What did you do for a living before you started writing novels, and are you still doing it—or have you become a fulltime novelist?
I started out as a commercial scriptwriter for radio. Horrible job. Four years spent trying to convince people to buy stuff they didn't need and probably couldn't afford. Four years trapped by a format that's desperately tired and dated but which no one has the will to change. Four years surrounded by arrogance, obnoxiousness, and huge egos. Hateful. I escaped during the dotcom boom and went to work as a content editor at an ISP startup in London. I'm not convinced anyone there had a clue what they were doing. I was paid a ridiculous amount of money for no good reason, indulged in long liquid lunches, then the bubble burst, we were all out of a job, and my liver was saved. I freelanced for a couple of years after that, providing copy for different projects, mostly online stuff, some interesting, some dull. It was a satisfying but rather too unpredictable period. Then I joined the BBC for a long stretch. I provided promo copy for the channel web pages, for a lot of programme pages, and, for a year, I also wrote articles for BBC News Online. A happy time because I liked the people I worked with, but a frustrating time because I was buried deep inside a huge corporation. When the BBC began its current bout of "downsizing," I took voluntary redundancy, freelanced again for a little while, then decided to escape the rat race and move to Spain. I began teaching English, which proved easy, enjoyable, and rewarding. Then the book deals came along, and I was able to pretty much phase out everything else. I still take on a language student or two if I need to, but mostly, with the support of my wonderful girlfriend, I'm just about surviving as a full time novelist.
You and Philip José Farmer share a fascination with the linguist, explorer, and writer, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Was Farmer's Riverworld series the first place you encountered Burton?
Yes, it was. TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO was the first Farmer book I ever read and also my first encounter with Sir Richard Francis Burton. The RIVERWORLD series made a huge impression on me. I was around 12 years old, and up to that point had been obsessed with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Farmer showed me that fantastic fiction could be exciting but possess greater depth, too.
There is no question Burton led a very interesting life, but can you put your finger on just why he makes such an interesting protagonist in fiction? Is it because in both the Riverworld series and the Burton & Swinburne novels he is forced to operate in an unfamiliar setting, or do you think there is something else.
Burton didn't belong anywhere. His parents, especially his father, were extremely restless and he spent his entire childhood and youth being dragged from one European country to another. Though he was, and regarded himself as, English, British culture was something very alien to him ... and he hated it. Yet, at the same time, he wanted to be accepted by it. The Victorian Age was a time when social boundaries were blatant and of utmost importance in Britain, but, not having had proper exposure to them, Burton was constantly pushing beyond their limits, sometimes by accident and sometimes with a bloody-minded recklessness. This shocked and excited his contemporaries but also left Burton in a vulnerable state. Social boundaries are important coordinates through which we establish and maintain our sense of identity. For Burton, I think his lack of a proper sense of them made his identity too malleable. I'm not sure he ever really had a strong sense of who he was ... something which might explain his proclivity for disguises. The fact that in adulthood he placed himself in wildly unfamiliar territories suggests to me that he was looking for an answer to that dilemma. His search for the source of the River Nile was actually a search for an authentic identity; an expression of the question: "Who am I?" Obviously, this also made him the perfect protagonist to wake up on Riverworld.
Have you read much Farmer besides the Riverworld series, any other particular favorite stories or novels?
Pretty much everything! I went straight from the Riverworld books to the WORLD OF TIERS series, then onto the rest of his work. LORD TYGER has always been my favourite. IMAGE OF THE BEAST made a big impact, too. What I learned from Farmer is that, as a writer, you can be audacious. You can imagine something then push harder, take it beyond the limits, be aware of where other writers would stop—then don't stop. Push at the genre envelope. I think Farmer and I share a sense of what in Cultural Studies is referred to as "liminality," of the presence of thresholds that, when transgressed, can lead to a new mode of being or perception.
