“Drive Through” by Keith Brooke: The quirky detective had run through all the standard questions. The vehicle’s make and colour, the driver’s description, the victim of the hit and run … But he had missed one very important question: Did you recognise the driver?
One of the most often-repeated pieces of advice to writers is that you should write the book you would want to read, rather than chasing some idea of what readers might be looking for.
That’s good advice for anyone wanting to write their best work, but not necessarily good career guidance. Taking my own career as an example, I started out a little over thirty years ago with a gritty, anguished post-cyberpunk thriller. I followed this with a horror novel that never sold, and then a high-SF duology, and then a fantasy novel about the death of fantasy (and therefore one that didn’t feature a lot of actual fantasy), and then a contemporary crime novel.
If I’d chosen to follow up that first novel with a direct sequel, a top US publisher was willing to publish me at the top of their list, but I held to my artistic principles and followed my muse. No regrets, but my career would have been very different. Hell, if I’d even stuck a little more closely to a single genre groove my career would have been very different. But I genre-hopped and never quite settled – and probably had a far more interesting career as a result.
Anyway, this is a rather long-winded introduction to an idea that occurred to me recently. I’ve written a lot of fiction over the years, and now I’m very far-removed from actually writing those early books. What would it be like to re-read some of them? Would I find that it all came rushing back and it’d be something akin to that umpteenth editing pass where you’re sick of the words you’ve written and don’t believe anyone might find them even vaguely interesting? Or might that distance actually allow me to read the books with fresh eyes?
So I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m not intending to slavishly reread every word I’ve ever written, but there are some interesting concepts back there. Like that fantasy novel about the death of fantasy and belief. It’s an idea that’s been explored elsewhere, of course, but this was my take on it: a story set in the tail end and aftermath of a brutal civil war, where some people rally around faith while others question any kind of god who might allow such carnage. Early drafts went by the title Scar Tissue, and my lead character was called Blair, in acknowledgement of George Orwell, whose Homage to Catalonia was one of the big influences on the setting and dramatic tensions. The novel was a very near miss, with interest from a major publisher taking it right up to the point where it was listed in their Forthcoming Titles catalogue, but internal changes at the company before signatures hit the contract led to it falling through the gaps. After that, it was a difficult book to place – for a variety of reasons, one of which was that it didn’t fit any neat publishing categories, being neither mainstream nor out and out fantasy. It ended up coming out under the title Lord of Stone from Cosmos Books in the US in the late 1990s, and then I republished it through infinity plus a few years ago.
Rereading it now has been an interesting experience. The book is full of familiar echoes, like a movie rewatched after several years. There are scenes I remember vividly, and others that have surprised me; characters who are like old friends or colleagues, and others who I had totally forgotten.
Within a very short space of time I was totally absorbed in the story of a young man in the thick of a foreign war. First a bystander, Bligh (as I renamed him, because by the time the book came out a certain other Blair figured large in UK political life) soon becomes passionately involved in the struggles of people he has come to know and love; and before long he’s fighting in the international corps, while powerful forces of the old religion close in around him, and he is clearly being marked out as something special. The fantasy element remains ambiguous – just like the characters in the novel, the reader can choose to believe or not, a fine balance that, for me at least, draws me right into Bligh’s struggles to understand what is happening to him.
It’s odd. This is a book I wrote. These are words that occupied a year or more of my life back in the early 1990s. And yet I’ve actually enjoyed reading this novel as much as any other novel I’ve read this year. Does that sound egotistical? Arrogant?
Perhaps. But remember that piece of writing advice. Always write the story you would want to read. And by setting Lord of Stone aside for a couple of decades I find that I’ve given myself enough distance to prove that true. This novel might not have the same resonances, or power to move, for you or anyone else, but for me this is exactly the book I would want to read. And regardless of career trajectory, marketing, or any other aspect of a writer’s life, you can’t really ask for any greater success than that.
Trace: a country where magic is dying out. A country at war with itself. A country where the prophecies of the Book of the World have started to come true.
