An interview with Eric Brown

Over the past couple of years I’ve started reading works by Eric Brown. I started with the Bengal Station trilogy and then worked my way on to some of his previous novels, The Fall of Tartarus, Starship Summer, Starship Fall, Meridian Days, Approaching Omega and Engineman. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read from him and will continue to pick up his novels whenever they’re released with great anticipation.

With the re-release of Engineman from Solaris (the book was originally published in 1994) I took this opportunity to see if Eric would be happy to answer some questions – the result of which is below.

I’d like to thank Eric for taking the time to do so and hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it!

eric-brownFirstly, many thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. To kick things off, and for those not familiar with your work, can you tell me a little about yourself and your writing – and why science fiction?

I’ve been a freelance writer now for a little over twenty years and I’ve written almost forty books – SF novels and short stories, novellas and children’s books. Born in Keighley, West Yorkshire back in 1960… though I find it hard to believe it was that long ago… I left school at fourteen when I moved with my family to Australia. I didn’t read a novel until I was fifteen – when my mother gave me Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table… I was bored and had nothing to do. I can safely say that the book changed my life. From that day forward I wanted to be a writer. A few months later I discovered Wells and Silverberg, and I knew I wanted to write SF. It’s the freedom, I suppose, of being able to write anything I like, unconstrained by this reality, by mundane preoccupations, by having to research (which I hate doing) – when I write, it’s a stream of words that come from the subconscious, which then have to be harnessed and honed. I like writing adventure fiction, and I like also to write about decent people – people the reader will come, I hope, to care about. I often say that I like to think I write SF for people who don’t usually like, or read much, SF. A writer I admire – who is accessible – is Bob Shaw. I’d like to think – though I’m sure I’m flattering myself – that I’m a Bob Shaw kind of writer.

Your recent novel, Engineman, is actually a re-release that saw its first publication in the early 1990’s, which includes the main novel and some short stories set in that universe. Without giving too much away can you give a description of these stories? And how different is this version compared to the original?

The eight stories collected in the volume are all set at certain times in the future ‘Engineman’ universe – they either feature Enginemen and -women or use the Engineman background. “The Time-Lapsed Man”, the first Engineman story I wrote, is about the terrible neurological effects some Enginemen suffer after pushing starship through the nada-continuum. This is taken up in the novel, where one of the characters suffers from Black’s Syndrome. The reason for the syndrome – for there is a reason – is explained in the novel. Another story features Dan Leferve (but before he features in the novel); it’s a crime story written from the viewpoint of his sidekick. One of my favourite tales is “The Girl Who Died for Art and Lived”, about the creator of a new art form and the Engineman survivor of a terrible starship burn-out. The final story in the collection is set after the Enginemen have been made redundant, and is set on the Saharan artist’s resort of Sapphire Oasis. One Engineman story, “Pithecanthropus Blues” I left out because its light-hearted tone didn’t sit well with the rest of the tales.

Before re-publication of Engineman, I went through it and tidied it up – cutting redundancies, re-jigging patches of bad writing, getting rid of inconsistencies etc. I also added the penultimate chapter. On re-reading the novel last year, I realised that it cried out to have the chapter included. I don’t now why I didn’t spot it almost twenty years ago when I wrote the novel: I’d like to think I’m more experienced and a better writer now.

The novel is graced by a marvellous Dominic Harman spaceship cover – about a thousand times better than the terrible ‘fireball’ of the original Pan edition.

The Time Lapsed Man was a particular favourite of mine while reading Engineman, the idea behind it is great and it makes for a really interesting and heartfelt tale. The short story cried out for further exploration of the concept – was that one of the reasons behind the Engineman novel?

I must be honest here: it’s so long since I wrote the novel that I can’t recall much about the process. I suspect that the desire to explore Black’s Syndrome was uppermost in my mind, as I do recall that I had a lot of fun writing the time-lapsed chapters in the novel (and trying to get them right). In the original version, there’s a glaring error in the sequence in which Bobby eats something – I forget what – and which I corrected in the rewrite.

