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[GUEST INTERVIEW] The Enigmatic Stephen Palmer Interviewed by Keith Brooke

Stephen Palmer‘s eighth novel, the wonderfully strange steampunkish fantasy Hairy London (Infinity Plus | Amazon US | Amazon UK), was published in March 2014, telling the story of a group of gentleman-adventurers on a quest to find the true meaning of love in a London transformed by an inexplicable manifestation of, well, hair. His earlier novels include science fiction (Memory Seed, Glass, Flowercrash, Muezzinland and Hallucinating) and the dark literary fantasies Urbis Morpheos and The Rat & The Serpent (originally under the name Bryn Llewellyn). Much of Palmer’s writing focuses on environmental change, and his prose tends to be vivid and strange: writing about his novel Urbis Morpheos, Publishers Weekly says that “Palmer’s writing can only be called psychedelic. The world is richly imagined, unusual, and creative…” Palmer is also an accomplished musician, playing and recording with the band Mooch and his solo project, Blue Lily Commission. He lives and works in Shropshire, UK.

Keth Brooke had the opportunity to chat with Stephen about his new book, Hairy London, described thusly:

What is love?

One evening at the Suicide Club three gentlemen discuss this age-old problem, and thus a wager is made. Dissolute fop Sheremy Pantomile, veteran philosopher Kornukope Wetherbee and down-on-his-luck Velvene Orchardtide all bet their fortunes on finding the answer amidst the dark alleys of a phantasmagorical Edwardian London.

But then, overnight, London Town is covered in hair. How the trio of adventurers cope with this unusual plague, and what conclusions they come to regarding love is the subject of this surreal and fast-paced novel.

And always the East End threatens revolution…

Keith Brooke: HAIRY LONDON is one of the strangest things I’ve read in years. I should really start with a question, but we need to get that out there from the beginning: HAIRY LONDON reads like Lewis Carroll and Monty Python’s love-child doing drugs and reinventing steampunk. With jokes, and philosophy. I know it’s a standard question for writers of the fantastic, but how on Earth did you come up with a story about revolution and love in an alternative Edwardian London that is…covered in hair?

Stephen Palmer: Uniquely for me, the title came first – that’s never happened before. I think I was watching the news… maybe there something on about London, and quite possibly I was idly thinking about future projects, or maybe about Xana-La, the short story that inspired the novel. I write down all my wacky ideas for future use, and when the title Hairy London popped into my head I thought, hmm, would that be a London covered in hair? What would it be like? Would people be able to get around? And so the process of imaginative creation began… For a while I held off from writing the novel because I had other projects to complete, and having had such fun writing Xana-La I knew that if I began a novel in the same setting it would take over my life for a couple of months. But after a while, as my summer holidays approached, I just knew I had to write it. As for the story and the theme, I wanted something quirky but deep – an insane Jules Verne style wager, but about something profound, not something trivial.

KB: You clearly had a lot of fun with the whole thing: was there ever a tension between the humour and the weightier elements of philosophy and politics that underpin the story?

SP: No, never, because I wrote it quickly, with no breaks, and I didn’t censor my unconscious at all – hence chocolate trains, games with a Teutonic Death, World War 1 near Richmond, etc. The humour came from spoofing (in my own way) the culture, notions and idiosyncrasies of turn-of-the-century Britain – as I had with Xana-La – but the politics and the underlying theme were never far away from my mind. Also, although I wrote the novel quickly, I did have a structure to work to – three parallel tales following the three aspects of the wager, coming together at the end of the tale. The idea to use real people, especially Karl Marx (whose work I’ve long been interested in), was with me right from the start, but soon other people crept in. It was fun to use Freud and Jung. I loved the idea of having King Victorian and Queen Alberta!

KB: You’ve said HAIRY LONDON is very different to anything you’ve done before: are you tempted to try more in this vein, or was this a one-off?

