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An Interview with Chris Roberson

by Michael Colbert

Paragaea by Chris RobersonChris Roberson's story isn't very exciting ...

Chris Roberson's story doesn't have all the wild things you'd expect from a writer; he's never been hit by a car, he never fought tooth and nail with Gene Roddenberry over the creative direction of a TV show, he wasn't on his last dime before hitting on a book series idea that made him the richest woman in England (work with me here), and it's unlikely that Philip Seymore Hoffman will ever play him in a biopic. Instead Chris Roberson is a good solid example of what a person dedicated to the art (and craft) of writing should be doing with his/her time and energy. While Chris has already built up an impressive collection of work his creative chops keep getting better, rich with painstakingly researched detail, well grounded characters and fluid prose. The business side of his career should also be a roadmap for anyone seeking a place in the more democratized (and therefore thinly spread) world of publishing and marketing. Some good ideas, some friends who have become names in their own right, some missteps, and finally finding a place to hunker down, spread roots, and grow upwards. Funny, affable, outgoing and never dull to talk to, Chris Roberson isn't what you've come to expect from a writer of his talent.

Chris Roberson's STORIES are exciting ...

From a Cuthulu type entity possessing people through a street drug, to China ruling the world and heading to Mars; Chris' stories hum with sense of fun, adventure and excitement. Well-developed ideas on either side of the main story (history and plot) give his work a sense of being not just a moment in time, but that there is a time in which it exists. One real problem with science fiction writing in general (and the more adventure oriented, pulpy toned stories in particular) is internal logic. When you deal with outlandish ideas and building a world from the ground up the toughest task, sometimes, is playing within the rules you've made for yourself. Chris's work not only adheres to its own internal logic but expands and improves upon the initial setup. Just damn good writing, plain and simple.

What follows is an e-mail interview with someone I consider a friend and a person whom you can expect to read great things from ... even if he never took the electric kool-aid acid test.


Michael Colbert: As always there are years of toiling in obscurity before breaking through. When I first met you at San Diego Comic Con back in 2002 you had a small table in artist alley. How about a brief history of your career in the last few years?

Chris Roberson: Well, actually, that wasn't even my table! I was squatting at someone else's space in Artist's Alley, hawking my self-published novels to an uncaring world.

From 1998 to 2002, I was part of an Austin-based writer's collective called Clockwork Storybook, along with Bill Willingham (creator of the Vertigo series Fables, among others), Matt Sturges (who's cowriting a Fables spin-off with Bill), and Mark Finn (rising-star Robert E. Howard scholar and playwright). CWSB began as a writing group -- we'd meet once a week to read and critique each other's short stories and novels -- but early on we hit upon the idea of doing an online magazine. After producing monthly content for the webzine for a couple of years, we started hearing rumblings about this Print On Demand technology that was all set to revolutionize the publishing industry. POD, so the cant went, was going to put all of the old "dinosaurs" out of business, and within a few years there would be POD printers physically located in every bookstore in the country, ready to spit out any book a customer wanted at a moment's notice. We decided to launch our own POD imprint, also named Clockwork Storybook, and put out our own novels and short story collections. I produced four novels under the aegis of CWSB, and waited for the revolution to begin.

Suffice it to say, the revolution failed to materialize, and it turned out in the long run that the dinosaurs had quite a bit of life left in them. It's been a hard-won lesson for me the last few years, as writer, editor, and publisher, that things in the publishing industry aren't as they are just because that's the way they've always been, but because publishing has evolved certain practices over time that are really to the benefit of everyone involved, from the author to the publisher and all points in between.

With the hubris of youth, I set out to completely change the system, and then quickly realized that the system was doing just fine without me, thank-you-very-much. So I retreated a bit, regrouped, and focused on the writing part of the equation for a bit longer. I sold a short story to Lou Anders for an anthology he was doing for Roc, Live Without a Net, which was published in 2003, my first professional sale. Over the course of the next year I sold a few more stories, to Asimov's Science Fiction Here, There and Everywhere by Chris Robersonand an anthology or two, and then at the end of 2004 Lou Anders, who by this point had become something of a personal patron, had taken a position of editorial director at Pyr, a new SF imprint of Prometheus Books. He bought an expanded version of one of my self-published novels, which was released in spring 2005 as Here, There & Everywhere. Along the way I was nominated for a few awards, won one of them, and got really good at losing all of the others. Which more or less brings us up to date.

