British SF writer Eric Brown is the author of many highly-acclaimed novels, including The Kings of Eternity, The Serene Invasion, and Engineman. He has also written some of the best short SF of the last twenty years, and a dozen books for children.
His Bengal Station trilogy, Necropath, Xenopath and Cosmopath, feature Jeff Vaughan, a telepath employed by the spaceport on Bengal Station, a vast twenty-level city-port situated in the Bay of Bengal mid-point between India and Burma. As part of a security team working against terrorists and other undesirables, he reads the minds of visitors to Earth.
His best-selling SF book is Helix, 2007, about a vast alien construct – a corkscrew arrangement of ten thousand planets in orbit around a distant sun – and the societies that dwell there. His latest books are Buying Time, a character-oriented time-travel novel, and the murder mysteries set in the 1950s, Murder Takes a Turn and Murder Served Cold.
GJ: Thank you for joining me this conversation. Before the interview I tried to research your biography, but could only find the information on your agent’s website. You’re a prolific author, but I’m surprised how little information there is on the web out there. Is this intentional?
EB: I’m not that bothered about publicising myself, my life, as such – just the work, the books. I have a website that has all the up-to-date information: ericbrown.co.uk.
GJ: What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
EB: That’s an interesting question. I suppose the highlights are the books I’m most proud of – The Kings of Eternity, The Serene Invasion, Buying Time and Starship Seasons. They’re books I wanted to write, and came closest to achieving what I wanted to say. I also love writing the Langham and Dupre crime series, so I suppose they’re a highlight. Winning the BSFA award for the best short story, twice, was nice, too.
GJ: For those of people outside the SF community, would you describe your work as having a common theme running through most of you novels / series or would you say you approach each new project / series with a view to making it individual?
EB: Well, to be honest, a bit of both, really. I detect common themes running through my work. I like to write about the good in people, even if that isn’t always apparent in my characters at first glance. I write about redemption, and friendship and love; the perfidy of religion and those in power. These things crop up again and again in my books and stories. But at the same time I try to ring the changes in the form of the stories I tell. I think many of my novels can be seen as individual and unlike anything else I’ve written. While some of my novels are alike (Helix, Helix Wars, the Weird Space books), many are very individual in terms of setting and narrative structure: The Kings of Eternity, The Serene Invasion, Guardians of the Phoenix… I don’t embark on a book thinking ‘Right, I want this one to be unlike any other I’ve written’, but at the same time I think many of them are sufficiently different as they’re about different types of people in different situations, with varied settings.
GJ: I’ve been chatting and interviewing quite a lot of SF authors in these last few weeks and peering into the SF world in the UK. To me it seems very supportive and with a great sense of community. Would you say that has been your experience and has it always been like that or has it developed over the years? Do you think that sense of author / fan community is fairly unique to the SF world?
EB: Yes, that’s always been my experience. I recall being welcomed into the SF community back when I began selling to Interzone, in the late eighties. And looking back and reading the histories and personal accounts of the genre, it seems that it was always like that: writers and readers met in the forties and fifties in the White Hart (I think it was called) in London, and there were early hubs of fandom based in Leeds and Birmingham and in many other places around the country. Perhaps the sense of camaraderie in SF and Fantasy stems from our perceiving ourselves as outsiders, and our genre vilified by the ‘mundanes’, and this draws us even closer together. I’ve been involved in the crime writing community for a while – having written half a dozen novels in the Langham and Dupre series – and while it isn’t unfriendly, there isn’t the same sense of inclusivity and shared values as in the SF world.
GJ: When writing the Langham and Dupré series do you find you have to make a conscious effort to stop your mind from adding in elements of science fiction or drifting towards the fantastic, or does it come natural to write in the ‘real’ world?
EB: It’s a great relief to write about the ‘real’ world. I find I have no desire or tendency to even think about fantastical elements. All fiction writing is similar, in that you’re writing about characters with motivations, desires, needs, striving towards some goal – whether it’s SF or crime. And you’re also telling a story – and a plot whether SF or crime is often very similar. (And I mean that a plot is similar from a technical point of view, with initial situations, complications, secondary and tertiary situations, resolutions and reversals of fortunes, revelations and denouements…) But it’s easier writing about the here and now – or rather the 1950s, in the case of the Langham and Dupré novels – because I don’t have to build a new world up form scratch, or take time out to explain new devices or inventions. The world of the story is known to the reader, so I can get on with the story and characters. Also, I can use similes and metaphors more easily than I can in SF. I find the crime novels much easier to write, and for some reason the characters seem to have greater realism and depth in the crime books than in the SF, and for this reason I enjoy the process of writing crime more than SF.
GJ: How do you think the publishing industry has changed in the time you’ve been involved and what would you consider to be the factor that has had the most influence on these changes, i.e. the age of the internet, accessibility of self / independent publishing as a viable alternative or a change of reading habits etc?
