‘The Gone-Away World’ Author Nick Harkaway on Being Compared to Vonnegut and Life As the World’s Worst Ninja

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Bill Durgin's Cyc-15 (2008). Photo: Courtesy of the author

Hailed variously as the heir to the Kurt Vonnegut legacy, a Joseph Heller for the 21st century, and a Thomas Pynchon for the post-nuclear era, Nick Harkaway has garnered enough accolades since his recent authorial debut to turn a creative-writing MFA grad green with envy (if they weren’t already, thanks to his legacy: He’s the son of author John Le Carre). Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, is a gripping, satirical, postapocalyptic war epic populated with mimes, ninjas, bureaucrats, chimera, and gun-toting nerds. Vulture sat down with Harkaway to discuss his reviews and his three rules of screenwriting.

Gone-Away World has been compared to everything from Dickens to Rushdie to Terry Pratchett. Have you heard any parallels that you feel are really off the mark?
The Observer said it was "Thackeray on acid," and that caught me off balance. But the Vonnegut comparison makes me extremely happy.

But the authors you acknowledge yourself predate dystopian satire: Dumas, Doyle, and Wodehouse.
I would guess that if you could track down Vonnegut and his guys, they'd also point to those adventure-story writers. I think lots of boys sat down with The Three Musketeers and felt it was a really long book, but then discovered that it's a really gripping swashbuckling story. Pynchon's still around. You don't want to be doing something just like Pynchon. I want Pynchon to come up to me at a bar and say, "That book you wrote — it wasn't bad."

This book is an epic in miniaturized detail. What was heavily researched? What sprung from your imagination?
I didn't want to write anything that was laughable, and the obvious problem was war, because I've never been in one and I'm not a soldier. I used Evan Wright's Generation Kill and other books on modern warfare. I knew I wasn't going to do everything right. I knew I'd make mistakes, even writing about a fantasy war.

The novel's central event, the Go Away War, has some truly phantasmagoric imagery: brain-eating mermaids, horse people, zombies, but the subtext is clearly grounded in very real war atrocities like Hiroshima, and dystopian threats, like nuclear warfare.
I wanted to tell a story of a world that had not just gone wrong, but had gone existentially wrong. I know that when I talk to my parents and my friends, there's a strong feeling of the world out of control, and damaged. I wanted an existential crisis in which bits of the world are snatched away, while what materializes is metaphysical and terrifying. This wasn't so much inspired by Hiroshima as growing up with the threat of nuclear war. Really, it's about now, about the modern nightmares that wake us up at three in the morning.

There are also a bunch of ninja sequences. Do you have a background in martial arts?
Yes. I am the world's most appalling martial artist. I am so bad. I've studied jujitsu, kickboxing, t'ai chi. Once I was sparring with someone, made a mistake, and managed to knock them down. I was so shocked that I dropped to my knees to see if they were all right, and then they knocked me out cold. From the floor.

You've also worked as a screenwriter and have made a living in the film industry. Do you want to see a The Gone-Away World movie?
It would be an incredibly expensive project. But I would love it to become a movie. It would have to be someone from America because no one has that kind of money anywhere else. As a former screenwriter, though, I have three rules I'd have to keep in mind so I wouldn't go mad if it turned out to be a disappointment: No one will buy it; if someone buys the movie, they won't make it; and if someone makes the movie, I won't like it.