Friday, May 26, 2006

The New World Order according to Ben Jeapes

Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?

I used to think it was an over-abundance of Trek, Dr Who and Thunderbirds, and that’s what I told everyone. Then eBay came along and I bought some old Countdowns out of curiosity. Countdown was a weekly comic that inherited the mantle of TV21, which published original stories set in the Gerry Anderson universe. Most of its stories were TV21 reprints, meatier and grittier than the TV versions but still flawed by overall Andersonian optimism. But there was also the title story, straight space opera about the crew of the eponymous starship Countdown. The spaceship designs were cribbed (with acknowledgment) from 2001, but the story – eight years before Blake’s 7 – was of a crew of heroes using a starship and advanced alien technology to fight an oppressive Earth government. The political sophistication, for a strip aimed at small children, was quite astonishing; the good guys didn’t always win; and the chief baddy, Controller Costra, could be randomly cruel and bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Robin Cook. Even now, reading it 35 years older and wiser, it astounds me.

Countdown – the comic – also ran weekly science fact columns, which included regular updates on the then-current Apollo missions, and it had what I would now regard as an unhealthy interest in UFO stories. It hooked me.

So, Gerry Anderson for the technophilia. Dr Who for the humanity. Countdown for the space opera and the possibilities. Then and only then did I discover novels.

What do you read these days?

Not nearly enough as I would like. I tend to read the staples – the latest Pratchett, the latest Mieville etc etc. Since I seem fated to be officially a children’s writer, I enjoy submissions from that field – Michael Morpurgo, Anthony Horowitz, Philip Reeve. I also feel it’s about time I extended my reach beyond genre, so on the shelf is a collection of essays by Jerome K. Jerome and the next volume of Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants series, about Swedish emigrants to the US in the nineteenth century. I was introduced to the latter by my Swedish wife-to-be, along with Jan Guillou’s quite excellent Knights Templar trilogy, though volume 3 is taking an annoying length of time to become available in English.

Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

Never happier than when doing so! And yes, they were all science fiction. This lasted until 16 when creative composition was no longer required in English – a sad loss, replaced by having to analyse hacks like Shakespeare, Dickens and Milton instead.

Why write children's fiction? Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another? How do you feel about the critical attention that is now being placed onto the literature?

Children’s fiction: since you’re blogging this, I’ll be lazy and put in a link to “How I became a children's writer (technically)” at Suffice it to say it wasn’t planned or expected, but once it happened it seemed a good idea.

Genre: because it was what I knew best. If I think of a story, it’s science fictional. If I try to imagine a crime plot, it ends up in a science fiction setting. Ditto romance or whatever. I probably could write a crime story that wasn’t SF, but I would be afraid of rediscovering the wheel the same way that non-SF writers do when they try to write in the field. But I can’t imagine writing outside any genre at all.

And critical attention – well, make hay while the sun shines. I’m sure it will soon turn somewhere else. The extra sales are nice, but I actually think the best literature in any field comes when the critics are looking the other way. If you’re under constant critical review then you turn into Martin Amis.

Who is your ideal reader?

One who buys at least 10 copies of every one of my books and gives them to his friends on condition that each they tell at least 20 different people about them ... On a less ideal note, if this isn’t too snobbish, I try to write intelligently so I want to be read intelligently. I want readers to enjoy the read, first and foremost, but I also want them to get the points I’m trying to make.

In The New World Order, for instance, I dropped every clue I could think of to indicate that my heroes were Neanderthals from a parallel version of Earth, up to and including an author’s afterword that mentions skeletons of their kind being found “in a cave in the Neander valley (in German, Neander Thal) near Dusseldorf”. An ideal reader would finish The New World Order knowing they were Neanderthals, and preferably having had an inkling before then. Which makes the number of reviews that plainly didn’t get it, or even talked about “aliens from outer space”, quite dispiriting.

And the less said about the reader whose Amazon review complained that the characterisation in His Majesty’s Starship wasn’t quite as good as Rama 2, the better. I mean, Rama ... TWO???

How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?

