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The Real Molly Brown
An Interview by John Meaney

INTRODUCTION

Well-known to Interzone readers, Molly Brown is a prolific and prize-winning writer of SF and crime stories. Bad Timing and other storiesAmong her awards is the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, for "Bad Timing" (IZ 54).

Of her three novels, the major work is Invitation to a Funeral, a rivetting murder mystery set in Restoration London. The other novels are Virus, a young adult SF novel, and To Say I Love You, a Cracker novelisation.

A long-term English resident, this American-born writer has held a bewildering variety of jobs, from actress and stand-up comedienne to armed guard. For the interviewer's safety, the following inquisition was conducted by email.

Since this interview took place, Molly's first short story collection, Bad Timing and Other Stories has been published by Big Engine (June 2001).

THE INTERVIEW

JM: Right. Fasten the straps. Get that spotlight right in her face. Electrodes? Whips? That will do nicely. So, let us begin...

I guess "Bad Timing" brought you to the attention of most Interzone readers. Does writing in a relatively light-hearted vein come easily for you?

MB: Don't I wish. Nothing comes easily for me; I've got this little imaginary guy who sits on my shoulder shaking his head in disgust at every word I write. (He's there right now, telling me how, despite the fact I'm only three sentences in, I've already made a complete mess of this interview.) Though if I think about it, the little guy is probably less intrusive when I'm writing something funny - or at least mildly amusing.

JM: Is your past life as a comedienne an influence here?

MB: I did stand-up comedy for five or six years, so I suppose it must have some influence on my fiction writing, but not as much as you might think. I have always had a weakness for sight gags and slapstick, so the type of comedy I did as a stand-up was more physical and visual than verbal. I used to turn up for a gig with a shopping trolley full of props.

I did an act with two other women for a couple of years. We called ourselves The Pointless Sisters and everything we did was improvised on the spot, with nothing written down. I was also part of the regular cast of a show called "When Suddenly..." which was billed as an "improvised comedy thriller". Everything we did was off the top of our heads, so every show was different.

After doing stuff like that, I could never settle down to anything too rigidly scripted, so the last couple of years I spent performing, my solo act got weirder and weirder, to the point where I was even getting booked into galleries as "performance art".

I didn't start writing fiction until 1988 (and didn't start selling it until a few years after that), but I had written comedy sketches for a couple of revues. I knew I could write something like, so and so enters stage right, says this and that, then exits stage left. But I had no idea how to write descriptions. What does he look like? What does the room he's in look like? What is he thinking? That was the hard part (or one of the hard parts).

I still have trouble with description. I can see the scene in my head, but I don't always have the words to make you see it, too.

JM: Have any particular writers influenced you?

MB: There are many writers whose work I enjoy and admire. Philip K. Dick is a special favourite. So is Raymond Chandler.

I remember being struck by the beautiful simplicity of books like The Pearl by John Steinbeck, or Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

I read Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse when I was in my teens, and I loved it! These days, I remember very little of the plot, but there are images that still stick in my mind, like the flashing sign advertising an exhibition: "For Madmen Only". I wonder if I'd like that book as much if I read it today. I'd love to get hold of a copy and find out.

But my all time hero has to be James Thurber. I first came across his writing when I was eight years old. He made me laugh out loud then and he still cracks me up now.

Admiring someone is not the same as being influenced by them, however. As much as I wish I could write like any one of the authors I've mentioned above, the fact is, I don't.

On the other hand, whenever someone else has told me who THEY think my influences are, they always name writers I've never heard of.

JM: I'm not falling into that trap -- I think you write just like Molly Brown. So which of Molly Brown's short stories are you most satisfied with, in retrospect?

MB: I'm never 100% happy with anything I've written; there's always something I wish I'd done differently, or just plain better. But I suppose if I had to pick a story I'm not too dissatified with, it would have to be Women On The Brink Of A Cataclysm, not because I think it's such a great story or it's so well written, but because the scientific idea I was trying to explore in it is one I find fascinating and exciting.

Which story would you pick if you were me?

JM: That would depend on whether I were the good Molly Brown, who wrote "Bad Timing," or the evil Molly Brown who wrote, say, "Feeding Julie," which is quite nasty.

