Literary Wonderlands proved to be a great success for publishers Modern Books and Black Dog & Leventhal, which means that a follow-up is coming out this autumn. Edited by Professor John Sutherland (Lives of the Novelists), the new book is called Literary Landscapes, and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to it. Consequently I have written the chapters on Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The latter especially was a real privilege; Mary Shelley is buried not four miles from my office, so it’s perhaps inevitable I’ve long been a fan. So much so that in 2011 I organised a screening of the 1931 film Frankenstein, together with Ken Russell’s Gothic (a wild drama about the events in 1816 which led to the writing of the novel), as a special closing night crossover between the Poole Literary Festival and the Purbeck Film Festival. Before the screening I was part of an on-stage discussion about the legacy of Mary Shelley with author Christine Aziz (The Olive Reader) and John Foster, Screenwriter-in-Residence at Bournemouth University. And it all took place on Halloween! Afterwards I went with my wife to St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, where Mary Shelley is buried along with the remains of her husband Percy’s heart, to pay our respects. When Shelley Manor in Boscombe was renovated and the old Shelley theatre opened for the first time in nearly a century we were there on the first night for a performance, by candlelight, of the play A Summer Without Sun, again about the events resulting in the writing of Mary’s most famous novel. So yes, a long time fan. And when Sir Christopher Frayling came to St. Peter’s Church this February and gave a most informative lecture about the history of the novel I was there. So it was wonderful in this 200th anniversary year of the novel to be able to pen a chapter about the application of landscape in Frankenstein. Having studied geography at university, I found several of my lifelong interests converging in this project. In the end I’m just thrilled to have written the chapters on the work of the two most important female writers of all time for Literary Landscapes. I just hope I’ve done Mary and Jane justice. Literary Landscapes now has a page on Amazon, and is out on October 16. Literary Wonderlands is available here. Update: Since writing the post above I have found from the publisher that my chapter on Frankenstein, commissioned for Literary Landscapes, will now appear in the third volume in the series, Literary Journeys.
This has been a most unusual week, in that three books I worked on as editor have arrived in the space of five days. On Tuesday the physical copies of speculative fiction anthology Improbable Botany were delivered. Beautifully illustrated by Jonathan Burton, the book contains excellent stories by Rachel Armstrong, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, James Kennedy, Ken MacLeod, Simon Morden, Stephen Palmer, Adam Roberts, Tricia Sullivan, Justina Robson and Lisa Tuttle. Then, two days later, Lynne Chitty’s debut novel, Out Of The Mist was delivered, a quiet, thoughtful story of coming to terms with the past and new beginnings. And this morning it was the turn of the autobiographical Find Another Place by Ben Graff. I was thrilled to see the acknowledgement, which reads, in part: ‘My editor Gary Dalkin helped me to better navigate this story than I could have done alone. His care and precision have played a big part in making Find Another Place all it can be. I am grateful for his friendship.’
One of my clients, Ben Graff, has his first book, Find Another Place, coming out on March 28. I worked with Ben helping him find the structure for the book, which as it says on the cover is: An autobiographical meditation on family, focusing on childhood, parenting, the passage of time, loss, love, faith and memory. I encouraged Ben to dig deeper into himself, writing additional chapters and finding the essence of material, a complex tapestry of autobiography and family history. I’m very proud of the resulting volume, and I know Ben is too. Find Another Place (Amazon link) will be published by Troubadour, priced £11.99. Here is the text from the back cover: “Families are their stories,” said my grandfather Martin that late autumn day in 2001, as he placed a clear plastic folder containing his journal into my hands. Part historical meditation on people now gone, part detective story and journey of discovery, the book speaks to how we remember and re-assess what has gone before and how we make sense both of our here and now and the future. My grandfather had always wanted to be a writer and he gave me his journal shortly before his death. After many endings, paper often remains. Letters from my parents written in the 1970s before they were married, together with a handful of poems, extracts from diaries and other materials all form part of this reflection. It is possible to get to know people better, even after they are gone. A family’s interactions with the Isle of Wight, in war and peace, happy times and sad, run through the narrative. As does a relationship with literature, the desire to write and a passion for the game of chess. Anyone who has ever lost a parent; had a child or reflected on the fragility and beauty inherent in everyday life will enjoy this book.
