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A Conversation with Keith Brooke
An interview with Jeff VanderMeer
February 2006

© Alison Brooke
Keith Brooke
Keith Brooke
Keith Brooke was born 1966. He grew up in Harwich, an east coast port in Essex, England. He attended university in Norwich to study ecology and ended up studying environmental politics, meteorology, economics, anthropology, planning, and social sciences. In addtion to writing SF and fantasy, he runs the Infinity Plus website which reprints science fiction and fantasy along with some original work.

Keith Brooke Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Keith Brooke
Nick Gifford Website
SF Site Excerpt: Genetopia
SF Site Review: Infinity Plus One
SF Site Review: Parallax View

Genetopia
Keeper of the Peace
Expatria Incorporated
Head Shots
Lord of Stone

Art: Dominic Harmon
Infinity Plus One
Parallax View
Piggies
Erased
Incubus

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Keith Brooke has at least two distinct and highly successful careers: as an adult novelist and story writer under his own name and as a children's/young adult author under the name Nick Gifford. The Gifford novels have been wildly popular in the United Kingdom. Currently, however, he's going by "Keith" as he has a new novel, Genetopia, out from Pyr Press in U.S. and Canada. Genetopia is an ambitious and timely novel, enthusiastically blurbed by Stephen Baxter, Michael Swanwick, and many others. In addition to a starred review in Publishers Weekly, Genetopia is generating excellent buzz in genre publications. In yet a third life led by Keith, he runs the Infinity Plus website, one of the best sources for reprint (and some original) science fiction and fantasy. He lives in Brightlingsea in England with his lovely wife Allison and four inquisitive, charming children: Molly, Daisy, George, and Ed. I corresponded with him via email during the month of February, 2006.

What sparked Genetopia?

Short question: long answer. Genetopia is a story that spans almost my entire career. Way back in the late 80s, I wrote a short story called "Passion Play," which became my second professional sale (to one of Rob Holdstock and Chris Evans's Other Edens anthologies). The story just popped out of nowhere, which is unusual for me: I usually need some space to build up to writing a story. But this one... The idea came first thing in the morning, followed by a short time scribbling down some notes, and within an hour or so I was at the computer writing. By the end of the day I had a 3,000-word story about weirdly-transformed human-like creatures performing a bizarre courtship ritual in the far-future remains of a road junction a couple of miles from where I was then living -- yes, I know, every writer ends up knocking out a warped-sex-on-a-traffic-roundabout story at some stage in their career, don't they?

Anyway, even as I was writing this thing, I knew there was far more in this background than I could ever do justice to in a shortish story. From that day, I started accumulating notes about stories I could write to expand on this first story. The idea was that I would end up with a mosaic novel of interlinked stories, fragments and bridging pieces, which I then thought was the best way to explore this fragmented, fecund far-future. But I wasn't quite ready to write it, so I carried on accumulating the notes. For, oh, about ten years. Finally, I was ready to sit down and write what, by that time, had become a more linear novel and that became Genetopia.

In terms of ideas, I'm not sure what actually sparked Genetopia, but it was the backdrop that sank its hooks into me so that I couldn't let it go over a fifteen-year period. I loved the idea of setting a story in a world where nanotech and biotech have gone feral, speeding up evolution so that humankind is surrounded by a world of ever-transforming species, the world having become Nature's own condensed genetics lab.

The idea still has a hold of me, and I'd love to write more there, but that's not going to be my next novel, or probably even the one after -- too many ideas, not enough time to write them all!

Given the book's genesis, how much non-fiction reading did you have to do to keep up with the latest developments in that area of science -- or did that have any impact on your setting?
I didn't actually do too much specific research into the biological aspects of the novel: I've always read fairly widely about biological matters, and I think a lot of the story's backdrop sprung from that personal interest rather than it requiring me to go off and do research. Another way of looking at that question would be to say that all the science non-fiction reading I did over a fifteen-year period fed into Genetopia -- pursuing that interest led to lots of the story notes I accumulated over that period.

The specific research I did do for the book was more in other areas: historical accounts of the slave trade, finding out about pidgin and creole, reading up on archaeology and martial arts, and so on.

