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Fantastic Voyage

Second, a mention of the Moriori people in Jared Diamond's multidisciplinary Guns, Germs, and Steel led to a trip to the Chatham Islands and an encounter with New Zealand historian Michael King's A Land Apart. His idea that there is nothing inevitable about civilization caught my curiosity. Knowledge can be forgotten as easily as, perhaps more easily than, it can be accrued. As a people, the Moriori "forgot" the existence of any other land and people but their own. When I heard this, my novelistic Geiger counter crackled.

Third, a book by Frederick Delius's amanuensis, Eric Fenby, Delius: As I Knew Him, was worlds away from the Moriori but gave me the idea of Fenby's evil twin, and the struggle between the exploited and the exploiter.

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Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds -- a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas for novellas, I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior -- in the political, economic and personal arenas. These novellas seemed to marry well with the structure I had in mind: Each block of narrative is subsumed by the next, like a row of ever-bigger fish eating the one in front.

BW: What did you learn in the process of writing it?

DM: I learned that art is about people: Ideas are well and good, but without characters to hang them on, fiction falls limp. I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred. I learned that maybe I should have a go at a linear narrative next time! I learned that the farther back in time you go, the denser the research required, and the more necessary it is to hide it.

BW: Did you write it as six separate stories?

DM: I did, but put indications where I would later cut and paste the novel into its final shape. The day I decided to do it that way was one of the major finishing posts of the novel. (I went to feed the ducks.)

BW: What was your model (which is something quite different from inspiration)?

DM: Each of the six sections has a model. My character Ewing was (pretty obviously) Melville, but with shorter sentences. Frobisher is Christopher Isherwood, especially in Lions and Shadows. Luisa Rey is any generic airport thriller. Cavendish is Cavendish -- he has a short part in the "London" section of my first novel, Ghostwritten. The interview format for "Sonmi" I borrowed from gossip magazines in which a rather gushing hack interviews some celeb bigwig. Zachary owes (of course) a big debt to Riddley Walker, a novel by Russell Hoban, though some reviewers point to "Mad Max 3." (Thanks guys.) I can't claim that Don DeLillo's monumental Underworld is a model for Cloud Atlas, but reading him always encourages me (like drinking) to take literary risks. (Both books, I just noticed, have upbeat endings, against the odds.)

BW:What, in your mind, distinguishes this book from your others?

DM: It has more of a conscience. I think this is because I am now a dad. I need the world to last another century and a half, not just see me to happy old age.

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