I have recently edited a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about fantastical flora. The book, Improbable Botany, features authors who between them have won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association, John W. Campbell Memorial, Philip K. Dick, Nebula and Prometheus Awards, and been nominated for many more. The writers are: Cherith Baldry (co-author of the New York Times best-selling Warrior Cats series), Eric Brown (The Kings of Eternity, the Langham and Dupré crime novels, the most recent of which is Murder Take Three), Ken MacLeod (Intrusion, The Corporation Wars), Simon Morden (the Metrozone series, Down Station / The White City), Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, The Thing Itself), James Kennedy (The Order of Odd-Fish), Stephen Palmer (The Factory Girl Trilogy, Memory Seed, Beautiful Intelligence), Justina Robson (The Quantum Gravity series, Natural History, Switch), Tricia Sullivan (Occupy Me, Dreaming in Smoke, Maul), and Lisa Tuttle (The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, The Mysteries, Windhaven (with George RR Martin)). As part of the project I have interviewed all ten of the contributing authors, not just about Improbable Botany but about their writing in general and much more besides. Below is my interview with Tricia Sullivan, whose latest novel, Occupy Me, is nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her novel Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke Award in 1999. Other works include Maul, Double Vision and lightborn. Improbable Botany is being published by Wayward, a London-based landscape, art and architecture practice, and funded via Kickstarter. The book is illustrated by Jonathan Burton (The Folio Society, Penguin Books, Random House). One of the Kickstarter bonuses is a free e-book which will include all the interviews, though they will also be published individually in various places. The only time they will ever appear all together is in the Kickstarter e-book. The Kickstarter also offers the opportunity to acquire A2-sized art prints of all six of Jonathan Burton’s interior illustrations, as well as his breathtaking cover art. * Gary Dalkin: Your story for Improbable Botany, ‘Who Lived in a Tree’, offers an unusual perspective on a radically transformed London – it is narrated by a tree. Without giving too much away could you explain something of how the story came together? Tricia Sullivan: I’ve been a tree freak since I was a kid. I just love them, and I spent a lot of childhood time around trees and up in their branches. I considered trees friends, so maybe in some ways the story was a wish fulfillment fantasy. I wrote it in the fall of 2012, and I’d been reading about ideas for the greening of London (plant walls, etc) and also about the ‘internet of plants’ from Stefano Mancuso. I wanted to play with the idea of a symbiosis between humans and plants in which the connective talents of trees could be exploited for mutual benefit, so I took a big stretch with the research and let my imagination go. I think it would be much nicer to inhabit a living London than a stone one. At the same time, I was going through a lot of anxiety about my parents’ ageing. I wrote the first draft while my father was alive and more or less OK, but I was very aware of the increasing frailty of both parents, who lived 3500 miles away and would have nothing to do with the Internet. So it’s a story of the rise of the plants, but also of the decline and death of old creatures and old ways. When I came to revise the draft for submission a few months after my father’s unexpected death, I was struck by how personally prophetic the piece felt. Gary Dalkin: The notion of human-plant symbiosis, and of the ‘internet of plants’ is so intriguing, and such advances are being made bio-engineering, that I wonder if you have any thoughts about why botanical SF remains so comparatively under-explored? It would seem fertile soil for the imaginative writer … Tricia Sullivan: Well, Sheri Tepper did The Family Tree and I think Kameron Hurley has done some SF with plants. And of course, Jeff VanderMeer has done fungi. I’m sure there are others. I suspect the lack is down to commercial viability. A lot of SF nowadays stands on the shoulders of older generations. History provides a cultural shorthand that means writers don’t have to work too hard conceptually if they don’t want to; they can focus on e.g. their thriller plot, or other aspects of the work that interest them. However, if you break into a whole new region–like plant symbiosis–you’ve got the full weight of socio-scientific speculation to carry all by yourself, in addition to working all the party tricks of commercial writing. Novelists, anyway, have got to have all the storytelling and worldbuilding solid as rock if they want to sell their work, because publishers are extremely risk-averse. So it would be a fantastic challenge to writers to have a go, but not a small one. Gary Dalkin: Any publisher which operated without any consideration of risk would presumably not stay in business long, but to be extremely risk-adverse would seem to be contrary to the very nature of truly imaginative fiction. Have you personally found problems with this conservative (with a small c) tenancy in publishing, and would you say this risk-aversion has been consistent throughout your time as a published novelist, or have things become better or worse? Tricia Sullivan: I’m lucky in that I’ve never had a big problem selling my SF to UK publishers, and I’ve never had a publisher try to tell me what to write in the sense of ‘we want to see space opera’ or something. Every SF book I’ve written, I’ve sold to a major house, no matter how bad the sales figures that came before. The failure of my work to pull in readers is where I suffered for a lot of years, thinking, ‘If only I could write something easier and with broader appeal…’ because I desperately needed the money. But the breadth of appeal of one’s work isn’t something one can control, necessarily. For me that was tough to accept, more so than anything publishers did or didn’t do. The state of the industry is a bewildering topic and publisher risk-aversion is the least of it. I’ve had no choice but to decide to write for love, in the cracks of my life, and forget the money. There is no money, for most of us. Gary Dalkin: Where do you think genre publishing might go now, in a commercial sense, and can traditional publishing survive when readers are rapidly becoming accustomed to 99p, or free, self-published e-books, and even e-books by name authors regularly being sold for next to nothing? Tricia Sullivan: I think anybody who could answer that question would get a pie, and they should certainly tell the rest of us post haste. From the author’s point of view the rise of crowdfunding offers another way to get paid, and many authors are going hybrid (mix of self and trad publishing). Social media opens new avenues. Take Kameron Hurley. She has built by hand the platform she stands on, and that’s above and beyond her skill as a novelist. That’s a lot of work, and not everyone has those extra skills or the sheer determination to keep making noise. I reckon it helps to be extroverted or to be able to fake being extroverted–or, as in Kameron’s case, to be driven by strong emotion. Aliette de Bodard is another luminous newer writer who is beginning to achieve name recognition by sheer hard work: years of writing copious short fiction, blogging, working social media, networking, late nights, no pay, hard hard work–and she, too, is burning with a drive for something larger than herself. Again and again, I’m seeing risk-takey writers bootstrap themselves into their careers. Gary Dalkin: You’ve blogged about being inspired by Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible to let go of your ‘various science fiction induced hang-ups’ about what you ‘could or could not write’. And the result is Occupy Me. There is a sense that real science is outstripping where most SF is prepared to go, and now you are now considering a PhD in physics. If it came to a choice, can you see yourself leaving SF completely behind for a career in physics? And where next for your fiction, given that you wrote ‘Kaku takes the attitude that the impossible is a set of shifting goalposts’? Tricia Sullivan: I love writing, and when it comes to science fiction I am the real deal. At the same time I’ve already flipped a switch in my head that assumes I’m finished insofar as publishing goes. With that acceptance comes a great sense of freedom. My mojo is high. Full-time study plus part-time work plus family plus writing is my reality. If I do a PhD will it make more demands on my energy than that? Probably it will slow my writing down. I’m fairly difficult to stop. Doing science and/or teaching science means playing a part in human progress, no matter how small or devalued a part (and I have no illusions there). I want use my abilities in service to the world in the years that I have here. I’m writing a super girly SFF mystery right now for Gollancz, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. After that I’ve got a fair chunk of my intergalactic breastfeeding novel on deck. This is the Sea builds on the cosmology I started setting up in Occupy Me and will be therefore completely whacked-out. It’s dirty work but I feel like someone has to push the envelope. I haven’t figured out the mechanics of the science/story interface because I’m dealing with technologies that are really, really different from the ones we have a narrative shorthand for. I try to write from angles that are underexploited, that yield insights you don’t otherwise get. I will go on bewildering people as long as given licence to do so. It’s good for me and them, bit of brisk exercise never killed anyone. * Improbable Botany is a brand-new science fiction anthology about alien plant conquests, fantastical ecosystems, benevolent dictatorships and techno-utopias This is the book plants don’t want you to read… Improbable Botany features newly commissioned short stories by ten multi-award winning science fiction authors: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle.
