In his fourth novel, This Eden, Irish Canadian writer Ed O'Loughlin goes big: a tech-driven thriller with global stakes, This Eden is wonderfully creepy and just a little too believable for comfort. Following Michael Atarian after his coder girlfriend's suspicious death, the novel sweeps readers through a sinister world of dark tech and money that hovers just below the surface of the safe and predictable world in which Michael has – until now – operated all his life.
O'Loughlin, who has previously been nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novels, is at the top of his game here, spinning the spy genre into something timely and haunting, raising questions about the unsavoury side effects, both social and environmental, of current and emerging financial technologies (known as "fin tech"), all while keeping the storytelling taut and compelling.
We're pleased to welcome him to Open Book today as part of our Long Story interview series for novelists. He tells us about his dual reasons for ending the story just "a few hundred yards" from his own house, what it was like having to unexpectedly incorporate the pandemic into his plotting, and why his dedication is also a call to action.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
Because This Eden deals with the increasingly toxic symbiosis between global finance and information technology, which is threatening to poison us and our planet, I knew from the start that it would have to pass through Silicon Valley and Wall Street or, more precisely, New Jersey, where a lot of New York’s fin tech servers are physically based. It would be a chase thriller, so, out of respect for the conventions of the genre, it would also jump through lots of exotic locations. I needed to pick a series of settings that my characters, who are on the run from tech itself, could plausibly reach without showing up on the various grids. And I also wanted, where possible, to use locations that I already knew myself, mainly from my years as a foreign correspondent: I didn’t have any budget for research, although the Irish arts council kindly funded me to go to Palo Alto. So the narrative also passes through Uganda, Jerusalem, Egypt and France, among other places.
Until quite late in the planning, I still didn’t know where the story would end. I’d decided, four years ago, to open it in Vancouver, because I’d just read a piece, I think in the Economist, on how the globalised property market was zombifying what had once been Canada’s “most liveable city”. The book ends in Dublin, a few hundred yards from my house, because I figured, “why not?”. I’m fond of convenience, and Dublin also happens to be a major centre for tax avoidance by global corporations.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
I had finished a pretty clean first draft of the novel by the end of 2019, but was told, for scheduling reasons, that it couldn’t come out until spring of this year. As I was reworking the first draft, for final submission in spring of 2020, the word Covid began to appear in the media. This posed a problem, because I intended to set the story in the global here and now, but the global here and now was about to get weirder, much quicker than I’d thought.
I didn’t want to write a book about Covid, but I would have to at least allude to it: there were books written and set during the Second World War that weren’t about the Second World War — like the Alexandria Quartet, which is mentioned in This Eden — but I doubt if many of them left it out entirely. But the Covid problem was also an opportunity: the novel was already about a species of virus, although a virus of a very different kind. So it proved pretty easy, in the end, to work in a little Covid, and even use it as a plot point. It didn’t change the ending, much, but it helped to move it along.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
When I originally started planning out the plot of This Eden I saw it as a four-hander — like the original story of Eden. But it seemed to me that one of the characters, Towse, who is a bit of a Mephistopheles, needed a familiar to act as his foil, and I thought of someone along the lines of the beautiful witch-vampire in The Master and Margarita. Having started her life as an afterthought, and a sidekick, this character kept growing and developing until she matured into Aoife, an intrepid and quick-witted young field agent who, for all her bravery and skills, is far too decent and thoughtful for the trade she is trapped in. A lot of people who’ve read early proofs of the book tell me that she is also their favourite character. I ought to be proud of her, but I’m not sure how much credit I can take for Aoife’s achievements. It feels like she snuck into the story behind my back. Which is one of the things that she’s very good at.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
Every thriller needs a villain and/or mortal threat to drive its action, and This Eden, without giving any spoilers away, was built around the idea of a particular kind of viral menace. As I said, I’d already finished a clean first draft when word of the new Covid virus began to emerge, and I knew that I would have to find away to work this coincidence into a plot which already highlights the uncanny nature of coincidence — when our reality seems too neat, or too unbelievable, we are forced to question it.
Another — happier — coincidence occurred during the early stage of writing. I was trying to decide what part of Vancouver my characters would live in, and I had half-settled on Kitsilano, but only because it’s not far from UBC, where my characters study, and I’d cycled through it a couple of times. But when I looked it up online, I saw that William Gibson lives in Kitsilano, and that Philip K. Dick had tried to kill himself there. As it happens, there were already traces of both these great writers in the plot, so my decision became a lot easier.
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
This Eden is not only dedicated to my teenage daughters, Bláthnaid and Iseult, but was consciously written for them. You could call it a dystopian novel, but it’s a real-life, present day dystopia, not a future one, so the really bad things that such stories are built around haven’t actually happened yet. There is still a chance that they don’t have to, and I’m hoping that the younger generations can find a way to stop them. I wrote this book in the hope it might encourage at least two of them to fight.
Did you include an epigraph in your book? If so, how did you choose it and how does it relate to the narrative?
My epigraph is from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, Goldfinger — another story about the nature of money.
"Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: 'Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.'"
The world keeps going through ever deeper cycles of war, political repression, economic failure, environmental collapse, and all of the rest of it, and we keep acting like it’s a random surprise, a coincidence, every time these blows fall on us again. What if it isn’t? What if there’s something malicious behind it? These are the questions at the heart of This Eden.
What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
Thrillers are a lot harder to write than you might think.
Ed O’Loughlin is an Irish Canadian author and journalist. He is the author of three novels, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Minds of Winter, the critically acclaimed Toploader, and the Booker Prize–longlisted Not Untrue and Not Unkind. As a journalist, Ed has reported from Africa for several papers, including the Irish Times. He was the Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age of Melbourne. Ed was born in Toronto and raised in Ireland. He now lives in Dublin with his wife and two children.