Bligh: a young foreigner, drawn irresistibly to the war in Trace. A man who has rejected religion, yet appears to be possessed by one of the six Lords Elemental. Bligh thinks he’s going mad, but if he is then it’s a madness shared by others…
‘Satisfying prose … well realised and visualised characters … powerful and vivid portrayal of the conditions of war.’ –Eric Brown
‘Keith Brooke’s prose achieves a rare honesty and clarity, his characters always real people, his situations intriguing and often moving.’ –Jeff VanderMeer
“The story had been gestating since I was a teenager fascinated by the family events of a close relative, the Sufism, a certain annual festival held in the grounds of the house that I’ve renamed Qila. That house and its backyard community played a massive part in the formation of my values. There was a solidarity there, a unity, that transcended barriers and survived all the tittle-tattle, minor resentments and disagreements to be expected in all normal communities…”
“Husain deftly handles a feast of characters and twisting plots. This is a cleverly written, challenging novel which asks the question what does it mean to be happy and fulfilled? … A rare glimpse of what life may or may not be like for modern Indian royalty. A fascinating read.”
Zara Hamilton leads an apparently charmed life as a human rights lawyer in London – but she is haunted by questions about her past. Why did her mother disappear? What made her college sweetheart, the Maharaja of Trivikrampur, abandon her? Why did her husband renege on a plan to return to her native India? And why has she avoided visiting her much-loved family home in Qila, Trivikrampur? After ten years as a Muslim in Britain, bereft of a homeland, Zara finally seeks the answers. When she returns to Qila, her world is shatteringly different, her aristocratic family mired in complications and far-right politics on the rise. Amid the unrest of a changing nation, Zara seeks the key to her mother’s secret as contemporary resentments clash with a harmonious past.
“A Restless Wind piques the reader’s interest from the very beginning with fine details and a strong and engaging protagonist.” The Deccan Herald
“A fascinating emotional narrative of an expatriate, A Restless Wind intertwines the old with the new in modern India.” Muneeza Shamsie, Newsline (Pakistan)
“When India Exotic meets India Embattled a great new transcontinental heroine is born. Husain has put the characters together with great care. But it is Zara who is the novel’s anchor and her confusion over her identity propels the plot.” Kaveree Bamzai, India Today
“One intriguing trait of Husain’s narration is its delicately filigreed details. Her descriptions are graphic, colourful and semiotically nuanced. The semiotized narrative brings home to the reader the contrasted cultural set-ups, or, in phenomenological terms, the conflicting ‘lifeworlds’ that the different characters in the novel inhabit.” Arnab Bhattacharya, The Telegraph, India
Shahrukh Husain writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. She has written four themed retellings of folklore and myth for Virago and worked on scripts commissioned by Merchant-Ivory and Buena Vista among others. Currently, she is developing TV projects for SKY, KUDOS and BENDIT FILMS while working on her second novel.
She is a practising analytical psychotherapist and has worked extensively with asylum-seekers and PTSD survivors.
She was born in Karachi, Pakistan and divides her time between northwest London and East Sussex.
Another of these excellent volumes collecting nearly 40 non-fiction essays from some of the most exciting authors working today. Offering an unique insight into the creative and publishing process, these essay reveal all the beauty, effort and frustration that inevitable comes hand in hand with the urge to write, edit or illustrate.
Contributors include Steven Erikson, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Hugh Howey, Richard Kadrey, Christopher Fowler, Gary Gibson, Eric Brown, Garry Kilworth, Steve Rasnic Tem, Ian R. MacLeod, Cat Sparks, James Everington, Pat Cadigan, Freda Warrington, Nick Mamatas, Robert Reed and many more.
And what’s more, like the earlier volumes editors Kristijan Meic and Ivana Steiner are donating all proceeds to the charity Epilepsy Action, who have been hugely supportive of my daughter Molly (to whom this book is dedicated).
First, a background note:
This is one of those blog hop things where one writer makes a blog post and tags others to follow on with a post on the same subject. In this case, I was tagged by Neil Williamson, a writer I’ve long-admired and whose fabulous novel The Moon King is just out. Also tagged in Neil’s post were Chris Beckett and James Everington, so I’m keeping excellent company.
So… what are three things I don’t write? This is actually a tough one, given that I write in many different genres under a few different pen-names.
What I’m asked for.
One of my favourite things is to be asked to write something specific – a story for a themed anthology, a feature on a particular subject. But I always want to do things differently. Hell, my first reaction when Neil asked if I’d like to write this blog piece was to wonder how I could subvert it and write something completely different. Don’t get me wrong: I can and do hit the brief when required, and like almost any writing project I enjoy doing so, but my inclination is always to look for another direction. I could dress this up in all kinds of ways: if you’re writing for a themed anthology, for example, it makes sense to write that story that just hits the brief but is totally different, rather than one of the many that hit the brief comfortably, and predictably. So is it a deliberate career strategy? God no! It’s a gut thing, an instant reaction that has often served me well; the career strategy is to then step back and judge whether to trust that instinct or rein it in.
