An Interview with Eric Brown
In many ways Eric Brown is a real craftsman, but
he is a stylist and stylish writer too. In his work, the values
of good story construction combine with a sensitive grasp of his characters'
motivations and flaws and a good old-fashioned sense of wonder at the
marvels of the universe we occupy. For nearly twenty years he has consistently
been one of the UK's leading exponents of short SF, as reflected by
Interzone and British Science Fiction Awards (and repeated short-listing
and high placings for these awards), and being voted Best New European
SF Writer early in his career. Many novels have followed, including
the Virex Trilogy set in a future New York city and its VR parallels.
In addition to his adult work, Eric has written stories and novels for
younger readers - indeed, his first publication was a science-fiction
play for children.
2005 sees a rush of Eric Brown book publications,
including the connected story collection/mosaic novel The Fall of
Tartarus, a novella Approaching Omega, various children's
books, and two Jules Verne-inspired books, The Extraordinary Voyage
of Jules Verne and The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures
(an anthology co-edited with Mike Ashley).
Eric and I have interviewed
each other before for infinity plus; the
current interview took place by e-mail, March-April 2005.
Keith Brooke: You had
two novels out last year, and this year you have six books published
or due out soon. What do you put your prolificacy down to?
Eric Brown: Publishing slippage, mainly.
It does appear that I've been doing nothing but scribbling, but some
of the books were written a while back, and have only just gone into
For instance, last year Gollancz brought out the final volume of the
Virex trilogy, New York Dreams. By rights it should have been
published in 2003. (I wrote it in 2001, and delivered it the same year.)
But Gollancz, for reasons I can't fathom, saw fit to bring it out over
a period of five years. Bengal Station, published by Five Star
in the States last year, I actually wrote way back in 1998, then rewrote
it drastically in 2003, cutting around thirty thousand words of waffle.
Late last year I wrote the sequel to BS, Bengal Lasers.
year Telos Publishing brought out the novella Approaching Omega--and
again I wrote this a while back, in 2003. David Pringle at Interzone
accepted it shortly after that, and it was due out in the first issue
of the relaunched Interzone. But the new editor didn't like it
and rejected it. David Howe at Telos did like it, suggested an expansion
which I thought excellent, and it came out recently with a stunning
cover by Dominic Harman. In February Barrington Stoke published British
Front, a short book for reluctant readers about racism in a future
Britain where a party not dissimilar to the BNP have gained power. In
March PS Publishing brought out my novella The Extraordinary Voyage
of Jules Verne, a novella in which Verne features as the central
character. It's a time travel story in which Verne helps save the Earth
from a mad tyrant. The same month Constable-Robinson published The
Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures, which I edited with
Mike Ashley. It came out one hundred years to the day of Verne's death,
and is a homage to his work, featuring over twenty tales by contemporary
SF writers based on Verne stories, novels, ideas, and in a couple of
instances his life. In April Gollancz published The Fall of Tartarus,
the collected Tartarus stories, which they bought about six years ago
[see Eric's feature on the
development of The Fall of Tartarus]. Then in September
Barrington Stoke publish Space Ace!, a fact-based reader about
the Solar System for eight year-olds.
KB: And short stories?
EB: I have around ten awaiting publication
in various magazines and anthologies.
KB: The Mammoth
Book of New Jules Verne Adventures was your
first venture into editing: what did you like (or dislike) about switching
roles? Would you do it again?
EB: What I liked about it was being able
to ask some of my favourite writers to do tales for the anthology. I
liked, also, many of the final results--seeing what these writers brought
of their own to the remit to write a 'Verne' story. I enjoyed also in
seeing the ways the many writers interpreted what Verne had been doing;
in some cases they brought his ideas up to date, or extrapolated from
his notions. It was nice to see that there was every type of story represented,
not just middle-of-the-road Vernian adventures. We had satire, social
comment, comedy, as well as adventure, exploration and entertainments.
What I didn't like was rejecting stories--being on the other side of
this, I know what it feels like. And I must admit that by the time I
came to edit the anthology I was thoroughly tired of reading Jules Verne.
(I read lots of his novels and stories as research not only for the
anthology, but for the novella I did for PS Publishing.) Verne is very
dated now, and to be frank he wasn't that great a writer. His characterisation
is weak, his plotting pretty basic, and his style leaves a lot to be
desired ... having said all that, this criticism is to take him out
of context: you really need to look at his achievements in light of
when he was writing, and what was being written at the time, and then
you come to appreciate what a phenomenon Verne was.
I liked working with, and learning from Mike, who's an old hand at
the anthology business. We had a lovely meeting in London before we
handed in the finished manuscript to Constable--we just went on for
a couple of hours about all our favourite SF.
And yes, I'd certainly like to edit more anthologies.
KB: What's the fascination
with genre figures? Way back in your first collection there was a novella,
"The Inheritors of Earth", featuring H.G. Wells, and you seem drawn
back to the idea of mixing biography and fiction for these figures--most
recently with Verne, both editing the tribute anthology and featuring
him as a character in your own work. What is it, do you think, that
intrigues you about this blending of truth and fiction?
I think my fascination is less with genre figures (though they do interest
me) than with writers in general. I've written lots from the point of
view of writers (most recently in The Blue Portal, A Writer's
Life, and a few shorts--all from the viewpoint of fictional writers),
but writing about Wells, Verne (and E.R. Burroughs and Chesterton, which
I'm planning to do now) stems from an interest in their work. It seems
a fertile area to drag these creators of wonderful ideas into universes
of their creation made fact, so to speak. It's tremendous fun, but also
hard work. (Paul di Filippo is a great exponent of this kind of fiction:
his "Walt and Emily" is stunning.)
