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Keith Brooke

interviewed by Kit Reed


Kit Reed and Keith Brooke met in cyberspace for the following conversation in January 2006. Unlike email interviews, Genetopia by Keith Brookeonline encounters in real-time are spontaneous. The questions and answers flow as fast as the two Ks can type. They talked on Wesleyan University's StoryMOO, where Kit (online persona: RedWriter) runs writing classes in which Keith (online persona: Sukui) has guested. Keith has carved out his own little corner of StoryMOO, called Bsea.

Out in the real world, Keith had his first professional publication, a short story in Interzone, in 1989, shortly followed by a story in Other Edens 3 (edited by Christopher Evans and Robert Holdstock); this second story would eventually form the foundations of his ninth novel, Genetopia (published by Pyr in February 2006). Four of these novels, written for a teen audience, are published by Puffin under the name "Nick Gifford", including the sf thriller, Erased (January 2006), and the horror novel, Piggies, which was subsequently optioned for the movies.


RedWriter joins Sukui in Bsea

RedWriter hugs Sukui.

Sukui smiles.

RedWriter grins at Sukui.

Bsea is a quiet little English seaside town. The tide is always halfway in (or maybe out), the sky is grey but bright, and there's a hint of drizzle on the biting sea breeze. Frequently used words are 'bracing', 'pint' and 'lugworm'. There's a chippy on the corner, just by the sailing club, and the pavements are narrow and uneven. Sukui lives here, and walks on the beach when he can't think what to write next.

Keith and Kit_Reed are here. (For the interview, RedWriter and Sukui have assumed their offline identities.)

Kit_Reed grins at Keith.

Kit_Reed says, "OK then, in other realms you are Nick Gifford and you're Sukui here and this is your place on StoryMOO, but for the moment we'll revert to proper names :) And now I can ask, when did you first know you were a writer?"

Keith says, "I'll answer to anything..."

Kit_Reed grins.

Keith says, "Hmmm... I'm still not really convinced. Sometimes I just look at the books on the shelves to convince myself I can do this thing."

Keith says, "When the next one comes out I need a new shelf :-)"

Kit_Reed says, "Hey, that's proof positive."

Kit_Reed says, "You didn't have a suspicion you were, even back before you published?"

Keith says, "I've always wanted to do creative things. I played (badly) in a rock band, took photography seriously, and art, before settling for the writing."

Kit_Reed says, "When did you start your first story, then?"

Kit_Reed says, "and what drove you to it?"

Keith says, "When I was a kid--maybe 7 or 8--I used to draw comic strips, continually adding to a scene, so that I was telling a story as I *drew* it. It just seemed a natural way to do it--like creating a TV cartoon on the page."

Keith says, "After that ..."

Kit_Reed nods.

Keith says, "I wrote football stories where a young centre forward, usually called something like Keith Brooke, scored the winning hat trick in the cup final. Realistic stuff."

Kit_Reed grins at Keith.

Keith says, "So I was writing on and off for years as a kid."

Kit_Reed says, "Aha, so you *were* a writer, you just weren't ready to admit it."

Keith says, "But writing seriously..."

Keith says, "...when I was a student I had this strange idea that writers didn't tend to get published until at least their mid 20s, so why bother trying before then?"

Keith says, "By that stage I knew I wanted to do it."

Kit_Reed says, "Probably saved you a lot of grief. I got my first rejection slip when I was 12."

Keith says, "I just didn't want to put in all the groundwork!"

Kit_Reed says, "Nobody does. But talking to you now, I know how hard you do work."

Keith says, "My resolve not to bother broke when I was about 19, when I spent a tax rebate on a typewriter and wrote my first story. Sold straight away to a smallish mag."

Kit_Reed says, "Brilliant. Like that first shot of heroin. One sale and you're hooked."

Keith says, "Sort of, except I didn't really get it like that: it just seemed that that was how it should be--you write and then you sell. I should have had loads of rejections first of all, to do it properly."

