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An Interview with Eric Brown

by Keith Brooke

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.

New York Nights by Eric BrownNew York Blues by Eric BrownNew York Dreams by Eric Brown

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 print.

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.

Approaching Omega by Eric BrownThis 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 Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventuresyour 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?

Deep Future by Eric BrownEB: 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 novels The Fall of Tartarus by Eric Brownbeing 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 on now?

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 haunted ...

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 Christmas.

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.

The Fall of Tartarus by Eric Brown Approaching Omega by Eric BrownMammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures
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