PLANET OF THE OWLS:
Mike Philbin interviewed by Mark Brand
Mark R. Brand: Hey Mike, thanks for taking some time to talk with me a little bit about Planet of the Owls. I've just finished reading it and I have to say I'll never look at birds the same way again. I heard Paul is shipping the first bunch of copies with a feather included?
Mike Philbin: Feathers as the new filler content? I heard Paul's attempt to spread bird flu and lice faltered at the first hurdle. The art of true understanding with Planet of the Owls (and Bukkakeworld) is to remember the works of Stanislaw Lem in Soviet Russia—it was all subtext. That's the only way true understanding will prevail: to think, to question. If people are looking more closely at the way the world is, then my job is done and I can retire.
Brand: Your two main characters are teenagers. One is in Oxford, UK, the other in China. I was wondering what the significance of their ages and the separation by geographical location was? I've also read your recent book Bukkakeworld, and it occurred to me that Planet of the Owls might have been slightly influenced by Japanese anime (teenage protagonists, bizarre plotlines, psychedelic God imagery, horrific themes, etc.).
Philbin: I am a big fan of certain Manga—they just project reality onto another plane and deal with it. There are no misconceptions of it being reality based. It's a new place and everything has its own morality. I like that, arbitrary morality—that's how the judicial system in which we all live works. My favourite Manga are Akira, Princess Mononoke and Almost Transparent Blue (this latter specifically for the proper adult story that something like Legend of the Overfiend sorely lacks). I'm a big fan of other worlds—and other worlds always have a real body horror aspect to them; it's just he way humans are wired—the new is horrific. The question of age comes about to represent man's immaturity in global matters.
Brand: Additionally, I was curious if Hitchcock made it into your pantheon of influences. Hitchcock himself was somewhat genre-defying and did make a movie about avian belligerency.
Philbin: Hitchcock was a unique director, but Planet of the Owls has more to do with Planet of the Apes than The Birds.
Brand: What was the editing process like for this book? Paul and I worked for several months on Red Ivy Afternoon, and it evolved several different times with additional plot development and small changes that brought about continuity. Did you work largely with Paul on this one, or was this a more-or-less finished product when you brought it to the table?
Philbin: It was more or less finished. The Human half was written in 2005. The Owl half was written in 2006. The idea of meshing them together chapter-by-chapter became a natural development as the stories ran parallel (yet outside of the limiting linear time matrix) and this concept will be more easily illustrated simply by reading the book. Paul is a very good editor and open to creative suggestions about all aspects of the novel creation process. I do tend to go off on creative tangents and Paul helped me carve the intricate details.
Brand: The imagery of angels in this book was one of my favorite things about it. That they might be some sort of prismatic, unknowable meta-creature I found to be very imaginative and engaging as a reader. What made Planet of the Owls different, though, is that even though these creatures are beyond the scope of human comprehension, we could comprehend them for the sake of reading the story. When we get angelic or immortal characterization in ordinary fiction, it generally leaves me feeling like the writer just isn't trying hard enough. I felt exactly the opposite about Planet of the Owls. It was almost as though the "angels" were a steady still-point that the rest of an otherwise occasionally-wobbly narrative revolved around. Tell me more about where this came from.
Philbin: The 'narrative wobble' is probably because I don't write to storyline. I hate clean and tidy narrative resolution—it's a scourge on the book industry. A writer should write, anecdotally, with passion, and the reader will be carried along by his voice. Stories should evolve at their own behest. Most of what Planet of the Owls is about is DISCOVERY. The main characters on both sides have no idea of how and why; they're both lost. Do they find themselves? Does anyone? The idea of Owls came from the staring eyes that I used to dream about when I was a small child. The idea of the angels came from the very simple concept of "We can never truly understand what those who rule us have in store for us". As far as the angels being a steady still-point, remember, the angels are everywhere at all times, they are everything in between, they are not to be trusted.
Brand: I want you to know that the scenes in the Oxford apartment with the owl, the feedings, the (gulp) nesting, are some of the most gut-wrenching, lunch-losing things I've ever read, and you own them. That's not a question, that's just a statement. Slash-by-strangle recounts of the careers of serial killers read like children's board-books compared to some of this stuff. Here's a question: You DO realize that no one who reads this book will ever look at you quite the same way again, right?
Philbin: I owe all my love of the heinous, sinister and criminal to that great thinker David Cronenberg. There was a radio interview back in the late eighties, I think it was BBC Radio 4, and he was rattling on about body appreciation being more than skin deep: "We should have an award for best spleen, most efficient kidney and most symmetrical vulva." Horror should never be merely entertaining, it should get to the root of prejudice and jingoism. In a Hertzan Chimera past life I did a collection of stories called Animal Instincts and it's a theme I've been fascinated with all through my twenty years of writing. Anything to break the complacency of the reader.