Eric Brown is one of the UK’s leading science fiction writers. Since making his first sale to Interzone in 1986 he has published more than 50 books. His novel Helix Wars (2012) was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and two of his short stories have been honoured with the British Science Fiction Association Award. Murder By The Book (2013) marked a departure, being the first Langham and Dupre Mystery, a crime novel set in the 1950s. His latest titles are Jani and the Great Pursuit, the second volume of a Steampunk series set at the height of the British Empire, and Murder Take Three, the fourth Langham and Dupre novel. He writes a regular SF review column for The Guardian. Eric Brown has written the story ‘The Ice Garden’ for Improbable Botany, the new anthology I have edited. Here we talk about all manner of things, from fantastical flora in fiction, and why Eric has recently turned to crime. Gary Dalkin: ‘The Ice Garden’, your story in Improbable Botany, has something of an old fashioned feel to it. Although clearly taking place in a world of mobile phones, it evokes an earlier period in British science fiction. The characters are so polite, formal, gentlemanly. The setting itself is of an earlier time. Is the sense of continuing a tradition something which especially appeals to you? The story has certain elements in common with your novel The Kings of Eternity, which of the novels of yours that I have read, I think is the best. Eric Brown: These days I read a lot of fiction set in thirties, forties, and fifties Britain. I’m attracted to the mores and manners of that period, to the prose-style, and to the fiction. I’m writing a series of crime novels set in the fifties at the moment, and I find that the best way to research the period, even better than reading non-fiction about the fifties, is to immerse myself in the fiction of the time. Perhaps as a consequence of this, my writing, my prose, is beginning to reflect that earlier fiction. (Also, I must admit that I find some modern prose too slick and not to my taste, whether that’s in SF or crime.) And also, I like the strange feeling in some of my SF – principally The Kings of Eternity, which you mentioned, and the Starship novellas, as well as some stories – that is created by the anachronistic juxtaposing of a future setting (more so in Starship) against perceived ‘old-fashioned’ prose-style and values. (Jack Vance did this in so much of his work, a futuristic setting rubbing up against the almost Jacobean, or Restoration, manners and mores of his characters and societies). So perhaps the above is my long-winded way of saying yes, I suppose it is my continuing a tradition. Gary Dalkin: Speaking in terms of traditions, there is one, not extensive, but it exists, of exploring strange botany within speculative fiction. We could go back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and trace a line through John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, right up to the mushroom people of Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch. We might even take in The Little Shop of Horrors on the big screen, and on the small screen, a Doctor Who story like ‘The Seeds of Doom’. Yet overall this remains a relatively small set of stories. Do you see a rich territory ripe for future fictional exploration, particularly give the possibilities opened up by genetic engineering? Are authors missing out by generally not considering the intersection of fiction and flora? Eric Brown: You’re right, it’s a ripe and fecund branch worthy of future exploration, which would bear much fruit and maybe even vast blossoms. Sorry. Earth-bound tales exploring the genetic engineering side of botany would be one avenue to explore – the other, which I’m drawn to, would be xeno-botany set on alien worlds: this would offer real, wide-screen scope for stories. Keith Brooke has done a series of extraterrestrial flora stories, but to the best of my knowledge they’re thin on the ground. (I’ve used exotic, alien flora in various of my own tales, but they’re mainly alien window-dressing, to heighten atmosphere, and don’t really explore the science, or extrapolate from the science, of xeno-biology.) Gary Dalkin: Is this because you generally prefer ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ science fiction? You once said in an interview with Keith Brooke that ‘hard SF leaves me cold because I don’t like reading pages and pages of science or scientific extrapolation at the expense of characters and emotion.’ Is that still the case – certainly your work is frequently powerfully emotional, often evoking what seems to me a very English sense of melancholy. Would that be a fair statement? Eric Brown: Yes, very fair. I think I’d find Hard SF difficult even if it did have excellent characterisation (which some of it does). I’m just not that interested in the ins and outs of technology and science: I don’t read mainstream fiction to be told how a TV works. I’m interested in how people and societies are affected by ideas that stem from technological and scientific innovation, but I find that so often in SF, technological explanation gets in the way of psychology… Also Hard SF dates so quickly, so if it contains no real human beings what we’re left with, years down the line, are Hard SF novels with cardboard characters and outmoded ideas; novels which are nothing more than curiosity pieces – like Asimov’s, for example. I find that the older I get, the more I want to read about human beings and how they interact. I’m glad you think my work powerfully emotional – that’s what I often try to achieve. I much prefer Soft to Hard SF – though my favourite term is Quiet SF. Gary Dalkin: I remember reading your first novel, Meridian Days, shortly after it first came out, and it certainly had a quietly powerful impact. It really struck a chord with me, especially against a lot of rather more gung-ho Hard SF – perhaps because we’re both Yorkshire men of a very similar age. So I think Quiet SF is the prefect description. Anyway, it seemed to immediately fit into a lineage along with the works of say, Michael Coney and Christopher Priest and establish you as a writer to watch. There’s a certain haunted melancholy to your best work. Something of loneliness and isolation, of loss and the irrevocable passage of time, yet combined with a sense of beauty and of wonder. It’s not something I often see in American SF, but it’s there in the closing passages of Shelley’s Frankenstein, in Wells’ beach in the far future in The Time Machine, it’s there in the vast cosmic visions of Stapledon and Clarke. Do you think this sensibility is something particularly British, something you recognise in yourself as a writer and as a person, and if so, where do you think it comes from? Is it some essential part of the British character? Eric Brown: I wonder if it’s an essentially European sensibility? Could it be that as we inhabit an older civilisation, are surrounded by constant reminders of human-made history, this imbues us – perhaps on a subconscious level – with a certain melancholy, a reminder of our insignificance in the grand, cosmic scheme of things? I wonder if the beauty and wonder comes form our having to make the best of the situation… I don’t know. I think I’ll leave that one to the philosophers. It’s odd that you should mention the beach scene in Wells’s The Time-Machine. To me, it’s one of the most affecting images in all SF, and I was knocked out by it when I read the novella when I was sixteen. I still use the iconic image of the swollen sun in my work – it’s always cropping up! As to my own work, I’ve often written about loneliness and isolation – it’s a great theme, a great sympathy-hook, and can be a great driver of narrative (the striving against isolation, the quest for redemption): though perhaps I’m not using it so much these days. Gary Dalkin: Right from Meridian Days your work has shown a fascination with artists and writers. You’ve written about fictional writers in, for example, A Writer’s Life and The Kings of Eternity, as well as in your new Langham and Dupré series of mystery novels, and used real writers such as H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, and Jules Verne as characters in your work. The question is why? Is it something as simple as following the old adage to ‘write about what you know’? Eric Brown: I suppose a part of the attraction is that I know about writers and artists, so therefore I write about them – but I’m fascinated by writers and artists, the process of creation, and how these people relate to the world. I know, or have known, a lot of creative people, and find the creative process and the ‘artistic’ way of looking at the world – or rather at one’s relationship to reality – a perpetual source of interest and of ideas for drama. I think that even when writing about other people, you’re really writing about yourself. And I’m pretty sure that the process of creation, in my case, is not so much about my making sense of the world, representing it in a way that other’s might recognise, as making sense of my inner self and my emotional reaction to the world. I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious, and I think that my best work (The Kings of Eternity, Kethani, The Serene Invasion, Starship Seasons) was largely dictated to me by what was going on in the sub-strata of my head. I’m constantly amazed that when I sit down for a shift at the PC, two hours later there has emerged on the page things that I never consciously realised I’d be writing about. That’s the old subconscious at work. Gary Dalkin: Which leads me to wonder, considering that your stories are very much proper ‘stories’ in the traditional sense of having a plot and a clear beginning, middle and end, how much of a planner are you in your writing, as opposed to letting your subconscious have free reign and following where it will? I’m particularly curious because your Langham and Dupré novels are mysteries, so do they perhaps require a different approach, one requiring more detailed planning in the construction of intricate plots? And why start writing a crime series now, after 25 years writing science fiction? Is it something you’d long wanted to do? Eric Brown: When I began writing many moons ago, I was a great planner. Everything had to be meticulously worked out in advance. That was because I was uncertain of my ability, and had no, for want of a better word, ‘architectural’ technique. With years and wordage, I’ve developed technique, and my subconscious, informed by my technical know-how, has taken over. Now I have a slight outline in mind when I begin, but I follow my subconscious. The odd thing is that, yes, you’d think that the crime novels would take more plotting, but paradoxically that’s not the case. I have a situation, a murder, perhaps a twist or two, a cast of suspects, and the detective and his accomplice(s). I start with little notion where the story is going, and it writes itself. That said, the crime novels need more rewriting than the SF. I find I need to go back and ‘plant’ things, clues in dialogue, red herrings, verbal misdirections. In a way, writing a crime novel is more like compiling a crossword puzzle. Why did I start writing whodunits after twenty-five years of writing SF? Well, I’ve always loved cosy crime – I was turned on to reading at the age of fifteen by Agatha Christie – and a few years ago I had an idea for a crime novel that had to be set in the fifties (for DNA reasons). I loved writing the book so much, and liked the characters and the era, that I decided to do another. They sold, and I’ve just completed the fifth. They’re a great antidote to writing SF. I’ve written elsewhere about the literary freedom of writing mainstream, as opposed to SF. I can use simile and metaphor, which I can’t in SF, and write eccentric characters, again which I can’t in science fiction. Gary Dalkin: That’s fascinating. Could you go into why you can use simile and metaphor and create eccentric characters in your crime writing, and explain what the barriers are to doing the same in science fiction? Are there any other freedoms the mainstream opens up which are difficult or impossible in SF? Eric Brown: You don’t come across many similes in SF because when a writer likens something to something else, the object he or she likens it to must be familiar to the reader. If that object is familiar, of this world and of this time, then the writer immediately undercuts the sense of futurity he or she is attempting to maintain, and so loses reader credulity. In the crime novels I can write eccentric characters, but they don’t often appear in my SF because again I’d be in danger of undercutting the reader’s sense of futurity. I think this is because eccentric characters are only eccentric in relation to the environment they inhabit, and as science fictional futures might be described as ‘eccentric’ in themselves, it makes the job of writing eccentric characters which are eccentric in relation to their settings very hard. These characters can only be ‘odd’, eccentric, in relation to the setting the reader knows best – the here and now… which again undercuts that sense of futurity. Other freedoms are the obvious things: you don’t need to create a new world (or universe, or future) from scratch: the world you’re writing about is instantly familiar to the reader (even if it is 1955). I can concentrate on character – make character a primary concern – whereas in SF it can be secondary behind setting, or even tertiary behind setting and idea. (There are times when I’ve been writing SF when I find the setting is so vast that it almost dwarfs the characters. I found this in Helix. And what I mean about the setting being ‘so vast’ is that I find myself describing the setting – or even thinking about it – to the detriment of the character building)… Also, in the crime novels, I don’t have to deal with Big Ideas: it’s enough that the ‘idea’, as it were, is the twist, or the murder method, or the denoument. It’s great to write crime novels, but I like to vary them: I alternate between the genres, and