Kit_Reed . o O ( every beginning writer thinks it will be that way: instant success. The rest of the journey is discovering that it isn't.)

Kit_Reed says, "Was the first story SF? And if so, why, do you suppose?"

Keith says, "Yes, clunky SF."

Kit_Reed says, "OK, part 2 of that question then. Why SF?"

Keith says, "Why sf?..."

Kit_Reed nods.

Keith says, "The ideas just came out that way. I read a *lot* of sf and fantasy in my teens, and even though by the time I was a student I was reading more out of the genre, the ideas were all sf ideas."

Kit_Reed says, "Did the non-genre reading affect what you were doing and the way you did it?"

Keith says, "Sometimes directly. I love Graham Greene's work, and once I quite deliberately wrote an sf pastiche of the opening of Brighton Rock. More often, the mood of something will just leach over into what I'm writing."

Keith says, "It's been that way all along--even when I try to write mainstream, something sfnal will pop up en route."

Kit_Reed says, "Why, do you suppose? Nothing happens by accident."

Keith says, "Why does it happen...?"

Kit_Reed nods to Keith.

Kit_Reed says, "SF popping into your work, no matter how realistic"

Keith says, "I think, to be honest, it's at least partly laziness. Or, more generously, a way of thinking I'm comfortable with. If there's something I want to tackle in a story, I just tend to think of whatifs that will help me explore it, and if you keep asking 'what if' then that's a very sfnal question."

Kit_Reed prefers to think it's a way of thinking for you, you're not a lazy writer.

Head Shots by Keith BrookeKeith smiles.

Kit_Reed says, "The obvious question now is about Genetopia. And it may be a hard one. What gave you the idea?"

Kit_Reed says, "It seems to be a lot more than extrapolation."

Keith says, "That's the obvious question and one helluva long answer..."

Kit_Reed nods.

Keith says, "My second professional sale was a story called Passion Play, which appeared in one of Rob Holdstock and Chris Evans' Other Edens anthologies. The story just popped out, unlike anything I'd done..."

Keith says, "This one appeared in 1989. As soon as I'd written the story I knew I had to do more with it. The background--weirdly warped biology--and the even more weirdly warped human-ish characters had so much potential!"

Kit_Reed says, "absolutely."

Keith says, "So I started making notes about other stories, expanding on all this. And I kept on making notes. I started telling people I was going to write a novel in this setting, and there was a lot of interest, as people in the business seemed to take a liking to that story for some reason."

Keith says, "And I kept on making notes."

Kit_Reed nods to Keith.

Keith says, "Fast forward to around 2001 or 2002..."

Keith says, "I was still making notes."

Kit_Reed grins.

Keith says, "By then, I hadn't written an adult novel for several years, and I felt that I really had to do this novel that had been haunting me for almost all of my career."

Keith says, "So I carried on making notes..."

Keith says, "Finally, I wrote a short story, called Genetopia, just so I could write something in this background (which had changed quite drastically from that early tale). And I enjoyed the experience, and I knew there was no escaping writing the novel."

Kit_Reed says, "So essentially it was chasing you."

Keith says, "So, that's the mechanics of it... where did I get the idea?"

Kit_Reed says, "If you cast your mind back, did the original idea-- biology run mad-- just materialize whole, or did something in particular prompt it?"

Keith says, "A lot of my sf has been biological stuff, and a lot anthropological. This novel is where the two come together and I took those strands as far as I've managed to do so far."

Keith says, "Tough question--long time ago. As I say, the story itself just popped out. I went to the computer and started typing. I think it was a scene that did it: the mating scene!"

Keith says, "Which, giving it all away, may well have been triggered by one of those natural history programmes--the female spider having a post-coital snack."

Kit_Reed female spiders, I am laughing.