EB: In the almost thirty years I’ve been a freelance writer, publishers have become far, far more conservative and cagey – for entirely understandable economic reasons. A simple example… Back in 1999 I went to London to see my editor at Gollancz about future projects. On the bus back to his house, where I was staying the night, I happened to mention an idea I was mulling over for a trilogy about virtual reality and a missing persons detective agency in 2040 New York. Nothing more was said about it, and we had a pleasant evening. The following day I took the train back to Yorkshire, and at five that evening received a phone call form my agent. He reported that my editor had offered thirty thousand pounds for the trilogy. Now, in retrospect, this is astounding on several counts: that the editor had got back to my agent so quickly, that he’d offered so much, and that he’d risked his neck on three books. These days, none of these would happen: the proposal would have to go through Marketing and Acquisition, as, sadly, editors are no longer as powerful as they once were (and this process might take weeks or months); thirty grand would not be offered for a trilogy by a mid-list writer; and no publishers would risk the same mid-lister with a three book contract.
I think the reasons – though I’m no expert – are as you mentioned: with the advent of Amazon and other outlets, the reader can buy books at ridiculously reduced prices (the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, back in 2004 I think it was, might have had something to do with this). New books are just harder to sell. And, with the rise of self-publishing and small presses, there are more books out there to choose from. Now this latter can be seen as both good and bad. From my personal, selfish viewpoint as a jobbing freelance writer, increased choice means reduced income, of course (and I no longer receive advances anything like as heady as ten grand a pop! I’m lucky to get half that, and sometime a quarter…). Self-published books are often execrable, are not edited, and on the surface hard to tell from the real thing: however, many small presses are taking up the slack and putting out the literary, edgy, cutting-edge titles that the bigger houses, for financial reasons, dare not risk publishing. It is, I think, a good time to be a reader… but not a professional writer.
GJ: How did you get started in writing and if writing had not become your full time occupation, what could you see as your alternative career path?
EB: I started writing when I started reading – literally, a few days after I read my first novel at the age of fifteen, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and started writing detective stories. (My mother gave me Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, as I was bored one summer just after we’d moved to Australia, and that book changed my life. A few weeks later I saw Silverberg’s collection Sundance and Other Stories in a bookshop in Melbourne, was attracted by the spaceship cover, and bought it.
Silverberg blew my mind, and I knew I had to write SF.) I’d avoided reading novels as a child, had been in the D stream at secondary school in England, and never went to school in Australia, where I landed at the age of 14. So… had my mother never given me that book, and I’d never discovered the wonder of literature… what would I be doing now? I dread to think. I think I would have moved from one bad labouring job to another – though I like cooking, and for a time worked in a Youth Hostel kitchen, and enjoyed that, so I might have taken up catering. I owe my mother so much for giving me that book.
GJ: What would your advice be to new writers / authors?
EB: READ! READ! READ! Soak up influences, work out how others do it. Then write. And NEVER give up. I had over twenty novels rejected before I sold my first one, and well over a hundred short stories rejected before I started selling them. Don’t believe that because you don’t have an education that you can’t write – anyone can write. And don’t let people make you think that there’s something out there – like a disease – call writer’s block. It’s a myth. Write anything, even if it’s rubbish, and eventually the good stuff will come.
GJ: So what does 2019 look like for you in terms of new releases or projects you’re working on? Can we expect you to be concentrating more in the real world now?
EB: I have a lot coming out in 2019. In late 2018, on December 28th, there’s the sixth Langham and Dupre novel, Murder Served Cold. Early next year there’s the third novella in the series of four I’m doing for PS Publishing with Keith Brooke, Insights – about the colonisation of a far away world. That’ll be followed later in the year by the fourth and concluding novella, as yet untitled. PS will be reprinting collected Starship Season novellas, and also The Telemass Quartet, the collected Telemass novellas and a coda. PS are also putting out two collections in October: The Disciples of Apollo and other stories: the Best of Eric Brown, a 120,000 word collection, and The Ice Garden, a short (55k) collection of tales, including three never before published, one of them a Starship Seasons story. I have a novella coming out from the Scottish small press publisher, Stone Owl Press. This is entitled Ace Doubles, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve done for a long while: it’s an autobiographical tale about a SF writer. It’s about science fiction, but can be read as either SF or as mainstream.
I’ve just contracted with Titan Books to deliver a Sherlock Holmes novel by June. This is SF – Sherlock Holmes and the Martian Menace, based on the NewCon Press novella The Martian Simulacra. I’ll be writing that early next year, and then I plan to write another Langham and Dupre mystery. I’m being kept busy.
GJ: Thank you Eric for taking the time to talk with me, it has been a great pleasure and an honour. I wish you luck with the continued success in your career and with your upcoming works. Eric has too many novels to his name to list out here, but you can check out his titles via his website.
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