Advanced, or out of place, technology in the 1900s is more or less the definition of steampunk. But these are often big clunky machines. What made you decide to add genetic mutations to your alternate history? And why don’t we see, or hear, more of the parakeets?
More parakeets? Are you kidding? There are parakeets in profusion! You want me to write a novel just about the parakeets? Hah, wait until you see what happens in the third book, EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON! You'll be in parakeet heaven, I promise.
The genetic mutations are there to demonstrate the idea that, in this alternate history, there are no moral or ethical boundaries. Darwin has killed God, and now no one has the authority or inclination to say "Stop!" So scientists do stuff just because they can.
But a confession: the idea actually grew out of a practical consideration. I needed Burton and his friends to be able to communicate quickly with each other over distance, but in the 1860s there were no telephones, and by introducing them I would've strayed too far, in the wrong way, from real history. My divergences from fact needed to grow from the events of the story, rather than me simply repositioning technology from one period to another. So the parakeets came about as a solution to that problem, and from them I moved on to the whole idea of animals being used as a social and industrial resource ... which, as a matter of fact, they were and still are. The difference is that we profess the ethical limits that Burton & Swinburne's world lacks. Note that "profess" is not the same as "abide by" ... and here, again, I see a connection with Farmer. At the height of his powers (which I put at the late 60s and early 70s), Farmer plugged into a zeitgeist wherein an established ethical and moral stance, as defined by words such as Decency and Duty and Patriotism, was being challenged. His generation attacked the status quo with their own word-weapons: Freedom. Peace. Equality. Rights. The establishment survived the attack by adopting those words for itself, by making them our new identifiers, and for three decades we've been content to live within the concepts they encapsulate.
Now, though, everything has changed. Events, particularly the Iraq war, have exposed the words as hollow; nothing but "buzz words" that mean nothing to the people in power who use them. There is no Freedom, except for banks, who can do as they please, knowing that it'll be you and me, not them, who pays the price. There is no Peace. Governments retain the right to bomb the shit out of anyone to gain a political or industrial advantage, and they will do so no matter how many of us protest against it. Equality is a joke. Women are still paid less than men, whites still have more opportunities than blacks, and the gap between the rich and the poor has never been bigger. And Rights can be radically adjusted on the fly, as the inmates at Guantanamo Bay have learned.
Social and cultural boundaries only function well when they are accepted, and they are most accepted when they are integrated to the point where no one really realises that they're there. When P. J. Farmer exploded onto the scene, he and many of his contemporaries, exposed their presence. They shouted loud and clear: "Here they are ... and this is what might be on the other side of them!"
In my opinion, we are now in a period where the defining boundaries are blatant again ... and obviously false. Rich pickings for novelists, artists, musicians and revolutionaries!
I love how, in writing a novel, finding the solution to a practical problem can add a whole new dimension to a story!
It’s a little surprising the government hasn’t shown this corrupting influence. They use the technology, but they don’t seem to be the driving force behind any of these creations.
One of the big themes that emerges more blatantly in the third book is that Time might have its own agenda, or at least influence, which politicians can react to but can't actually control. In other words, the idea that our world is shaped by politics might be an illusion. In the Burton & Swinburne books, Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, has a growing story arc wherein he considers himself a "mover and shaker," but actually emerges as a man who's just as much driven along by the tides of Time as the rest of us are. In trying to deal with this, the decisions he makes become more corrupt, and more desperate. I think you'll be surprised by what happens to Palmerston in book three ... and by how Burton responds to it.
Did you have any difficulties with the world building in this series? Did you have any ideas that started off well, but as you followed them along their logical path wound up creating inconsistencies or unintended consequences?
In the initial planning stages, there must have been a great many ideas I pondered but abandoned. I don't remember them now. Generally, I find world building the most satisfying part of the whole process, and much of the plot came about simply by thinking about how one thing might lead to another in the context of the environment I've created. It has never been difficult but it's always been intricate, and I might easily have missed something. By far the most complex part has been working out the timing of events. I suppose this is difficult enough in any novel, but when you add time travel as an ingredient, it can really cause headaches.