How personal a story is Genetopia to you?
It's extremely personal in terms of the process: the fact that it spans almost my entire career, and the way it has been a constant throughout about fifteen years of my life. The ideas in it, the backdrop, must also be very personal simply because they did exert such a tight grip on me for that period -- and they still do. I don't really understand why that should be so, but I do know that the world of Genetopia is very real for me, somewhere I've spent a lot of time. The story itself? Well, the story came fairly late in the life-cycle of Genetopia. The idea of following Flint as he searches for his missing sister unlocked the whole thing for me -- I think I'd been battling against the limitations of the mosaic-novel approach for too long, and the idea of writing a more linear story freed me up. Even though it came late, the story does matter a lot to me -- I'm proud of it, and I enjoyed writing it, and I'm delighted with the response the book has had so far.

Is it difficult remembering that you are both Keith and Nick?
It takes a lot of juggling, but I think I'm used to it now. The big mistake I made was to choose a different first name for my children's fiction pen-name -- I should have gone for Keith Gifford, not Nick. When I started going to publishing events in the children's fiction world, people would inevitably call me Nick, but you just don't respond when it's not your name -- I blanked so many people at these events in the early days!

In writing terms, the boundaries between Keith and Nick are fairly well-established -- when an idea occurs I tend to know if it's a Keith one or a Nick one, although sometimes I'll mix 'n' match and see what happens. Having the two careers is quite refreshing, too (when it's not exhausting). When I started writing for younger readers it really was a thrill; it took me right back to reading John Christopher and John Wyndham as a kid. Then more recently, as I've returned to adult fiction, that too has been exciting after the break.

Did you like being able to reinvent yourself, though? Did you find yourself adopting a different persona?
I sometimes think I should have adopted a wig and a false moustache and cultivated a new persona when I appeared anywhere as Nick, but I think that opportunity has passed now.

I did have fun creating Nick's online presence, though, particularly his monthly journal at www.nickgifford.co.uk, which has turned into a blend of truth and one or two slight fabrications. As Nick's first novel was a vampire novel, he wrote about keeping pet vampire bats (called Harker, Mr Lugosi and Flopsy) at the bottom of his garden -- one of the commonest questions I was asked as Nick in the first year or so was how it was to keep vampire bats as pets. More recently, if you believe his journal, Nick has been doing a book tour of rather obscure English towns and villages.

When writing the rough draft, how do you differentiate between a kid book and a book for adults?
Well, you have to think about things like sex. Oh no, that's life, isn't it? Er... to tell the truth, because the Nick Gifford books are aimed at teenagers there's not too great a difference in my approach. One assumption I have made is that teenagers who read are likely to be quite bright, and are probably reading above their age; they're also likely to be quite obsessive readers, so they'll read things closely, and they'll re-read them, so you can actually try to do quite sophisticated things with teen fiction. I'd far rather challenge my readers than write down to them.

One significant difference is that -- J.K. Rowling-type doorsteps aside -- kids' books are generally a lot shorter than adult books. It's often argued that novella or short novel is the ideal length for writing science fiction: the one place where there's a thriving market for that length of story is for 10-15 year-olds, so it's a great opportunity to work at a length that's somewhere between short story and full-length novel.

What does your family think of your books for kids? Do they read them?
It's handy having children in the 10 to 14 age range, although I won't have that advantage for long, of course. They read drafts and tell me where I've got bits wrong -- my oldest son, George, for example, corrected the mobile phone references in Erased! They tend to be very positive about the books, but they're probably just being diplomatic.

What's the most important lesson a writer can learn throughout his or her career?
Stubbornness.

Talent and a distinct voice -- well, you take what you're given with these two, although you can cultivate the latter. Skill and craft -- you can learn these, you can be taught them, you can develop them through hard work and study.

But stubbornness... That's partly in your nature but it's also a skill you can develop and it underlies almost everything a writer does. You don't develop your craft, for instance, unless you stubbornly stick at it when most other people have long since given up.

Writers spend most of the time near the bottom of one pecking order or another (unless you're a mega-bestseller, but we'll take them as the exception). We take a lot of knocks, we pursue all kinds of dead-ends, we work all kinds of hours for very little money or even thanks -- it's very easy to give up. I've seen so many extremely talented writers drifting away for all kinds of reasons, but the underlying one is that they're just not stubborn enough.