MB: The evil Molly Brown - I like that. People are always going on at me about how "Feeding Julie" is such a grim and nasty story. Someone actually told me they thought I was sick, as if they expect someone who spends their days in front of a computer making up stories about non-existent people to be normal. Then they ask why don't I just write "nice" stories like "Bad Timing".

JM: Right. "Bad Timing" seems to be comedy: a future archivist falls in love with a long-dead romance writer, and steals a time machine which looks like a bicycle (but doesn't have time to read the instructions). But the implied happy ending isn't there, is it?

MB: "Bad Timing" actually ends with the poor woman dying of old age, but nobody ever seems to notice that. I guess people assume it will all turn out okay in the end because the guy's got a time machine, even though he hasn't got a clue what he's doing and he's missing most of the instruction manual. They also tend to forget that he's a fugitive on the run for theft and assault -- remember he knocked his friend out cold when he was caught stealing the time machine.

And why did he steal the time machine in the first place? Because he took one look at a photograph of a woman he'd never met and decided he was in love with her. Is this anyone's idea of an emotionally mature adult? If "Bad Timing" was anything other than a time travel romance, this guy would be a stalker!

In the end, I think "Bad Timing" is actually a tragedy. The woman dies old and alone, her body lying undiscovered for who knows how long, because she spent her life waiting for a man who never managed to show up at the right time.

That's all comedy is, really: tragedy with jokes.

But that's the evil Molly Brown talking. Ask me about it another time, when the good one's in.

JM: In "Women on the Brink of a Cataclysm", the heroine, Joanna Krenski, is a tough, leather-jacketed, avant-garde sculptress -- her sculptures are headless Barbie dolls, reworked auto parts, TVs endlessly showing a woman scrubbing the floor -- who gets into her friend's experimental time machine, set for two minutes into the future. When Joanna climbs out, she confronts a woman who's dressed like someone from a fifties sitcom, wearing pearls and high heels while painting very twee pictures. But the woman is Joanna.

MB: She's a version of Joanna: the Joanna she might have been if she'd been born into a world where the birth control pill had never been invented. I never actually state it in the story, but that was the idea behind those worlds where nothing much had changed from the fifties. Without the pill, there would have been no swinging sixties, no sexual revolution, and very little opportunity for women. The one thing all the Joanna Callahans have in common, whether they live in one of the fifties style universes or not, is that they are the Joannas that got married at seventeen because they were pregnant.

That's why they're all so resentful and eager to escape, not because their lives are so terrible, but because they were forced to abandon their dreams at an early age.

JM: It's a comment on the arbitrariness of personality, isn't it? The way our inner selves are dependent on chance.

MB: To a degree, yes. But not totally. Otherwise, everyone who grew up in a similar environment would have the same personality and that certainly isn't the case. I think that what environment and/or circumstance can sometimes do is to bring out something in a person's character -- either good or bad -- that might otherwise have remained dormant.

JM: 'Our' Joanna dislikes most of the other versions of herself, but finds one whose place she'd like to take. Different Joannas even start murdering each other.

MB: Joanna's problem is that she's got a few fundamental character flaws. She's selfish, conceited and completely self-absorbed, but she's never done anything especially evil... because she's never had to. But when she finds herself in a difficult situation, she's horrified to learn that deceit and violence come to her rather easily.

By the end of the story, she's managed to redeem herself quite a bit, yet she's still not above using Joanna Callahan's sons to help her sell work based on Joanna Hansen's ideas. Of course she would argue that copying Joanna Hansen's work isn't really stealing since they're the same person, but she'd be lying.

I think that if you met a parallel version of yourself, it would be very difficult for you to like them because they would a living reminder of every single one of your faults. Your faults would be impossible to ignore because they'd be staring you in the face.

I'm one of those people who cringes every time they hear a tape recording of their own voice. If I met a parallel version of myself, I'd spend the whole time telling her to be quiet.

JM: In "Learning to Fly" there are hallucinating and drug-using characters from two worlds, each of whom might be dreaming the other. In "The Psychomantium" there are characters who may be ghosts or alive, depending on the world they're in. Can I safely say that the concept of parallel universes holds some fascination for you?

