By a deftly handled quirk of circumstance, miserable middle-aged industrial chemist Thomas Major ends up as an astronaut on a solo one-way trip to Mars. While en route, and reflecting on the events that brought him unhappiness, he reluctantly becomes the saviour of a family in Wigan whose problems range from dementia to bullying to the threat of eviction. Barnett, who combines freelance journalism with fiction writing, offers his central character the chance of space-borne redemption in his tragicomic novel Calling Major Tom (Trapeze, £7.99, Kindle £4.99).
David Bowie’s death in early 2016 plays a big part in the book, and there are mentions of the EU referendum. How did you come up with the idea, get a publishing deal and write it so quickly?
It was one of those perfect storm things, really. In December 2015 the British astronaut Tim Peake accidentally called a wrong number from the International Space Station and got through to a British grandmother, which is one of those things as a writer you file away for potential future use. Then a month later, of course, David Bowie died. The two events remained unconnected until later in January when my agent John Jarrold contacted me to say that the publishing company Orion was setting up a new commercial fiction imprint called Trapeze and did I have any ideas to pitch to them. Suddenly the two unrelated things collided in my head and the idea of an unlikely, rather grumpy astronaut who maintains a telephone relationship with a dysfunctional family on Earth seemed perfect, and came to me almost fully formed. By March I had a book deal, by the end of summer I’d written it, which was why it does feel so current with Brexit – which was obviously just becoming a big thing as I was writing – and Bowie, whose death was less than 18 months ago.
Tom’s one way-trip to Mars is his extreme way of leaving his troubles behind but he’s accidentally reconnected to the world via basic mobile phone. Seventy-one-year old Gladys has dementia but texts and googles. Has technology fundamentally changed the human condition?
So much so that I constantly wonder what would happen if it was all taken away from us. My kids have grown up immersed in the internet and mobile technology. I do some lecturing to journalism students in Leeds and they are constantly amazed when I remind them that when I was starting out as a reporter at their age there was not only no such thing as the internet, but we used to have to actually find a phone box and pump 10p pieces into it if we needed to contact the office while out on a job. Technology connects us in ways like never before, but sometimes it also feels the connections are a little superficial. And, as a journalist, I also worry about the spread of misinformation and, indeed, disinformation via social media, and how it gives the sort of people whose only outlet for their often abhorrent views used to be writing letters in green ink to their local paper a whole new way to spread their bile. I sometimes boggle at the thought of what an event of the enormity of 9/11 might have been like had we had Twitter.
Tom’s a curmudgeon and there’s plenty of darkness in the book but it is ultimately uplifting. Was that your intention throughout or could it have gone the other way?
Calling Major Tom has been called a feelgood novel, which I have no problem with, but it is true the characters are put through the mill a bit. I think I always intended it to be ultimately hopeful but all fiction has to be, at some level, about conflict, and I think if you’re going to do right by your characters you have to take them to some pretty dark places first.
Similarly, it’s impossible to fully dislike any of the characters in the book, even Major’s boss Baumann. Would you ever relish writing an out and out baddie?
Villains are the most fun and interesting characters to write, but they’re also often the most complex. The thing with baddies is that no matter how extreme their views or their actions, they themselves feel justified and righteous in what they do – they have to, otherwise you’re just left with a moustache-twirling cartoon villain in a cape. And to properly present that character, you need to get in their head and understand their own motivation, which can be a complicated thing when you’re writing someone whose world view is perhaps completely at odds with your own.
Did David Bowie feature so importantly in your life as he does in the book?
I was born in 1970, so Bowie was always part of the musical landscape for me. Like Tom in the book, I remember Space Oddity being a fixture of my early years, being obsessed by the Ashes to Ashes video, being fascinated and disturbed by the Diamond Dogs sleeve. But when I was in my teens Bowie was doing things like Dancing In The Streets with Jagger, film soundtrack stuff like Absolute Beginners and When The Wind Blows, and Tin Machine, which for me at that age probably felt a bit mainstream. It wasn’t really until my twenties that I started investigating his earlier stuff again and appreciating his genius properly.
Is your fiction directly inspired by being a journalist, an alternative to the journalism or, as Denis Johnson once said, is there no real difference?
I think it’s all writing to me. It’s all stories, whether a 500 word news piece, a 3,000 word feature or a 100,000 word novel. It’s just different ways of telling stories, stories about people, about how the world affects and changes them and how they affect and change the world. Journalism and fiction use different muscles, perhaps, but ultimately, for me, they’re flip sides of the same coin.
From pea wet in the chippies to the song She Wore a Cherry Ribbon, your home town Wigan features strongly in the book. Has it changed fundamentally since you grew up there?
It’s about 20 years since I left Wigan and I now live in Yorkshire, but I still have family and friends there. Whenever I pull off the M61 and cross the borough boundary line it feels like slipping on a comfortable old parka. Wiganers have warmth and wit, they’re fiercely loyal and proud. I have noticed that it’s a far more multicultural place than it was when I was growing up, which is a good thing, but I’ve also been a bit dismayed by the fact right-wing groups and parties have been trying to get a foothold there in recent years. Wigan has been polarised, like a lot of places in the north, by Brexit, especially between young and old. That inter-generational conflict is something I’ll be exploring in my next book for Trapeze, The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club, which is out in 2018 and set in a quirky residential home for the elderly near Morecambe.