The same story, over and over again.
Years – decades! – ago, one then-prominent anthology editor told me about a dinner party he’d just attended with other then-prominent anthology and magazine editors. They got to talking about the new wave of writers emerging at the time (this was late 1980s or early 1990s, when the Interzone generation were starting to get lots of attention). They discussed various names and when mine came up, this editor said that what he really liked about me was that whenever he got an A4 envelope with my return address on it (that shows how long ago this was), he never knew what was going to be inside. He meant this in a good way, not a creepy-stalker way. He explained that every story I sent him was different to the last; the others around the table agreed that this was so. Career strategy? Again: God no! A career strategy would have been to hit a trope and hit it strong, not keep flitting around between all the multitude of things that interested me. A career strategy would have been to accept that huge offer I received from a leading US publisher to write a sequel to my first novel (military SF), rather than insist on following my muse and writing a fantasy novel about the death of fantasy…
Sorry, I know this reveals my inner heathen, but I just don’t get poetry, no matter how hard I try. Sometimes, when poetry is being read, it works for me. I love John Hegley’s work, for instance, but that’s probably more because it’s funny and comes close to stand-up comedy; I’ve enjoyed Martin Newell’s work, too, for similar reasons (he lives in the same village as me, so I’ve heard him read a few times). At least when poetry is being read I have someone controlling the pacing for me; if I’m reading poetry myself I think I rush, as if I’m reading prose, and I don’t give the words the space and time they need. Music works far better for me: I understand lyrics, and I write songs because when poetry is tied to music I can get my head around it – the words are paced for me. But poetry in its own right? I don’t get it, and so, however much I’d like to, there’s really no point in me trying to write any.
And now for three things I do write:
Scenes that not only make the reader squirm and wonder where the fuck they came from but which do the same to me.
My virtual reality novel The Accord had several such scenes, one of which actually prompted one of my writing students to stop me in the street and, with a somewhat aghast look on his face, ask me what was wrong with my head; he meant it as a compliment. The premise of the book is that what is, in effect, a VR heaven has been created where you are uploaded on your death and are then immortal; in a world devastated by climate change and resource shortages, there’s a scene in a refugee camp where a VR team is recording people’s personas so they can then be uploaded when ready. A mother waits until her little daughter has been recorded and then, as calm as anything, murders her child in front of everyone so that the girl will not have to wait. I didn’t see that scene coming until it unfolded before me, and I could barely type fast enough to keep up. When I finished writing the scene I was exhausted and spent and had no idea what had just happened. There are other far more extreme mind-fuck scenes in that book, and I still don’t know where they came from. What they do have in common is that they take a premise and extrapolate it as far as possible. And then some. As far as I’m concerned, hitting those scenes are as good as the writing process can ever be.
Certain tropes I never thought I’d tackle.
This year marks 25 years as a professionally-published writer for me. Passing 20 years and then approaching 25 seemed to trigger something; that and editing a book about the sub-genres of SF for Palgrave Macmillan. These things made me aware of which genre tropes I’d tackled, and which I’ve avoided. And they made me wonder why. Three big ones stood out: aliens, alternate history and time travel. I could have taken this as a challenge to go ahead and write about these subjects, but I didn’t. Not consciously, at least. Subconsciously, however, it seemed to set the what-if? part of my mind working. I didn’t write aliens because I couldn’t make them convincing enough for me to last the duration of an entire novel. I didn’t want to write aliens that were merely humans in rubber suits, but then if you write something truly alien how do you get inside it enough to find any kind of story we can relate to? I didn’t do alternate history because I don’t have enough historical expertise to either come up with the inspiration or make it credible. I didn’t do time travel because, well, it’s all been done before, hasn’t it? So that what-if? part of my mind came up with Harmony, a novel crammed full of aliens in what was to me the ultimate alternate history, addressing the Fermi paradox as an added bonus; that it was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award was an added added bonus. And Tomorrow, a time travel story that goes to town with the whole concept as a bunch of teenagers struggle with destiny and a future that nobody in their right mind would want.