MC: Did your publishing company MonkeyBrain Books evolve out of the Clockwork Storybook imprint?

CR: Not directly. Eventually, the writer's collective reached the three-quarter mark in the VH1 "Behind the Music Special," and after a rough patch ended up dissolving. I'd discovered, though, in the few years of helping run the CWSB imprint, that I really enjoyed being a publisher. And that, honestly, it isn't that hard. I'd come across a few projects by other writers that I'd wanted to bring out under the CWSB banner and, after the collective dissolved, it was a natural progression to start up my own imprint and move on from there. There were marked changes in approach, though. MonkeyBrain Books does exclusively traditional offset trade-paperbacks and hardcovers, not POD, and we've got international distribution into the chain stores and the like.

Too, when MonkeyBrain started up, it was originally intended to specialize in nonfiction genre studies, which made up all of our output for the first two years. Starting in fall of 2005, though, we've begun to mix it up a bit, adding fiction titles (novels, anthologies, and short story collections), art books, and a few other things further down the line.

MC: Your writing uses some of the best tropes of genre and pulp as a jumping off point for your own work. Michael Moorcock is an obvious influence; who are some others. Are there any unexpected surprises in the mix?

CR: Moorcock is definitely an inspiration and influence. Philip José Farmer was also a seminal early influence, as was Edgar Rice Burroughs. Kim Newman has been a more recent influence, as have Gene Wolfe and Jorge Luis Borges. And I've always been a huge fan of superhero comics, in particular those by writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, and in recent years folks like James Robinson, Paul Grist, and Warren Ellis. I've only recently been reminded that I simply devoured Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels as a kid (in fact, Moreta was the first book I bought in hardcover at full price!), so I'm sure there's bits of her stuff in my writing, as well.

Probably the influences that aren't the most obvious are the ones from other media. I'm a huge geek, and I can't help but draw on a childhood wasted in front of the television. Just about all of my stories end up with some little nod towards a Saturday morning cartoon I watched as a kid, or some movie I caught on the late show in junior high school, or something like that. I like to consider these little "easter eggs," scattered through my body of work. I fancy that someday someone will make a careful study of all the ridiculous allusions I've included in my fiction, but unfortunately to date no one ever seems to catch most of them!

MC: As a kid what sparked your lifelong fascination with science fiction, speculative fiction and amazing fantasy. A book, comic, TV or movie where it first occurred to you "I want to do that!"

CR: Well, I was always obsessed with genre stuff. Superheroes, spaceships, giant monsters, time travel. As far back as I can remember, that's been my bread and butter. I read an interview once with someone (exactly who I can't remember for the life of me) who said that science fiction was his "native culture." I liked the sound of that, as it described my circumstances perfectly. Growing up in the States in the 70s and 80s, I was surrounded by science fiction and fantasy on all sides. Books, comics, tv shows, movies, toys, games ... all of it was genre of one kind or another. So it was only natural that, given my state of perpetual arrested development, I should end up fixated on those same themes and tropes.

The first book that made me want to be a writer, though, I'm sorry to say, wasn't a very good one at all. I was in high school, and had fiddled around writing little stories and comics since I'd been in grade school. But one book so fired my imagination that I decided then and there that I would be a writer, whatever else I did in life. That book? L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. I know, I know ... I tried to go back and read it again as an adult, and I can't for the life of me imagine what I saw in it. But when I was 14 years old, I must have read it two or three times back to back. It's a horrible book, if for no other reason than that the author appears to have forgotten the beginning of the story by sometime in the middle, but damned if it didn't seem like it was pristine perfection to my teenaged eyes. There's my horrible secret. A book dictated by the founder of Scientology was the thing that made me want to be a writer.


MC: How do you go about developing an idea. Is there a ritual, a routine of some sort, that you use to create the foundation of a story and then how do you go about building off that foundation?