Kit_Reed says, "I think it's yet another thing which you may or may not agree to. It's either philosophical or theological. The Riverwalkers Flint meets. Their meditation. Transcending what *is* to walk on water."

Keith says, "I don't know much about philosophy (who said that?)..."

Kit_Reed grins. Me, probably.

Lord of Stone by Keith BrookeKeith says, "But I'd certainly agree with the theological line. The question of god and all that does tend to pop up in a lot of my work. Lord of Stone was a post-fantasy about a man who may or may not have been some kind of messiah. And in Genetopia the Riverwalkers' way of life gives Flint a centredness he's never had before, and one he struggles to hang onto."

Kit_Reed says, "OK then, I threw in philosophical because I was too polite to come out with naked theology. Where do your concerns come from? Were your family, um, churchgoers?"

Kit_Reed notes that Flint becomes if not a guru, certainly a holy person, in his own way.

Keith says, "The god thing... I remember shocking my mother by stating that there was no such thing as god when I was far too young. I've been a convinced atheist ever since around that time. But the god thing keeps sneaking into my work..."

Kit_Reed says, "heh, so perhaps for you the question isn't permanently settled."

Keith says, "Just because I don't accept what our religious movements say, doesn't mean I don't accept the place of spirituality. I think we all have that kind of need. I think it was Salman Rushdie who talked of having a god-shaped hole in his life because of his atheism, and I'd go along with that."

Kit_Reed says, "I think the other person to treat it that way was Jean Genet. Absence as proof of some presence."

Keith says, "I think for me, what fills that hole is partly a reverence for the natural world (in which, of course, I include us) and partly a sense of wonder about what humankind is--what we've achieved, what potential we have if only we don't wreck it all--art, science, curiosity."

Kit_Reed says, "I do have a rather complicated question-- Yank speaking to Brit. :) One of our bits of history is the captivity narrative. The story of the Puritan woman stolen by Indians, OK, not P.C., but that's what Native Americans were called at the time. Usually she went native. Often she hid from her rescuers because she didn't really want to go back. (As in John Ford's "The Searchers".) I thought of it the whole time Flint was looking for Amber, and I'm wondering if you were thinking of it too."

Keith says, "I'm distantly aware of that story, but it wasn't a conscious reference in Genetopia. However, when I was growing up I loved the westerns. My brother always sided with the cowboys, but I've always had a strong anti-establishment sentiment and so I always sided with the Red Indians (as we even less PCly labelled them back then). So, emotionally speaking, *I'm* that puritan woman, snatched by the other side and discovering my wild nature. The whole novel is about questioning which side of the divide we fall on, and confronting and embracing change and difference, so Amber is the puritan woman, but probably even more so, *Flint* is, and he has to answer the same questions said Puritan woman does."

Kit_Reed says, "So like the captivity narratives, it's about all of us coming to terms with our 'savage' side. :) Meanwhile, it's also a coming-of-age novel and a novel about class. Can you talk about the classes in this far future society?"

Keith says, "Class..."

Keith says, "In many ways, the divisions in the Genetopian world are fairly crude. I tried to explore what it would be like if we had lots of different varieties of humankind in existence, and inevitably I assumed that there would be division, conflict, abuse..."

Kit_Reed says, "just like now :)"

Keith says, "Crude, because there's a lot of echoing of the history of the slave trade. Maybe that's heavy-handed, maybe not--I wanted to strike a kind of balance where it's clear I'm drawing parallels but not just a retelling. And also, simply because the story demanded it: it's a divided society, with one tier abusing the others === slavery."

Kit_Reed says, "Crude, but the future you draw is crude. But I wonder if you were also looking at the British class system which... excuse me... still exists"

Keith says, "The British class system still exists? No, it's only those working class oiks who say that kind of thing."

Kit_Reed laughs.

Keith says, "Maybe it was the British class system coming through, but not intentionally. I think that was just my take on how some of the worse aspects of human nature manifest when there are opportunities for one group to dominate and exploit others."