MB: It's one of my favourite subjects. Don't ever get me started on it in person, because I tend to get over-excited and wave my arms around.

Is it really possible that every action with more than one probable outcome causes a brand new universe to come into being? Do such minor decisions as what to wear on a particular day or what to have for breakfast really cause an entire universe to split in two? Let's say I get up in the morning and decide to have a cup of coffee rather than my usual pot of tea. Have I really gone and made the universe reproduce itself, like some kind of gigantic amoeba?

Now... shall I have regular coffee or a decaf? Uh-oh, I've done it again. Meanwhile, all the parallel universes I've created in the last few seconds are full of individuals, each making their own decisions, causing each new universe to split and split again.

So how many universes did you create today? And your boss? And your next door neighbour? And that man who sat next to you on the bus last week, the one that reeked of stale perspiration and spent the whole ride muttering to someone you couldn't see? Am I in every one of that man's universes? Are you? If there are zillions of copies of all of us, acting out every probability, then what happens to free will? What happens to God and the soul and heaven and hell?

Sometimes I watch scientists on television explaining quantum theory, and I think, how can they be so calm? If any part of this is true, it calls every belief system humankind has had since who knows when and everything you think of as reality -- including your own identity -- into question. In "Women On The Brink", each Joanna assumes that she is the only "real" one; the others are merely variations on a theme.

Another story of mine (Asleep At The Wheel, which was published in a magazine called Phantoms) is told from two alternating points of view: the ghost of a girl who was murdered at the age of seventeen and has blocked out the memory of her violent death, and a middle-aged woman who has a series of disturbing dreams she can never remember on waking. The two of them are of course the same person. But which one of them is real? Is it the middle-aged woman, dreaming that she might have died young, or the dead girl, dreaming that she might have lived? (You asked me earlier about influences; I've just spotted one for you. The Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu, went to sleep and dreamed he was a butterfly. And when he woke up he wondered if he was really Chuang Tzu, who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu.)

And here I am now, assuming I'm the real me. But maybe the real me is somewhere else. Maybe she's living in a mansion, maybe she's living in a tenement with fifteen kids, or maybe she's living in a cardboard box. For that matter, who says I have to be a woman? If there's a separate universe for every possibility, there must be at least as many where I'm a man. This "me" nearly died when I was nine years old, so there must be a large number of universes where I no longer exist. There must be many others where my parents never met, or were never born themselves. And what about the brothers, sisters, cousins, sons and daughters I never had? Do they really exist somewhere? Are they alive and as conscious as I am?

And where are all these universes, anyway? (I have this vision of God as some guy with an overcrowded loft, muttering that he's got nowhere left to put the things, they're stacked up to the rafters and now they're taking over the garage.) Are universes like Doctor Who's tardis, small on the outside, but deceptively spacious inside? Or -- and this might solve God's storage problem -- are at least some universes mental rather than physical?

I could go on and on about the endless questions the many worlds theory raises in my mind, but one advantage of doing this by email is that I can tell when I'm getting carried away by looking at the number of paragraphs on the screen in front of me, and right now I see way too many.

I'll shut up about parallel universes for now, except to say that it's a theme I'm sure I'll be returning to again and again. I just can't leave it alone.

JM: Before you make a decision, the probabilities of all outcomes are superimposed in a kind of twilight state, like a Molly Brown who is both good and evil.

MB: Or like Schrödinger's cat, simultaneously dead and alive until one reality gets locked into place by the act of observation. I could make an obvious crack here about how whether I'm the good or the evil Molly Brown depends on if I'm being observed, but I think the two of us must have bludgeoned that joke to death by now, don't you?

JM: And speaking of bludgeoning... In "Doing Things Differently," a ship landing on a new world is greeted by the cuddliest teddy-bear aliens imaginable -- who bludgeon their own heads in bloody protest at the ship's presence. And that's only the start.

MB: You know what that story's based on? Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which is about her family's life in China. Suicide as a form of protest is a recurring theme throughout the book. When Jung Chang's grandmother, a former concubine, was going to marry an elderly widowed doctor, the doctor's children objected so strongly to the marriage that at a family gathering, one of the doctor's sons took out a gun and shot himself in front of everybody, including his own wife and children.

