Walking the Ridgeline: an Interview with Paul Hardisty

Paul Hardisty’s debut novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, weaves together geology, ecology, science and environmental concerns. Paul worked internationally as an environmental engineer and has set his conspiracy thriller in Yemen, where he lived for fifteen years. We met the author in London to talk about sight, Hemingway and fractal theory.

I wanted to talk to you about the process of writing. Why did you choose to write an eco-thriller? Did it come to you in this genre? What’s your relationship with crime and thrillers?

Crime, like the detective stories is not the kind of thing I’ve usually ever read. So, when I’d been growing up, I’d been more into literary fiction, and sort of more into action thrillers, so yeah, I just wrote it. I wasn’t thinking ‘genre’, and actually that was part of the problem. It took me a long time to get an agent and a long time to get published, because the feedback had been pretty good – the rejections were very nice, really complimentary – but a very common comment was ‘I don’t know how to sell it,’ because it doesn’t fit a genre well enough. And so, I don’t actually like to determine it ‘eco-thriller’ because it kind of predicates or puts people in a certain frame of mind, which puts some people off. I just think that it’s a thriller, but hopefully a little bit of a literary thriller.

You have your protagonist reading (his father’s copy of) Hemingway and Rimbaud gets a couple of mentions too. Also, the novel doesn’t shy away from science. Talk to me about your influences.

French is my mother tongue.

I’m an engineer and I’m a scientist and fiction’s something I’ve been working on in the quiet background closet for twenty, thirty years. Never told anybody. I had a career doing something which I thought was important. But I always thought that there was an opportunity to start to try to explore a fairly unique blend of mathematics, science, which I’m passionate about, and language. I’m sure I’m not doing it very well, but what I’m trying to do is.. have you ever heard of fractal theory? Mandelbrot, for instance, wrote The Fractal Geometry of Nature when he was an IBM scientist and a polymath. And ‘abrupt physics’ is actually another way of saying ‘chaos theory’, which is fractal mathematic theory. And it’s a way of trying to describe the complexity of the world, of nature, in fairly complex mathematical equations. And it produces some amazing physical imagery. So, you know, you look at a leaf and you can see the veining on a leaf, and you look at it at that scale and then you’re flying at 35,000 feet and you’re going over a landscape and you see patterns. Fractal theory is a long way to answer but it tries to examine the self-similarity on all scales. You can see patterns like this occurring at every scale, from planetary to regional to basin to rocks right down to atomic scale. And so what I’m trying to do is somehow bring back what you can express in maths and science and meld it with the language and try to do it differently. Guys like Hemingway and TE Lawrence… if you’ve ever read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, where he describes that part of the world. So, that’s been done. There’s got to be a new way of doing it. That’s what I’m trying to do. Maybe that’s a bit highfalutin, but I’m trying to do that.

You’ve mentioned previously that Hemingway and Houellebecq are influences. These two are authors for whom inaction is hugely important and in your novel the the characters struggle with this very thing: ‘Clay took a deep breath. What had he just witnessed? […] Here, nothing could be judged by the action alone.’ The tension between action and inaction is interesting.

It’s really nice, never having done this before – you know, you work hard at putting the messages which are in there and it’s a pleasure when someone picks them up. Because that’s actually the core idea of the whole book. That ridgeline between the opposing forces and their intersection. Good and evil. Power, money and corruption. Trying to do good and poverty on the other side. Faith and nihilism. Loyalty and betrayal. And every day you’re walking that ridgeline and you’re not sure where the rocks are crumbling and how steady that edge is and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going—and that’s what the book’s about. So, Clay’s just everybody. Everybody has to make choices and you know, it’s really easy to do nothing. I think somewhere in there we have ‘waking from your television slumber’. So that’s another reference to inaction.

Clay, your main character, is straddling between east and west, between cultures, in the middle of the various webs of control and regulation. He’s both the go-between and the outsider. Talk to me about his outsiderness and whether it relates to your own experiences when you lived in Sana’a.

