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.
In May last year Adrian Besly set out to cycle around the world. It was nine months before he returned to England, his two-wheeled adventures ranging from the comical to the hair-raising. He kept a diary along the way, and when he came back he wrote a book about his epic journey. It was at that point that Adrian contacted me to edit his manuscript. The result is Do It – Cycling Around The World For A Laugh, now available in print through Amazon and as a Kindle ebook. Here I talk to Adrian about his travels, writing and his experience of working with me to transform his manuscript into the finished, published book. Gary Dalkin: The most obvious question that comes to mind is, why? I mean, why cycle around the world? It’s not something most people would think about, or if they did, they wouldn’t seriously set out to do it. So why did you, as the title of your book puts it, Do It? Adrian Besly: Why? I suppose in my character I have noticed I like to push things to the limit. For example I don’t just take up jogging, I enter a marathon. I don’t just take up nursing, but go to work in A&E. I don’t just take up judo for a bit of fitness, but get a black belt. I don’t just cycle around lovely Essex, but around the lovely world. I don’t just scribble a cycle diary but write an international bestseller! I hope! That aside, to be honest, I genuinely think almost anyone could do what I did, which is why I called the book Do it. When you walk down any street in England you can see cars worth £30,000, and I cycled around the world, and had the adventure of a lifetime, for half that amount. Gary Dalkin: The subtitle, Cycling Around The World For A Laugh, suggests something almost impulsive, but presumably once you had decided you were really going to cycle around the world there was a lot of planning involved. You didn’t just hop on your bike one day? Adrian Besly: Yes I have deliberately underplayed the amount of preparation I put into the trip in order not to bore the reader. In reality I prepared for my own death, because I estimated there was about a fifty percent chance of that. Meeting other cyclists along the way, I discovered my ignorance about what great bikes and equipment was available. Despite that I am quite proud of cycling around the world on a bike that anybody could buy at their local shop. Gary Dalkin: That’s inspiring, though I’m not sure almost anyone really could ‘do it’! The journey did push you to the limit, and I’m sure most people would have broken sooner or later. As you say, there was a serious chance of dying. Did you ever consider giving up, and what kept you going when things got really tough? What would you say was the worst moment or part of the journey? Adrian Besly: I never once considered giving up of my own volition, but I was under severe pressure from my family to come home to resolve certain problems. I was getting texts almost daily saying how bad things were and that I was being selfish and irresponsible. It got so bad that in Chile I gave in and went to a travel agent to book a flight home. When I came to pay they could not accept my credit card because it was a weekend. By the following Monday the immediate crisis at home had waned in importance so I carried on. You will have noticed working on the book that I had a few scary moments in most countries, although Palestine was probably the nearest I came to dying. Gary Dalkin: Yes, you certainly got into some dangerous situations. For someone like me, who suffers from mild vertigo, crossing on the outside of a bridge while carrying your bike was pretty terrifying. But what were about some of the highlights? Clearly, overall you had an incredible experience and are obviously thrilled to have done it. Adrian Besly: It is a wonderful thing to arrange to meet the person you love at a distant exotic location. Sharon came to meet me in Gibraltar, and later Sydney. It had the romance and excitement of Celia Johnson meeting Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. Aside from that there is a lovely pleasure in just cycling along on smooth roads, under blue skies, with a warm sun and not a care in the world. On days like I never wanted it to end. At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, the other consistently funny times were in bars and pubs across the world. I am quite a quiet person normally, but after a few beers I’ll happily get chatting to anyone. Needless to say I managed to find a nearby bar on ninety percent of the evenings! As for the places that I enjoyed most, the list would include Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Uruguay, Chile, Hong Kong and all of Europe. Easter Island was especially memorable and the closest I’ve been to paradise. Gary Dalkin: You kept a diary of your travels. How did you go about doing that? At the time where you writing just for yourself, or did you always plan to write a book about your journey? Adrian Besly: I have an appalling short term memory. So for any funny little incident that happened, I had to scribble it immediately onto a scrap of paper that I kept in my pocket. I greatly admire Bill Bryson’s writing – who doesn’t? – and hoped from the beginning I could write a book as enjoyable and informative as one of his. He has the talent and command of language to extract maximum comedic value from the smallest and most innocuous things, such as just the expression on someone’s face. Cycling around the world I always felt I had a huge head start on Bill Bryson, to compensate for my deficiencies in talent, for two reasons. First the story structure is already written in the sense that cycling around the world has a natural start, middle and end. Secondly Bill Bryson travels around in fairly comfortable and safe conditions. Cycling around the world was very often positively hair-raising, which I knew provided some decent meat to put on the skeleton of my journal. I feel my style of writing improved as I went along and I became better at spotting funny or curious things. I sometimes wish the book could be read from back to front! Gary Dalkin: Well, there’s nothing to stop anyone reading the chapters in reverse order, Memento style! But back to the writing. You didn’t just write everything on scraps of paper. You used internet cafes and other places along the way. But then when you came home what was your process of turning all your notes and fragments into a book? Adrian Besly: The challenge was of course to marshal all the information into something readable. I am not an experienced author so I wrote like I speak. Consequently, as my sister pointed out, I tended to repeatedly use particular words, especially brilliant, great and nice! After that I went right through the text trying to improve it with more descriptive language. This proved to be one of the most enjoyable times of writing the whole book; it gives great satisfaction choosing exactly the right word for the job. Gary Dalkin: When you decided to self-publish the book, what did you do then? Clearly you realised you needed an editor to work on the manuscript with you, but of all the options available why did you chose me, and how did you find the process of working together? Adrian Besly: My sister pointed out your advert in Writing Magazine. What I discovered while working with you was how little I knew about the process of getting a manuscript print-ready. I expected some spelling and grammar corrections, but was delighted that you did fact-checking and steered me around the libel and copyright minefields. I realise I leaned on you more than most people would regarding my shocking incompetence using computers. I enjoyed the cycling and enjoyed writing about it even more with pen and paper, but I seem to have a mental block and get monumentally frustrated trying to make sense of IT. Gary Dalkin: Is there anything you’d do differently now, either in terms of the journey, or writing the book? And what advise do you have for other first time authors and self-publishers? It’s been quite an adventure. Adrian Besly: I have really enjoyed writing the book and it is hugely satisfying to create a funny or profound sentence or paragraph. Of course have not always succeeded, but plenty of people told me they have laughed out loud, which is encouraging. From other people who I know who have read it the silence has been deafening, so I presume they did not enjoy it or were offended by my forthright opinions on politics and religion. Initially I acted too hastily and sent off a first draft to 21 literary agents, thinking they would be dazzled by my magnum opus, and of course they weren’t, replying with 21 rejection letters. I would still like a literary agent to promote the book, but feel I have burnt my bridges with the ones I originally approached. I subsequently got your professional input to knock the book into shape and am delighted how it has turned out. Surely it will now be an international bestseller and I’ll be a millionaire by Christmas? But I won’t jack in my job yet, just in case. I learnt to try to be more imaginative and descriptive than I would use in normal everyday speech, which was how the first draft was written. This was the first time I’ve ever used a thesaurus. On the technical aspects of cycling around the world there is loads of advice I could give on bikes, equipment, routes, communication and survival. * Adrian Besly is planning to cycle around the Baltic for a laugh in 2018. Meanwhile you can buy Do It – Cycling Around the World For A Laugh from Amazon.