To me, the interesting thing is that the woman he perceived as such a threat to his family was standing right there, but he didn't shoot her -- he shot himself. And the "shame" of the act fell not upon the guy who had killed himself, but upon his father, because the father was seen as having caused his son's death by becoming involved with this unsuitable woman.

Later on, under Mao, suicide was considered a highly effective means of protest because everyone was supposed to be happy under the new regime and every time someone killed themselves it was a great source of embarrassment for the government. I've simplified it, but that's the basic idea.

What I tried to do in "Doing Things Differently" was to take that idea to its illogical conclusion, a society where all conflicts are resolved by emotional blackmail: I'm going to kill myself and it'll be all your fault and then you'll be really sorry.

But the thing is, it works. On this planet, they never hurt each other, they only hurt themselves, and the concept of shame is so strongly ingrained in them, conflicts rarely last beyond the first strike to your own head.

It's because the human doesn't understand this and responds in completely the wrong way that the situation escalates and the natives are forced to take more drastic action and start killing themselves.

But, like that poor young man in Wild Swans, it never occurs to them to kill the person they see as the threat. To them, that would be shameful and wrong. But that changes when the human is forced to destroy the moral foundation of their society in order to save them from mass destruction.

And when "Doing Things Differently" was published, I had all these people telling me, thank goodness you wrote something funny again.

JM: They'd think your crime stories are a real hoot, then. You know, there's the teenage junkie prostitute in "Angel's Day" who's 'rescued' by a good-lucking guy who isn't exactly Richard Gere. And the woman whose adopted daughter was killed by her abusive husband, in "A Sense of Focus." And the cheery girl-meets-boy, boy-goes-to-prison, boy's-best-friend-rapes-girl story of "What to Tell Santos."

MB: Okay, I admit it. "Doing Things Differently" was actually meant to be funny and "Bad Timing" does have a happy ending eventually. I was only pointing out the dark underbelly of these particular stories in a feeble attempt to be taken seriously. Though I like to think there is a serious point hidden within most of my so-called funny stories, the truth is I'm actually thrilled to bits whenever somebody tells me they've laughed at something I've written.

The crime stories you mention above are another matter entirely. They are completely joke-free and for the most part rather depressing, probably because they are more based on reality as we know it than my SF and/or fantasy stories, where the (sometimes very slight) differences from our own world are just enough to let me distance myself emotionally.

To take just one example: as you've already mentioned, "A Sense of Focus" is about the killing of a child. It's loosely based on a case that made the news a few years back, where a married couple were charged with the murder of their illegally adopted child and the woman's defense was that she had been as much a victim of her husband's abuse as the child. And when I saw the pictures of that woman, she was a mess: covered in bruises, teeth missing, broken ribs, big bald patches on her scalp where her hair had been pulled out. There have been some rather grim ideas I've still managed to have fun with, stick my tongue firmly in my cheek and happily take things to their illogical conclusion, but not this one. The subject of that story was too real and too painful; I could not bring myself to make fun of it. The same goes for the other stories you mentioned.

Also, I don't know if this is funny or ironic or even the least bit interesting, but, just like there are people who go on at me about how they only like my funny stuff and why don't I just stick to that, there are all these others who go on at me just as much about why don't I just stick to gritty realism.

JM: Crime and SF: your life must be twice as exciting as the average writer's. Two markets for your stories. Easy.

MB: Ha! What it means is that I spread myself so thin that I remain equally unknown in a wide variety of genres. I stop to write a crime novel and I vanish from the SF scene. I stop to write SF and I vanish from the crime scene. And then to make matters worse, I occasionally dabble in the mainstream. Anyone will tell you that this is a recipe for economic suicide. If I had any sense at all, I'd pick one genre and stick to it. But common sense has never been one of my strong points. Besides, as a former unknown actress, I'm terrified of typecasting. I may be dooming myself to life in a cardboard box, but I will not be labelled.

I've just re-read that last sentence and I sound ever so strident! The truth is, I'm just an ageing child who hasn't yet decided what she wants to do when she grows up.

