An Interview with Chris Roberson
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.
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 and
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
MC: Did your
publishing company MonkeyBrain Books evolve out of the Clockwork Storybook
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!).
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
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
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
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