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Chaz Brenchley

I was born in Oxford in 1959, in a wee little two-up two-down with an outside toilet and no bath, and more particularly no phone; so my mother goes into labour somewhere around midnight, my father goes sprinting up the road to the phone-box, and the heavy arm of the local beat bobby descends on his shoulder. "Where are you off to in such a hurry, sir?" "Please, officer, my wife's having a baby..."

Credibility level, something approaching zero. So I was - eventually - born into a world where people do not necessarily believe other people, even when they're telling nothing but the truth; and so it seems to me entirely reasonable that I should have made first a habit and then a living out of telling stories, telling lies.

My elder sister taught me to read when I was three, and I don't believe there's been a moment since when I haven't had at least one book on the go, commonly several. I know there are two schools of thought about this, but I hold with those who maintain that reading is a significant improvement on real life. Books have better endings.

I don't remember when I started to write; the habit of it seems to predate the habit of memory. I do remember getting into serious and painful trouble at about the age of eight, for writing stories in class when I was supposed to be doing other things. That also became a habit (some aging usher still has the first volume of my unfinished-but-already-epic rewrite of Tolkien, confiscated during a maths class in '73), and lasted long after my schooldays; I used often to lay myself open to quite serious assault, for scribbling in corners when I was supposed to be partying. These days I party, but I was young then.

Primary school was fun, by and large. The year I was nine, particularly: there was a brilliant teacher who had us studying calculus (though we didn't know it at the time), programming the university computer (in the days when a computer filled a hallway, read ticker tape and counted on its thumbs), demonstrating oscilloscopes at the Oxford Science Fair and trooping up to London to study the mummies in the British Museum.

After that, anything would have been a disappointment; secondary schools were a disaster. I moved around, winning scholarships and losing friends, losing the habit of contentment. My parents divorced, I hit adolescence, life was a steaming pit of ordure. I tried religion (a family tradition, still ongoing with my siblings and sometimes within my fiction), but that didn't work for me except in a literary sense: the King James is a constant delight and a wonder, likewise the Koran and other texts. At the time I fell back on bitter endurance and books, the ultimate survival kit. And of course wrote: poems and stories, plays, the starts of many novels.

What next? University, inevitably: but mercifully not for long. I didn't - don't - like being educated; now I could choose, and I chose to quit after two terms. Went home, decided that eighteen was not too young to become a professional writer (and besides there was nothing else I could do, I have no other talent) and started looking for a market I could sell into.

Found it through my kid sister, who was fifteen at the time and had always been the most normal of the four of us. She had a lot of teen magazines; I flicked through a couple, decided I could do that, and went upstairs to write my first romance. And sold it, a fortnight later; and lived off that and variations for the better part of the next ten years. I wrote picture scripts and photo-stories, true confessions and fairy-tale fantasies; I think I wrote for every magazine on the market, and I sold four hundred-odd pieces of work. I wrote for children's comics also, and for war comics and puzzle magazines and anything else I could get into, but the teenage work was my bread and jam. Poetry and an occasional play just put butter on my parsnips.

I'd been doing that five years, give or take - and I'd moved from Oxford to Cornwall to Newcastle to a farm outside Carlisle - when I heard through the grapevine that a major London publisher was bringing out a series of contemporary romantic thrillers where they were providing the storylines, so all the writer had to do was turn a 5,000-word synopsis into a 50,000-word novel. That sounded like an easy and attractive way into writing books; I'd still never actually finished a novel, but I wrote to the publishers anyway, explaining my track record and asking if they were looking for new writers for the series. They passed my letter on to literary agent Carol Smith, whose idea the series had been, and she asked me to do some sample chapters. Which I did, and she liked them, and the publishers liked them; so I got a commission. Which of course meant that this time I simply had to finish a novel...

Took me three weeks. Carol loved it, publishers loved it; it came out (under a pseudonym, and I'm not telling) when I was twenty-four, and the whole series instantly flopped. I honestly don't think it was my fault, but then I wouldn't, would I?

So it was back to the romance - and also back to Newcastle: the place had got under my skin, and I couldn't keep away - though I was doing more women's magazine work now, and less teenage. Meanwhile, Carol was urging me to write a proper novel; I went out walking to look for one, and found it in a poster advertising the Samaritans. I talked the idea over with Carol, she loved it, told me to get on and do it.

