Tuesday 31 May 2011

INTERVIEW: Chaz Brenchley

As readers will know, we absolutely love the chance to start a new series, especially when you get to hear on the grapevine about something special just about to break such as this title, Desdaemona, the Urban Fantasy debut, of Ben Macallan (pseudonym of Chaz Brenchley.)

Here we chat to him about life, about the writing and his obsession with sport...

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Chaz Brenchley: I have been heard doing my very best to discourage wannabes, and telling students that if there’s anything else they can do, they really ought to do it. I enjoy trying to discourage people, and spotting the ones who just absolutely refuse to listen to me. There are no universals in this business, but nine times out of ten those are the real writers. I have also been heard lamenting that I really should’ve been a merchant banker. And yet, here I am: thirty-four years a writer, and struggling desperately to make it to thirty-five. Apparently I don’t want to give up yet.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

CB: When I was five, or thereabouts: the day the scales fell from my eyes and I understood that these wonderful things called books were written by actual people and it was a job and you were allowed to do it. Ever since then, it’s been the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life. And, as it happens, the only thing I ever have done.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

CB: I hadn’t even heard that, certainly not phrased quite that arrogantly. It’s nonsense, of course. There is plenty of debate over whether short stories do or don’t provide a gateway into novels; there’s a fine tradition of it, especially in genre fiction, but a counter-argument that they really are two different media demanding wholly different skill-sets. I guess the truth lies somewhere in between: that some writing skills are universal, while each form demands specialised techniques. I did start out writing short stories, because they were easier to sell and less of a commitment; a failure meant a couple of days’ work lost, rather than a year or more. I didn’t finish a novel until I had my first commission - but that was a revelation, just how much I didn’t know about writing novels.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

CB: Mostly, I’d try to hide at the other end of the bookshop. If I was cornered, though, I’d call it urban fantasy and make sure that they understood that didn’t mean paranormal romance (tho’ it does feature both those things); I’d stress the fact that the vampires & werewolves are really only there to establish the milieu early on, and we meet more unusual creatures later; I’d talk about how totally awesome Desdaemona actually is; and I’d wind up by just making them look at the cover, which is by Vinny Chong and just sensational.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

CB: Again, I would try very hard to avoid that; if I wanted to pitch, I’d be in movies. I don’t think books boil down that way. (The first person I ever heard propose the elevator pitch as a good thing, a measure of a novel’s quality? Was Jeffrey Archer. Which should tell you plenty both about the technique and about my own attitude towards it.)

PS - oh, all right, then. “No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.” Except that sometimes they run faster.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

CB: Ooh. How long have you got? *takes a deep breath* Neal Stephenson. Guy Gavriel Kay. Ursula Le Guin. Diana Wynne Jones. Any one of a dozen cookery writers. Iain Banks. Gwyneth Jones. Dorothy L Sayers. Rudyard Kipling. Elinor M Brent-Dyer. Kari Sperring. John Irving. T S Eliot. I could go on. I could walk through my house and make a list - but then I would have catalogued all my books, which is just too much to contemplate. The internet is not big enough.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your ideas develop as you write?

CB: I’ve never written a character profile in my life. I do write outlines, when agents or editors insist - but I hate them and I don’t use them, don’t refer to them at all once the book is sold. Editors have been heard to complain, that a book does not much resemble its outline - but nor should it. We do not much resemble a photofit image of ourselves. Someone once said that being asked to write a synopsis for a book they hadn’t written yet was like being asked to draw a map of a country they haven’t visited. That’s exact, I think: for me, a book is a journey. I know where I’m going - Samarcand, here I come! - but I learn the roads as I travel, hand in hand with the reader, encountering what comes along the way. Which sounds madly romantic, and is actually grief & sweat & turmoil, but I think it makes for better books.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

CB: Relax? What is this relax...?

No, but seriously: I cook. A lot. Which gets me all uptight but in a totally different way. And I spend time with friends, often in pubs or over drinks some other way; alcohol is my friend too. And, of course, I read books. Recently? I reread Stephenson’s Anathem, because I had transatlantic flights to survive (the previous read had been in hospital; apparently it’s a book I turn to when trapped). And then the English translation of Let The Right One In. And now Jo Walton’s Among Others.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

CB: Heh. You think I’d tell you that...? (People are always surprised to learn that I’m a sports fan. And that I play snooker, fanatically badly. And that I travel with my teddy bear. And that I love the Chalet School books of Elinor M Brent-Dyer. Will those do?)

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

CB: I live with two cats. Once I lived with two girl-cats, who were douce and obliging and small and sweet. Now I live with two boy-cats, who are evil incarnate. I thought Barry was a fiend in feline shape, until Mac moved in. Mac appropriates food - but it is the most inappropriate food. Cats aren’t supposed to taste sweet thingts, but the first thing he did was suck all the chocolate off my chocolate-coated coffee beans. I have to keep my mushrooms locked away. Also my broccoli. Are you getting the idea yet? Mac eats everything. Including me. (They’re not in a book yet, but they do appear frequently in my blog.)

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

CB: Heh - for the Daniel Fox books, that would definitely be the dragon. For the Ben Macallan book, it’s probably Desdaemona. The cod psychologist in me would love to draw parallels - something about dark, dominating females with suffering in their pasts - but I don’t think I’m actually that obvious. The dragon was all challenge, to make a potent creature utterly unhuman, and yet comprehensible and maybe sympathetic; Desi is almost the opposite, to make an utterly sympathetic character still seem potent.

FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?

