Patrick Tilley on creative freedom, finding inspiration in out-of-body experiences, and why you won’t find any ‘little green men’ in his science fiction.
To celebrate sci-fi month here at Bloomsbury Reader, we spoke to internationally best-selling science fiction writer, Patrick Tilley. Tilley is the author of Fade-Out, which looks at the meltdown of society in the face of alien invasion, Mission, a sci-fi novel of biblical proportions, and The Amtrak Wars Saga, a six volume post-apocalyptic epic.
After a career in illustration and graphic design, Tilley broke into writing for television, before progressing to cinema. Luckily for sci-fi fans the world over, the silver screen didn’t agree with him.
“I was involved in script writing for major feature films – not always credited – finally culminating in a miserable six months,” Patrick explains. “After the last meeting I came back home thinking ‘there has to be life beyond the cinema’. The overwhelming desire to control the entire process drove me to write Fade-Out.”
When Tilley gained that longed-for control, it was science fiction that this new liberty produced.
“I think writers are attracted to sci-fi because it allows them total freedom to create their own rules and indulge their wildest flights of fancy. For me, most sci-fi novels are basically escapist literature. They offer the reader a host of different realities – weird and wonderful worlds peopled by humans or a bewildering range of aliens in far off [places] where daily life is governed by an entirely different set of rules or environmental conditions to those that we face when we wake up each day.”
The idea for Fade-Out originally came from an unexpected source: “The book got written because my eldest son came into my study and said ‘I’ll tell you what, Dad, why don’t you write the story about something that lands on earth but nobody can work out what it is? There’s no green men, and there’s no death rays or anything like that. It’s just sitting there, and nobody knows what the hell it is. And I said to him actually that’s not a bad idea! And he just left me writing it for the next few years.”
Instead of focusing on interstellar war, Fade-out looks at the psychological and societal impact such a threat could have on modern culture.
“The human reaction to the arrival of Crusoe [the codename given to the mysterious object] was the core of the story,” Patrick tells us. “Humanity as a whole – especially the governing elite – does not like things [or] events they cannot understand or control. Imagine the reaction if the web and all the mobile phones went down! Even though Crusoe appeared harmless, his presence posed a threat that was impossible to ignore. He was sent to test us. We failed and our exam paper was marked ‘Do Again’.”
“The book had its beginnings in an out-of-body experience I underwent while making a determined but totally untutored attempt to meditate. What I encountered ‘out there’ cannot be adequately described in words and any attempt to do so merely debases the experience… Writing Mission was my attempt to share this journey with others.”
These huge themes populate all of Tilley’s work. In post-apocalyptic epic, The Amtrak Wars Saga, we see humanity recovering hundreds of years after nuclear war has almost wiped out the human race. It is difficult to contemplate how Tilley envisioned such a complex and immersive story. The development of such an idea must come from a variety of places:
“By a stroke of luck I had a very bright creative elder son who had given me the theme for my first book. I described my vision [for The Amtrak Wars Saga]. He thought about it for about 30 seconds then said, ‘Get rid of the Feebs [humans with radiation-induced brain-damage] and the railway train. The Trackers should travel across the Overground in Land Trains’ (a military vehicle made up of several large wheeled units linked together which were tested by the US Army in the 1950’s). After a short discussion we had it nailed. Then my second son – also creative – came back from Wales with a set of landscapes he had photographed using infra-red film. The trees and hills were all different shades of red. As I gazed at them I realised I was looking at the Overground. I now had the Blue-Sky World. The final step was The Talisman Prophecy – the heart of the story – a long-awaited but as-yet unborn messianic figure who would lead the Mutes to victory over the Trackers and usher in a New Age.”
The rich characterisation that runs through all of Tilly’s novels is one of the things that draw readers (and Patrick himself) into his work.
“[O]ne marvellous thing about writing sometimes…is when you are writing part of what your character’s doing – he’s in a situation, or maybe having a conversation with someone – and in your brain he actually tells you what he is going to say next. That really was wonderful. I was writing down this conversation, and I heard [a character] in my mind and I laughed, because that’s just what he would say. When the character comes alive, that’s really when you can start writing something.”
Tilley has produced distinctly contrasting works each with its own particular atmosphere and message. How did he go about creating such a diverse range of science fiction?
“I was a curious kind of author that really seriously thought that the world had too many books. My approach to a book is – certainly with Fade-out, Mission, and The Amtrak Wars – I want the book to be about something worth saying. And I don’t mean that in a pompous way, but an idea or something that I want to convey to the reader… an experience.”
It truly is a privilege for Bloomsbury Reader to be making Patrick’s novels available as eBooks for the first time, giving a whole new generation of readers access to these masterpieces of the sci-fi genre.
All photographs here are copyright of Patrick Tilley and should not be reproduced without permission.