Chris started his career as a social worker in Cambridge, England, then moved on to social work management before lecturing in the same subject. Somewhere along the line he published three short story collections and six novels, including the Arthur C. Clarke award winning novel Dark Eden.
Thank you for joining me today. How do you think your professional career has coloured your writing?
As a social worker I saw sides of life that a middle-class boy from Oxford would not otherwise come across. I’m grateful for that. I’m just a little bit less blinkered than I would otherwise have been. More recently, as you say, I lectured about social work, rather than actually did it. I think teaching and lecturing, like any kind of writing, is about having something to say, and figuring out how best to get it across. It’s essentially the same task, and I’m sure some skills do cross over.
You’ve published 6 novels and 3 short story collections. Have they all been traditionally published and do you have piece of work you’re most proud of?
My seventh novel is in the pipeline (it’s called ‘Beneath the World, a Sea’ and already has a cover.
My first two novels (The Holy Machine and Marcher) were originally published by a print-on-demand small press in America (Wildside). The Holy Machine has since been commercially re-published by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books who are my current publishers and who also published my three Eden books, my subsequent novels, and my third short story collection, Spring Tide. Marcher has never been published by a mainstream publisher, though a new version of it is now available from the British small press, Newcon press. My first short story collection, The Turing Test, was published by a sadly no longer existing small press, Elastic Press, and my second collection, the Peacock Cloak, was published by Newcon.
I think Dark Eden is in many respects my most ambitious book, if only because of the number of characters, and I am very proud of it, and slightly amazed that I managed to hold all that in my head. But, of the Eden books I have a soft spot for the third one, Daughter of Eden. I’m proud of my latest story collection, Spring Tide, different from anything I’ve published before, and would love more people to read it.
I’m looking forward to the publication in the spring of ‘Beneath the world, a Sea’, which I think is another new departure for me in many ways.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey to publishing your first novel?
It’s a long and tortuous journey! I began getting short stories published (initially in Interzone) in the early eighties, which gave me at least a little bit of recognition. I wrote The Holy Machine in the mid-nineties (Its setting of a world turning against secularism and modernity has, I think, turned out to be increasingly relevant!) Originally, a small press called Big Engine, run by Ben Jeapes, was going to publish it, but Big Engine sadly folded, as small presses are prone to do. Ben then put me in touch with Wildside, who published it in America with a very cool cover by Wilhelm Steiner, and it was later re-published by another US small press, Cosmos. But it wasn’t really commercially published (that is: published in a way that earned me actual money!) until after my success with the Turing Test. My agent (I had an agent by then, the excellent John Jarrold) was then able to get me my first 2 book deal with Corvus that included republication of The Holy Machine, and Dark Eden. Between my finishing writing it and commercial publication was about 13 years.
What do you think was the turning point in your writing career which lifted your head above the crowd?
Undoubtedly it was when I won the Edge Hill Prize for my short story collection, The Turing Test. My small-press-published SF collection had won the award from a shortlist that included literary heavyweights like Anne Enright (who’s recently won the Booker Prize) and Ali Smith! I could barely believe it! And it gave me a profile that allowed my agent to get me a two-book deal. (When the second of those books also won a prize, I felt I was really getting somewhere!)
Out of all the awards and recognition you have received, which would you say meant the most to you? Which had the greatest impact on your career?
The Edge Hill Prize was special because it was the first, but the Clarke award was amazing too, and special in a different way: the top prize for SF in the UK. But another thing that means a great deal to me is when a reviewer really digs down into one of my books and gets what I was trying to do (or even spots things I hadn’t noticed myself!) And it means a great deal to me as well when a reader contacts me via my website. You write to be heard, first and foremost, not to win prizes. And when someone gets what I’m trying to do, that IS being heard, and it feels fantastic.
Being featured on Radio 2 wasn’t so bad either.
Can you tell me how winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award effected your life?
It was an incredible experience, first of all to discover I was on the shortlist and then, on the night, as the build-up to the announcement began, to slowly realise that it must be my book that was being talked about. I was flabbergasted. And of course, its an incredible boost for the book (check out the number of reviews it has on Amazon for instance!) and for my career generally to have won this prize.