this keeps me fresh… I like to think. Gary Dalkin: Yes, eccentric characters in SF to tend to undercut the established reality of any setting a writer has established, so perhaps tend to lend themselves best to satire or comedy – there’s little shortage of eccentricity in, say, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Of course there are plenty of science fiction crime stories, from Asimov’s The Caves of Steel through to a film like Inception. It seems like an interesting but tricky hybrid to pull off. Would you say that, to combine the genres a writer must be even more careful than usual ensure that the reader knows exactly what is and isn’t possible in a given future world? That the crime aspect has to work both within the technological boundaries of the imagined world but also sociologically, that is, with a particular imagined legal system? It wouldn’t be very satisfying if a crime was solved by applying a previously unmentioned piece of technology, or the story hinge upon an hithertofore undisclosed aspect of some future society’s law. Eric Brown: I think you’re right. Whenever you write SF, of whatever sub-genre – SF-crime, space opera, planetary romance, satire, dystopia etc – you must be careful to let the reader know the ground rules. You must play fair with the reader. I’ve written three crime-SF novels, to the best of my knowledge – the Virex trilogy, set in New York in the 2040s, about a pair of private eyes. Thinking back, I recall having to carefully set up the world, and the technology – in this case virtual reality – to make everything work. And you’re right – perhaps an exception to my rule about eccentricity in SF is in comedy, like Hitch-Hiker’s Guide… and Red Dwarf. (I wonder if that’s why I didn’t care for either – especially Red Dwarf: I tried to watch it again and again, but its parochialism, its retro-anachronism, constantly put me off. I just didn’t believe it.) Gary Dalkin: I didn’t believe Red Dwarf either. Perhaps the humour itself springs out of mocking the very world building which is essential to taking the genre seriously. I thought it interesting that the writers seemed to deliberately undermine any sense of story logic, in that each series would very obviously ignore the cliffhanger on which the previous series had ended. It was almost as if they were saying that on no level should anyone take anything about their work remotely seriously. At the opposite extreme, having just mentioned Inception, it brings to mind a criticism that is sometimes levelled both at that film specifically, and at Christopher Nolan’s work in general – that it lacks humour. Or perhaps Nolan realises that laughter can be the enemy of suspension of disbelief. But to move on, you are a very prolific writer. A survey of your website reveals that you’ve published at least 27 novels for adults, 11 for children, 13 novellas, 11 collections of short stories, as well as various other works, including two volumes as editor. There are other stories you’ve written which have yet to be collected, and presumably other novels which you’ve already written which are due to be published over the next year. Could you say something about your working habits – I think it would be an inspiration for others who are looking to become professional writers – and, given your output, do there ever comes times when the ideas simply don’t come? If so, what do you do to get the words flowing again? Eric Brown: Once I’m working on a project I start and don’t stop until it’s finished. (Twenty years ago I’d write three two-hour shifts a day, finish at nine p.m. and go to the pub, day in, day out, including weekends, until the hundred thousand word first draft was in the bag, which usually took a fortnight or a bit longer. I was single then. After that, I’d leave the book for a month, come back to it and take a couple of months to pull it to pieces and rewrite). These days I do two shifts a day and don’t write at weekends, and I never go to the pub. A book takes a month, and a couple of months to rewrite. I once feared the blank page, or rather the daunting task of filling three hundred of them, but experience – doing it a lot – has got rid of the fear. I no longer really plot a novel, but sit down with a vague outline, a setting, and a cast of characters, and start writing – and the subconscious takes over. I never run out of ideas – the sub-con will produce them, once I’ve started writing – and I don’t believe in writer’s block. Of course there are patches of novel that are sub-standard, first time round, but novels and stories are modular: in the rewrite, I take those flawed bits out and replace them with passages that work. I suppose some writers, and beginning writers, might be tempted to stop when they hit these passages – but don’t give in to the impulse: write through the rubbish, and you’ll come through the other side and start writing stuff that works again. These days, writing isn’t the difficult thing, but getting novels sold for decent money. I wish I could leave that to my subconscious! Gary Dalkin: To get decently paid for writing, that would be like the 90s all over again! Finally, you’ve already mentioned which you consider to be your best novels – The Kings of Eternity, Kethani, The Serene Invasion, Starship Seasons – but you are also a remarkably prolific writer of short stories. For a reader who has just discovered your short fiction through Improbable Botany, which of your eleven collections would you recommend they read first, and if you could pick just two or three stories, which would you say are your very best? Eric Brown: That’s the hardest question you’ve posed so far! I’m afraid I’m going to mention more than just ‘two or three’ stories!… I’ve had to look back at my tales and remind myself of my favourites. As to which collection to try first… I’d like to think they were all very different, and my writing style has certainly changed over the years, since my first in 1990, The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories. I was leafing through Blue Shifting earlier, and found myself reading “Epsilon Dreams”, which I’d forgotten: it was as if I were reading something by another writer. I did enjoy that story: I think it combined a tight plot with decent characterisation. “The Time-Lapsed Man” is a particular favourite of mine, because of the idea – probably one of the few original ideas I’ve ever had! The fix-up novel Salvage contains two tales I’m proud of, “Laying the Ghost”, and “Cold Testing”. Some of my favourite tales are collected in another fix-up novel, Kéthani. I particularly like: “Thursday’s Child” and “Onward Station”. So perhaps the answer would be: start with Kéthani! * Improbable Botany is a brand-new science fiction anthology about alien plant conquests, fantastical ecosystems, benevolent dictatorships and techno-utopias. This is the book plants don’t want you to read… Improbable Botany features newly commissioned short stories by ten multi-award winning science fiction authors: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle.