CB: Not at all - except in the sense that all my characters are products of my own mind, and therefore by definition images of myself. All fiction is autobiography; we give ourselves away on every page. But half my characters are cooler than I am, and the other half are more broken.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

CB: As before, I cook; I’m a total foodie. And more than one review has said, more or less, “Chaz Brenchley is clearly obsessed with food.” I used to be a hobby smoker, and most of my characters smoked; but that was long ago. These days, I guess my hobby-time is mostly consumed by blogging and other internet engagement. Which must impact my work, but not directly in the writing (except for research, obviously): I don’t write the kind of books which have characters use computers. Much. There is a laptop in Desdaemona, but it makes only a brief appearance.

FT: Where do you get your ideas from?

CB: All over. My first novel came from a poster at a bus-stop; my first fantasy sequence came from an advertising brochure, for a reprint of a history of the Crusades. It’s just about keeping yourself open, being ready. Desdaemona happened because I saw “Desdemona” written down and thought, oh hey, how’s about if you misspelled it, if you put a daemon at the heart: what would that be about? In my first thoughts it was science fiction, set in Hong Kong in a cyberpunk future; but I kept on thinking, and it ended up being urban fantasy set in contemporary UK. That’s the way it works.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

CB: J T Edson (a British writer of many many Westerns) said that every time he got writer’s block he dug out his old postbag, filled it with bricks, and trudged around his former post round. In the rain. Then he came home, dried off and got back to work.

That’s more or less how I feel. There are many many reasons not to be writing, but I find the notion of a block just too convenient; I’d rather find a reason I can fix.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

CB: I used to be entirely nocturnal: rise in mid-afternoon and write all night, go to bed more or less with the dawn. But that was when my friends were students or unemployed, and I could always find company at any hour. When they started getting jobs and having children, I had to adjust my own hours to match or I’d never have had a social life. And as I get older, I wake earlier. These days I do my best work in the mornings - but that’s partly because I take the laptop to the Lit & Phil (a private library here in Newcastle) and sit down in the basement Silence Room with no distractions. Including no cats. The boys love to help, sitting on my lap or on my desk, coming between me and the monitor, pouncing on the keyboard, spilling the wine, running off with the pens...

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

CB: I not only write in silence; I write mostly in the Silence Room, where even the clocks are hushed. (Seriously: there is a ticky-clock, and every time someone sets it going, someone else will stop it.) I have tried working to music, but I keep stopping to listen. Like if I work with the internet, I keep stopping to browse. Endlessly distractable, alas. *pets cat*

I deeply envy my friends who can or must have music while they work; I love the notion of posting soundtracks to a novel; but I will never do it.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

CB: Heh. I thought it would all get easier: that once you had a backlist and a reputation, both the writing and the earning-a-living aspects would be less demanding. Turns out the opposite is true, in both instances. It all gets harder, all the time.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

CB: “If architecture is frozen music, then music must be defrosted architecture.” I’m sorry, I have trouble taking this kind of comparison seriously. And I don’t think music is the food of love, if “food” is taken to mean something that is sustaining on a daily basis and throughout a life. Music is more like a drug of love, immediate and potent and completely not good for you. Writing, on the other hand: well, as an activity, for me it’s crucial. I can’t survive without telling stories. As a product, I think it’s also crucial: stories are how we teach each other about the world and about ourselves, how we moderate dreams with reason and call it imagination, how we learn to understand each other.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

CB: Well, at the moment it’s called House of Doors and it’ll be published as by Chaz Brenchley. It’s a ghost story, set in a house that I’ve written about before (in The Keys to D’Espérance). I always wanted that to be the first in a sequence, to tell the history of the twentieth century in England through the medium of this strange, haunting house. Then an old editor-friend of mine asked my agent if I’d be interested in working with her; so I said, “Well, I always wanted...” and that was that. I wrote a two-page summary, and we did a two-book deal in two days. I’ve just delivered the first, and am waiting to hear what she thinks of it.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

CB: LiveJournal; Facebook; Wikipedia; DreamWidth; chazbrenchley.co.uk - all a bit obvious, alas. I’m desperance on LiveJournal and DreamWidth - and yes, the blogging name is intimately associated with the name of the haunted house.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

CB: I am the last of my kind, for whom writing was a lonely business. When I was a babywriter, there weren’t common classes: two MA courses in the country, and little else bar your local writers’ group in the library. Mostly we learned to write by reading and by writing. Then the internet came along, and these days everyone has beta-readers and critiquing groups and a history of writing classes and and and. Everyone but me. (And even I contribute occasionally, teaching on an MA course or running workshops and so forth. Mentoring, judging competitions, all these things that didn’t exist when I was young and needy.)

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

CB: Oh, I skipped past them, mostly. I submitted a few short stories to a few magazines when I was a teenager, and was mildly outraged when I didn’t win instant praise, awards and money; but I sold my first stories when I was eighteen, and I’ve sold most of what I’ve written since. Of course I do still get rejected, and indeed criticised - but these days I lean on the fact that I’m twice the age of my critics, and so obviously twice as wise, so by definition I’m right and they’re wrong. That gets me by, mostly. Tho’ I can still cite chapter and verse for every bad review I’ve ever had, and I believe steam still comes out of my ears. Nobody’s immune.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

CB: Oy. Well. The best - obviously? - is that I can look around at everything in this house and the house itself that contains it all, and think “I paid for all of this by writing: by sitting at a keyboard and telling stories.” The worst is the thought that follows, a reminder that half of it isn’t actually paid for yet, and if I’d been a merchant banker I’d have made a lot more money and not been in debt the way I am. Thirty-five years ago, Frank Muir said to me that only bestsellers sell. It was true then, but it is so much more true now. And yet, this is still the only life I would ever have chosen. Even if it’s not a living so much as a surviving. It’s still worth it. Stories matter.

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