Following on from your comment about the wonderful cover art of Engineman, you’ve been blessed of late with Solaris wrapping your work in some truly excellent artwork. It’s a fairly common talking point about books, the way that a cover can sway a buyer to pick up the novel (I know I’ve done it more than once). Do you have any input on what goes on the cover?

Quite a bit, yes. I’m asked who I’d like as the artist, and then I usually liaise with the artist on the covers. That’s certainly true of the next two covers due (Guardians of the Phoenix and The Kings of Eternity). I had no input into the Bengal books, but Jon Sullivan did a brilliant job with the covers.

Speaking of your upcoming releases, can you give any tidbits of what to expect from them? I also noticed on your bibliography page of your website that you’ve previously written a story called The Kings of Eternity – any relation to the upcoming novel?

Guardians of the Phoenix , published this December, grew out of a long short story I wrote for Mike Ashley’s Apocalyptic SF anthology. I realised when I finished the tale that only part of the story was told. There was a lot more to it, both before the short opened, and after it closed. It’s a post Breakdown story about a group of survivors in a word with very little water and precious little vegetation, and their quest for water and salvation. It’s bleak, but as ever with my work it is hopeful, and there is redemption.

The Kings of Eternity (due out next April) is based, very loosely, on the central idea in the story of the same title published in SF Age about ten years ago. The novel is about a group of friends and their discovery, in the Hampshire woods in 1935, of a portal to outer space. What comes through the portal will change their lives for ever, and the story follows these individuals over the course of the next sixty or so years. I’ve been writing the novel, on and off, for ten years, and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve done.

Going back to your previous work, a common aspect that I’ve noticed is the presence of art, either through individual characters or the storylines in general. Of course, you manage to put a suitably sci-fi spin on their creations, but why the use of this topic?

I’m interested in art, in artists and in the creative process. I don’t call myself an artist in any way, but I do create, and I find fascinating the lives of people who must create in order to imbue their lives with meaning. I like inventing future forms of art, and tying these in with interesting, character-based tales. I’ve recently finished the fourth and final Starship novella, featuring a group of friends in Magenta Bay on a far flung colony planet. A couple of these novellas feature the artist Matt Sommers and his creations. The series is a homage to the work of Michael Coney: I think they have the flavour of Mike’s Peninsula stories, which also featured artists. I suppose part of the attraction of writing about artists is that they are emotional, complex people, great for placing in interesting situations in fictions.

You also quite often use a former starship pilot in your novels – is there something about them that makes you want to explore them, or do they often fit into the plot you have in mind when writing?

I think the latter. I really am the most un-technology-minded person on the planet. I don’t even drive a car, and have no interest in machines etc. So it isn’t a matter of writing about pilots because of any inherent glamour of their position, just that – as you suggest – they help the plot along. I can think of three in my books… The protagonist of Meridian Days; Josh in Penumbra, and Hawk in the starship novellas… plus all the Enginemen, of course, though technically they’re not pilots. And there might be more hidden among the pages. My memory…

Regarding your writing, how do you go about planning a novel? Are you a writer that can sit down and write with only a loose idea of where the story is going, or do you plan the story from start to finish before sitting down to tell it?

In the early days I plotted everything, made extensive notes, and only then began. Now, with more experience behind me, I no longer have the fear of stalling or becoming blocked, so I often start with an idea, an emotion, a few characters, and once I sit down and start typing, as if by magic the story begins to flow. I’ve just finished the fourth Starship novella, and I had only a vague idea of the setting and the story, but after a page it wrote itself… It did help that I was writing about characters I’ve lived with for years, and liked a lot. But what surprised me was that my subconscious came up with neat plot resolutions, and links back to the earlier novellas, which I had not consciously considered when thinking about the book. A great thing, the subconscious.

You’ve mentioned both Bob Shaw and Michael Coney when talking about your writing – would you say they’re influences on you and your work? Are there any other writers that inspired you down the road?

