Interview with Chaz Brenchley
British Fantasy Award winning author Chaz Brenchley is the author of nine thrillers, most recently Shelter and two fantasy series, The Books of Outremer and Selling Water by the River. As Daniel Fox he has published a Chinese-based fantasy series, beginning with Dragon in Chains, as Ben Macallan, an urban fantasy, Desdæmona. I talked to Chaz about his many hats, and his writing.
Paul Weimer: So let’s begin with a deceptively easy question. Who is Chaz Brenchley?
Chaz Brenchley: Chaz Brenchley is a British novelist and short story writer. He sold his first stories when he was eighteen, and he’s never had another job: which means he’s been making a living from his keyboard for thirty-five years now. He’s published short fiction in almost every genre except Westerns (and that may change). His novels range from mysteries through supernatural thrillers to fantasies and SF. He likes to say he lives down the dirty end of genre fiction; in fact, after thirty years in Newcastle on Tyne, he’s just moved to Silicon Valley with two fractious cats and an unconscionable quantity of books.
Also, Chaz Brenchley is Daniel Fox. Who went to Taiwan for the millennium, as a guest of the government; went back as a guest of his interpreter; studied classical Mandarin for six years after that and then wrote a trilogy set in an analogue world, transposing contemporary Taiwan – loosely – onto imperial China.
Also, Chaz Brenchley is Ben Macallan. Who began life as the narrator of two Chaz Brenchley novels, Dead of Light and Light Errant, but then branched out into writing fiction of his own. His first book, Desdaemona, is an urban fantasy set in an England saturated with mythic figures; the sequel, Pandaemonium, has just been published.
Away from the keyboard, he has been described as “the finest cook in this room”. That isn’t always true.
He has also been described as “the only man we know – apart from Christopher Lee – who’s met both Tolkien and Gandalf.” As far as we know, that one is true.
CB: My first published stories – and ditto my first novel – were straight genre romance, back in the ’70s and ’80s, when it was widely believed that no one would buy a romance with a man’s name on the cover. Actually, come to think, that is still an item of faith with a lot of publishers. I’ve no idea if it’s true or not, but they’re a superstitious lot, so mostly we pander to them where it does no harm. So I grew up with this notion of different identities for different genres. In fact, in my case, it’s become a lot more muddled than that. Back in the early ’90s I was writing serial-killer thrillers and my agent thought I should write category horror on the side, so I initially developed the Daniel Fox persona for that purpose; only then my established publisher started putting out my books as horror anyway, so Daniel went into cold storage after just a few short stories, and Chaz Brenchley shifted from straight crime to supernatural thrillers to full-blown fantasy as the fancy took me.
Meanwhile the computerisation of stock control and the demise of retail price maintenance were wreaking havoc in the book trade, particularly among the mid-list, those of us with a number of books to our name and no bestsellers. It became harder and harder to get our work onto bookstore shelves; the major chain buyers could suddenly click two buttons and glance at a screen and say, “Chaz Brenchley? He writes good books that don’t sell,” and that was that. It’s the sort of reputation you can’t get around – except by changing your name. I was not the first, nor will I have been the last to adopt a nom de guerre in the battlefield that is contemporary publishing. So after two fantasy series under my own name (though come to think, “Chaz Brenchley” is an artefact in any case; it’s not what it says on my birth certificate), the third came out as by the resurrected Daniel Fox.
And then when I wanted to revisit those early supernatural thrillers within the context of the current vogue for urban fantasy, it seemed perversely logical to use the name of my established narrator-character; after two volumes of supposed memoir, of course Ben Macallan would lend his name to out-and-out fiction, as any celebrity does these days.
So, yeah: my pen-names tend to smudge boundaries the way my fiction does.
PW: Your work is all over the map with that variety of names and your publishing history. A lot of writers like to stay in their niche, or worse, are straitjacked into that niche because that’s what their readership (and publishing houses) want. What draws you to write so widely–romance, and horror, and supernatural fantasy, and secondary world fantasy?