JM: Your major work to date is Invitation to a Funeral. Certainly, no-one could read it and feel depressed afterwards. Aphra Behn -- playwright and ex-spy -- Invitation to a Funeraland her friend Nell Gwyn are a lot of fun. There are her somewhat drunken friends (including a former lover); chaotic rehearsals for the new play, with the most untalented actress imaginable; extra-marital intrigue and foreign espionage at the royal court.

Yet at the same time, Aphra throws perfume over herself in the mornings, in lieu of washing; the once-handsome Duke of Buckingham has dark brown, rotting teeth; perfumed handkerchiefs are a real necessity for gentlefolk walking among the poor. There is seamless movement in the story, from high comedy to the unforgiving reality of seventeeth century poverty. Was this in your mind from the time you started to plan the novel?

MB: Not really. It was just that I was trying to be as honest as possible about the conditions of 17th century life, as far as I understood them. It was a smelly, dirty and extremely unhygienic time. If you or I travelled back in time and tried to walk down a 17th century alley, we'd probably keel over.

JM: And one of the bodies is discovered in -- oops, nearly gave the plot away. At least one of the corpses turns up in circumstances which you could have made amusing, but didn't. Instead, you focus on gashed cadavers and blood all over the walls.

MB: Yeah, well... I wanted Invitation To A Funeral to be a funny and enjoyable book, but I didn't want to take the traditional "cozy" mystery approach to murder and reduce it to nothing more than a mildly diverting puzzle with a bloodless and conveniently odour-free victim.

I'm happy to say that I haven't had a lot of contact with dead bodies, so in trying to get it right, I had to rely on articles I've read, documentaries I've seen, and a rather morbid pastime I developed while researching the book, which was to sniff around dead animals. Well, one animal, actually.

I happened to notice a dead fox lying on the lawn in front of some flats a few doors down from where I live, and since I was trying to get a handle on what death does to the body, it seemed a perfect opportunity for some on the spot research. One of the things you always hear or read about is the smell of a dead body, so that was one of the main things I was trying to find out about first hand, and the only way I could do that was to get down and start sniffing. It was very educational for me, but worrying for the neighbours. You should have seen those net curtains twitch.

JM: Aphra Behn was even more scandalous, wasn't she?

MB: In those days, a woman writing for publication or public performance was considered "immodest" and therefore little better than a prostitute. I guess it was to do with the idea that writing for the general public was comparable to being publicly available yourself. Also, Aphra Behn dared to write about sex, which was considered perfectly acceptable for a man, but scandalous for a woman.

JM: Ex-spy, ex-convict, and the first Englishwoman to make a living as a writer! But I'd never heard of her before I read the novel, I'm afraid.

MB: I hadn't heard of her myself until about six years ago. I'd been asked to write a story for an anthology called, Royal Crimes, and I went to my local library to look for ideas. I came across a book in the history section called "Royal Mistresses", figured it was a pretty sure bet I'd find something useful for a crime story in there, and started flicking through the pages.

That was the first time I came across Nell Gwyn and Louise de Keroualle, rival mistresses of Charles II. I figured they'd be perfect characters for a story -- not only did they hate each other, they were funny.

I knew nothing of English history. I'd heard the term, "Restoration", but I wasn't sure what it meant; I had a vague idea it was something to do with the theatre. So I had to start from scratch when it came to research. I picked up an armload of learned tomes on 17th century history, took them home and found I couldn't understand a word. The books were all written by academics who assumed a certain amount of prior knowledge, when I lacked even the simplest basics. So I went back to the library, only this time I headed for the children's section, where the words are simple and there are lots of pictures. From there, I worked my way back up to adult level.

It was while I was doing the research for this short story that a a friend of mine named Paul Dorrell (who has since passed away and is terribly missed by all who knew him) told me that if I was writing something set in that period, I must include Aphra Behn because she was an amazing woman who was centuries ahead of her time. So I threw her in at the last minute as a supporting character, solely because of a friend's suggestion.

I spent six months researching the background for one funny five thousand word story. Once it was finished, I swore I'd never write anything historical again. Then an editor at one of the publishing houses took me to lunch and insisted that I write a novel set in that period with those characters.

