|A Conversation with Keith Brooke|
|An interview with Jeff VanderMeer|
| February 2006 |
What sparked Genetopia?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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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