ow odd was it to have written a speculative book on a global pandemic, and have it come out in the midst of one? It’s surreal, totally unexpected and still feels very odd. One silver lining has been the response from some early readers and authors I

adore, who have given quotes, who said the book has helped them process the world we are living in at the moment and made them feel hopeful. My editor and I kept changes in response to Covid to a minimum. There’s no mention of Covid in the book, and that was important to me. One of the only things we changed—which does seem a bit spooky now—was that I had written (back in 2019!) that the plague in the novel was started by a pangolin. We changed that to move it away from the real world, as it would have seemed like I had copied the start of Covid.

Can you tell us about the inspirations for the book, both literary ones and your personal experiences? I read World War Z several years ago and found it terrifying and gripping. I loved its global perspec- tive and its hyper-realism. Then I read The Power in early 2018 and that really opened my mind up to using speculative fiction as an avenue to explore gender dynamics. I had been thinking about those books a lot, and in March 2018 I had the idea of a book in which almost all men have disappeared.


hina is always changing. I did a fair amount of re-writing over last summer, simply because so much was happening,” Ian Williams says via video call from his home in London, where he spent much of the lockdown working on his first non-fiction book, Every Breath You

Take: China’s New Tyranny (Birlinn). Commissioned before the pandemic and Hong

Kong protests, the former foreign correspondent for Channel 4 and NBC News examines the extraordinary rise of the Chinese surveillance state, the developing situation in Xinjiang re-education camps, and what it all means—not only for the Chinese population, but people across the world. Inspiration for the book dates back to when

Williams was covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and his laptop was hacked in his hotel room. He says: “It comes as a bit of a shock when someone has been inside your computer like that... I devel- oped quite a strong interest in cyber-related stuff.” After leaving NBC in 2016, Williams spent

months researching what became his first novel, Beijing Smog (Matador, 2017), which follows the fallout caused by a viral internet meme. But he wanted to take it further: “A lot of the issues that I had come across and explored deserved to be looked at in a different way, in a non-fiction book.” In the beginning of 2020, when the world’s media turned to China, particularly at the Covid


flashpoint Wuhan, Williams had to go back to the drawing board, a prospect he found “in some respects a little bit daunting, but in others quite exciting.” He adds: “All these things [China] had been putting in place, all of these components of the surveillance state, they wheeled out and started to use [in the pandemic]. It was almost like a laboratory test: you could bring all this stuff together under the label of the public health crisis, where people are less likely to be alarmed.” Williams expresses his desire for the book to

be accessible, calling the subject something that people “need to know about”. To that effect, Every Breath You Take is peppered with references to pop culture, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the book’s title, taken from The Police’s 1983 hit of the same name. Williams references an interview the band’s singer Sting gave, in which the singer was alarmed that the song was interpreted as love song, when in actuality it is “really quite sinister, it’s creepy... it’s about control and surveillance.” Williams says: “I thought there couldn’t really be a more appropriate title.” Every Breath You Take exposes what is going on in China and the threat it poses to the world, but also, as Williams chillingly puts it, serves as “a grim warning about what happens when these technologies are introduced without any oversight, without any restraint, without any regulation.”

Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny (9781780277110) is published on 1st April by Birlinn. The hardback costs £16.99.

I also had sepsis, and nearly died in July 2018, which had an impact. One of the first scenes in the novel is set in A&E with a doctor, Amanda Maclean, trying to save a patient. I definitely used the tense (and very scary!) memories of being admitted to hospital as part of my inspiration for that. It also made me conscious of not wasting time. I didn’t think about it so consciously back then, but being so unwell when I was only 25 definitely made me determined to finish the book as quickly as I could.

It is a huge bit of world-building to construct this world without (or with few) men. How did you do it? The first draft had around 40 perspectives and was essentially an exercise in world-building, so I built a lot that ultimately didn’t make it in. I started thinking about the logistics first: what happens to hospitals? To doctors and nurses, who don’t want to bring the virus home? To schools and nurseries and parents? That first draft also explored the impact on over 20 countries in various aspects. The second draft was a big rewrite that I did

with my agent in autumn 2019. We culled lots of the perspectives and focused on the key charac- ters. At that point, I really dug into the emotional consequences and dynamics. How do you rebuild your life in a society which has been completely reshaped? How would it feel to live in a world in which 90 per cent of men had died?

The End of Men (9780008407926) is published on 29th April by The Borough Press. The hardback costs £14.99.

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