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Five minutes with author T R Napper

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Canberra-based author T R Napper (Tim) might describe 2020 as one of his most unproductive yet, but the news hasn’t been all bad.

Earlier this year, the speculative fiction author’s debut novel Thirty-Six Streets was acquired by US publisher Titan Books.

To celebrate this milestone, we sat down with Tim to chat about Thirty-Six Streets, his NDIS Dungeons & Dragons group and the Vietnamese city that stole his heart.

Your upcoming novel, Thirty-Six Streets, has recently been acquired by Titan Books—congratulations! Can we hear the elevator pitch?

Thanks. Normally when pitching to agents or publishers, you compare your work to two well-known books or movies.

For example: It’s Mary Poppins meets Star Wars! I pitched my novel as Ghost in the Shell meets Apocalypse Now. Looking back at the cover letter I wrote when submitting the book to agents, I wrote:

Lin ‘The Silent One’ Vu is a gangster and sometime private investigator. Born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, everywhere an outsider. She lives in Chinese-occupied Hanoi, in the steaming, paranoid alleyways of the Old Quarter – known as the Thirty-Six Streets. 

Through grit and courage Lin has carved a place for herself in the Vietnamese underworld. But when an Englishman comes to Hanoi in search for answers over the murder of his dear friend, Lin’s life is turned upside down. She is drawn into the grand conspiracies of the neon gods: of regimes and mega-corporations, as they unleash dangerous new technologies in a quest for absolute power.  Lin must confront the immutable moral calculus of an unjust war. She must choose: family, country, or gang. Blood, truth, or redemption. No choices are easy on the Thirty-Six Streets. 

Which must have helped because UK literary agent, John Jarrold, read the novel and liked it enough to take it on. He, in turn, used the same pitch when he started sending it to publishers.

Thirty-Six Streets is set in Hanoi, where you lived for some time. Tell us how the city inspired your writing, and your research process there

My wife was posted there with the Australian aid program. I took a break in my career (also in the aid program) to support her and take care of our child, who was then about 12 months old.

Hanoi is the place I really threw myself into writing, giving myself three years to prove that I could do it. I would write when my son slept during the day, and at night after everyone else was in bed.

During the rest of the day, I’d spend a lot of time exploring the Old Quarter (where we lived) with my boy.

You can understand, then, how the city made a strong impression on the start of my writing career. The title ‘Thirty-Six Streets’ was the historic name for the Old Quarter. Literally, thirty-six streets for the thirty-six guilds who plied their trade (silver, silk, bamboo, etc.).

Certainly, the life of the city imprinted itself on me over my three years there, so much so I wrote a love letter to Hanoi, which your readers can view here, if they are interested.

It was an extraordinary opportunity to live in and learn so much about that town, and I miss those days.

As someone who has lived abroad for stretches of time, how has COVID shaped your 2020? Has it affected your writing process?

I’m just relieved to be living in Canberra. We haven’t had it easy—Canberrans have had two lockdowns when you think about it, the first being during the bushfires.

The smoke was toxic here, for weeks and weeks on end, and during those days I would rarely leave the house. I wouldn’t even let my kids play in the backyard. We had plenty of masks when the pandemic came around because we’d stocked up on them during the fires.

However, having said all that, Australia has been lucky and Canberra has been particularly lucky. We’re largely free of the virus, and the economic impact far less severe.

In terms of my writing process, this year has sucked. My least productive ever. The optimists on Twitter talking about learning a musical instrument, or writing a novel, or (insert incredibly difficult craft here) in lockdown have clearly never had to home-school.

But more than just that, the news cycle—which has lurched from catastrophe to catastrophe—has been a constant distraction.

To counter the noise and fury of the world right now I turn off the modem, put on some music, and write. I’ve got a decent amount done this year, but certainly far less than previous years.

In your spare time, you run Dungeons & Dragons sessions for Canberrans with autism. What inspired this?

Dungeons and Dragons is a new and innovative way to engage people living with autism. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows D&D has a therapeutic benefit—in terms of developing empathy, teamwork, creativity, communication, and self-confidence.