This time it took me four years; but at last The Samaritan was out there in the cold hard world, and I came home from the dentist one afternoon with my jaw numb and Carol phoned to say she'd sold it, and I couldn't speak. Hot tea, the dentist had recommended for my jaw; what it got was cold champagne and a great deal of it, all that night and the following morning, and I didn't have to buy a single bottle...

After that I remember only a lot of hard work, a novel a year, give or take, and whatever else I could fit in around that: three children's books and a film script, short stories for crime and horror anthologies, the final feasibility study for a major national newspaper...

And then came Paradise, which is my book about religion and Newcastle, faith and power and corruption. The first draft was a quarter of a million words long and took me two years to write, and it was nearly the breaking of me physically, emotionally and financially all three. I really only survived by landing the world's oddest job: I - who had never had a job in my life, beyond three days' stock-taking at a crane factory, counting cranes (there were three) - I was suddenly and unexpectedly crimewriter-in-residence on a sculpture project in Sunderland.

Every sculpture project needs a crimewriter-in-residence. They kept me so busy, I can't imagine how they ever managed without me. I wrote a bookful of short stories based in the area and its history, some tied explicitly to the sculptures; I started a novel and a children's book, for later completion (still waiting, alas, but one day…); I worked with the sculptors, to find ways of incorporating text into their work; I went into schools, organised a week of events, ran workshops and gave talks and judged competitions. And they still won't let me go, they're keeping me on retainer.

Meanwhile, in the brief interstices that made up what I laughingly called my life that year, I wrote the new novel, Dead of Light. The contract for this says it's a horror novel, but it ain't. Like Paradise, it occupies a curious, difficult ground somewhere between crime and horror and SF. It pretends to be a mafia novel with added magic, but actually it's a rites-of-passage story about power and the perception of power. It's also secretly a whodunit, but keep that under your hat.

Work aside, what to say? I live alone, from choice or circumstance: after this long, it's hard to distinguish one from t'other. I play snooker, often and badly; I cook constantly, and very well; I love to walk in graveyards, and I yearn for a cat I won't allow myself to keep. Boringly, I am a patron of the Durham Literature Festival, I serve on the advisory panel of Northern Arts, and on the committee of the Crime Writers' Association.

Update, two years later:
I've written two more novels, Dispossession (amnesia & a fallen angel) and Light Errant (sequel - my first! - to Dead of Light) and have just finished the first of a major fantasy series, The Books of Outremer. I've bought my first house, thanks to my bank manager lying through his teeth to get me a mortgage, and I now have two cats. Otherwise the status quo ante applies, except that I don't get much chance to play snooker.

Chaz Brenchley - Bibliography (to November 1999)

  • Time Again (as Carol Trent) - Fontana (pbk), 1983, UK
  • The Samaritan - Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, UK; St Martin's, 1988, USA; Coronet (pbk), 1989, UK; St Martin's (pbk), 1989, USA
  • The Refuge * - Hodder & Stoughton, 1989, UK; St Martin's, 1989, USA; Coronet (pbk), 1990, UK
  • The Garden * - Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, UK; Coronet (pbk), 1991, UK
  • Mall Time - Hodder & Stoughton, 1991, UK; Coronet (pbk), 1992, UK
  • Paradise - Hodder & Stoughton, 1994, UK; NEL (pbk), 1994, UK
  • Dead of Light - Hodder & Stoughton, 1995, UK; NEL (pbk), 1996, UK
  • Blood Waters (short stories) - Flambard Press, 1995, UK
  • Dispossession - Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, UK; NEL (pbk), 1997, UK
  • Light Errant **- Hodder & Stoughton, 1997, UK; NEL (pbk), 1998, UK
  • Tower of the King's Daughter - Orbit (pbk), 1998, UK
  • Shelter - Hodder & Stoughton, 1999, UK; NEL (pbk), 1999, UK

* The Refuge and The Garden have also appeared in Swedish translation [as Hotet and Dödens Trädgård] in 1991 and 1992 respectively.

** Light Errant won the August Derleth Fantasy Award for best novel, 1998

Children's work

  • The Thunder Sings - Arnold Wheaton (pbk), 1988, UK
  • The Fishing Stone - Arnold Wheaton (pbk), 1988, UK
  • The Dragon in the Ice - Arnold Wheaton (pbk), 1988, UK

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© Chaz Brenchley 20 November 1999; updated March 2004