SP: I have written a sequel set in the Britain of World War 2, following Sheremy and Juinefere a quarter of a century on, but the novel turned into something rather more serious. There was much less frivolity – still plenty of surreality, but somehow it wasn’t quite the same. I’m not sure I’ll follow up Hairy London, to be honest. I think it could be a one-off. I do suffer from writer’s volcano (the opposite of writer’s block), so I’ve already got a handful of other novels on the way – plenty of new things to explore. Maybe in a year or two I’ll try to restructure this second novel, Anglocide, which follows the progress of Mizanthrop Mahavishnu’s terrible Brit-bashing disease. The deeper theme of the novel is: ‘What is emotion?’

KB: You mentioned that HAIRY LONDON was inspired by a short story (Xana-La, now available as a free ebook from Amazon and other booksellers). Although you’ve published a few short stories over the years, you’re probably better known to readers as a novelist. What are the attractions of the two different forms for you, and why have you started to explore short fiction more recently?

SP: I had to start writing short stories for the money! In 2011 the establishment where I had my day-job was restructured from top to bottom in a particularly brutal way. Though the reason for the restructure was sound, the method was not, and I, like many others, suffered as a consequence. My working hours, and therefore my salary, were slashed. To try to stem the flood from my meagre savings I took up writing short stories, which I’d never thought myself any good at, and to my great surprise I enjoyed the experience – and I sold a few. So that gave me the impetus to write more. I do however think that my natural form is the novel, because I have a vivid imagination, and the novel gives me the space I need to explore particular scenarios. But I like the “randomness” of the short story market. The clincher was the story I sold to Ian Sales for his Rocket Science anthology. I met him at the Birmingham Eastercon, where he handed me a leaflet about the anthology. The theme didn’t seem right for me, and I mentioned this to him at the time, but then I had an idea for a story and a style in which to write it. It worked out, and the story (“A Biosphere Ends”) was accepted. I realised then that I could after all write in a sub-genre unfamiliar to me, and make a success of it. Since 2011, by the way, I’ve left my old day-job and got a much better new one.

KB: Writers like Lucius Shepard and Ian McDonald are known for using the world as their stage, rather than just focusing on the industrialized West; similarly, your fiction has always embraced what many in the genre would regard as the exotic, ranging from a bizarrely transformed English Devon to what’s been referred to as the ‘Afropunk’ near-future of MUEZZINLAND. Is this a conscious manifesto for your work, or more a reflection of where your interests lie?

SP: It’s a reflection of my all-consuming imagination. I don’t read a huge amount of fiction these days, I prefer non-fiction, so a lot of the factual, mostly life-sciences books that I read give me ideas for novels. With Muezzinland however I knew before I prepared it that I wanted to write a novel set in Africa (the cultures there are fascinating – also I love the music), and I knew I wanted it to be in the form of a long journey. With other novels the setting are more idiosyncratic. The Rat & The Serpent is set in an alternate Istanbul, for instance – a city that’s long intrigued me.

KB: What about your settings generally? They seem mostly Earth-bound.

SP: Again, that’s a reflection of my fascination with life on Earth. My only novel not set on Earth is Glass. I think, in general, I’m interested in what you might call “local” scenarios. It’s a matter of some hilarity and bafflement amongst my close friends that I never travel much or have any desire to go abroad. I really do love Britain; also Shropshire, where I grew up and where I live now. I prefer to get to know very well my local environment – Shropshire in my personal case, and Earth in my writing. I’d find it difficult to write a space opera, I suspect, although I have written a few short stories set on other planets. But it’s the whole “life on Earth” thing that really feeds my imagination. Apart from the inspirational works of James Lovelock, the kind of books that move me are ones like The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee; reading that book spawned a huge future-of-all-life SF trilogy in my head. At the moment, alas, I don’t have time to write it…

KB: As well as World Fiction, you have a strong interest in World Music. What’s your current listening, and what do you keep coming back to?

SP: I go through phases in music. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of electronic music – classics from the 1970s, and more recent albums. I do love world music though, especially African, Arabian and Indian.

KB: Music features prominently in your novel HALLUCINATING, near-future weird SF where music, and musicians, might just save the world. How much overlap is there between your writing and your other creative career as a musician?