Bob Shaw is less of an influence on my work – other than that his story-telling ability inspired me when I was younger. Coney influenced me both in his fluent ability to turn a tale and in the things he wrote about: small English towns, groups of friends, artists, colonies holding strong against outside influence, lone, often embittered central characters.

A big inspiration was… and I suppose still is… Rupert Croft-Cooke. He didn’t write SF: he was a mainstream writer who wrote over one hundred and twenty books: over thirty novels, the same number of crime novels under the name of Leo Bruce, more than thirty non-fiction books on a variety of subjects, and twenty-seven volumes of autobiography not so much about himself but about the places he visited and the people he met. I find his industry, his professionalism, and the fact that he never let the bastards grind him down, a true inspiration. I co-run a website about his work at: http://www.croft-cooke.co.uk/

Other than your writing you also write reviews for the Guardian newspaper. As a writer, do you think you look at books differently when reviewing them? And as a reviewer, how do you feel when reading reviews of your work?

No, I read the review books the same as I do when reading books for pleasure: that is, purely for pleasure. As to how I view reviews of my work… Well, I’ve been writing long enough not to be bothered at all about the bad reviews, and I try to take the good reviews with the same pinch of salt. Of course I prefer the latter. But I know that when a book goes out there, some people will hate it, some love it, and some will have a reaction somewhere between. It’s pot luck what kind of reviewer it gets.

Apart from what you read for your Guardian, do you have time to read anything else for pleasure? Are there any writers out there whose next novel becomes a must read for you? And what books would you recommend to a sci-fi fan?

I read four books a month for the Guardian, and I try to fit in one or two for my own pleasure. In the SF field, the must reads are the books of Robert Charles Wilson, probably the finest SF writer working now. For some odd reason his books are no longer published n the UK, which I find amazing. He’s a genius. I also like the novels of Richard Paul Russo (another fine US writer without a British publisher).

I’m a big fan of minor British SF writers of yore (well, from the fifties, sixties, seventies)… minor, that is, in terms of reputation. I read avidly and collect the works of John Christopher, Arthur Sellings, Leonard Daventry, selected E.C Tubbs. As to books I’d recommend? Robert Charles Wilson, obviously, for his seamless integration of SF-nal ideas with characterisation; James Lovegrove for his great prose; Shaw and Coney for their story-telling skills, Robert Silverberg for his Silverbergianness… I enjoy the works of Chris Beckett, whose reputation isn’t as big as it deserves to be.

SF is a massive field, and there are lots of great things out there, books and writers I have still to discover.

And finally, what are you working on at the moment?

I always have short stories on the go. I find myself doing a series of stories over a period of years. At the moment I’m working on the Ed and Ella series: Ed is the Captain of a salvage starship, and Ella his co-pilot; she’s also an AI, and the stories are fast-paced space operas about their adventures. They’ve been published in a variety of places: Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Thrilling Wonder Stories, a Pete Crowther edited DAW anthology, Conflicts… I’ve written ten so far, and I think another two will round off the series.

I’ve written the first story in what I hope will be a series about a character who runs an alien plant nursery in a future Yorkshire, and his entanglements with the far-right government of the time. These are light-hearted tales, despite the politics. The opening story “Seleema and the Spheretrix” was accepted for a HarperCollins anthology a while ago, which was shelved due to the current ‘financial climate’. So it goes.

On the novel front, I have a vague idea – still gestating in the back-brain – for an alien invasion story with a difference: I’ve never done an alien invasion tale before, so I’m looking forward to developing that. I also have several ideas for young adult books and children’s stories.

1 thought on “An interview with Eric Brown”

  1. Thanks for posting that Mark. I read Necropath earlier in the year (probably after reading something on here) and have been meaning to get some more of his work. The cover alone would have convinced me to buy Engineman.

    He seems like a decent guy and I think I'll look out for some of the writers he mentions.

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