Why my interest in writers? Well, I'm one, and many of my friends
are writers. I know what it's like to write. I'm interested in the creative
process. I'm fascinated by the disparity between who we are on the outside,
and what we have bubbling away inside us. I also think that writing
is a worthwhile thing to do, that writing is a good thing to leave the
world when we've gone.
There's that advice to beginning writers: write what you know. I suppose
I know writers better than anything else, so I write about them ...
and just hope readers don't mind reading about them! (Though of course
I realise that it could come over as somewhat navel-gazing.)
KB: You've said in
the past that you prefer writing short stories to novels. Why is this?
EB: Well, to be honest I think I'm a
better short story writer than a novelist. Novels I find very hard,
hours and hours, weeks and weeks, of conscious thought--whereas short
stories slip out painlessly in a few days. I like the idea of being
able to encompass an idea succinctly within a few pages, but at the
same time have the structure of a novel inherent in the tale. I don't
write vignettes or mood pieces--or rarely do--my stories are structured
with a beginning, middle and end, with definite resolutions and (I'd
like to think) strong characters. My dislike of a lot of literary short
fiction is that, though it's often beautifully written, it doesn't actually
tell a story. I think it's a short story writer's duty, as well as writing
well about emotions and characters, to write story.
KB: You're not a fan
of fantasy or hard SF ...
EB: This is a purely irrational personal
prejudice. There is good work being published in both fields. I find
it hard to take straight fantasy, as I don't believe in magic or the
occult, and 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. I enjoy the 'soft' SF of writers like Christopher Priest,
James Lovegrove, Richard Paul Russo and Robert Charles Wilson.
KB: Tell me something
abut the Kéthani series of stories you've been writing on and
off now for the past ten years.
EB: The Kéthani are a race of
aliens who come to Earth and confer immortality on the human race. You
can accept it or not. If you accept, you are implanted with a nano-device,
and when you die you are beamed aboard a waiting Kéthani starship,
whisked off to their homeplanet, and resurrected. You then have another
choice. You can return to Earth to resume your old life, or go among
the stars as ambassadors of the Kéthani. All the stories--ten
so far--are set in a version of the village where I live, Haworth, all
for some reason I can't work out set in winter, and are about the small
lives of a cast of about eight characters, their day to day doings and
how immortality impacts upon their existences. The Kéthani are
never seen, the technology of the nano-implants is never explained,
and nor are the motives of the aliens. I'm writing the tales as an antidote
to hard SF where everything must be explained. These are quiet tales
about people I know, tales of what if ...
KB: You've written
a few books for Barrington Stoke ...
EB: These are probably the most satisfying
pieces of writing I've ever done. BS is a small company based in Edinburgh
who publish books aimed at reluctant readers, mainly children of teenage
years with a low reading ability. The books therefore must be very simply
written but must also have a sophisticated content in order to appeal
to the modern teenager. The difficulty is not to write patronisingly.
I've done four books for BS to date, and have recently been commissioned
to write another--a love story, which should be a challenge.
The manuscripts get lots of feedback from children around the country,
which I use when rewriting the stories. They are used a lot in the classroom
to get people who wouldn't normally read interested in books and reading.
As I was one of these kids when I was at school, who found books very
late on, I appreciate all the more what Barrington Stoke are doing.
KB: How does the writing
process work for you? You talk about short stories slipping out and
more of a long slog--do you write when the muse strikes or are you chained
to the keyboard until finished? Do you have a daily routine when you're
hard at work on something?
EB: My writing routine is pretty well
established by now. I get an idea for a story, work on it for a few
days, then sit down to write. I once took a couple of days to write
a 8-10k story, but now that I have a baby daughter a 10k tale can take
up to five days to finish. I tend now to work only in the mornings (whereas
before I worked three 2-3 hours shifts a day). With novels, I work on
the idea for a month or so (plotting to about halfway through the novel),
then sit down and do the writing--and I find that when I'm halfway through,
the plot of the second half has worked itself out. I take a couple of
months to write a novel now. But all my other novels--before Freya--I
wrote at a rate of five thousand words every day for around twenty days,
at the end of which I'd have a 100k manuscript--and feel wrecked. Then
I leave it fore a while and come back a month or so later and edit,
cut, rewrite. Then I send it to a couple of writer friends, my wife
Finn reads it, and taking into consideration the resulting criticisms
I go through it a third time.
KB: What are you working
EB: I'm halfway through a novella entitle
Starship Summer, which is set in the settlement of Magenta Bay
on the colony world of Addenbrooke, which I've written about before.
This story features David Conway who comes to Addenbrooke to forget
his past; he buys an old spaceship, installs it on a plot of land beside
the bay and meets some interesting locals. The he finds the ship is
I'm thinking about the novella featuring Chesterton and maybe Burroughs,
and I'm about to outline another book for Barrington Stoke, this one
a non-SF love story. This summer I'll rewrite the second Bengal book,
Bengal Lasers, the first draft of which I finished before last
After that I'll be doing more books for children and maybe a crime
novel, which I have an idea for which has been bubbling away for a couple
of years now.
© Keith Brooke 2005.
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