CB: Yeah. Back at the end of the ’80s, there were three of us who were the Young Turks of the UK crime-writing scene: there was Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid, and me. Ian and Val settled into that genre, and built themselves solid careers. By the time they were starting to rise like the cream that they are, I’d already drifted away. Partly that was my publisher’s influence – they’d never known quite how to market my books, as I was writing for a market that didn’t actually exist yet (the serial-killer thriller never really took off in the UK until The Silence of the Lambs, and by then I was doing something else; I have always had a dreadful sense of timing), and they took a decision to promote me as a horror writer, just at the time that the bottom fell out of the horror market – but it’s cheap to blame them for something that’s internally driven. In the late ’90s I was in a pub with Ian, after he’d just signed a contract for three more Rebus books. I asked him if he didn’t want to do something different, and he said he was desperate to; but every time he said so, his publishers offered him more money, and he wasn’t in a position to refuse it. Thankfully he is now, and he’s doing new work – but I still look back at that conversation and think about writing twenty books about the same character doing the same job in the same city, and feel grateful that I got out before success could close around me like a trap. Of course I’d love to be that kind of successful – but not at the cost of the work I want to do, and I’ve always wanted to do everything.
I used to think I’d work across the range of media too, TV and film and so forth. I have written plays and poetry, but prose turned out to be my voice of choice; I like the rhythms of fiction, the bright burst of a short story and the slow engagement of a novel, the freedom and the independence. But I do still want to cover the waterfront. I want to dance every dance, I want a display in every window. In my head I’m not a crime writer or a fantasy writer or an SF writer, I’m just a writer. If I wanted to get romantic about it, I’d say I’m a kind of literary hobo; whenever I get restless, I just move on to tackle a new genre. In honesty, I’m probably just greedy. Like a kid in a candy store: I can’t choose, I can’t settle. I love so many kinds of books, why wouldn’t I want to write them all?
CB: Writers should probably be forbidden from talking about process. We’re all fascinated by our own, and appalled by everybody else’s. In public we’ll be all open-minded and “everybody’s different” and “there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays” – but inside we’re all shrieking “Heretic! there is One True Way, and it is mine! mine…!”
However. Me, I am a reformed plottist: which means I sit as far as it is possible to go over on the fundamentalist-plot-denier side of the equation. My process these days is absolute pants.
When I was writing teenage romance, as often as not I’d discuss storylines with editors before I wrote the story. By the time I came to novels, I was quite good at working everything out in advance, writing a synopsis and then writing the book to that synopsis. My then-agent said I followed plots more closely than any other client. Until I hit book three, The Garden, and the synopsis wouldn’t hold up against the weight of the story; no way would those characters have ended that way, given how they’d developed through the course of the book. The way they would go was inevitable by then, but otherwise than I had expected. And then book four, Mall Time, was not conducive to a synopsis, as it doesn’t really have a plot; and by the time I’d improvised my way through that, I was hooked. It’s a much scarier way to work, sans safety-net, but I think it makes for better books. It’s much more true to the way we actually experience the world, things happening day by day as a result of what we did yesterday; it’s the unexpected that feeds narrative, and if the author knows what’s coming then you lose a whole level of revelation.
My favourite book commission resulted from a five-minute phonecall, where she said “What’s next?” and I said,
“Amnesia. Guy wakes up in hospital, he’s lost all recall of the last three months of his life – during which he’s quit his job as a lawyer to start working for the biggest crook in town, he’s dumped his old safe Volvo and bought and wrecked a sports car, he’s left his long-time girlfriend and got married to a woman he can’t remember ever having met. So he has to investigate his own life, to figure out what the hell’s been happening.”
“Sounds great,” she said. “Is there anything supernatural in it?”
“Nope. Why, would you like that?”
“Okay. Um, how do you feel about angels?”
“Okay. It’s about amnesia and a fallen angel…”
Dispossession was commissioned on that basis. That was all I told her, and I knew no more than she did. I had to go hand in hand with the character, figuring out what he’d done and why, and where the angel fitted in. We’ve just republished it as an e-book through Book View Cafe, and I still think it works.
It’s not always that easy; with a new publisher or a new genre, I’m often asked for a synopsis first. But the book soon abandons the synopsis, even if I keep it close at hand. When I started the Outremer books, a character walked into chapter three who was not in the synopsis at all; he ended up one of the most significant figures in the series. Trying to imagine Outremer without him now is the classic Hamlet-without-the-Prince-of-Denmark scenario.
