Today is a very, very good day. It’s World Book Night, Shakespeare’s birthday, and most importantly the day I get to welcome Deborah Install to my blog. She is the author of A Robot in the Garden, a book about a man and a robot and the journey the two of them take. I finished reading this book smiling, and I can’t say that about many of the things I read. When I had the chance to interview Deborah as part of her blog tour I grabbed it with both hands.
The interview isn’t particularly spoilery but beware anyway. Enjoy!
As a main character, Ben was incredibly interesting and his grief was almost tangible – I found myself absorbed in his journey and transformation. How did you go about creating him?
Thank you! I had Ben and Tang’s literal journey outlined from the start, so creating Ben’s character was a lot about retrofitting to work out how he came to be where he was and what would motivate him to make that journey. In order for him to be able to drop everything and take a broken robot off round the world he had to have no ties, or at least no ties that would create a stronger motivation to stay. I could have given him no family, but that would have provided no opportunity for conflict, and I wanted him to have a reason to dig his heels in and defend Tang at the beginning. So Amy left him, he had no parents and he tried to avoid his sister as much as possible. But all of those things don’t happen in a vacuum, so the next step was working out what had happened to get him to this point. The journey with Tang allowed him introspection, which was a case of working out, logically, what he might be thinking about, and how Tang’s presence would impact on that.
I love Ben’s relationship with his wife Amy and how it developed. I especially loved how flawed and unlikable the both of them were at certain times when interacting with each other. How did you go about creating Amy’s character and developing their relationship?
Amy’s character was intended to be just a counterpoint to Ben, but then came into her own the more I wrote. Their arguments were easy to write once I knew the things that frustrated both of them, and part of my job as a writer is to be able to see potential points of conflict for characters in real life situations, if that makes sense? So for example they argue about taking the bins out. Once you have Amy being a busy and efficient lawyer and Ben introverted, unemployed and lacking in confidence it becomes easy to see what the problem with the bins might be. Amy sees him as lazy, and because his sister is successful and a together sort of a person Amy assumes Ben would respond to grief in the same way, which in her mind meant he would have ‘got over it by now’. They just don’t quite understand each other, and it takes them being apart and understanding themselves better to be able to see the other’s point of view.
The more I read of Tang the more I fell in love with him and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how he, a robot, fit into a world where androids were valued over robots. What inspired you to create a story around a robot and how did you go about developing his personality? And how did he get his name?
Good question! As it happens the name was the starting point for the whole thing – shortly after out son was born my husband commented about the ‘acrid tang’ of newborn nappies and I said that sounded like a robot from east Asia…quite why it did I have no idea! Overnight I kept thinking about this little robot and by morning I knew who he was, what he looked like and that his best friend was called Ben. I also knew they had met when Tang rocked up in Ben’s garden. So it was just one of those things, in a sense, but I also feel that a robot story was in my head somewhere. I grew up with R2-D2, Short Circuit, Asimov and the Terminator and am a big technophile so I guess it was only a matter of time!
In A Robot in the Garden a contemporary, recognisable setting has the added variation of artificial intelligence. What was it about artificial intelligence that attracted you to creating a world where it is so developed and prevalent?
The idea of what it means to be human really interests me, so I guess that and the prevalence of robot stories during my childhood, as above, led me to always have an interest in AI. They seemed to fall out of fashion for a while, but this year especially they seem to be a big deal again – the timing has been awesome. I think it’s because we are actually pretty close to seeing the kind of AI I put in the book – carer robots and hotel receptionist robots, for example, are already a reality. I absolutely didn’t want to make them creatures of war. I feel that story has been told and I had nothing to add to it personally, and I really wanted to explore human interaction with AI in a light setting without it spelling the end of the world!
A Robot in the Garden is such a brilliantly plotted novel which left me gripped and wishing my morning commute was longer! Did you plot your novel meticulously before you started or did vital elements of your story change as you wrote?
Bless you, that’s so kind. I did plot, yes. I do like to know at least broadly speaking where the plot if headed and also where I want the character journeys to end up otherwise I feel I’d meander. That said, major elements did change – the end, for example changed about five times as the first iteration left too many unanswered questions. I also write segments according to when I feel like writing them, so not in order at all. This is just the way I feel I get the best out of myself but it’s only possible because I know where they will fit in the grand scheme of things.
Your supporting characters are extremely well thought out and rounded. Is it easier for you to create these secondary characters as opposed to the main protagonists?
Again, thank you! There’s always a fear that you’ve let the second and subsequent tier characters fend for themselves, so that’s really good to know! So I think the answer to your question is no, not at all. I spent so much time with the main characters it became easy to see how they’d feel and respond in any situation, but with the other characters it’s a tricky job making them distinct from each other. It helped that they were all over the world and their needs and cultural circles were different. I think probably the Lizzie character was hardest to create as it was important for her to be a bit like Amy, but at the same time very different. I had to do that section over quite a few times. The key for me is nearly always the dialogue – if I can make their speech natural and logical then I think that’s half the battle.
Together, Ben and Tang are very funny and in A Robot in the Garden there is so much humour. Do you find it easy to write these scenes?
I did! I enjoyed writing the comedy bits best of all. I love to make people laugh if I can because then I’ve made them happy and that’s important to me. I started writing the book for my writers’ group so I always tried to put in what I thought would make them laugh the most. They are a diverse bunch so I guess that helped to broaden the humour. Also, making Tang childlike was a goldmine for comedy – toddlers have their own logic which makes perfect sense to them and quite often has its own sound philosophy, but because it’s so different from a grown-up view of the world I think the clash between the two is always going to be funny.
Can you tell us all a little about your writing process? Are you a pen and paper sort of person?
I’m not especially a pen and paper sort of person but I do love a post-it note. Also I have to use a pencil, for some weird reason I just don’t feel as creative with a pen. That sounds silly even writing it, but it’s true! I make notes on whatever is to hand though, which is quite often my phone. It’s quite common for me to wake up in the night and email myself or leave a note on there. For the actual writing I use a program called Scrivener, which is hard to explain but it’s a brilliant tool for long form writing because you can move segments around. Each chapter is basically a folder, and it has a setting to format the document as a novel with page numbers and chapter headings and stuff which takes all the drudge out of that aspect. I transfer to Word later on so I can share it with my agent and editor, but to begin with I find cutting and pasting in a 300-page Word doc just too unwieldy. Also, as I said higher up, I don’t write in order, so a program to help me shift stuff around is absolutely essential!
Have you already decided what you will be writing next? And, most importantly, will we be seeing more of Tang?
I have decided, yes! There is definitely more Tang for the taking, but really it entirely depends on whether readers would like to see it. In the meantime I also have been working on a standalone project, another comedy which does for time travel what I tried to do for robots in this one. I.e. time travel is just a thing that’s around, we don’t come in at its invention, as it were. Where ARITG dealt with relationships in this next one I plan to deal with work issues. Office frustrations, being passed over for promotion, that sort of thing. With time travel.
Thanks for having me on your blog, Roshni! J x
The pleasure was all mine! Also, a time travel book where time travel has always been there? That I can’t wait to read.
A Robot in the Garden is out today and available from all good and evil retailers. It’s published by Doubleday.