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Interview: Jeremy Minton on “The Care of House Plants”

Tell us a bit about “The Care of House Plants.”

I’m not quite sure how to categorise it. It’s either an SF story with a massively mean streak, or it’s a horror story disguised as a techno-thriller. The conception is archetypal. A pair of innocent strangers arrive at a place where something weird is happening and get into lots of trouble.

In this case, the strangers are a couple of enforcers from a biotech consortium hunting a researcher who has run off with one of their products, and the weird place is an English country cottage where the vegetation has got badly out of hand. There are mysteries and lies. Secrets to uncover. There is swearing and violence and blood.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

My writing group runs this competition where you can grab an appealing title out of a long list of options, then write a story based on that title. Well, the title I’d picked for myself was beautiful and euphonious and deeply evocative, and I couldn’t figure out a damn thing to do with it.

I’d been prodding at it for a couple of days, trying to turn it into something, and not having any joy. And I was getting quite grumpy about it, because that’s my natural state when I’m stuck.

So, my wife and I went to this craft fair in a town down the road, and I was stomping around, looking at things and not really seeing them because my mind was taken up with this title. And there, in this little box of second hand books, I see an old gardening manual called “The Care Of House Plants.” (I’d love to say that it was “Just lying there amongst the zinnias” like Audrey II in Little Shop Of Horrors, but sadly that wasn’t the case.) The moment I registered the title my brain went, “That’s a horror story” and the story situation had pretty much presented itself before I got back to my car.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Pretty well all the elements which occurred to me in that burst of inspiration, the house, the snow, the strangers, the plants, the little old lady, were still there in the final version. None of them was how I originally imagined. Most of the time, the character and plot changes were the result of technical issues. The characters had to turn into what they did and act the way they acted because of the way the world of the text turned out to work.

 

Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “The Care of House Plants?”

To be honest, the thing which consumed most time for me was looking up names of flowering plants. Ironically, I’m terrible at gardening; I’m the kind of person who can plant mint and have it die. But I do a pretty solid visual imagination, and it took quite a while to figure out the kinds of plants which would fit my internal image of the rooms which Harry and Grayling were going to discover.

As for the science, well, what can I say? There’s a line of Douglas Adams’s from the radio series of the Hitch-hikers Guide To The Galaxy which I like to keep in mind when I’m constructing a plot: “What will Zaphod’s mission turn out to be? Will it be challenged and exciting, or will it just be a monster wanting to take over the universe for no very good reason?”

With House Plants, I had the image of the house and the idea that the plants were somehow monstrous, and I really wanted to do something with that, but so long as the plants just felt like unreasonable monsters the whole thing seemed deeply unsatisfying. I needed a reason why the plants were there and were causing trouble, and the search for that reason gave me most of the technical aspects of the story.

Two things, which turned in to the basis for the solution, came together in a rather happy way. One was the thought that this was an industrial process gone wrong. The second was given to me by the podcast, No Such Thing As A Fish. For those who happen not to know it, this is a weekly comedy podcast in which the research team behind the BBC show QI discuss interesting and unusual facts which they have discovered. In this case, the fact in question concerned the subject of mycorrhizae, which are a fungal network linking together various different species in an ecosystem and allowing them, in a strange and rather beautiful way, to pool resources and even share a sort of version of non-verbal information about predators and other environmental threats.

The overlap between biological and computational systems is something I find endlessly fascinating, and it’s a theme I go back to it on a regular basis. In consequence this idea was right up my street. It seemed to me that the idea was something that bio-engineers might want to use, and also an idea which could go wrong quite easily. I think it’s fair to say that I have pushed the idea, and the capacities of the plants, a long way farther than is technically plausible, but I guess that’s the joy of being a writer rather than a scientist.

 

What are you working on now?

There’s a great long list of short story ideas all clamouring for attention, but sadly they’re going to have to clamour for a while longer because for the last three years or so everything has been queued up behind this novel-shaped thing, involving criminal conspiracy in a post-human, post-Global Disaster world which I’m desperately trying to get finished before events push it out of the realm of speculative fiction.

For me, there’s this long, pretty open-ended period during story construction where I know I’ve got something to work on, and I’m kicking around ideas and situational interactions and seeing the kind of things which go together but don’t actually have a story, in terms of character and action and narrative shape. Eventually, if I’m lucky, something will coalesce out of this mess of ideas and concepts, like life emerging out of the primeval ooze.

About six week ago, that process of emergence started to occur and I felt like I was getting a solid form for the story. The way I’m thinking about it at the moment is that it’s a bit like Reservoir Dogs except that the criminals are human-like robots and rather than robbing an LA jewellery store, they’re trying to lift a rogue AI off the back of a two hundred metre long mechanical centipede.

I imagine that work on this is going to keep me occupied through until the end of the year, after which it would be really nice to go back to doing more work on some short fiction. And even nicer if I could get something else into F&SF which wasn’t introduced with the phrase, appeared a decade ago.

 

“The Care of House Plants” appears in the September/October 2017 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1709.htm

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You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

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Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

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