Artists are a pleasure to work with.
What were some of your challenges writing over the last couple of years?
My caffeine oases (see above) were closed thanks to Covid.
How do you celebrate a new book being released?
Good thought. I’d better do something about that.
What books or other media have filled your creative well recently?
Re-reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, when the devil and a talking cat revel in the madness of Stalin’s Russia. The two chapters which pitch Pontius Pilate (secular power) against Christ (ethical force) are remarkable – don’t ask how Bulgakov fits this in. Finished in 1940, the year of the author’s death, it only emerged when smuggled out to Paris in 1967. How spoilt we Western authors are. As for other media, the Green Planet any day.