I knew enough to write a short story, but before I could feel confident enough to write a whole novel, I needed to do more research. I spent the next three years reading everything I could find about the 17th century. These days, I'm a fountain of useless knowledge; I can tell you everything from the price of an orange at the Theatre Royal to what the bellman at St. Sepulchre's church would say as he tolled the bell the night before a hanging at Tyburn.

I don't get invited to a lot of parties.

JM: Did you read Mrs Behn's novels or plays, or other Restoration dramas? There seems to be a real authenticity to Aphra's choice of swear words, for instance.

MB: I think I've read all of Aphra Behn's plays and most of her novels. Most of them were in books I borrowed and had to give back, so I don't have them anymore, and since it's been a few years since I read them, my memory of individual plots is a blur. But I do remember laughing out loud. Historians and literary critics tend to treat Aphra Behn as a rather po-faced arty farty type, but I think she was hilarious. Her comedies are full of sight gags and slapstick and people hiding under beds and donning all kinds of crazy disguises.

The swear words and slang expressions in the book are taken from various 17th century sources such as letters, plays, and diaries, but for the most part, I modernised the dialogue.

JM: Your award-winning web site, www.okima.com, has a wealth of information about the book and the characters.

MB: How kind of you to mention the fact that my site has been showered with such prestigious honours as the coveted "Cheese Dog's Pick-O-The-Pack" award, and "Cool Site of the Hour", which means I get to display a little penguin icon.

JM: And there's a jaunt around 17th century London: Bedlam, where visitors paid a penny to see the loonies; how to avoid being hung at Tyburn if you know how to read... But it's very detailed, if you want to explore that detail. Not just a collection of odd facts.

MB: It is just a collection of odd facts, really, though I've organised them by geographical location, the idea being that it's an online tour: you go from place to place, and at each stop along the way, you read some facts and/or anecdotes related to that place. Such as the fact that Bedlam, which you mentioned, was actually a well known pick-up joint (you might enter alone, but you didn't have to leave that way) or that experiments conducted at Gresham College included the transfusion of blood from one dog to another in hope that along with the blood, the second dog would absorb the knowledge of how to perform the other one's tricks.

JM: Oh, and I liked the list of causes of death during plague times.

MB: You're talking about things like "chrisomes" and "rising of the lights".

I have something like 90,000 words of typewritten notes on the 17th century, plus a thick wodge of photocopied pages from various reference books I wasn't allowed to take home from the library and a shelf full of history books that I went out and bought, and I still have no idea what "chrisomes" and "rising of the lights" mean.

JM: Has it been a positive experience, setting up your own website?

MB: For the most part, yes. I've had some lovely emails from total strangers who've visited the site and then gone out to buy the book, which is all that I can ask for, really. I've also discovered that a number of universities around the world and at least one high school in New Zealand are linking to my site as an "online resource". A few university courses are actually using my site as part of their curriculum. As a former shoe-shine girl who barely managed to get through high school, I find this hilarious. Talk about the blind leading the blind...

The down side is that I keep getting emails from webmasters of hardcore porn sites, wanting to exchange links with me. I spent ages wondering why they wanted to link to a tour of Restoration London, until I started using a program that lists referring URL's. (What this means is that I can see who's linking to my site. It also means that if someone's come to my site through one of the search engines, I can not only see which search engine they used, but what they were searching for.) The first time I used this program, I discovered how my innocent historical site had got its X-rated reputation.

In one day alone, someone searching for "whippings" had been directed to my page about Bridewell, someone searching for "Spanish" and "bitch" ended up at my page on Whitehall Palace (which includes a newspaper announcement about one of the king's spaniels going missing), and... you get the idea by now.

I have this vision of men in raincoats looking terribly disappointed.

JM: I'm only dressed this way because it looks like rain! Now, you've written a couple of other novels. One was a TV novelisation, of a Cracker story. There's quite a bit of extra material in there: character development that's not in the original script.

MB: You have no idea how I envy those fast writers who can knock out a couple of thousand words before breakfast when I've been known to take half a year to write a five thousand word short story. Where I got the idea I could write a novel in eight weeks, I don't know. To return to the 17th century for a moment, I must have got "a maggot in my head". But I managed to convince myself that it would be a simple matter of copy-typing the script, adding the occasional he or she said, plus a bit of "the restaurant was crowded" and "her dress was yellow".