So, yup. Pantser. For me, a book is a journey: I know where I start and I know where I’m going, from Newcastle to Samarcand as it might be, but I have no idea of the route. Extracting meaning from metaphor, I may very well have the first line and the last line, but I’ll have no clue of how we get from here to there, or what happens in between. That’s a journey I take hand in hand with the reader, page by page. We always get there in the end.
PW: I should have guessed that your method of writing has changed and evolved over your career. Besides your process, and the types of writing you have dipped your quill into, how else has your writing changed over your career?
CB: Significantly, I think, and in most of the ways that people these days identify as “process”. Though I still hold hard to one aspect that was more or less universal, seen as a truism when I was a baby writer, a proposition that would bewilder any youngster coming through today…
Oh, and I still type. I’ve always typed. I never bought into that notion that was popular back in the ’70s, that there was some kind of mystical connection between the writer’s hand and the fountain-pen and the contact with the paper. Pens and pencils were only ever tools to get words down; the typewriter made a better tool. I taught myself to type when I was a young teen, one Easter holiday, three weeks of tap-tap-tap to drive my family crazy; I knew I’d need it. I graduated from an old office machine to a smart new portable to an old electric to a new electronic, over the course of five or six years – and the day I bought the electronic (with a bank loan, going hugely into debt) was the day I saw my first desktop computer, and understood that there was a new way to do this writing thing.
I didn’t buy my first computer until I sold my first novel, mid-eighties. Back then I was still writing for magazines to pay the bills, and the shift from type to screen almost ruined me. For six months I couldn’t sell a thing. It was like shifting from ink to pencil, from fixed to fluid: where every word could be so easily deleted, nothing felt reliable or trustworthy, least of all my own decisions. Words on paper had a solidity to them, they were strong enough to hold my confidence; printed pages from the computer simply weren’t the same. I doubted all my choices, and I guess that showed; my editors doubted me too. So did my bank manager.
I got over that just in time, yay me, and settled into this new way of working at the same time as I was shifting my notion of myself qua writer. I’d always seen the world divided into two: over here were the professional writers, very much including myself, who were paid by commercial publishers to produce selling copy; and over there were the poets and the literary types who were sponsored by government-funded institutions to produce art. I’d served my own time writing poetry and so forth – hell, some of my best friends were poets – but there was still this great divide. I never thought of crossing it, until one of those government-funded sponsors of the arts actually approached me. At which point I discovered that the borderline was much more fluidly drawn than I’d imagined, and much more permeable. I spent the next twenty years drifting from one side to the other, doing residencies and teaching workshops as well as publishing commercial fiction; I also campaigned loud and long to have genre fiction more widely recognised as literature. I wasn’t the only one who crossed back and forth, but there were mighty few of us, and prejudice was deeply entrenched; it was incumbent on me, I felt, to be a little noisy.
It was that recognition of genre-writer-as-artist that took me to Taiwan the first time, which heavily influenced the books I wrote in the new millennium; travel came as a revelation. So did the discovery that I could work away from my desk, and away from any desk: in coffee-shops anywhere on the planet, in bars, in libraries… So long as I had a keyboard and a screen, the world was my oyster.
Even after I came home, that was true. I bought the Laptop of Heavenly Perfection (it’s a Sony Vaio, since you ask: I suppose an early ultrabook, pure carbon-fibre, 13” screen and it only weighs a kilo), and for the last six years or so the bulk of my fiction has been written away from home. It’s a way to regain focus, I guess, from the multiple distractions of twenty-first century maturity; thirty years ago I could do this by myself, in my own head, shut the world away. Now I need artifice and distance to achieve the same effect.
However: that one change in the writer’s modus operandi that I haven’t bought into? When I was young, writing was still a lonely business. We used to say that noddingly, but it was true. I wrote stories and read them through and rewrote where I had to, and then I sent them off to editors. And was rejected, and tried again; and nobody read my work until I sold it and it was published. That was the model: the writer in his garret, the editor at his desk, the postman trudging back and forth between them.
