Monday 8 September 2014

Author Interview: Dark Sun, Bright Moon by Oliver Sparrow

About the Author: 

Oliver Sparrow was born in the Bahamas, raised in Africa and educated at Oxford to post-doctorate level, as a biologist with a strong line in computer science. He spent the majority of his working life with Shell, the oil company, which took him into the Peruvian jungle for the first time. He was a director at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House for five years. He has started numerous companies, one of them in Peru, which mines for gold. This organisation funded a program of photographing the more accessible parts of Peru, and the results can be seen at Oliver knows modern Peru very well, and has visited all of the physical sites that are described in his book Dark Sun, Bright Moon.

To learn more, go to


Do you plan everything or just let the story flow?

The time for “flowing” is during the storyboard stage, but, in general terms, never once you have started writing. The possible exception to this occurs if what you are writing deals with ripples on the surface of a perfectly familiar river – the life and times of a supermarket shelf stacker, say – then you can afford to be lax in building structure. If, by contrast, it deals with extremely unfamiliar topics and events, then you need perfect rigor so as not to subject the reader to sudden brain dumps and interminable explication.

Do your characters ever want to take over the story? 

No, but the characters need to be built to carry the story. So the exact opposite is true. The story takes over the characters.

What is your favourite food?

A sun-warmed pineapple, eaten off a machete tip. One has to be sitting on the front bumper of a Landrover and looking down over the early morning cloudscape over Chanchamayo province, in what the Peruvians call the “eyebrow of the jungle”.

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

More of a lunch lizard.

Where do you dream of travelling to and why?

Papua New Guinea, for its extraordinary orchid flora. I am foolish for orchids and have floundered in one jungle after another in their pursuit. But the leeches in PNG are of a size and the terrain of an inaccessibility that I have quailed at it. I used to walk the Himalayas with the Australian army – a complex back story, there – and as a  result of this I was invited to a PNG event they intended to run. But I was a wage slave at the time, it was scheduled to take six weeks and circumstances simply did not permit it.

Do distant places feature in your books?


Do you listen to music while writing?


Could you tell us a bit about your latest release?

I am told that “unique” is one of those words that publishers use to mean “commercially worrying”. Readers tend to like books that gently extend the familiar – not too much to learn, and easy scenario into which to slip, the comforting sense that I have been here before. Look, for heavens’ sake, at the endless vampire franchise. Can we think of no other kind of horror? Of course we can, but vampires are familiar, sanitized cartoon figures that we use like tokens in a board gamer.

Dark Sun, Bright Moon is, in this sense, worrying to a publisher. It operates in unfamiliar social and geographical territory – in the Andes, long before the inhabitants have had the least contact with a wider world after ten thousand years of isolation – and it works with unfamiliar ideas. The local people developed the usual plethora of religions - creator gods, gods of fishing and farming, childbirth and brick making – but they also evolved a separate and distinct tradition. This sees our universe, its physics and general plumbing, as just one element in reality, and a small and dependent one. It is constantly re-created by one domain of existence at the direction of another, which is in turn packed with information about everything that has every happened in our little space. Both of these domains are inhabited by sentiences and it is possible to interact with these.

One crucial class of awareness is called the “apu”, and people still go up local peaks and to mountain lakes to dance for their apu and pour it libations. (Of course, they now call then San Pedro – St Peter – and the like, but they still credit their existence.) Apus farm their local community for the material that they need to live, which is the flow of information that I mentioned earlier. The more harmonious and complex the society, the better the flow.

Every community will quickly develop an apu, and the apus are tied together by thin lines that run along the surface of the world. So if something goes wrong with one apu, it spreads. And the most common thing that goes wrong is an over-enthusiasm for milking their communities that turns into stark parasitism.

The apus of the Huari empire are sick. The book follows how a simple farm girl from the fringes of Huari comes to eradicate the central parasite, in the process bringing down Huari to anarchy. Her ultimate career is to be Mother Moon, Mama Q’ilya, the legendary founder of the Inca empire.