So that's what I did; I even threw in a bit of "he thought" and "she thought". And six weeks later, it was finished. I'd covered the whole three hour story. And the book was less than forty-five thousands words long.

According to the writer's guidelines I'd been given, the minimum acceptable word count was eighty thousand. Also, I wasn't supposed to change any element of, or add anything to, the original story. So there I was, two weeks away from the deadline and thirty-five thousand words short. I had no idea what to do. Did you ever see Jack Nicholson in The Shining? That was me: foaming at the mouth and raving mad.

It was while I was in this Jack Nicholson phase that the editor phoned to ask how I was doing. He made several useful suggestions as to how to get around the problem, and most importantly, he agreed to let me add extra plotlines that had not been in the original story. I spent the next two weeks adding stuff like a police operation to arrest pickpockets, a humorous vignette about a burglary investigation and a subplot about anorexia. What's funny is that some people who actually saw the TV show don't realise these scenes were not part of the original programme.

JM: Was this kind of work-for-hire writing a positive experience? Rather than getting a real job, for instance?

MB: By the time I'd finished that book, I was so sick of Cracker that if I'd run into Robbie Coltrane on the street I would have punched him. But then I defy anyone to spend two months in a darkened room, watching the same video over and over again, and not come out a little strange.

Just in case Robbie Coltrane subscribes to Interzone [or reads infinity plus - ed.], I'd like him to know that he's in no danger whatsoever. I've long since recovered from my two months in the dark and have returned to my original opinion of him as a lovely man who I wouldn't dream of hitting.

If I can be serious for a moment, there are a lot of positive aspects to writing a novelisation. For one thing, it's a good way for a lesser known writer to accumulate some publishing credits. For another, it's fairly certain all the major booksellers will stock it, while there's no guarantee they will stock an original novel by someone they've never heard of. And if you're the type of person who can write quickly to a strict deadline and follow guidelines, it's a great way of making a bit of extra cash.

The trouble with me is I do not write quickly and I hate both deadlines and guidelines. If you swear you will never do a particular thing again, you always end up doing it. So I won't swear that I will never write a novelisation again, but if I'm going to drive myself crazy, I think I'd rather go insane working on my own visions rather than someone else's.

And as for "real" jobs, I've had enough of them to know that you can't get away with taking your time the way you can in writing fiction. I've been a naturally slow writer for seven or eight years now, but I didn't last long as a naturally slow waitress.

JM: Catering's loss is literature's gain! Dare I ask jow long it took to write Virus? After all, it's 'only' a Young Adult SF novel.

MB: What's more significant than how long it took to write it is how long it took to sell it. I finished the book in 1988; after six years of collecting rejection slips, it was finally accepted by a publisher in 1994.

JM: It does have a sense of eeriness, with a depopulated post-war Chicago, and a rather messy neo-Luddite climax.

MB: Neo-Luddite? Nah. I think the most sympathetic character in the book is the robot doorman. Virus isn't about techno-fear, it's about the aftermath of a conflict where both sides have attempted genocide.

It didn't start out as a children's book. I had to make a number of changes in order to make it suitable for ten year olds, one of which was simplifying the plot.

Another major change was the age of the heroine. In my original version, she was a forty-two year old divorcee with a grown up son and a kinky past that has left her with a mixture of guilt, paranoia, and strange fantasies. She was also having an affair with a much younger man. All that had to go when rewriting for the kiddies, as did the four letter words and much of the violence. By the time Virus was published the heroine had become an eighteen year old virgin and the story was several thousand words shorter.

JM: The good Molly Brown finally wins out! What's your next major project?

MB: I'm working on a kind of SF/adventure novel which I think is going to be a lot of fun. I don't want to give the plot away, but it's got a lot of action, some nasty bits, some laughs, a happy ending and no plans for a sequel.

This interview originally appeared in Interzone 131;
copyright 1998, 2001 John Meaney.

Invitation to a Funeral is published by St. Martin's Press; Virus is published by Point SF, Cracker: To Say I Love You is published by Virgin (U.K.) and St. Martin's Press; Molly's new collection, Bad Timing and other stories is published by Big Engine.

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© John Meaney 16 June 2001