CR: Actually, there is a bit of routine I follow, in a Rain Man, have-to-watch-Wopner sort of sense. My approach to writing is very structured and hierarchical, almost obsessively so. I won't go into all of the mind-numbing details, but essentially it goes like this: 1) Brainstorming -- noodling around longhand in notebooks I carry in my pocket, jotting down story fragments and half-formed notions; 2) Research -- once I've got the germ of an idea, I figure out what I need to know, and go learn it; 3) Data -- once I've finished researching, I distill everything into a single document; 4) Notes -- more noodling, this time at the keyboard, bashing out scene descriptions, characters, and bits of dialogue while working out the mechanics of the plot; 5) Outline -- I outline obsessively, usually mapping out what's going to happen in every paragraph of a short story or chapter, including the content of any dialogue or narration; 6) Writing -- when all this is done, it's a matter of relative ease to rewrite my obsessively-detailed outline in prose form.

Crazy, right? The result is that the actual writing is the quickest part of the process; while I can write anywhere from 8 to 12K a day that way, though, I've had to spend days or weeks in preparation for that day, in outlining if nothing else, so I don't end up much more prolific than someone that writes only a few hundred words a day.

MC: Where do you search FOR ideas?

CR: A lot of my ideas come from reading bad books, or watching bad movies. I can't help but anticipate where a story will go from just the first few scenes. When watching a movie, it's usually by the ten or fifteen minute mark that I start making predictions about where everything is headed. With a novel, it's typically within the first couple of chapters. A good story is one that does a better job with the outcome than I'd expected, and a great story is one that goes somewhere I never could have guessed, and does it well. A bad story, though, is one that ends up being not nearly as good as the one I cooked up in my sick little brain after digesting just the first few scenes. Usually this just means that I stop watching the DVD or put down the book, but in some cases, the story I cooked up won't leave me alone. It nags at me, for days and weeks, until I realize that it's a story that I have to tell, now.

The rest of my stories usually just arise from me stumbling across a particularly interesting (to me, at least!) bit of trivia while reading nonfiction. My passions are history and science, and it's rare that I read a book on either subject that doesn't spark off at least a few good story ideas.

MC: Drop an example.

CR: Well, my story in Roc anthology FutureShocks, edited by Lou Anders, was inspired by watching the first few episodes of the anime Wolf's Rain. It wasn't that the anime's storyline was bad, per se, but it wasn't the story I'd expected after watching the first couple of episodes. I became obsessed with the future world of the series, or rather with my initial impressions of the world. What I ended up doing was stripping away everything that actually came from the anime itself, and used my own initial reactions as the skeleton of another future world entirely. The end result doesn't really resemble the inspiration at all, beyond one or two cosmetic details, but when I read the story now it feels like those first few episodes of Wolf's Rain did when I first watched them.

MC: Give us an example of an idea that is still gestating or how you cycled an idea through your process and it didn't hold up. Do you cannibalize parts of the idea for other works?

CR: I'm forever scrapping ideas and then cannibalizing them for later projects. Quite a few ideas never make it out of the notes phase, but the research I did for them ended up being the basis for another project, further down the line. The example that springs to me was a failed comic book proposal, that was built around the idea of extra-dimensional beings possessing a large segment of the populace of a large American city. I had decided that these beings would be named after the "loa" of Voudoun tradition, and that the possessed would be the "Ridden." There wasn't really much to the idea beyond that. The pitch never went anywhere, and the whole thing was filed away on my hard drive. A few years later I was devising a YA science fiction novel about a kid who is bonded symbiotically to a hyperdimensional being, and needed some black hats for the story. The loa of the earlier project seemed a perfect fit, and with only a bit of retooling, ended up slotting into the world of the novel quite nicely.

MC: If you hit a rough patch in a story how do you work it out?

CR: The rough patches usually occur in the outlining stage, given how detailed my outlines are. The advantage is that I'm not as emotionally invested in the outline as I would be in a finished draft, and so it's a matter of relative ease to swap things around as needed, go back and put a gun up on the mantle in the first act so there's one there to fire in the last act, and so on.

MC: How do you know when a work is ready?

CR: Honestly, I never do. Usually I only come to the realization that a story or novel is ready for prime time when an editor buys it. Any time before that, there's always a nagging suspicion that it needs more work.


MC: Cybermancy Incorporated and Here, There & Everywhere deal with the Bonaventure family, and you appear to have mapped out an elaborate history, spanning a great amount of time. Was there a master plan from the beginning, or did it evolve as the stories were written?