Last year I worked with author, actor, businessman and guest speaker Michael Bearcroft on a reworked, revised and updated version of his football novel, Dangerous Score. The book is out now in paperback, and here is the official blurb: Football hero Jason Clooney is riding high, until a date with a beautiful woman lands him in trouble with the media and into a battle with the criminal underworld. Now against a backdrop of an uncertain professional future, Jason has to confront disturbing revelations surrounding his new girlfriend’s family. From football action on the pitch to behind the scenes plotting, to battles with a criminal gang and constant media attention, all add to the toughest challenges he has ever faced in life and love, as a player and a man. And a few quotes from early reviews… “As nail biting as a Merseyside derby with just as many twists and turns! One not to miss….” Ian Ayre – Managing Director, Liverpool Football Club. “Dangerous Score is a fantastic, sexy thriller! A great read and I don’t like football!!!” Gina Price – Lead vocalist in Back To Broadway The Show “As a former Professional and Semi Professional player and coach, I enjoyed the story immensely.” Kevin Shoemake – Chief Exec Birmingham FA. Former player with Leyton Orient, Peterborough Utd, Kettering Town and Rushden & Diamonds “The sort of intriguing tale that you’d expect from an ITV Sunday night drama … so your mum might like it too!” 442 Magazine Find out more at Dangerous Score
Alex CF is a noted fantasy artist. He has recently written his first novel, Seek The Throat From Which We Sing, a dark fantasy epic in a very British tradition which includes such animal fantasies as Richard Adams’ Watership Down and the deep-time pastoral fantasy of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. Over the last year I worked with Alex as his editor through the process of refining the novel into its published version. The book was issued in 2016 as a signed, illustrated, hardback, and is now available in paperback. Here I talk to Alex about the novel, its background, and a little about how we worked together. Gary Dalkin: Seek The Throat From Which We Sing is a very ambitious and complex work for a first novel. When I read it I was particularly impressed by both the complexity of the world-building and the intricacy with which the story is told in the very detailed fictional world which has sprung from your imagination. Could you talk a little about how you came to develop the world and story, and how one influenced the other? How long did it take you to write the book? It was clear to me from the outset that a huge amount of work had gone into it. Alex CF: About nine years ago I was living in Brighton, and would sit on the beach and watch the flock of starlings fly over the pier. I started to imagine their culture, what might their belief systems be. I wrote a few pages and forgot about it for many years. I was always fond of animal mythology and a great deal of my illustration is based around this concept of imbuing animals with their own earthen ideologies, armours and wars, feuds and struggles. Many years later, after a conversation with a dear friend one afternoon, I decided to attempt to tie all of these loose threads together into one. It took me four years to finish the book, but the first two were very slow. I had to find a quiet space to write, and was fortunate to find just that. It even had a contingent of birds and animals that would visit the window where I worked, and I could watch the crows and magpies interact with one another. It wasn’t just about telling a story about animals, it was honouring that which we often overlook, that animals live their own lives and indeed have their own cultural practices. it was a case of exaggerating that or playing with our misinterpretations of that behaviour. I lived close to Highgate Wood in north London and would go for long walks, thinking through story arcs and characters and writing down little epiphanies so I wouldn’t forget. It had a point, about the roots of belief, about how these cultures share forgotten connections, my own feelings on family and also just this really strong desire to create a tangible mythology, something visceral and vivid. GD: How would you describe the story, at least enough that someone might begin to form an idea as to if this is a book for them? ACF: The story is based around a tale of dark animal mythology and fantasy. In a dilapidated seaside theme park, a flock of starlings known as the Startle have lived under the rule of the despotic gull king Esperer. Like all of his kin, Rune, an orphan, longs for a time when his people will reclaim sovereignty. In desperation he commits an act of violence that leads to banishment and he is cast into an unknown world, confronted by all the strange and cruel things that were once mere stories. In his desire to find a sense of home again, Rune meets others who also seek something; Aggi the Collector, a magpie outcast who desires to know her purpose, and Onnar of the Drove, a stern yet compassionate hare who has always put others first. Together they travel through a land wrought with dangers, and encounter many of the species that have eked an existence under the uncaring feet of humanity, and who now vie for control in the wake of a disease which is consuming mankind. In the steadily emptying city, the Vulpus, urban foxes – and the Morwih, determined domesticated cats, will wage war. Yet their squabble is but one of many… written into the lore and laws of all creatures, there is another world of magic and prophecy that Rune and his companions will unwittingly discover. GD: One thing which does impress me is that although the book is the first volume of a series the story works perfectly as a self-contained stand-alone novel. I didn’t even know it was the introduction to a series until you mentioned a sequel. And frankly, at this stage, I haven’t a clue where you are going to be taking things next, as it all seems quite complete. Now you are self-publishing Seek The Throat… in a beautiful, illustrated limited edition hard cover. Was this always your intention? What steps did you take towards publication? And at what stage did you decide you needed to being an editor into the process? ACF: I think I found myself considering a sequel when I realised what the story was really about, and how I deliberately tried to stay away from the hero’s journey – in many ways the book presents itself as such but with the benefit of telling the story from multiple characters, I hope that it becomes very much a story of many heroes. Towards the end of writing, certain story arcs became more beloved to me, especially that of the Vulpus and their supernatural elements – there was a whole story within this that gradually encompassed the original mythology in the first book and expanded upon it. The working title for the second book is Wretched Is The Husk, and is a much darker tale, but it also gives more weight to the original story and expands upon the value of the characters and