I’ve included this, at least partly because it’s a bit of a surprise to myself, so maybe it will be to whoever reads this, too. A little context… Back in the early days my output was probably fifty-fifty between horror and other genres. My first novel was SF; when I finished the first draft of that I was on such an adrenalin rush that the very next day I started an unplanned horror novel. That second novel never sold, but I think it shows at least that my attentions were divided. My short fiction included a lot of horror, enough to later be gathered together in the collection Embrace. But then it kind of tailed off. I was finding more success as an SF author, and that seemed to feed the part of my brain that came up with ideas: as SF took up an increasing proportion of my time, so more and more of the new ideas were SF, too. Looking through my bibliography, I see that my last published horror story was “Embrace”, back in May 2004. (As a sidenote, most of my teen fiction as Nick Gifford was dark stuff, but even there, the most recent horror novel came out in 2005.) But recently things have changed again. I’ve returned to full-time writing and for one reason or another my short fiction has turned to horror, once more. I’ve just sold a horror story I’m particularly pleased with to Postscripts, and the next thing I do after drafting this blog post will be editing another new horror tale, a particularly creepy piece where I’ve tried to make a modern office a dark and scary place. Given some of the places I’ve worked, perhaps that’s not too much of a stretch, but hey.
Passing it on
To keep this blog hop going, I’ve asked three more fabulous authors to tell us three things they write about, and three they don’t: Kim Lakin-Smith, Stephen Palmer and Mike Revell. I’ll link to their pieces when they’re up.
Story Behind the Book: Volume 2 collects over 30 non-fiction essays from some of the most exciting authors working today. Chronicling the process of writing and editing speculative fiction, these essays provide a unique glimpse behind the scenes.
Contributors include Ellen Ullman, S.M. Wheeler, Laurie Frankel, Paul McAuley, Marcus Sakey, Neal Asher, Ian Tregillis, Edward M. Lerner, Will McIntosh, Madeline Ashby, Nina Allan, Ken Scholes, Keith Brooke, Jasper Kent, Yoon Ha Lee, Ted Kosmatka, Daniel Abraham, Erin Hoffman, Samuel Sattin, Jack Skillingstead, Douglas Nicholas, Paul Tobin, Jill Shultz, Jay Posey, Eric Brown, Samit Basu, Gina X. Grant, Elizabeth Massie, Tom Vater, Django Wexler, Bradley Beaulieu, Jason M. Hough, Lou Morgan, Paul S. Kemp.
Cover art: a photograph of Hoechst stained non-small cell lung cancer cell. Finding cure for cancer is part of daily work for one of our journalists but similarly to Volume 1, all proceeds from Volume 2 will be donated to Epilepsy Action, in our opinion an equally important cause.
Story Behind the Book: Volume 2 is available from:
It was quite a simple idea. Every week for a year, I’d set iTunes to shuffle, let it pick the next song at random, and then I’d sit down and write a story inspired by that song and publish it on the web.
In part it was a bit of fun, but in part it was also a really useful lesson about discipline, and not waiting for inspiration. I was working on a novel at the same time, plus the usual family and day job commitments, so I didn’t have much time to spare. No time for writer’s block. No time for procrastination. No time for mulling over ideas or scrapping and starting again, no time for second or third drafts. Just listen. Write. Quick scan for typos. Publish. Repeat.
There were times when it was hard, but I learned a lot about not waiting for inspiration, instead just writing and writing until something took shape, and I could discard what I didn’t need, and keep what felt right. Just start writing, and trust that something would come. It’s always a satisfying feeling to have written, but it’s even better when the writing process itself is enjoyable. I enjoyed writing the stories for 52 Songs most when the words and ideas just flowed, as if already shaped before I thought them. But exactly where was all this coming from?
Some of my favourite stories from the project are those that just seemed to appear from… somewhere. Re-reading the year of stories with a critical eye, I can’t see a difference in quality between the ideas I sweated over, and those which arrived, fully formed, almost before I knew it. I’ve always been cynical about the idea of waiting for the muse, as it’s an excellent excuse not to write and I really don’t need any more of those. Sometimes though, in those moments when the ideas just rush in from nowhere, I can at least imagine the muses gathered in a corner, nodding approvingly.
But that’s just an all-too human trait of ascribing outside agency, to what comes from within. I’ve always been fascinated by how we can better feed the subconscious, stoke up its fires and let it run riot with its tools: everything we have ever been, or thought, or known.
