Discussing 36 Streets, cyberpunk, and D&D with T.R. Napper

Many of our followers will know T.R. Napper from our publication of his brilliant short story collection, Neon Leviathan. On Jan 18 in Australia, and Feb 8 for the rest of the world, Titan Books will be publishing Tim’s debut novel set in the same world, 36 Streets. Having read an advanced reader copy of it—and having seen what Richard K. Morgan had to say about the book—I know you’re going to want to get in on this read.

Tim is an incredibly interesting author and human. His decade of aid work ranging from Mongolia to Vietnam has meant he has seen human poverty, darkness, struggle, and hope up front, in the flesh, in one of the poorest regions of the world. And his stories just consistently use that lived experience to reach into your chest and pluck your heartstrings while depicting a cyberpunk world you’re unlikely to have read the like of before, based in Vietnam and Australia.

Being in the same time zone as me (FOR ONCE) I was lucky enough to have a chat with Tim about the upcoming release of 36 Streets, his work and thoughts on short stories, working with autistic children to build social confidence through Dungeons and Dragons, and his lived experience.

[GdM] Welcome to the GdM blog, Tim! Thanks for joining us and the grimdark crowd.

[TRN] A pleasure. Ironically I think the so-called ‘Grimdark’ crowd are the most supportive, friendliest, and level-headed sub-culture of genre readers.

36 Streets by T.R. Napper[GdM] in 36 Streets we see a near future Ha Noi, Vietnam through the lens of a gangster and sometime private investigator, Lin. One of the things I love most about your works is the setting—can you tell me how you take a city you lived in for three years and created the cyberpunk aspect and regional upheaval around it?

[TRN] With great difficulty. Novels are hard, man. I also did a PhD, I should add, that in part focussed on Vietnamese literature, and that one of my supervisors was an Australian who originally came here as a refugee from Vietnam. So I had a wealth of personal experience and external expertise to draw on.

In terms of the futuristic aspects—the cyberpunk tech and the geopolitical future—in general I follow the maxim of Ursula Le Guin: ‘science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive’. I took a lot of trends I see today—in communication technology, artificial intelligence, and surveillance—and extrapolated. The idea, for example, that an advanced version of a smart phone will be in our skull as a neural implant, is not a huge imaginative leap. Even much of the technology of memory—erasing, manipulating, and creating false memories—in the world I’ve created, while certainly more of a leap that most of the other tech in the novel, is still an extrapolation of some preliminary experiments being conducted today in the field of neuroscience. I should add a disclaimer here: I’m not a hard science fiction writer, as such, but I do want to ensure the tech I use is plausible (though this is cyberpunk, so some tech simply has to be cool).

Geopolitically I imagined a future that many, if not all, of my Vietnamese friends feel is unfolding today—that China wants to dominate Vietnam. China has a history of treating Vietnam as a ‘little brother’, and one that ought to be more respectful. There was widespread public anger at China when I was living in Vietnam, for several reasons. China did not respect Vietnamese territorial waters for one, and was frequently harassing Vietnamese fishing vessels not far off the coast of Vietnam. Those unfamiliar with Vietnamese history should also be aware that China was the colonial power in Vietnam for a thousand years, until the Vietnamese rebelled and kicked them out.

Again, I don’t think this future is a huge imaginative leap. The idea that the US might collapse and China become the sole super-power: certainly plausible. There are, of course, some nuances in how the countries in the region might interact, but before I was a writer I was an aid worker in the region, and studied international relations at uni, so I have a decent geopolitical understanding of things.

[GdM] Drug addiction plays a big part of Lin’s character. How was the drug culture in the book influenced by what you witnessed during your time in South East Asia?

[TRN] It isn’t. I don’t see drug culture as worse in Southeast Asia. I’d say it is less bad than in places like the United States, which has been suffering through an opioid epidemic for twenty years now.

The drug addiction in the book is more about how Lin deals with alienation and trauma. It is something of a trope in noir literature, and cyberpunk is, in my view, a descendant of noir. The drug use reflects how flawed Lin is, how she is barely holding it all together, how she walks the finest of lines between her humanity and a descent into darkness. It’s Grimdark, baby.