CR: A little of both, to be honest. There are actually two other novels in that sequence, Set the Seas on Fire, which was one of the Clockwork Storybook titles, and Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, which is coming out from Pyr in 2006. The Bonaventure-Carmody family -- an extended family tree of explorers, heroes, and villains -- has been a central feature in much of my work for the last few years. The immediate inspirations for the idea were Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton family, Kim Newman's Diogenes Club stories, and Michael Moorcock's Beg/Beck/Von Bek stories and novels (most notably the Second Ether trilogy). The entire family was originally created as backstory for a single character, Jon Bonaventure Carmody, who is the protagonist of Cybermany Incorporated. The idea was that I could do stories and novels set in the past of JB Carmody's world, setting up a rich history of adventurers, villains, hidden cities and floating islands, and then use that as a context in which to tell stories in the modern day. The problem was that, as soon as I started telling all of these stories about Carmody's relatives over the centuries, they became more interesting to me than he had ever been. In fact, Here, There & Everywhere, in its original form, was intended just to introduce Carmody's cousin, so that she could show up in his next adventure, sort of the Supergirl to his Superman. But Roxanne Bonaventure became such an interesting and well-rounded character in her own right that she outgrew her sidekick role, and eclipsed the original hero of the story.

I've quite a few more Bonaventure-Carmody stories and novels in the works, including one that will revisit JB Carmody himself and flesh him out a bit more. Next up is The End of the Century, which features Sanford Blank from Here, There & Everywhere, with Roxanne Bonaventure in a prominent supporting role, and is all about the Holy Grail, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and the London Eye.

Any Time At All by Chris RobersonMC: Do you see Here, There & Everywhere as essentially a "special edition" of Any Time At All, or instead as a remix of sorts?

CR: HT&E contains within it the full text of ATAA, but is a much more complete work than the earlier novel. The later version begins and ends in exactly the same ways as the former, and contains all the same middle bits, but HT&E was expanded by the addition of new chapters, and all the interstitial journal entries in Roxanne's voice. No one that's read HT&E is missing anything, but anyone who's only read ATAA, and liked it, should definitely pick up the book.

MC: Are you planning on other expanded editions of your previous work?

CR: Not at the moment, no. I have plans to go back and rework bits of Cybermancy Incorporated, but that wouldn't result in an expanded version so much as an alternate version. Such that what we've seen so far has been the Earth-2 Jon Bonaventure Carmody and company, and this new book will show us the Earth-1 version of events.

I do have plans, however, to make Set the Seas on Fire available online under a Creative Commons license, in anticipation of the release of Paragaea: A Planetary Romance. Hieronymous Bonaventure, the Napoleonic-era British naval officer who is the hero of the former returns as one of the principle players in the latter, and while it isn't at all necessary to have read Set the Seas on Fire to approach the new book, I thought it would be nice to give readers the chance to dig into his history a bit, if they so choose. It should be online in the early part of 2006, as soon as I have a chance to get all the files in order.

MC: What type of research did you do for Here, There & Everywhere?

CR: The research was simply ridiculous. The prologue alone was the result of me reading three nonfiction books and watching several dozen hours worth of Beatles documentaries. I must have read a dozen science texts to fact-check my physics, and an equal number of history books for each of the other chapters. It's a kind of mania with me. Pity my poor, long-suffering wife, who has to listen to me prattling on about this stuff for months at a time.

MC: There has been a recent trend of indy-bands doing "Soundtracks" to novels. If you could have anyone, who would you like to do a soundtrack for Here, There and Everywhere?

CR: Well, the Beatles, naturally!

MC: Your new book The Voyage of Night Shining White tackles the alternate history sub-genre of SF. Was this a big leap for you? What drew you to the idea of a world ruled by Imperial China?

CR: I've actually been writing alternate history short stories in this world for a couple of years, so it really wasn't a leap. The new novella that PS Publishing is putting out in 2006 is one of the central chapters of a novel, Fire Star: A Novel of the Celestial Empire, that also includes my stories "O One," "Red Hands, Black Hands," and "Gold Mountain." The first of the stories won the 2003 Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form, and the second was shortlisted in the same category the following year.

The origin of the world came when I was writing "O One" for Lou Anders's Live Without A Net, which story itself was sort of a mash-up between John Henry and the Steam Engine, a scene from Richard Feynman's autobiography, and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. The more I thought about this alternate history, the more of it I wanted to explore. Before Live Without A Net came out, Lou asked me what happened next. I told him, completely spontaneously and without giving it another thought, that the Chinese went to Mars, and found that ... Well, I don't want to say, or I'll spoil the middle bits of the novel. Suffice it to say, that as soon as that sentence left my mouth, I realized that it was a novel, and I'd have to write it. So "O One" was the irritant in the oyster, I guess you could say, and I hope that what I've ended up writing is a pearl (though it could as easily be just a bigger irritant!).