I’m also fascinated by how we listen to what it’s telling us. That’s the trick, and creative artists have found many ways to do it: long walks in the country with the dog, long walks inside their head with drugs, running (or in my case, cycling) long and hard, drinking long and hard, losing themselves in music, the shower or the bath, staring out of windows on trains. The endless chattering monkey mind settles for a moment or two, the subconscious seizes its chance, there’s a shuffling and a clicking, the puzzle pieces move a little further into place, and the words flow.
Of course, as soon as the hard work of revision starts, the muses and your subconscious all shrug, pretend to look busy, and mutter, ‘You’re on your own now, pal’. But for 52 Songs, 52 Stories, I learned better ways of getting that first part out, and onto the page.
How would you describe your latest novel, Autodrome? Death Race with a soul. Autodrome is my wink to the gear-nut and the petrol-head, from rusting rat rods to caterpillar-tread wheelchairs to howling V8s. Its action-adventure with a hefty dose of Indiana-style questing. It’s also a story of survival against the odds and trying to not just beat but better the system.
On one level, it’s a fairly straightforward quest story, what makes it stand out for me is the lovingly detailed backdrop. Tell us a bit about the city of Autodrome. Everything I write has a strong basis in fact; for me, it is what makes a story engaging and, ultimately, believable. While researching Autodrome I read up on MotorCity, a retail, sporting, recreational and residential development in Dubai. (Incidentally, this was prior to the evolution of the ‘Autodrome’ that now takes pride of place in the development – science fiction becoming science fact, god damn it!) I wondered what would happen if race fans and vehicle enthusiasts flocked to MotorCity in droves; it would soon outgrow itself and be forced to relocate.
At the same time, I needed to consider the geography of a new UAE redevelopment. Given the arid climate, the siting of the city next to a water source – Lady Luck Lough – was essential, as was keeping it in a country rich in oil. Next came the inner workings of the city, and this was where I really got to have fun just imagining all of the out-there possibilities for a future world dedicated to racing. Equally, I wanted the environment to have its roots in real-world commerce, for instance advertising revenue comes from MasterCard, Antram, et al.
For me, cities are characters in their own right. If characters are to come to life for the reader, they have to live in a world that feels gritty and all-encompassing and tangible. This meant giving Autodrome a seedy side; while the west of the city revels in the spoils of the sport, the east is drug-addled and desperately poor, its young people siphoned off to race for cash and perpetuate the dream.
The novel’s protagonists are mostly 15 to 18 years old, and so could the book be read as a young adult novel; but then it’s equally easy as an adult novel and it’d be a shame if it was overlooked by anyone not wanting to read “kids’ stuff”. Who do you see as the audience for this book? Autodrome exists very much in the ‘crossover’ between YA and adult. The decision to focus on teens was based on some early feedback which suggested the story would have more punch with a younger cast of characters. I really hope that readers who have enjoyed my work in the past will agree that, stylistically, Autodrome stays firmly in my ballpark. I haven’t indulged my characters’ youth; rather, they are expected to earn a crust from an early age, and they have the pride, skill and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep going when older competitors end up dead or jaded.
Something that is always really important to me is to retain my political stance as a writer. The crossover potential of Autodrome allowed me to feature a multicultural society and explore gender, disability and sexuality as part of the natural human condition rather than makes them the sole focus of the plot.
Your research and knowledge show through in the best possible ways – was it an easy book to write, or tough to hit that level of verisimilitude? I did a lot of research before and during the writing of Autodrome. The race scenes were intrinsic to the book’s success, of course, and I did get carried away with the numbers of those, eventually cutting a few scenes that had taken a fair amount of time to write. I was also very conscious that not everyone shares my love of mechanical detail, but I figured there had to be a balance. This was, after all, my ode to the hotrodder scene and I wanted there to be a level of retro-cool and gear-geek self-indulgence. I had the added bonus of being friends with Lee Whitmore, petrol-head and rodder, who didn’t seem to object to spending many an evening drinking beer and talking shop.
My real hope with Autodrome is that it fires the imagination of readers, even if they don’t have a vested interest in vehicles. I also wanted to create a world where girls race just as hard as boys and on an even playing field.
What are you working on now? I am working on my next adult book with the provisional title of Curtain Falls, but I’m sure that will change. It is a challenging book to write because it will cross time periods and has its roots in the notion of man as animal, the value of the written word, and fascism. Some pretty heavy subjects which make my head spin! Its early days so I don’t know how the book will pan out, but it feels like a book I should push myself to write, no matter how terrifying the prospect.