[GdM] As an Australian, you smoothly work in themes and language that meshes two wildly different cultures—Australian and Vietnamese. You also write convincing characters from China and more Western countries. A lot of times this is done in other author’s works it often falls back on stereotypes, but yours feel engaging and real. How did you achieve this mish-mash cast of characters and how do the multiple nationalities work and impact your world?

[TRN] Well, thank you for saying so. It matters to me that I get this right.

What I find sometimes in the writing of other authors is that they they try to essentialise a character down to a cultural stereotype. Identity becomes one-dimensional. The reality is, unsurprisingly, that all of us are multi-dimensional—we have nationality, but also our gender, our class, our profession, our education level, our sexuality, our neurodiversity, and a million other characteristics.

Living overseas for so long strongly reinforced my view that we do have a common humanity and human experience. We are all, in short, explicable to each other. Which is not to say writing in other cultures isn’t hard. It’s incredibly fucking hard. Earlier in this interview, I touched on just how much research and on-the-ground knowledge went into this novel (and my writing more generally). This background was crucial. Basing a story in another cultures adds a greater degree of difficulty to the work, and a heavier ethical responsibility to ensure the world-building is plausible.

I should also add the for the protagonist, Lin, she is not Australian (even though she grew up there), and she is not Vietnamese (even though she was born there). At least in her own mind. She feels as if she is an outsider; not truly welcome in either culture. In this way I’m not trying to write a quintessential Vietnamese character (which I’m not convinced I could do well enough), but the quintessential outsider, which is very much at the core of the cyberpunk anti-hero. Some of us—the Grimdark crowd especially—are drawn to the outsider as protagonist, as many of us have had that experience of never quite belonging, of feeling out-of-joint in the world we’ve found ourselves travelling through.

[GdM] I know that Richard K. Morgan is one of your literary heroes. In what way did he influence 36 Streets, and if you could sit down for a pint with the man, what would you want to talk about?

[TRN] Richard actually asked me to sit down for a pint with him, if ever I’m in the UK, which I certainly will take him up on if the opportunity arises. How did he influence me? I don’t think directly, in terms of writing style or the setting of his novels. I don’t think Altered Carbon was a direct influence on 36 Streets, for example. However—and this is a big however—he showed me the way. When I read Altered Carbon 15 years ago, before I had started writing, I thought to myself: that’s the type of book I want to write. His work harks back to the hardboiled style, and yet it stays relevant by focussing on the the perennial issues of inequality, the corruption of the elite, and the exploitation of new technologies to cement the position of the ruling class.

What would we talk about? He’s already told me he wants to talk about some of the influences on 36 Streets, in particular the Vietnamese novel, The Sorrow of War. I would ask him: so how the fuck do I get a million dollar option? (which he received for Altered Carbon). Seriously though, I’d just talk to him about some of his influences, his thoughts on where cyberpunk is going; I’d ask him how he made the switch from science fiction to fantasy (a change I might consider, somewhere down the track). I’d drink too much and crap on, and I’d hope he join me.

[GdM] That’s brilliant. It’ll be a cyberpunk meeting for the ages. I know you’re also a whiskey man. But Morgan hails from the home of whiskey. Are you taking an Australian whiskey over with you?

[TRN] Geez mate, I’m not going anywhere at the moment, what with a pandemic and young children. But if I did? Sure. I’m a whisky man, but not an aficionado by any means.  However, I do know there’s a Western Australian distiller called Limeburners, which makes some excellent stuff. Probably take a bottle of that.

[GdM] Your book is a short, bullet-speed read. Was there a temptation to try to push for something a bit more chunky and slow it down a bit, as seems to be the done thing outside of the novella market at the moment, or are you saving some up for book 2?

[TRN] I feel like this is more your response to the novel, Adrian. From your review, it seemed to me that you were hooked, and this is what I want. I want the reader to be propelled through the book. I want it to be exciting, high-octane, and immersive. But it is over 400 pages long (Neuromancer was about 350 pages). So perhaps it was a short read for you, but I think that, to some extent, reflects your reaction to it.