The proliferation of creative-writing courses and the advent of the internet have changed that model utterly. For kids these days, writing is a social business. They have their beta-readers and their critiquing groups, their MFAs and NaNoWriMo; they post work-in-progress for all to read; they meet in coffeeshops and go on holiday together and write at each other. I think it’s fabulous – but oh, it is so not for me. I’m not changing that part of my process. Critiquing groups make me dreadfully uncomfortable; I have a very limited number of friends – actually, come to think, it might be two; that’s, yup, quite limited – who get to see new work before my agent does, but I don’t really want feedback except on a copy-edit kind of level, spotting inconsistencies and lack of clarity. Which is actually the kind of rewrite I give it myself, come to think. Anything deeper or more structural than that, I want to come from someone professionally engaged with the work. I’m even uncomfortable if my agents ask for a rewrite before they submit a book; they can still be wrong about what an editor may think or a market bear.
PW: You mention that writing is a social business, much more social and much less garret than when you started your writing career. How do you feel about the ever-increasing role (and seemingly need) for social media and its uses, perils and pitfalls for yourself and other writers?
CB: Ambivalent, I guess, is how I feel. I love blogging; I started mine so long ago I could still call it a weblog for a while. I was very uncertain, back at the start: I’d once kept a private diary going for a couple of years, but mostly my attempts to be regular at anything fail catastrophically, and I wasn’t at all sure that this would be any different. Also, I thought it would be a writer’s blog, if it survived at all: I’d talk about process and the business, give the world the benefit of my experience, yadda yadda.
And then I was introduced to LiveJournal, and loved the sense of community that had built up there, especially our own community, so many SFF writers all talking to each other. And yes, it was clearly a chance to promote my work and my career – but I’ve never been very good at direct marketing, I just kind of want that to happen as a side effect. And people were talking about all sorts of other things too, and actually they were all so much better at talking about the writing stuff – there’s a sort of emergent writer-gestalt on LJ which is much more analytical than I am, and much more professional, and just generally more articulate – that I’ve mostly fallen back on cooking and cats. My blog is a conversation with friends, far more than a marketing tool; I have to be nudged into remembering to mention that a new book’s come out, or I’ll be at a convention, or whatever.
I do have a Facebook page, but I’ve pretty much given up on that. Except as a means of keeping in touch with young people for whom e-mail is apparently far too difficult, I have yet to figure out what Facebook’s for. Many of my colleagues use it assiduously as a means of self-promotion, but – meh. Don’t wanna.
And Twitter – well, Twitter just overwhelms me. I do tweet occasionally, but I really don’t like that sensation of being surrounded by half-heard conversations, so many people saying so much where most of it matters so little. I don’t have that immediate micro-attention span, I guess: I like considered responses, at the length they need to be. Again, I do try to remember to use Twitter as a professional tool, but I’m not very good at it.
Every now and then my ancient soul rises up in rebellion, remembering the good old days of the ivory tower, when an author was only required to write. That’s the mindset I developed and the role I made myself for – writing used to be the ideal job for the shyly-inclined – and then they changed the rules beneath me, and I can only adjust so far.
PW: it does seem that writing as a career has gone through a couple of singularities (at least) over the course of your career. Let’s bring things to the present. Your Urban Fantasy Pandæmonium, under your pseudonym of Ben Macallan, is the sequel to Desdæmona. Both center around a young woman, the epynomous Desdaemona, with tangled connections to the world of the supernatural. So tell me about the character of Desdaemona.
CB: Mmm, Desi… Like everyone, she’s a tale that grows in the telling. We do this with actual people, building first impressions around the circumstances of our meeting – art student! butcher’s lad! gay software engineer! or whatever – and then refine and rebuild and modify as we uncover layers of complexity. It would be misleading to say this is how I construct a character, because the process is a lot more intuitive than that, or else it’s so practised it feels like second nature; I no longer really know how I do this. But when we first encounter Desi she’s an adolescent boy’s wet dream, almost literally: we see her through his eyes, and she is absolutely his definition of desirability, from her black denim to her tumbling dark locks to her motorbike. Add the air of uber-confidence, the been-there-done-that competence and a supernatural gift that cranks all her abilities up to eleven, and – yeah. Poor Jordan doesn’t stand a chance.