SP: Music is something I do for the enjoyment of it – it’s not a serious career or anything. Typically I record and release albums at a loss (given the amount of gear and time needed to do it). At the moment there is almost no overlap between music and writing, and that’s my preference.

KB: What is it that makes you write? By this I mean both the big picture (why do you do it? why do you feel the need to keep using your experience of the world to make stories?), but also on a detailed level: what are the sparks that can lead to something bigger, and what turns one of those sparks into something you can’t not write?

SP: I write because I have a vivid imagination, which compels me to write. Like most authors I do it because it’s hard-wired into me as a person. I think too that I share with other authors the love of telling a story in a world no reader has experienced before. That’s always a thrill. Now that I’ve written a few books, I’ve come to realise that part of the magic of transferring your imagined stuff to readers is to experience it intensely yourself, which is why these days I don’t plan books as much as I used to. My aim is to get that first draft pretty much spot-on, at least, in terms of feel and narrative. There’s always room to improve the music of the prose.

My favourite authors are the ones (Gene Wolfe is the best example here) whose books you have to re-read before the full experience sinks in. With The Book Of The New Sun for instance, it’s all the mysteries and secrets beneath the narrative that help make the work so extraordinary. I come to a lot of my work from a similar standpoint. Urbis Morpheos is probably the best example of this – there are dozens of little mysteries and secrets locked up inside the text, all of which come together to complete the story. Memory Seed, Glass and Flowercrash come from similar standpoints. Over the years I’ve noticed that my fans and reviewers either greatly like or greatly dislike this, which may be why I don’t often get “middling” or so-so reviews; only extremes. My major themes have been, and always will be, the big ones of life and our planet – what is humanity, what is consciousness, how will life evolve, how will humanity evolve, etc.

As for the small scale inspirations, I usually find it’s a mental picture that starts the ball rolling. Memory Seed for instance began as a couple of mental images I had while walking around the lake at Virginia Water in Surrey (one of the settings in Hairy London, you’ll have noticed!). I usually then go on to ideas of the big picture, and also to the characters who might live in that big picture. Sometimes a theme or idea can be directly inspired by the world around me. Muezzinland for instance has a plot inspired by Princess Diana’s later life – her time in the royal family was horrible for many years. Hallucinating was inspired by all the wonderful psychedelic festival music that I was into at the time (I still am – bands like the wonderful Ozric Tentacles). The Rat & The Serpent was inspired by an experience I had when I lived in Devon. One evening, when I was waiting to be picked up after work, a huge thunderstorm leaned in over Exeter. I was sheltering under a tree at the time. The colour in the scene before me became leached out, so it seemed for a few minutes – beneath this dense thundercloud – that what I was seeing was pretty much black-and-white. That made me ask myself, would it be possible to write a novel in black-and-white, as a film maker might make a film in black-and-white? The idea intrigued me. After I’d prepared the novel I wrote the first chapter, not sure if it would be possible. I had to imagine what I was writing with no colour at all, but once I’d finished that first chapter the rest flowed fine. The most difficult thing was not mentioning blood!

KB: If someone only had a sentence or two to sum you up as a writer, what would you like them to say?

SP: “He suggested we think out of the box, having first pointed out that there was a box.”

Keith Brooke‘s first novel, Keepers of the Peace, appeared in 1990, since when he has published seven more adult novels, six collections, and over 70 short stories. For ten years from 1997 he ran the web-based SF, fantasy and horror showcase infinity plus, featuring the work of around 100 top genre authors, including Michael Moorcock, Stephen Baxter, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, Vonda McIntyre and Jack Vance. Infinity plus has recently been relaunched as an independent publishing imprint producing print and ebooks. His novel Harmony (published in the UK as alt.human) is a big exploration of aliens, alternate history and the Fermi paradox and was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award. His latest novels include Parallax View, a sort fiction collection co-authored with Eric Brown, and the Expatria duology. He also edited Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the Sub-genres of Science Fiction, an exploration of SF from the perspectives of a dozen top authors in the field. He writes reviews for The Guardian and Arc, teaches writing at the University of Essex, and lives with his wife Debbie in Wivenhoe, Essex.

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