What have you recently finished? I have just completed two children’s books, The Mouse Morrow Map and The Wylde Witches. They are part of a six part fantasy series featuring 12 year old Scarlet White and her adventures next door in Lone Hall, home to sorcerers, elder spirits, boggles, ghouls, sprites and meddlesome mice. I love writing the series between my adult stories; it is freeing to let the imagination flow, no holds barred.
What’s recently or soon out? My debut novel, Tourniquet, is being released as a limited edition by Jurassic London in 2014. I am very excited to see what Jurassic are going to do with Tourniquet; there is talk of including artist plates and the cover art is a striking take on the religious iconography which features in the book.
Newcon Press recently launched Looking Landwards, an anthology commissioned by The Institution of Agricultural Engineers and which includes my short story, ‘Soul Food.’ This is a prequel piece to my novel, Cyber Circus.
Describe your typical writing day. After the school run, breakfast and a stalk over the fields with Drake, our fat lab, my writing day starts at 10.00am. I write long-hand, in notebooks or on scraps of paper, and go through a lot of pens. If I am writing a new story, I sit in my ‘writing chair’ beside a window that looks out over the garden and some gorgeous old trees in nearby gardens and I think or write. The best stories flow very quickly, and I research extra details as I go. Other days, I’m in the office trying to make sense of my scrawls and typing up on the laptop. I’d like to say I break for lunch – more like I eat at my desk while catching up on news.
By 4.00pm my daughter Scarlet is back from school and it is time for homework, housework and slaving over a hot stove. Work begins again at 7.00pm until 9.00pm, at which point I pour a large wine or several, listen to music and chat over plot ideas with my husband, Del, or collapse on the sofa to watch some spectacularly bad sci-fi.
What would you draw attention to from your back-list? I really liked the idea of packaging my novel, Cyber Circus, with a sister novella, Black Sunday; there are overlapping themes and, while both are stand alone, this lent an extra dimension to both stories. I would like to publish Black Sunday in its own right in the future as it garnered good reviews and it is my personal favourite of my stories.
My short story,The Island of Peter Pandora, is a steampunk reimagining of Peter Pan and The Island of Doctor Moreau. I think Peter is one of my most disturbed characters to date! The story first appeared in Resurrection Engines (Snowbooks, 2012) and was selected for The Best British Fantasy 2013 (Salt Publishing, 2013).
Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug? I am overwhelmed that I get to meet so many incredibly talented writers, editors, publishers, marketers and artists. Everyone works so hard and I am always amazed by how supportive the writing community really is.
To highlight a few real contemporary gems, I’d say authors Adrian Tchaikovsky, Nina Allen, Gareth L Powell, and Den Patrick are among my favourites. I am a huge fan of Philip Reeve’s YA series, Mortal Engines, and I can never get enough of Diana Wynne Jones’s mischievous fantasies.
I would also like to give a special mention to Ian Whates (writer, editor, publisher and all round talent) of Newcon Press, and Jared and Anne Shurin of Jurassic London. Both small presses are doing amazing work with both established authors and exciting new talent.
If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be? Just the one? 😉
Plot is everything.
So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading? This is such a difficult question. In terms of large publishers, commerciality is key, which means, more than ever, the independents are home to books which push boundaries or fall just outside of the traditional remit. Authors need to have lots of fingers in lots of pies if they are to make any kind of a living out of writing; the majority have daytime jobs and write when they can. I like the idea that publishing will evolve into a far more autonomous model where writers are solely responsible for their output, but, at the same time, this is already a solitary profession.
I am horrified by the return percentages from the behemoth which is Amazon – if ever there was a science fiction horror in the making, it is the story of Amazon’s monopoly over book consumerism. But I am a realist, and I am excited by the evolution of publishing in one of two directions. The first will be a much more stripped back art form. Gone the palpability of book production; instead the sole focus will be the consumption of words. The second will be the enrichment of the eBook format through reader interaction and all manner of artistic content.
As for what readers will be reading, I’m hoping that teenage boys will find a voice and either refute the belief they don’t read or find a renewed interest in books. I think this is where the virtual format may come into its own.
More… Kim Lakin-Smith is the author of Tourniquet, Cyber Circus – shortlisted for the 2012 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel – the YA novella, Queen Rat, and Autodrome. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Interzone, Black Static, and Celebration: 50 years of the BSFA. 2014 sees the release of Tourniquet as a limited edition run from Jurassic London.
Human beings are strange mammals. Just thought I’d get that out of the way.