Give me a specific example from your career or someone else's of what stubbornness can entail.
When I finished my first novel, Keepers of the Peace, I put together a list of potential publishers and agents, ranked according to how good a target I thought they were. I sent it to the most likely candidate, who rejected it, so I sent it to number two, and so on. It was a thoroughly discouraging process, and it would have been easy to give up. Over a twenty-month period the novel picked up ten rejections -- that's not a huge number, but remember that the UK market is relatively small, so that number encompassed just about anyone who might remotely have been interested.

So what did I do in the meantime?

I wrote a second novel, and started trying to place that. And I wrote a third novel and started sending that out. Finally, with Keepers of the Peace, I had exhausted all the serious possibilities and next on the list was Corgi, who at the time were publishing a small number of commercial fantasies and no SF -- certainly nothing remotely like my novel. I came so close to abandoning it and not send it to them -- I had two more novels doing the rounds by then, after all. But my stubborn streak won out and I sent a sample off to Corgi. They asked to see more; they liked it; they bought it. And in the meantime, my third novel caught the interest of Gollancz and so I suddenly found myself in the position of having offers on two separate books from two separate publishers. I ended up with Gollancz doing the hardbacks (even though they'd originally rejected Keepers of the Peace) and Corgi the paperbacks of my first three novels -- or rather, my first, third and fourth novels, as that second one never did sell...

What's the quality most important to your success as a writer?
What, you mean apart from the shit-loads of talent? It'd have to be humility, then!

To answer the question you didn't ask, I think one of the biggest obstacles I've had to overcome has been my tendency to write what I want to rather than what the market expects. I tend to stick loosely within the boundaries of fantastical fiction of one sort or another (apart from my unsold crime novel), but other than that I write the ideas as they grab me, so I followed my first three science fiction novels with a fantasy novel about the death of magic, and then I started dabbling in horror for teenagers, and here I am this year with a far-future science-fiction novel and a scary SF thriller for teenagers published within a few weeks of each other. That's no kind of career path: I should be writing series!

Back to the question you did ask... Other than stubbornness, perhaps one thing that characterises my fiction is that even where I'm tackling big ideas it's done on a very intimate level: it's character-driven, often quite intensely so, so that the fears and thrills and mysteries are very personal for the reader. I think this is particularly so with my teen novels.

When you read for Infinity Plus and for pleasure, what grabs you the most?
I think it's that thing you can't quite put your finger on. There's a lot of very competent fiction around these days -- we're a very professional bunch, us SF writers. And sometimes I'll come across a story that's perfectly-paced, which has clearly-distinguished characters, strong settings and lots of surprises, written in sentences that are never badly-formed, with not a single word out of place. And they're soulless. Sometimes I think writers can be far too good, if you see what I mean.

But then I'll come across a story that might be full of rough edges but which just leaps out from the page: a distinctive voice, a quirky take on the world, a way with words that's like no other. I'd choose spark over polish every time. It's probably invidious to name names, so I'll skip over the established writers who are most likely to do this for me, but some of the newer writers I'm particularly excited about include Neil Williamson, Anna Tambour, Chris Dolley, Jason Erik Lundberg, and Lavie Tidhar.

What's up next for you?
I'm determined to work on more short fiction, which has pretty much been squeezed out of my writing life in recent years. I've written a few stories when I've been asked to, which is fun, but I've missed that process of just coming up with ideas and sitting down to write them -- writing short stories on spec is so much more immediate than writing novels. I've written a couple of stories this winter, one of which is quite unlike anything I've done before, which is an increasingly hard claim to make, with something like 60 or 70 published stories behind me.

And I'm working on a new adult SF novel, which has the working title alt.human. While this is a standalone, it does relate to Genetopia in terms of some of the ideas I want to explore. And the short story I've just told you about turns out to be a part of something bigger -- there's going to be either a sequence of stories or even a novel there. The disturbing thing is that the story is also playing with the ideas shared by Genetopia and alt.human, so I might actually be in the process of committing thematic trilogy. Which is daunting. Writers should stretch themselves, though, and if I end up pursuing these strands I'll certainly be doing that, which can only be a good thing.

Copyright © 2006 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?.


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