Kit_Reed . o O ( a lot of what writers do is unintentional )

Kit_Reed says, "Do you have in your head what happened to bring us to this biological nightmare future?"

Keith says, "Do I have in my head etc? Yup."

Kit_Reed says, "The one thing you spare us is a lot of backstory..."

Keith says, "I tried very hard with this one not to do the back story thing. My characters didn't know a lot of the back story: they just knew how their world was. I tried to sow enough seeds that readers could make educated guesses, and leave it at that. It all came down to making the story work."

Kit_Reed says, "Which it totally does. The landscape is intense. Did you have maps and charts in your heaps of notes or did it just exist in your head as a real place?"

Kit_Reed says, "One that you could walk into?"

Keith says, "I had a rough map I kept and expanded and annotated (like those strip cartoons I drew as a kid, I suppose), just to make sure I didn't have them turning 360 degrees on their trek and ending up where they started, but nothing too rigid. It was a place--I had in my head the lie of the land. The detail I explored with Flint."

Kit_Reed says, "From within him then. Your stuff really is character-driven, so we can go there and be with them."

Kit_Reed says, "Which brings us back to the comics you drew. Clearly your work is v.v. visual."

Keith says, "I take that as a compliment--thanks! I tried to make Genetopia rich and sensual, but inevitably it's the stuff you 'see' that dominates. Or for me, anyway."

Kit_Reed says, "Of course."

Kit_Reed says, "How much British SF *is* character driven, I wonder? Isn't it more likely to be about the technology?"

Keith says, "The cliche is that Brit SF has tended to be small-screen, character-driven, gloomy stuff, as opposed to the big-screen exciting stuff you yanks write. ;-)"

Keith says, "I think that if that ever was the case, then it's far less so now, with the current crop of Brit writers."

Kit_Reed says, "Now, a lot of struggling writers out there are going to want to know how you work. Whether the notes are in notebooks or in your computer. What your hours are, how you organize it."

Keith says, "How I work is..."

Kit_Reed nods.

Keith says, "I keep notes of ideas and all kinds of odd snippets--on scraps of paper, on a PDA, and ultimately in files on my computer. The most important thing for me is the act of writing down the ideas--I often won't read them again, but writing them down helps lodge them in my head."

Keith says, "Working..."

Kit_Reed nods.

Keith says, "I accumulate ideas, think them through, eventually end up with some sense of the thing that will become the story. Then I get increasingly irritable. (My family always know when I'm about to start a new book, and heave collective sighs of relief when I finally do.)"

Kit_Reed says, "I'll spare you the childbirth analogy."

Kit_Reed says, "Are you a draft writer or a sentence-by-sentence writer?"

Keith says, "Then the moment hits and I sit down and start writing. From that point, I write as many words a day as I can until a draft is finished. That's the best time: I have a complete story written down, printed out, and I know that no matter how bad it is, it's going to be fixable."

Keith says, "Rewriting takes far longer than writing. I work on a print-out, scribbling corrections until it's almost impossible to read, then I type them up and print a clean copy and repeat."

Kit_Reed says, "How many hours can you go at a stretch without crashing?"

Keith says, "How many hours?"

Kit_Reed nods.

Kit_Reed says, "Before your brain falls apart."

Keith says, "I usually work in bursts of two to three hours, then a break, then another couple or so. Probably about seven hours in a day of intensive writing is my max. That would be seven thousand words of first draft. Sickening, isn't it?"

Keith says, "More typically, I have a target of at least 2k words a day, and usually manage 2.5k to 3k."

Kit_Reed says, "Heh, it's rather saner than it could be. 7,000 is a lot, but sometimes when you're on a roll... But I assume that's all stuff you go back to again and again doing the polish."

Keith says, "I've actually changed my working practices with the last couple of books. Now, when I'm writing a first draft, when I sit down in the morning I go through the previous day's work and start editing. It slows me down, but it seems to work."