One of the reasons I like the hardboiled writers is because they distil descriptions and events to the fewest words needed. Dashiell Hammett was the master of this. I really admire a writer who can evoke much with layered sentences; a simple sentence that can yet reveal character, and move the plot forward, and imprint an image in the mind’s eye. It reminds me of a saying sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” It’s easier, in some ways, to write a novel with 50 or 100 or more unnecessary pages. Bloat is easy. Spare prose and elegance are fucking hard.

Let me give you an example, though in film rather than literature. Ghost in the Shell (1995) is an iconic anime cyberpunk. It has kick-arse action scenes, interspersed with profound ruminations on the human condition, and it is a work of art. Every frame a painting, in that movie. And it’s 82 minutes long. That is what I want to replicate in my work (even if I fall short): that hyperkinetic action, that elegance, that art.

The next novel (which we can discuss later), if anything, will be shorter than 36 Streets, I suspect.

[GdM] 400 pages!? I’ll be buggered. It was, too. What are some of the writerly tools you use to really hone those sentences back to distilled descriptions?

[TRN] Practice, I guess. Editing, revising, and editing again. My writer mind now always asks the question: does this sentence have any fat? And, Is anything redundant in this paragraph?

The master of this is Dashiell Hammett, as I mentioned above, and I have spent some time studying his novels in order to better understand how it is done (and subsequently failing to write to those standards, of course, but aspiring to improve by learning from the greats can never be a bad thing). I re-read one of his novel every year.

Cover of Neon Leviathan Anthology by TR Napper[GdM] You’re also really well known for your short stories, having been published multiple times across a range of the top flight magazines since winning the Writers of the Future best story award in 2015. What do you think are the value of short stories to authors, fans, and do you think the market for them is getting better or worse?

[TRN] Oh look, I can’t recommend short stories highly enough to new authors. When I started writing, maybe 9 years back, I thought, with great hubris: “I’m going to write a novel!” It took me a few chapters to realise I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, on any level. Craft, world-building, anything. So I stopped the novel and started writing short stories. In the short stories I began building pieces of a future tech-noir world. This helped me accrete layer upon layer of detail, and give my stories the sense of being lived in (I hope). And also (I hope) making it seamless for the reader. No jarring infodumps explaining the setting, rather, ways of expressing and describing efficiently. As a short-cut to improving the writing craft, I think they are a must.

Are the markets getting better or worse? I really could not say. It seems to me that there are more venues than ever, and that they value a diverse range of authors and subject matter, and that can only be a good thing. Many markets mean many options for would-be writers (though, for all that, the field is probably more competitive than it ever was, through sheer volume of submissions), and for fans looking for a specific niche.

If there is one problem with the current short story landscape, I’d say that it is very US-centric. With the exception of Grimdark Magazine and a handful of others, you are almost always dealing with American magazines. The US world-view has such a strong centre of gravity in the genre of science fiction, it troubles me that non-US writers feel obliged to service it. By that I mean: make their stories accessible to Americans, include American settings or characters, or address political issues currently dominant in the States. I’ve certainly had non-US authors tell me that they do this.

Not all writers do, of course, and this issue is less pronounced in the short story markets (which still welcomes innovation and difference), than it is in traditional publishing.

[GdM] The short stories you’re published have all been collected into Neon Leviathan. How has that release gone from your perspective, and for future authors looking to release collections what are some of the pitfalls they need to watch out for—whether they go through a publisher or release the book themselves?

[TRN] We did fucking great, mate. Multiple awards nominations (and one win, for Best Science Fiction Novella at the Aurealis Awards), likely the best-selling SF collection in Australia for 2020. It was a success for Grimdark Magazine, and a success for me personally. While collections will always have a relatively small audience, it certainly grew the number of readers of my work.

Yeah, I absolutely recommend a newer writer putting a collection together. However, you have to be ready, and by that I mean you’ve got to wait until you have those 10 or 12 stories that really represent your best work. That will take a few solid writing years, at the least (It took me around 7).