A friend of a friend working for the ACT community service asked me to start a trial of D&D for a group funded by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). That was over two years ago, and we’ve been playing ever since.

Sadly, the community service no longer does group work with the community, so the campaign has moved to Marymead. Marymead has a hugely popular D&D program (they cannot keep up with demand) for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum.

While my group is ostensibly for people living with autism, it is never just autism: there are usually other issues associated—such as anxiety. For that matter, pinning ‘just’ autism down to a specific set of symptoms is no easy task. Author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), who has a son with autism, has said:

Autism’s symptoms vary widely from person to person, and change over time. There’s an evergreen adage: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

My NDIS groups have bonded over the past two years, and playing with the group is something I look forward to every week.

For my part as Dungeon Master (the person running the game), I roleplay overblown characters, putting on outrageous Monty Python accents for the encounters faced by the party: diabolical dragons, profoundly stupid hill giants, wicked goblins, foppish royal heralds, rogues with thick Australian accents.

We laugh together, roll some dice, and are in many ways just like every other D&D group I’ve played with.

What is your top piece of advice for writers aspiring to publication?

The most common piece of advice I’ve heard is this: write every day and read every day. Or at the least, do as much as you can of both.

But if you’d want something a little different from the standard, I’d say: develop a high pain threshold. Being a writer means to be rejected. Early in your career, it means to be rejected most of the time. It means putting yourself out there, pouring yourself into your work, and having someone shrug their shoulders and say: no thanks.

The publishing industry is hyper-competitive, there are no short cuts (or if there are, I certainly haven’t figure them out). For pretty much everyone, it means a disciplined work-ethic, persistence in the face of failure, and—if possible—supportive family and/or friends.

Favourite writing spot in Canberra?

My office at home. Everywhere else is too distracting. My sons jumping on me and hitting me with foam swords is obviously distracting, of course, but that’s a kind of diversion I don’t mind.

What helps when you have writer’s block?

I have less difficulty with this than other writers, I suspect, because I generally have a lot of ideas in the bank (one of the benefits of coming to writing in my 30s—I had whole other careers I could draw on).

So I generally do not have so-called ‘blank page’ writer’s block, where I’m staring into the abyss of white on the screen with no idea what to do.

The blocks I face are on a smaller scale (sentence, chapter, plot point, ending, etc.), and when I encounter those I just start working on something else—another section of the book, or an article for my website—and let my brain figure out the problem.

The mind is a remarkable thing, more than willing to work on problems in the background, awake and asleep.

What’s currently on your TBR pile?

I’m just starting The Dragon Republic, a fantasy novel by R. F. Huang, which is getting good reviews. I just finished The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, which was excellent.

What’s next?

Right now I’m finishing another novel, set in the same world as Thirty-Six Streets. I won a grant, actually, from the ACT Government (called Homefront) for local artists who had suffered financially due to the pandemic. So I’m being paid to write, which is always nice, but also paid to finish the damn thing.

But the main thing on my mind as I do this interview is the recent book launch for my debut short story collection Neon Leviathan. It came out in February, but as you’d imagine, there was no opportunity for a launch, so I had a very belated one last week.

It was a relatively small affair because of restrictions, but a lot of fun. We had to split the attendees into two rooms and then livestream the author talk to other people in the same building. Which was a pain, but also very science fiction, and very 2020.

Everything takes a long time in the publishing industry. The novel I was telling you about at the start—Thirty-Six Streets—I began writing in 2016 and finished in 2019.

It went around on submission for a year before finally selling to Titan Books, and they, in turn, won’t publish it until the beginning of 2022. Neon Leviathan represents a dozen stories I wrote over a period of seven years.

I started putting the collection together with a local Australian publisher (Grimdark Magazine) in 2018, and it’s out this year.

Which is to say: what’s next for a writer can often be a project that was finished years ago. What’s current is something that may—or may not—see the light of day years from now.

But what’s next after that? The next novel, and then the next, and then the one after that. To be a writer is to write into the void, to pour yourself into works that may never see the light of day.

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