Exclusive: Simon Stephenson on his novel Set My Heart To Five

As part of the blog tour for Set My Heart To Five we had a chat with the author Simon Stephenson, where we discussed his inspiration for the novel, it possibly being made into a movie and how he developed the character of Jared.

Where did the inspiration for Set My Heart To Five come from?

Ideas for me are always an amalgam of several different things, and the old thing about writers being magpies is as true of me as anyone. For instance, the locations in the book – the Midwest, Los Angeles, San Francisco – are all places I have come to know very well over the past six or seven years. Likewise, Jared is obsessed with the Golden Gate Bridge, and so am I, and many of Jared’s adventures in the movie business are sketched from versions of my own experiences.

In broader terms, Set My Heart To Five is the story of an android who learns to feel by watching old movies. When I began to think about the book I was living in San Francisco and surrounded by people working in tech, so the near-future suddenly felt very near indeed, and I began to wonder about what would happen if I had an android, and then what if I actually was one. Meantime my day job at the time was at an animation company who specialise in emotional films, so I spent a lot f time thinking about emotions in film. When you put those two things together, I think you get Android + Screenwriting = Jared.

What do you think it means to human?

I thought about this a lot during the writing of Set My Heart To Five, and actually kind of ultimately ended up challenging the question itself, because I think it inevitably implies a human supremacy above all other creatures. And maybe humans are indeed more important than androids, but are we more important than animals, or have we just convinced ourselves we are?

In an early draft of the book, Jared was fascinated by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had this to say on the subject:

‘The question is not, can they reason?, Nor can they talk? but, can they suffer?’

Jeremy Bentham

By Bentham’s definition the thing which makes us human is the fact we can suffer, but as the animals suffer too, they also qualify as ‘human’. Though as I said, I have thought about these issues a lot, I still don’t have a better answer than Bentham’s 250 year old one.

On a lighter note, Jared wasn’t just obsessed by Jeremy Bentham because of his timeless moral philosophy, but also the fact that he had himself preserved as an ‘auto-icon’. Jared referred to this process as ‘self-pickling’ and you can still see the self-picked Jeremy Bentham on display in University College, London.

To go back to the original question, difficult it is to definite what it means to be human, I think our duties as humans are far more clear cut, and perfectly exemplified by the advice at the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Be excellent to each other.

Set My Heart To Five is beautifully written and explores what it means to be lonely but also what it means to have hope. What would you like readers to take away from the story?

I think first and foremost I wanted to try and give readers the same emotionally satisfying experience that Jared enjoys when he sees one of the movies he loves. I want people to laugh and cry along the way, but ultimately have that sense of catharsis that you can only get from a story that has a satisfying arc.

In specific terms of the loneliness, I often have my share of those feelings and if it helps anybody to feel that they are not alone in their loneliness, then that would be wonderful.

And I’m not a huge one for messages, but if it gives one or two readers pause to think about some of our collective delusions – that everything in life must be a zero sum game – then even better!

The book is soon to be released as a movie, as an author how does that make you feel?

So I always have to start with some caution, and say that I’ve been around the movie business long enough to know never to get excited until the cameras are rolling. (An examplc: one of my favourite books is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. It was published in 1992 and the peerless Joan Didion was attached to write the script, and 28 years later we still have no movie)

But that all said, I am very excited and if/when the film of Set My Heart To Five happens I will be over the moon!

Was it hard to write the character Jared, a character that isn’t supposed to feel emotion, but does?

Strangely enough, I think in some ways it was might have been easier. Normally in a novel could never simply have a character declare what they were feeling. With Jared, because his journey is specifically about learning to feel, he is able to triumphantly announce his discovery of various feelings and emotions.

Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

Always! My day job is screenwriting and the nature of that industry means that there are always various projects at various stages – including the screenplay of Set My Heart To Five –but I am also in the early stages of a novel. There were nine years between Set My Heart To Five and my previous book, so I am trying not to leave it so long next time.

A big thanks to Simon for chatting with us and Amber at Midas PR for letting us be part of the blog tour.

You can get a copy of Set My Heart To Five here!

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