As for unintended consequences, I actually regard these as an essential component of plotting and invite and welcome them. If you've constructed a world that holds together, and your characters are well drawn, then it's almost inevitable that you'll eventually write a scene where they will react in a way you hadn't predicted. You lay out a path for them but as they move along it, and as you depict their responses, you build up a weight of emotion for them that, at some point, just refuses to roll in the direction you'd sketched out. For me, that's a fantastic moment, because it means the characters have become real. There was a scene in SPRING HEELED JACK where Edward Oxford absolutely refused to do what I wanted. It was like an actor turning to a director and saying: "I'm fully invested in this role, I know my character inside out, and he simply wouldn't do this. Change the script!"
Are you as interested in the history of that time period as you are the fiction? Did it take a lot of research to find all the real people you used in SPRING HEELED JACK and CLOCKWORK MAN, or were these people you were already familiar with?
I'm totally fascinated by the 1850 to 1970 period of British history. The changes that occurred during those 120 years are incredible. From industrialisation to empire, from faith to the death of God, from a stratified culture to the fall of the aristocracy. We saw two world wars, the rise of the middle classes, and the emergence of the teenager ... Britain entirely reshaped itself. Again, this goes back to my prime obsession: boundaries, where are they, why they are there, how they are violated, and what happens when they are.
As for the real historical figures I used, I was already pretty clued up about them, so research wasn't difficult.
Some of the people you cast as villains were quite surprising. Was that part of the process particularly fun?
No, that part of the process was absolutely horrible. I felt guilty! There is one man in particular (I won't say who. No spoilers!) who, in books 2 and 3 emerges, albeit in the background, as a villain, whereas in real life he was just about as mild and pleasant a character as you could possibly imagine. It's very important for people to understand that my take on him, and the others, is entirely fictional. It is completely divorced from the truth, and bears no relationship to who and what these people were in reality. But I justify their use because I'm exploring the idea that if history changes, everyone would be presented with different opportunities and challenges, and in addressing those, especially in the context of a moral and ethical vacuum, a person's personality might change entirely. Consider this: If Adolph Hitler had met a beautiful woman and fallen in love with her, and if she had loved him in return and sponsored him as an artist, would he have become a better painter? And if he became a better painter, and his work was exhibited and celebrated, would he have gone on to pursue a career as an artist, or would he still have ended up a psychotic dictator? I'll say it again: the things and events around us shape us. Personality is not static. In the Burton & Swinburne novels, people who were good are moulded into people who are bad because history has gone down a different route.
Perhaps what I'm really doing is celebrating true history ... because as nasty as things sometimes get (and I think now is a pretty nasty time), never forget that we've managed to produce a great many brilliant and good people, and there are far, far more of them than there are power hungry psychos in the world.
In SPRING HEELED JACK the world is changed due to the actions of one man. The readers may have expected that to set the tone for the Burton & Swinburne series, but then in CLOCKWORK MAN, there is more change, in a very different and unexpected manner. What made you decide to further change things from our reality, instead of continuing to show the alternate world you created in the first book?
Each book is a story in itself, but there's also an arc that runs through all three novels, and this is something I wanted to pace very carefully. In the first story, it isn't even noticeable; in the second, the reader becomes aware of it; and in the third, the backstory comes to the fore in a big way, reaches its dramatic climax, and in doing so sets the scene for the second trilogy. The principal character in that arc is Time itself. I think we humans have an extremely limited conception of it, which manifests in our instinctive urge to turn everything into a sequence. 'A' must lead to 'B' which must lead to 'C', and in that journey there has to be meaning. This is how we construct history. It's how we write biographies. It's what we search for in our lives. In the Burton & Swinburne books, I'm highlighting the fact that it's us doing that, not Time itself, which may be far less linear in character. Cause doesn't have to precede effect, paradoxes don't necessitate a solution, there is far more fluidity than we imagine.