the greater world within the book. I guess my intention was to be able to hold the book, the validation was important to me – that the task was finally complete! I had hoped that I could find a publisher, and I am not ruling that out, but I’m not holding my breath. The self-publishing route is something I have gone along multiple times when I was a comic artist, and so it’s not that alien to me. It allows for freedom of expression and to be more in touch with those who buy a copy of the book. Taking on an editor was very important to me. I wanted it to be grammatically correct of course, but also there is something very important about exposing the book to another mind – someone with knowledge to course correct any plot issues, or to make suggestions that will improve the book. Above all it is about getting the best out of an idea, and the validation of holding a physical book was secondary to the validation of someone with a position of authority to say ‘yes I thinks its complete’. This was very valuable to me. * pre-order Seek The Throat From Which We Sing * enquire about my editorial services for authors
I am thrilled that I have received a high quality image for the cover of Literary Wonderlands. I have written four chapters for the book, my chapters being on I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Here is the official blurb: Literary Wonderlands A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created by Laura Miller, General Editor. Contributions by Lev Grossman, John Sutherland, and Tom Shippey A glorious collection that delves deep into the inception, influences, and literary and historical underpinnings of nearly 100 of our most beloved fictional realms. Please note: The ebook edition is text-only, illustrations are not included. Literary Wonderlands is a thoroughly researched, wonderfully written, and beautifully produced book that spans two thousand years of creative endeavor. From Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to Wells’s The Time Machine to Murakami’s 1Q84 it explores the timeless and captivating features of fiction’s imagined worlds including the relevance of the writer’s own life to the creation of the story, influential contemporary events and philosophies, and the meaning that can be extracted from the details of the work. Each piece includes a detailed overview of the plot and a “Dramatis Personae.” Literary Wonderlands is a fascinating read for lovers of literature, fantasy, and science fiction. Laura Miller is the book’s general editor. Co-founder of Salon.com, where she worked as an editor and writer for 20 years, she is currently a books and culture columnist at Slate. A journalist and a critic, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column for two years. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia and editor of the Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors. Literary Wonderlands is published in the US on 1 November, and in the UK on 25 November.
I’m very pleased to announce that the new issue of Shoreline of Infinity (No.5 / Autumn 2016) is now out and features my extensive interview with the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author, Simon Morden. We talk about in-depth about his latest series of novels, which began earlier this year with Down Station and continues with The White City. The packed 132 page issue also features stories by Iain Maloney, Jack Schouten, Adam Connors, Nat Newman, Daniel Rosen, Thomas Clark, Rob Butler and Craig Thomson. SF Caledonia, the series on classic Scottish science fiction, continues with Monica Burns on George MacDonald’s Phantastes. There is a new comic from Stuart Beel, a freshly minted column by Ruth EJ Booth, and poetry from Andrew Blair and Ruth Aylett. Shoreline of Infinity is available both digitally and as a gorgeous physical magazine printed on real paper.
In May last year Adrian Besly set out to cycle around the world. He kept a diary along the way, and when he came back he wrote a book about his amazing adventures. And then I edited it, and I’m delighted to say that Do It – Cycling Around The World For A Laugh is published this week. A print edition will follow soon. Adrian really has a way with words, and the subtitle is entirely appropriate. Throwaway lines like ‘I have a photo in my wallet of my kids where my money used to be’ regularly made me laugh, and if you find that amusing then this book is for you. It’s not all fun though. Adrian came close to death on several occasions on some of the world’s most dangerous roads and his journey ranges from the surreal to the frankly hair-raising. The Kindle version is available from 1 September in the UK (Do It) in the US (Do It), and at other Amazon sites around the world. Here is the official blurb from Amazon: ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ they sang in The Rocky Horror Show. So Adrian Besly quit his job, bought some cycling gear from Tesco, Aldi and his local bike shop and kept pedalling west until he came home from the east nearly a year later. During this epic journey he got drunk with Aussie cowboys, ate dog and cat in Vietnam, met ‘The Only Gay in the Village’ in Andorra, did a bungee jump in New Zealand, nearly ran over a dildo in Argentina, danced with a pirate in Gibraltar, ended up on stage with drag queens in Sydney and stayed in a Brazilian brothel. Not that it was all plain sailing. He was attacked by a hornet while having a pee in Spain, outwitted muggers in Indonesia, was attacked by Hitchcock-inspired birds in Australia, and chased by dogs in nearly every country he visited. He coped with dangerous drivers, ‘Bali Belly’ and people throwing bottles at him. Worse, he had four crashes, and was admitted to hospital in Malaysia with exhaustion. These subjects don’t lend themselves to dainty language, and Adrian describes events colourfully. Against all odds he cycled over 14,000 miles, and developed possibly the world’s sorest backside. Do It – Cycling Around The World For A Laugh may be the type of travel diary that Michael Palin wants to write, but the BBC won’t publish. About the author Adrian Besly left home at 16 and has done dozens of jobs. He has worked on farms, in factories, been a driver, kitchen porter, circus worker, film extra, drug tester, printer, pest controller, door-to-door salesman, courier and most recently, a staff nurse at Southend Hospital Accident & Emergency Department. He has had two booklets published; Bash The Fash about fighting against the BNP and NF, and The Couriers Are Revolting about organising a trade union for motorcycle despatch riders. Despite being a hard worker he has the unusual distinction of having been on strike in four different industries. Apart from following QPR, his sporting passion is judo. He is a 3rd Dan black belt and still trains, coaches and competes. He has represented Great Britain. Adrian performs Britain’s most talented harmonica/comedy routine, although Simon Cowell does not agree. He has two wonderful children, Kevin and Laura, and is married to the gorgeous Sharon.