Brand: To follow up on the question of the extremely (I don't know, "graphic" isn't really the right word in the context that you wrote it, "disconcerting" is probably better) disconcerting content of Planet of the Owls, what has been your strategy to avoid being pigeon-holed (pun intended) as the literary equivalent of Marilyn Manson? I would think it might bother you equally to be profiled as a marginally-talented shock-jock as it would to be labeled as a genre fiction author.
Philbin: I certainly don't wear eyeliner when I write—is that the correct answer? As far as Brian Warner (the man behind the Marilyn Manson persona) goes, good on him. He knows what he likes and he's not afraid to tell anyone who'll listen. He's clever and charming in interviews, and his fans are all dicks. The answer to all these questions is audience—when I write, I don't perceive the audience at all. That way I can't be worried about offending any of the poor souls. Most writers pander far too deeply to their perceived audience, to the detriment of their creative freedom. Screw the reader, screw with the reader, he fuckin' loves it.
Brand: Do you have any sort of strategy to minimize and contextualize the fallout from your work? By this, I mean take Marilyn Manson for example again: he has never apologized or waffled in his conviction toward bringing his vision of music to us. He takes the rest of the world lightly, but his own work very seriously, and he expects others to do so as well just offhand. I get the same sort of feeling about you and your work in general, as evidenced by your general professionalism in the community as well as your enthusiasm for promoting not just yourself but the entire institution of independent speculative fiction. Some would say that the best way to deal with random, unfocused criticism is to just ignore it, which you seem to do well. On the other hand, how do you hand this book to someone close to you? Do they have any inkling of what they're about to delve into? That is to say, is the Mike Philbin we might meet in a Starbucks the same guy that writes about bestiality and other hideous topics? How does that all play out?
Philbin: The Mike Philbin you'll meet in Starbucks is staring right at you asking WHY ARE YOU ASLEEP, HUMANITY? The only acceptable fallout from my work would be that writers realise they can write whatever they want, share with 'the reader(™)' whatever horror they can imagine, bring out in the reader their true personal horrors in a way that will make that reader go, "Christ, horror's really horrific again. That hasn't happened for a looooooong time. I don't even wanna open the book for fear of where it will take me." That's the fallout I want from my writing, that people have a preconceived fear of it, even before they open it. That they'll feel uncomfortable even having the thing open on a bus, train or aeroplane in case anybody sees them at it. The reader should be ashamed that they're reading these books.
Brand: In view of your discomfort/distrust of labeling, I won't bother trying to locate you in any sort of plane of speculative fiction sub-genres, but perhaps you could share with us some of the sorts of material that inspire you or you just plain enjoy? You seem to enjoy movies as well as books, which most current writers in all genres could say is true of their influences. You talked above about modern fantasy, social writings, and classic science fiction and horror as potentially influential to Planet of the Owls, but the same could largely be said for most of the fiction that Silverthought puts out. What influences or atypical points of view do you have that would surprise us?
Philbin: Wow, this makes me sound like I should give a shit if you're entertained or not. Here's what I think: all genre is a scam to belittle the creative power of an artist. Don't trust publishers, don't trust agents, don't trust your mommy and your daddy. Carve your own furrow in the ground with your own gouging manhood. AKA get a pair and don't be afraid of 'someone giving you a funny look'. You're dead soon and then it won't matter.
Brand: I realize this might be a somewhat exasperating question due to the fact that your two novels are just now coming out, and have no doubt been a long time in the making, but what's next on the horizon for you? Have you got anything new in the works you could share with us?
Philbin: I have two novels out with publishers, YOROPPA and VIEW FROM A STOLEN WINDOW, and there's always the collaborative sex-horror project BOYFISTGIRLSUCK (a Shocklines #1 bestseller in its first incarnation) that Alex Severin and I completely overhauled, restructured and rewrote last year. But my current project (because a writer just writes) is called ONE OF US. What was missing from my books? A good old traditional three-act narrative... Now, contrary to populist propaganda, I'm a clever enough sorta bloke and the new novel I'm working on has three serious acts dictating the character development and linear theology of the narrative drive. I've made a promise this'll be my first bona fide 'writing by numbers' title.
INITIATION: How does one endure the gruesome ins-n-outs of life in The Industry?
NEW FAMILY: Why is a fair war a futile war?
FINAL SOLUTION: How does one become a martyr in a morally bankrupt world?
Has Philbin sold out? Only in the most spectacular (horrific) way. ONE OF US takes place in 1930s Dusseldorf before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany—yeah, that's surprising to y'all, innit—anyway, the revolutionary theory of story reading I've come up with involves a radical concept called Beginning, Middle, End (sarcasm engine disengaged). Will there be horror? Oh, yes, oodles and oodles of horror. Will there be social satire? Well, if I understood what society was, I'd have a go—but the jury's still out. And civilisation, don't talk to me about being civil.