Adventure, volume 1, edited by Chris RobersonMONKEYBRAIN

MC: What do you look for in a MonkeyBrain book and how did you realize that the world needed two volumes of annotations to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

CR: Very simple. I publish books through MonkeyBrain that I would want to have on my shelf. That, were I to see them in a bookstore, I would buy on the spot at full price. If the book is something that I might glance at, pick up, put down, walk around and think about buying, I don't do it. It has to be something that I, as a reader and a fan, would be passionate about reading.

Jess Nevins's companion to the first League series, Heroes & Monsters, was the first project to pass that litmus test. I just could never understand why no one else had ever approached Jess about publishing his stuff, which at that point he was just giving away for free online. That book remains our best selling title, and is currently in a second printing.

I apply the same rubric to the fiction we publish, as well. In the spring of 06, we'll be publishing Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club, which collects (nearly) all of the Richard Jeperson stories. For years, I was only able to get Kim's books in UK editions, at collector's prices at conventions. Now, I'm in a position to publish an affordable trade-paperback, and get it onto the shelves of the major American bookselling chains. What could be better than that?

MC: Do you see MonkeyBrain expanding into other media?

CR: It's something we're always thinking about. We've come close to doing comic books a time or two, which is something I've always wanted to do, but I've begun to suspect that we've dodged a bullet, as I think the American comic book market is quickly heading for a rather severe correction. There's just a glut of material on the shelves, some of it good but most of it mediocre, all being sold to an ever dwindling number of readers. No one is getting rich publishing American comic books these days, and a lot of people are losing their shirts.

We're doing our first art book in the spring, Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio. That's going to be a great book, and will be our toe in the water (or canary in a coalmine, if you prefer) in that direction.

I've got some plans for where we'll be heading in 2007, but I'm afraid it's too early to air them publicly, at the moment. They don't involve different media so much as different formats and prices. Hopefully I'll be in a position to announce it formally later on in 2006.


MC: What non-SF are you reading, if any, right now?

CR: I just spent most of the last year reading nothing but nonfiction works about China, so all I'm reading at the moment is SF! I'm usually late to the party (I didn't start reading Kage Baker until the summer of 2004; heck I didn't read any Alfred Bester until the spring of 2005!), but I've just jumped on the John C. Wright bandwagon. I just finished reading Orphans of Chaos and the Golden Age trilogy, and I thought they were spectacular. Revelatory, transformative. I always look forward to Charlie Stross's next book, and I've only recently discovered what a phenomenal writer John Scalzi is, so I'm anxiously awaiting The Ghost Brigades.

In comics, I'm devouring anything that Grant Morrison does, anything by Brian K. Vaughn, Robert Kirkman's Invicible, the whole "Ultimate Universe" that Marvel has been doing (which is really a science-fictional take on the Marvel universe, with all the magic and nonsense factored out and replaced with somewhat plausible science), and the big DC crossover Infinite Crisis (about which I'm cautiously optimistic).

MC: If you could take over the world what would be your first decree as Grand Pooh-Bah of all things?

CR: That no one could ever use the word "office" as a verb. Ever again. No, more than that, a full moratorium on any noun ever being used as a verb.

MC: Would you wear a fez on a dare?

CR: It wouldn't require a dare! If a fez were to become available, you'd have trouble keeping me from wearing it.

MC: Any parting words to the readers of infinity plus?

CR: "Have a good time, all the time. That's my motto."

© Michael Colbert 2006.

Michael Colbert has reviewed the likes of The Darkness That Comes Before, Paradox and The Iron Council. His on-going Science Fiction/Adventure comic "Crazy Mary" debuts in 2006; for info, updates and download a free comic, visit

Chris Roberson's novels Here, There and Everywhere (April 2005) and Paragaea (May 2006) are published by Pyr; his anthology series Adventure (vol 1, November 2005) is published by Monkeybrain Books.
Here, There and Everywhere by Chris Roberson Adventure, vol 1, edited by Chris Roberson Paragaea by Chris Roberson

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