Kit_Reed nods, starting with the day before's stuff is always enlightening.

Kit_Reed says, "Before we get too far from Genetopia, I do have one question. Is there another novel to be found in the prequel?"

Keith says, "There's *lots* of scope to explore this world more--both before and after this story. But I've resisted it up to now, because I like to move on to other things."

Keith says, "What I *have* realised, though..."

Keith says, " that the next adult novel, even though its setting is completely unrelated, it's still exploring that same question that Genetopia does: the boundaries of humankind. And what I realised today: I've just written a short story, and am planning a related one, and the setting for these two is a further exploration of the same thing. And it might even become a novel... So, without planning it, I might be in the process of committing thematic trilogy..."

Kit_Reed grins.

Kit_Reed says, "Your publishers will be thrilled. The field loves narrative continuity."

Keith says, "Yes, we should all be writing fantasy trilogies."

Kit_Reed says, "But this sounds considerably more ambitious. :)"

Keith says, "It's quite dauntingly ambitious. I wish I hadn't realised I was doing it."

Kit_Reed says, "Hey, as one of my characters once said, if you don't aim high, you'll never fall short. Part of it is trying and failing and falling on your ass and getting up and making it work."

Kit_Reed says, "Now before we close the log, are there things you'd like to say about this novel, about art, life, writing or the teaching of writing?"

Keith says, "The teaching of writing's an odd one..."

Kit_Reed nodnods

Keith says, "As you know, professor ... I've had fringe involvement with the writing programme at my local university, and I've been involved with your writing teaching at Wesleyan, too. The standard question from people who don't know is, How do you teach something as creative as writing? Well you don't so much teach writing, as teach *how to be a writer*. That's an important distinction, and it pinpoints the areas where we can really make a difference for aspiring writers."

Kit_Reed says, "It's all about the editorial process, I think. You certainly can't *lecture* on it."

Keith says, "It's about the editorial process, about applying yourself to your work, about being professional, about cultivating a thick skin."

Kit_Reed grins. "Like I was ever a professor. Any more than you're a webmaster. We're writers. And I think what we do have to teach-- by example-- is discipline."

Keith says, "Discipline--definitely. It's that thing of writing when you don't want to, finishing things, fixing things, persisting."

Kit_Reed says, "PERSISTING! :)"

Kit_Reed says, "But maybe we have multiple identities. You're Keith Brooke but you have at least one other literary alter ego. For the few people out there who may not know Nick Gifford, can you explain?"

Kit_Reed has Nick Gifford's newest one and is panting to read it. There are four so far, and I'm particularly interested as they hew much closer to things as they are than the SF.

Kit_Reed says, "Which maybe you'll also talk about."

Keith says, "Nick Gifford came about when a friend persuaded me to try writing short stories for children. I had a go, and loved it--took me right back to reading people like John Christopher and John Wyndham when I was a kid. I decided to use a pen-name just to separate that writing from my adult stuff."

Kit_Reed says, "It makes good sense. Probably informs the way Nick writes as well."

Keith says, "I'm not really sure why the Nick books are so much closer to home. They're all contemporary, they're all set in places I know well. Perhaps it's something to do with taking myself back to what it was like to be a teenager--sense of place seems far more important with these stories."

Keith says, "They're also scary, which I'm sure says nothing about my own teen years."

Kit_Reed says, "It seems to have to do with who these people are. Does it make you want to think about these characters as adults, ever? The teens, I mean. Write about them as adults."

Kit_Reed thinks everybody's childhood is horrendous. It's a savage and scary time.

Erased by Nick GiffordKeith says, "The first three were marketed as horror, which is fair enough, although Farah Mendlesohn's blog argues that the first is sfnal. The latest one, Erased, is far more a twisted sf thriller."

Kit_Reed says, "I can't wait!"