In the animal kingdom, all mammals eat, sleep, mate, and fight to defend themselves. (This, of course, applies to non-mammalian animals as well.) But human beings are the only type of mammal that also questions their own existence and identity. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with the limited time allotted to us?
Evolutionarily speaking, intuitively, this is exceedingly odd. On the face of it, wondering what you want to be when you grow up should actually interfere with, rather than aid with, your continued survival; debating the merits of becoming a fireman versus an astronaut is not entirely helpful if a lion is chewing through your stomach. But this strange and constant questioning has actually done the opposite, and led to human beings, as comedian Louis CK famously pointed out, successfully pulling ourselves out of the food chain. We have survived as a species not in spite of this preoccupation, but because of it.
These questions have spurred on both miraculous innovation and horrific atrocities, but regardless of the results, they are at the fundamental heart of humanity. Literature is one of the few avenues so thoroughly equipped to examine these questions, and speculative fiction is particularly keen, through its slanted focus, on transcending mere fact and approaching truth. (Although anyone with a definitive answer is selling something.)
My very first story was published ten years ago, but I was writing with the active goal of publication for the decade before that, and writing because it was a joyful and fulfilling activity for the decade before that. In all of that time, my fiction has approached these fundamental questions in various ways, lightly or heavily, obliquely or head-on. It is a life-long project, what Zoran Zivkovic calls “the noble art of fiction writing”.
Take the title story of my new collection, Strange Mammals (published this month in paperback and ebook formats by Infinity Plus). The central animals that the protagonist encounters over the course of the narrative—a wombat, an ocelot, a fictional Borgesian catoblepas—can be seen as various aspects of the narrator’s psyche, but the wonderful (and, yes, noble) thing about this kind of story is the ambiguity that allows for all these bizarre animals, and others besides, to exist independent of mere mental projection. This dual existence, which is only possible within the arena of the fantastic, opens up those fundamental questions to scrutiny. If an alcoholic talking wombat with a penchant for Greek food can take over our lives so completely with its forceful personality, where does that then place us on the food chain? Can we still think of ourselves as existentially superior in the face of such a creature? Or else, if it only exists as a hallucination, what does its presence mean for human consciousness itself?
This may elevate literature (and my own in particular) to too lofty a height. After all, stories have to entertain, right? (And, in all honesty, “Strange Mammals” is probably the funniest story I have ever written; it’s difficult for me to read it even silently without bursting into laughter.) One must be engaged with the story or else it becomes discarded in favor of an endless number of diversions and distractions. But this entertainment factor is what makes the fiction so profoundly lasting, that viral insistence which leads to the injection of higher considerations.
What could be stranger than that?
“Jason Erik Lundberg’s stories, launched from the real world on a trajectory to the surreal, fuse the idle daydream with the desperate heart. You should read them.”
—John Kessel, author of The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories
The guys over at the excellent Upcoming4.me website have just published a book of essays by speculative fiction authors about the writing of their books, and it’s a book I’m delighted to be a part of, with my own entry about the writing of Genetopia.
What’s more, it’s not only a great book for anyone interested in what goes into producing SF and fantasy novels, all proceeds are going to Epilepsy Action, a cause particularly close to my own heart, as EA have been fantastic in supporting my daughter Molly as she faces the challenges presented by the condition.
The ebook is a bargain (I just picked one up from Amazon for less than £2), and a paperback will follow very soon, so why not pick up a copy or two?
Story Behind the Book: Volume 1 collects nearly 40 non-fiction essays on writing and editing speculative fiction written by some of the most exciting authors and editors. Essays cover everything from getting an initial creative burst, worldbuilding, tackling writer’s block, to the final process of publication. Some of the essays are personal, some rather technical but all of them, without an exception, provide an unique and fascinating insight into the mind of an author.
Contributors include Ian Whates, Michael Logan, Mathieu Blais and Joel Casseus, Mark T. Barnes, Lisa Jensen, Lee Battersby, L. E. Modesitt Jr., Keith Brooke, Joanne Anderton, Jo Walton, F.R. Tallis, Ian R. MacLeod, Guy Haley, Gavin Smith, Francis Knight, Eric Brown, Clifford Beal, Susan Palwick, Rhiannon Held, Ben Jeapes, Nina Allan, Mike Shevdon, Mur Lafferty, Norman Lock, Seth Patrick, Gemma Malley, Freda Warrington, Freya Robertson and more.