But that’s just first impressions, and she’s doing it deliberately. Jordan wears his vulnerabilities on his skin, while Desi keeps hers buried with her other secrets. Some of those get exposed in the course of the first book, Desdaemona – but that story is still filtered through Jordan’s eyes, and his Desi-construct is inherently unreliable. I’ve always liked shifting perspectives through the process of a narrative, showing other aspects through others’ eyes; here I got to do it wholesale, because Desdaemona may be Jordan’s book, but Pandaemonium is entirely Desi’s. Picking up the story from her own point of view, I could dig a lot deeper; and underneath that air of devil-may-care efficiency, of course she’s as vulnerable as anybody. Even her relationship with her own supernatural powers is hedged about with questions and hesitations; she’s far more doubtful than redoubtable. After one book’s being utterly overawed by her, I really enjoyed spending another book getting under her skin. She is what she’s made of herself, as we all are; she carries the imprint of her own fears and superstitions, as well as the stamp of her courage. Larkin says “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – which is surely true, but then I think we do a pretty good job of fucking up ourselves. Desi’s no exception. Both books are about running away, but they’re qualitatively different: Jordan runs away from what he is, while Desi runs away from what she’s done. Dragging an increasing trail of catastrophe in her wake. Reckless of her own safety, she tends to be heedless of others’ too, which doesn’t always work out so well for them…
PW: So in the first book, we see her from Jordan’s point of view and his lens, and in the new book, we see her from her own. It may be premature to say, given that Desdæmona just came out, but is Desi’s arc finished, or is there more to tell of her story?
CB: Oh, there’s definitely more I want to tell. These titles have been a trilogy in my head since I first thought of them; indeed, I thought of the third one – Daemonogamy – first. And the story arc has that same tripartite structure. It’s not that authors can only think in threes, nor that we’re pressured to do so: but the triangle is a very sturdy shape. And there are three people intimately bound up in this arc, so it’s only fair that they should get onebook each. If it actually happens as it ought – and at the moment that lies in my publisher’s hands, not in mine – then Daemonogamy will be Jacey’s story to tell.
I’ve never quite done this before, a sequence of first-person narratives that swaps narrators between volumes, so that they pass the story along like a baton. I’d planned to do it once before; Dead of Light and Light Errant both have the same narrator, one Ben Macallan, as I mentioned, but the third in that trilogy, Night Fantastic, should have been told from another point of view. Only I never got to write the book, so. I guess this is another way in which Ben steps out of one fictional world and into another, that in his own books he gets to do what I never quite achieved when I was writing about him.
PW: Beyond the third Desi novel, what else lurks on the horizon for you, and under what pseudonyms?
CB: Currently I have a couple of books coming out under my own name, from Severn House: House of Doors and House of Bells. These are ghost stories – except that if you say “ghost stories” people think of the M R James model, short stories, and these are novel length. I could say “ghost novels”, but that just sounds silly…
Anyway. A long while back I wrote a novelette called The Keys to D’Espérance, about a big bleak house in the north country. That’s set just after the First World War, and I wanted then to write a sequence of stories that would track the history of England through the twentieth century, by means of this most curious house. Last year, at last, the opportunity arose to do that. Hence House of Doors, which is set in the Second World War, when the house is being used as a hospital for badly-burned airmen; and House of Bells, which is set in the Sixties when it’s a kind of hippie commune. As I say, these are ghost stories – but the house is not itself haunted. People bring their own ghosts, and the house gives them shape and meaning. I love my house.
After that, I’m not sure. Emigrating and getting married has eaten a lot of this year’s time; I have been writing, but mostly short stories. There should be a collection coming soon, from Lethe Press. Novel-wise, I am currently excited by Steampunk!Mars (living in California as I now do, with SETI a short walk from our house, I get to mingle with planetary scientists on a weekly basis: so, yeah. I want to write about old traditional Mars, with canals and atmosphere and Martians; in a steampunk context, with airships and everything; but with actual knowledge interlaced where appropriate). I’m working on that two separate ways, a YA and a Peter Wimsey tribute mystery. Too much fun, twice over.
PW: How can readers find out more about you?
CB: As far as learning more about me goes (as if this weren’t already more than enough) I blog on LiveJournal as desperance, mostly about cats and food and such; and my friends at Cornwell Internet maintain my website at www.chazbrenchley.co.uk. That has links all over, including to free fiction and where-to-buy and so forth.
Filed under: Interviews
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