The latest issue of ambitious new Science Fiction magazine Shoreline of Infinity is out now. Lead story is “Senseless” by Gary Gibson, while I interview multi-award winning authors Ken MacLeod and Tricia Sullivan.
Literary Wonderlands now has a release date on both sides of the Atlantic. It will be out in the US on 1 November, and on 25 November in the UK. Here is the blurb from Amazon: A glorious collection that delves deep into the inception, influences, and literary and historical underpinnings of nearly 100 of our most beloved fictional realms. Please note: The ebook edition is text-only, illustrations are not included. Literary Wonderlands is a thoroughly researched, wonderfully written, and beautifully produced book that spans two thousand years of creative endeavor. From Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to Wells’s The Time Machine to Murakami’s 1Q84 it explores the timeless and captivating features of fiction’s imagined worlds including the relevance of the writer’s own life to the creation of the story, influential contemporary events and philosophies, and the meaning that can be extracted from the details of the work. Each piece includes a detailed overview of the plot and a “Dramatis Personae.” Literary Wonderlands is a fascinating read for lovers of literature, fantasy, and science fiction. Laura Miller is the book’s general editor. Co-founder of Salon.com, where she worked as an editor and writer for 20 years, she is currently a books and culture columnist at Slate. A journalist and a critic, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column for two years. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia and editor of the Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors.
I’m thrilled to announce that I am contributing four chapters to the book Literary Wonderlands. The book is being edited by Laura Miller (co-founder of Salon.com), and contributors include Adam Roberts, Julia Eccleshare, Lev Grossman and Lisa Tuttle. The book is to be published by Elwin Street Productions this autumn. Literary Wonderlands will ‘trace the power of the written word to transport us from ordinary time and space to previously unimaginable new worlds, exploring the most fantastical, mysterious and awe-inspiring lands ever created in literary fiction.’ My chapters are on Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (JM Barrie), I, Robot (Isaac Asimov), Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino) and Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson). Here is a very rough promotional version of some possible cover artwork.
Andrew David Barker was born in Derby, England, in 1975. I first heard about his novella, Dead Leaves, when He asked me to provide some developmental editorial input on a draft of the manuscript, which he did as a result of this interview, originally conducted with him for Amazing Stories. The interview coincided with the paperback publication of The Electric, Barker’s first novel, a ghost story steeped in a love of movies, especially genre flicks from the old Universal classics to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws. The Electric is also a nostalgic, bittersweet coming of age story, a resonant, evocative, deeply moving tale with shades of vintage Bradbury and King. It is quite an achievement. Dead Leaves is equally nostalgic, though a much gritter story about a group of teenage friends in Barker’s hometown of Darby in the early 1980s coming to terms with young adulthood while trying to find a copy of the horror film The Evil Dead at the height of Britain’s moral panic over ‘video nasties’. Dead Leaves it is not a horror story, but is an autumnal tale suited to October country, informed by a love of horror movies and the power that film can have to inspire a youthful imagination. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that Andrew David Barker is also a filmmaker …
When it comes to literature men in the UK, US and Germany are reportedly in a tiny minority, reading just 20% of all fiction. Or so, writing in the Guardian, says Lionel Shriver. I don’t know if this is true. I know lots of men who read lots of fiction. Perhaps they are not representative. But then I assumed Lionel Shriver was a man. It’s an easy mistake to make. Shriver, a woman who changed her name from Margaret Ann, and won the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction for We Need to Talk About Kevin, offers what starts out as an excellent article about sexism in book marketing and cover design. She argues that despite the content of her novels having appeal to both sexes her publishers insist on trying to market her books to an entirely female audience using covers more appropriate to chick lit. Shriver describes one proposed cover, which she managed to veto, thus: ‘A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels’. Lionel adds, ‘…publishers presume that women only buy a book that looks soft and that appears to be all about women, even if it isn’t. Yet women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes.’ So having castigated her publishers for one sexist presumption, Lionel immediately spoils it with another, insulting and alienating half her potential readership. The very half of readers Shriver complains her publishers ignore in their marketing of her books. I’m a man. I have bought and read lots of books by women. Some of them are about women. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is the most gripping biography / autobiography I have ever read. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is the best book about politics and economics I have encountered in years. One of the finest novels it has been my pleasure to enjoy recently was Affinity by Sarah Waters. Admittedly I’ve not read any books by Lionel Shriver, and the thing is, now I don’t feel inclined to. As Lionel says, men don’t buy books by and about women. The message for writers – don’t insult your potential readers if you want to sell books.