Putting the collection together with you also helped me understand the process of editing, covers, marketing and publicity, distribution, and the singular discipline and commitment it takes to bring a quality product to fruition.

[GdM] Yeah, that release did go pretty well. If you could have your time over while retaining the knowledge of the release you and I managed, what would you do differently? Eg. what could authors with 10-12 amazing short stories learn from what we didn’t do so well?

[TRN] Overall I have few regrets. We got stuffed around by some people in the industry, but really the only way to discover that was through trial and error. You learn certain things about your limits as a writer—like how much you should push back against an editor, for example. I suppose I would have done more in the way of launches when I had the chance—there is a reasonable chance that over the next couple of years, we will be hit by further waves of Covid, so I think there’s an argument for really seizing the day. The next time there is a lull in cases, and people are feeling more positive about going out in public, I won’t hesitate to organise a live, in-person signing.

But overall Neon Leviathan has gone a lot more smoothly than my experience with 36 Streets. This isn’t a criticism of my publisher Titan Books, who are great, but rather a criticism of traditional publishing more broadly. Getting a book out this way can sometimes be a quite frustrating, where the reasoning behind certain conventions is opaque at best.

[GdM] One of the things in your life that I think is just the coolest thing is that, for a job, you run Dungeons & Dragons games. Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up in that line of work, and what you do?

[TRN] I run three separate Dungeons and Dragons campaigns for the Marymead Autism Centre. The program is funded through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). D&D has been found—through peer-reviewed study—to have a beneficial impact on the lives of autistic people.

I was offered the opportunity to run one group at a local youth centre maybe 4 years ago. I put aside other job opportunities (a return to the public service, or work in the university sector) to try to advocate for and grow the D&D program. It’s been tough. Finding funding is difficult, as is securing institutional support. The program was cut by the youth centre during the start of the pandemic, and I ran it for free for a while until I could convince Marymead to take us on. They have been very supportive, and we have two dungeon masters, five groups, and a hundred people on the waiting list.

Once a social pariah (when I was in high school my D&D group kept our gaming a secret), Dungeons & Dragons is today a radically social game in an age of internet forums, online gaming communities, and rolling campaigns of outrage on twitter. It’s quaint, almost, to think of six or seven humans sitting down face-to-face for two hours, to problem solve, communicate and compromise, and jointly imagine a fantastical world together. D&D can help these young people form friendships, learn flexibility, and even empathy.

Many of my players have struggled with issues beyond autism, and it has been immensely rewarding to see their lives improve through the program. One player, for example, was house bound for 18 years. A shut in. A carer would go to his house and help him get through the day-to-day. Now he comes to D&D every week, sometimes early so he can discuss spells or strategies. He’s started going out into the world outside D&D, as well. It’s strange, but obviously also awesome, the way a pure nerd pastime of mine has become something that can change and improve the lives of people marginalised in the community.

[GdM] Once your launch is done, what is next for you?

[TRN] What’s next is what I’m working on now, a novel called The Escher Man. I wrote it before 36 Streets, actually, and while both novels are stand-alone, they are set in the same world, and have some characters cross over. I re-read The Escher Man a couple of weeks ago, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I’m revising it at the moment—in a month or so I’ll send it to my agent and see if he thinks it is good enough.

I also have a completed draft of a third stand-alone novel set in the same universe, also with one or two minor characters crossing over from the other books, called Howling Metal. It’s a fucking mess, though, and I’m at the formal stage of “loathing” (all writers are required to hate their own novel at some point). I hope I can edit it into something decent. It could well be the ‘chunkier’ book you referenced earlier, as it is closer to military science fiction rather than cyberpunk (though still, most definitely, the latter).

I also have been thinking about doing a second short story collection. I don’t have enough stories I am sufficiently happy with as yet, though a year from now I will. If only I could find a dynamic small Australian publisher willing to take on the job…

This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #29.

Read 36 Streets by T.R. Napper



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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.