That’s part of the irony, because as an outsider, he’s at least physically aligned with some of the forces that are driving exploitation and plunder. But on the other hand, Muslim culture has this strong hospitality culture, driven in deep, and nowhere is it stronger than in Yemen. Sometimes it’s embarrassing when you’re out there, or overwhelming. And so he gets closer and closer, and he develops his friendship with various people, and they almost need somebody from outside who has that knowledge, who can help them. They can’t fight the outsider with their own means. They’ve been trying to do that for centuries. There’s a reference to all the different people who’ve tried to come in and take them over and they’ve all been military. What’s happening now is not military, it’s economic. It’s more insidious. You can’t just shoot it.

‘Truth’ is mentioned a great deal in the novel,  and what you just said about money rings true in relation to those structures of truth which the characters try to grasp: science, religion and money. Also, your other protagonist, Ranya, is a journalist, someone who’s telling the truth by profession. How do you see the characters in these epistemological constructions?

Religion comes into it because, probably like a lot of us, I’m agnostic and all of a sudden, for me anyway, when I was thrown into that part of the world, by myself, you know… God is everywhere, he’s there, you can feel him, and when you’re agnostic or atheist, it’s really bizarre. It’s like somebody’s watching over your shoulder.

One of the things that I got comments about in the earlier drafts said, ‘You’ve got to be careful; you can’t just slam this stuff down people’s throats, because they’ll just spit it back out. They want a story and you can’t let it get in the way.’ So that was the hardest thing for me, to tone all the serious stuff down and make the story primary. And have the other things just creep up on you.

The characters in Abrupt Physics of Dying are constantly ‘looking’, ‘gazing up’, ‘looking down’, ‘glancing’. This act of looking runs through the book and is mentioned almost on each page. The other senses are present as well but there’s a very filmic quality to a lot of your writing. How important is the visual for you as a writer?

I have a very visual memory. In fact, a bit like Clay. So when I’m studying, for my exams, going through school, I write out the formula and I draw a little picture and in doing it, that just goes into the brain. So you’ve got to bring yourself to the party. And I’m a very visual person: I’m an engineer, which is about designing things. This fractal theory is mathematical but that’s where it comes together. Fractal theory is best expressed to the layman as these amazing generations. They’re taking these algorithms and they generate these amazing, beautiful pictures. If you’ve never seen them, just look up ‘chaos’, ‘fractal theory’—beautiful, incredible images. And that’s turning deeper mathematics into something that you can see: a landscape, in three dimensions. So, you know how in movies now they have all these computer-generated imagery of this amazing topography, fjords and so on? It’s all done using fractal equations. It’s almost a random generator, based on underlying principles of self-similarity. Otherwise it’d just be a mess. So, the visual to me is the first level of the deeper understanding of what’s below it. It’s almost a way of expressing deeper meaning, certainly in science and mathematics, that’s the way you do it. And coming back to the idea of taking those things and trying to drive in the spiritual and the art, if you will—that’s this multi-dimensional structure. In fractal theory, there are multiple dimensions and fractional dimensions. So you can talk about the 2.93 dimensions. Or 1.7th dimension. And depending on what dimension you choose, you’re exploring different levels and different landscapes. So, I’m trying to do that. I don’t know if that makes sense.

There’s this part in A Moveable Feast where Hem is trying to describe landscapes in the way Cezanne painted landscapes, but he wants to do it with words. So I thought, what I want to do is that, but I want to do it for the twenty-first century. With maths and science, with all we know now. Hemingway used the layers: one sentence will have to close in and the next level is far. That’s kind of fractal, but it hadn’t been invented then. But then there’s more depth to it which you can start to explore. I know that might sound a little pretentious. Because Hemingway also said, ‘There’s no point in doing anything unless you can do it better than the person before.’ So that’s the goal. It’ll take me fifteen years to get there. Maybe never.

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is available from Orenda Books.