Also, I like the idea that the reader thinks the plot is unfolding in a certain direction, then, suddenly, it's not that at all. Cliffhangers and revelations are great fun, and I really enjoy the fact that writing a novel allows me to construct a world then make the whole thing do a back flip.
In CLOCKWORK MAN, you tantalize the reader by mentioning some of Burton’s adventures that occurred between the two novels:
It's the Sherlock Holmes tradition, isn't it? A good technique to demonstrate that your protagonist has a life outside the confines of your plot. And, of course, it tantalises the reader. Actually, when I wrote that paragraph, I was bemoaning the fact that I'd chosen complex themes for my first novels. I was learning a difficult new craft while at the same time dealing with ideas and concepts that could easily have tripped me up. It would be so much more relaxing, I thought, to write straightforward tales of detection set in the Burton & Swinburne world. I'd certainly like to do a "Burton & Swinburne Casebook" of short stories one day, but I suspect the series would have to be a runaway success before the publishers would go for that idea.
I think the trick is to sell the individual stories to various magazines or anthologies over the course of a few years, then collect them all in one volume with one or two never before seen stories. Any chance you might do something like this?
It really depends on the market. Currently I have no plans to write Burton & Swinburne shorts but, obviously, with that paragraph in the book, I signalled the potential for them. Let's see how things develop. I'm still right at the start of my career as a storyteller, so I'm exploring possibilities and keeping my options open! It's a nice place to be.
Tell us a little about Blakiana, your massive website about Sexton Blake, the detective who's recorded adventures first appeared in 1893.
Sexton Blake's adventures cover most of the period of history I'm most interested in, and that history is reflected in the stories. He appeared in 1893 and didn't fully disappear until the late 1970s. And now, he's starting to make the occasional reappearance, and I like to think that I might have played a part in that with the BLAKIANA site (a big shout out to Mike Moorcock, who's unswerving support got the site through a financial crisis a few years ago). BLAKIANA began as a bibliography. No one had properly catalogued the 5000+ stories, so I did, and it very much required me to become a detective. From there, the site expanded to include articles and even a few new stories. That's where I began to write fiction. The Blake stories encouraged me to write adventurous, pulpy material with cliffhangers, while authors like Farmer made me want to incorporate something deeper into all the fun.
When did you become aware that Sexton Blake was a part of the Wold Newton Universe and what do you think of it?
I was aware of the Wold Newton Universe before I encountered Sexton Blake, having read TARZAN ALIVE and DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE. I don't remember when I discovered that Blake was a part of the mythology. I love the premise of WN, and the fact that it adheres to a clear internal logic. Equally, as an author, I don't feel bound by it. If I ever write a Sexton Blake novel, I'd use the Blake stories as my reference, and if my tale agrees with them but not with the WN universe, then so be it. Mind you, there are so many inconsistencies in the Sexton Blake legend that such a circumstance probably wouldn't arise. Perhaps the best thing about WN is that it introduces people to a whole lot of truly fantastic fiction. I would never have read Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel books were it not for WN, or Sapper's Bulldog Drummond, or Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe.
What's in store for Burton & Swinburne?
In the third book, EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, the British Empire is careening out of control, a world war is looming, and Palmerston sends Burton back to Africa. Just as Burton's search for the source of the Nile may have been a search for himself, so too, here, his expedition takes on a more symbolic meaning. There is a very entropic feel to this final book of the trilogy. The Empire has overdeveloped itself; its technological advancements have actually caused it to grind to a halt. Burton sees the consequences of Palmerston's actions—and of his own—and takes radical action to correct the situation. I have a shocker of an ending in store for you!
A second trilogy is in the very earliest stages of planning. If my publishers deem it commercially viable, then Burton & Swinburne will definitely be back!
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