Dark Sun, Bright Moon is fully faithful to the geography, history and as much as we know of the anthropology of a thousand years ago. Huari existed, and it did fall with such suddenness that bread was left baking in the oven and tools scattered across the workman’s bench. But did a great mind, blazing under Lake Titicaca, change the nature of the world? Was the Inca society shaped by a conscientious lady on her way to becoming an apu, resident in a volcano overlooking Machu Picchu? That’s for you as a reader to decide.

What have you learned about writing and publishing since you first started?

The Internet all but destroyed the conventional music industry, yet there is now more music, more diversity and more channels to its distribution. Much the same is happening to the conventional publishing process. Bookshops are dwindling away as online sales grow. Publishers are being replaced by various mechanisms for physically printing and distributing books, or by technology that altogether removes the need for the physically printed word.

That should tell us a great deal about where to focus when writing. Quality control is up to you. The comforting editor who will catch your inconsistencies is no longer there. You have control of the creative process but you also have to shoulder the responsibility for it in its entirety. The style of a former age – a tentative idea, discussions with a publisher, an advance, an agreed general format and flow, chapter by chapter production and assessment, a grand edit, much beavering in the undergrowth and then, the magical tome: that’s gone, save for celebrity names. Dumping an unsolicited manuscript on a publisher’s doorstep: that’s gone. Quite what’s arrived in its place isn’t yet clear – indeed, probably never will be clear save in retrospect, as the mutant growth will continue to proliferate. But the game has changed, and we need to change with it. Tempora mutantur, et nos in illis mutamur.

Is there anything you would do differently?

I would probably bring in the focus groups earlier. They were used in edit cycles 13 and 14, and should have come in around 4-6, when the text had stabilized and the fine tuning was yet to be done.

Who, or what, if anything has influenced your writing?

See below, on whales and filter feeding.

Anything you would say to those just starting out in the craft?

The first million words are the worst.

What are three words that describe you?

Betjeman’s Song on the Nightclub Proprietress:

Now I’m dying and I’m done for/
What on Earth was all the fun for/
I’m ill and old and terrified and tight.
Well, that’s four.

What's your favourite book or who is your favourite writer?

Favourite book? Favourite child, dog, plant species? This obsession with ranking things is the pestilence of the century: it is both trite and absurd to ask which is the most civilized country in the world, which your favourite food, what the “best” colour, scent, emotion?  Bah, humbug.

The two writers who have always given me the purest pleasure as an adult are Ian Banks and Richard O’Brien. Untold books were the bestest, bestest ever! for a few days in childhood. The book that I remember nailing me as a young adult me was Ringworld, by Larry Niven. I recall a long journey by train heading for a job interview with this as a chance purchase. I became so absorbed that I missed both my stop and the job. But the reality is that I was more of a whale than a shark, filter-feeding on dense masses of written krill, retaining some of it and ejecting he rest through my gills.

About the Book:

Dark Sun, Bright Moon, by Oliver Sparrow, was published in July 2014 and is available for sale on Amazon in both paperback and ebook.

“Dark Sun, Bright Moon describes people isolated in the Andes, without the least notion of outsiders. They evolve an understanding of the universe that is complementary to our own but a great deal wider. The book explores events of a thousand years ago, events which fit with what we know of the region's history,” says Sparrow.

In the Andes of a thousand years ago, the Huari empire is sick. Its communities are being eaten from within by a plague, a contagion that is not of the body but of something far deeper, a plague that has taken their collective spirit. Rooting out this parasite is a task that is laid upon Q’ilyasisa, a young woman from an obscure little village on the forgotten borders of the Huari empire.

This impossible mission is imposed on her by a vast mind, a sentience that has ambitions to shape all human life. Her response to this entails confrontations on sacrificial pyramids, long journeys through the Amazonian jungle and the establishment of not just one but two new empires. Her legacy shapes future Andean civilization for the next four hundred years, until the arrival of the Spanish.

Dark Sun, Bright Moon takes the reader on a fascinating adventure that includes human sacrifice, communities eaten from within, a vast mind blazing under the mud of Lake Titicaca, and the rise and fall of empires cruel and kind.

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