Keith says, "It does have some gruesome bits, too, though. A friend phoned me a few days ago to complain that I hadn't warned her not to read it at night..."

Kit_Reed grins at Keith.

Kit_Reed says, "Gruesome's good. Very good."

Kit_Reed says, "We got distracted, so I'll repeat. Does it make you want to think about these characters as adults, ever? The teens, I mean. Write about them as adults."

Keith says, "D'you mean write the story with the protagonists as adults instead of teens? No--simply because it wouldn't suit the story I'm writing at that point: it's a story with a teen protagonist, and that teen character is *there* to be written about. They have the limitations of being a teen (almost-adult but in a world where you don't have any power or authority, lacking in experience and acquired wisdom, etc) and that's a central part of the dynamic of the story: in many cases the story simply wouldn't work if the protagonist could act as an adult in an adult's world, or at least events would happen differently. It is interesting to think about the characters *beyond* the story, though: with any story you should have a sense of the characters continuing their lives afterwards (unless, of course, you've killed 'em off), but with teen stories that's even more interesting because they're growing up. Two characters from Incubus now maintain the website at, which was fun, as it plays on this sense of characters going onward, and growing up."

Kit_Reed says: "You're right on, but I'm afraid the question is a bit thornier :). Since you write so WELL about the "real" world, with just the slightest wrench that lifts it out of reality, I'm wondering whether you'll ever want to write non genre fiction for adults."

Keith says, "You flatter me, but I can handle it ;-) I'm tempted to try non-genre fiction--either for adults or for kids--just because it's something I've not really managed to do so far (a single non-genre short story is, I think, my sum achievement in this area). When a story's taking form in my head I always lean towards pressing the genre buttons because I love the way they give odd and interesting perspectives on the "real", so I'm tempted to see what would happen if I forbid myself from taking those routes with a story. Maybe one day, if I can fit it in between the various kids' and adults' books and short stories. And running infinity plus. And the part-time day job. And the family. And..."

Kit_Reed says, "Brilliant, thanks. Now I'm wondering if there's anything I've forgotten to ask that you'd like to talk about."

Kit_Reed says, "Before your Farewell Address :)"

Keith says, "Anything you've forgotten to ask..."

Keith says, "Hmmm..."

Kit_Reed nods.

Genetopia by Keith BrookeKeith says, "We haven't talked about infinity plus. Which is good. I love what the site has become, but I'll tell you something: it's really nice to be a writer again. Or two writers."

Kit_Reed says, "The writer part is the best. And the worst. We should all get jobs in banks or as cosmetic dentists. But, I-Plus, how many hits a month?"

Keith says, "Last time I looked (which is several months ago) we were getting 150,000 distinct visits a month. Some of them probably even read the content!"

Kit_Reed says, "Lots of e-mail? Feedback? You have millions of words up there!"

Keith says, "Feedback? We've never had as much as I anticipated. One thing that strikes me when I go to conventions is the mass of people who are really appreciative, but there's almost a sense that it's just *there*."

Kit_Reed says, "But in a way, the world knows *we're* there, many of them because of it, no?"

Keith says, "While we're on figures, IP is approaching 2 million words of fiction, 1000 reviews, and last year passed 100 interviews."

Kit_Reed says, "So this will be... um, 102. It's been fun for me and I hope not too excruciating for you. :)"

Keith says, "I think it's about 110, actually. Not at all excruciating. It *has* been fun."

Kit_Reed says, "It's always a pleasure to hang out with you."

Kit_Reed grins.

Kit_Reed hugs Keith.

Keith hugs Kit_Reed.

RedWriter goes home.

Sukui disconnects.

© Kit Reed 2006.
Genetopia was published by Pyr in February 2006.
Genetopia by Keith Brooke Erased by Nick Gifford
Head Shots by Keith BrookeLord of Stone by Keith Brooke Expatria Incorporated by Keith Brooke

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