Can you tell me about your writing process?
I usually write at my kitchen table. Sometimes I go out to a cafe or something, and I love writing on trains, but usually it’s in the kitchen. I tend to work over what I’ve already written before pressing on to write new stuff, but I don’t know if that counts as a ritual? There is a LOT of prevarication involved. I only rarely enjoy the initial stage of the process. I’m too full of self-doubt. It’s a cliched phrase, I know, but it feels like wringing blood from a stone. I enjoy the process much more when I’ve got something to work on which I know is a more or less viable novel (or short story). I love editing, polishing, adding details, connecting things up, cutting out material that’s proved unnecessary.
I try to plan, and I do compile various lists, maps etc as I go along to help me stay on track, but I’ve never been able to plan out a whole novel in advance. Only way I know is bashing away at it until something comes alive, and then soldiering on until it’s done. It’s ridiculously inefficient and labour-intensive, but there it is!
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Two pieces of advice:
One: Network! We might like the idea that writing is something we can do all by ourselves, but, if you want stuff to be published, then a network that includes fellow-writers and people in publishing is invaluable. In the SF field you can build such a network by going to conventions and making yourself talk to people.
Two: Your initial focus should not be on getting published. It should be on getting good. New writers are often desperate to find out how to get published (understandably, because it seems such a big hurdle). But if you took up the piano, you wouldn’t be looking to perform professionally until you had really mastered the instrument, and you certainly wouldn’t be trying to figure out how to get booked by the major concert halls until then! Perhaps writing is a bit more like that than we want to think.
If you just interested in getting published and not very interested in trying to get better and more interesting as a writer, you probably won’t succeed (unless you are one of those lucky and very rare individuals who spring into being already fully-formed).
Can you tell me about your latest novel, America City?
It’s now out in paperback and I’m very proud of it. At the end of 2017 it was selected for the Radio 2 bookclub, and I had an opportunity to discuss it on Simon Mayo’s Drivetime show.
It’s set in America about 100 years from now. (Though the eponymous city is actually NOT in America!) Climate change has resulted in a large internal climate refugee problem, with people from the southern half of the country fleeing from drought, hurricanes, flooding and forest fires, to the Northern states. This has created serious tensions. People in the north feel increasingly threatened by the influx, and increasingly reluctant to see the incomers as fellow-countrymen in need. (Various negative epithets, like ‘Storm Trash’, are in use, to describe these migrants, as happened to the Okies of the past). A young, ambitious, British-born publicist, Holly Peacock, is recruited by a charismatic American politician called Stephen Slaymaker, who wants to rebuild America and help the people from the south to find new homes. When he runs for President she becomes his right-hand woman, masterminding his campaign. After a good start, his campaign starts to flag. The problem they are up against is that the north of the country and the south want very different things and other politicians are getting ahead of them by writing off the south and pandering to northern fears. Then Holly has an idea which she thinks will bring North and South together, by giving them something else they can all unite against. The plan works, but at a huge cost that Holly had not anticipated.
It’s a book about politics and about the drivers that lie beneath our political preferences.
When was America City released?
It came out in hardback at the end of 2017, and out in paperback this September, with a rather smart new cover. And you can get it as an ebook or an audiobook too.
What is your experience of using social media for building your author platform?
I try and maintain a presence on Twitter, though I feel a bit ambivalent about it. I’m not sure how much that really helps with selling my books, but I can get news out that way about special offers, new publications etc, and it’s nice sometimes to interact with readers. Also Twitter is a phenomenon in itself that provides material for my books, as you’ll see if you read America City, in which a fictional platform called The Whisperstream plays a prominent role.
What are you working on now?
The novel I’m working on at the moment is not set in the future but in the present, in these turbulent times we’re living in now. Insofar as it has a science fictional element, it derives from the fact that the narrator is in the future, looking back at our time from a very different kind of society. I’m at a very early stage still, so I think I’ll leave it at that!
Thank you Chris for taking the time to talk with me today. I normally wish my interviewees luck at this stage, but it seems you’re doing fine on your own. As Chris said, you can buy his latest novel from Amazon now and you can keep up to date via his website.
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