I let a few Neat Ideas pile up in my head, often combined with one or two key scenes. Then I have to work out a way of linking them all up. Sometimes I find the easiest route means discarding one or two items that thought they were safe and secure within my heart. I learn to be brutal. This process tends to last at least two or three years, mostly because I’m busy writing something else.

Once I start writing then I try to write every day – well, certainly every weekday. Since I also have a full-time job, weekdays are the days I’m accustomed to working. I’ll do some in the morning before work, and usually at lunchtime, and most often in the evenings too. (Yes, yes, I know, it would make a lot of sense to write at weekends when I’m not tired out from the job ... but this is me.)

The latest book tells the stories of two brothers in parallel. I was getting quite blocked on one brother’s story so I spent most of last year writing the other’s. Which worked, but unfortunately now I’m coming to the end of his strand and have to go back to the first. Damn.

How did your first book sale come about?

Oh, the usual sort of thing – rise early, work late, strike oil. Several colleagues in my writers’ group were already represented by an agent, and they talked the rest of us up to him, and he asked if he could get first refusal if any of the rest of us wrote something. So I wrote His Majesty’s Starship and sent it to him. Whereupon, to my surprise and bafflement, he successfully sold it to Scholastic. Suddenly, apparently, this novel about a middle aged divorcee from a group marriage qualified me as a children’s writer. I still don’t quite get that.

What's your most popular book? Why?

In terms of sales and coverage, I suppose that would be the most recent, The New World Order. It’s my second book with Random House, which means their marketing can build on the foundations laid by the first. (My novels with Scholastic, His Majesty’s Starship and Wingèd Chariot, really didn’t build up much of a market presence mostly due to Scholastic’s idiosyncratic marketing methods, which as far as I can see rely heavily on telepathy.) Also, as it’s ostensibly a historical novel – at least until you start reading – people are picking it up and starting to read it more than they ever would with The Xenocide Mission.

Annoyingly, yet inevitably, my most popular book in terms of library loans is a volume I wrote for hire: The Vampire Plagues: London by Sebastian Rook.

Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?

Now, that would have to be Wingèd Chariot, my drowned (or drownèd) kitten,. Although I say it myself, it featured a pretty novel take on time travel and answering various questions like the grandfather paradox. Then it was published with the crappiest cover imaginable, shortly before I left Scholastic anyway, so their telepathists didn’t even both to think hard about it at the book trade. Vanished without trace, poor soul. But the reviews it got were good, feedback I’ve received has been good and I’m very fond of it myself. It’s currently out with a publisher that specialises in reprints and I’m hoping ...

What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?

I think I would get on well with Orson Scott Card if were in the same room. We would probably agree to disagree on the nature of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed, but on the other hand, when it came to matters like suffering, sin and redemption I think we’d be pretty well eye to eye ... Plus, this is a man who was late for his wedding because he was handing in a manuscript.

Does writing have a role in shaping people's world view? How does sf act as an alienation technique to talk about the contemporary world?

Writing has a vital role in shaping world views, which is why so many regimes like to keep their writers under wraps. It beams signals straight into the mind. I’ve no doubt that a heady mixture of Asimov, Clarke and Dr Who in my growing years helped me develop as a moral person long before I began to consider codes of morality per se. You don’t, unless you’re a bad writer, say This Is Right and This Is Wrong. You have characters live it out by example. If you’re more intelligent than the censor then you can slip all kinds of things past, which is why Soviet SF was such a potent force.

I have ... absolutely no idea how sf acts as an alienation technique to talk about the contemporary world. Not even completely sure I understand the question ... I’ll have a go. Consider the matter of, say, humanity – which is on my mind at the moment because I’m reading Keith Brooke’s Genetopia for Vector review. Two thousand years ago, the parable of the Good Samaritan was shocking stuff. Nowadays, hopefully (but only hopefully) its message that we’re all neighbours under the skin isn’t quite so revolutionary. We probably don’t even think too hard about it, though God knows we still need to. So to reiterate the same message today you have to step it up to the next level, take it up and out of the contemporary world, which is where sf comes in. Genetopia uses a very different story to the Good Samaritan to deliver a similar message but scaled up – your humanity is in your heart, not your genetic make-up.

Does that answer the question? If not, it’s because I redefined what you were asking ...

Has 9/11 changed the way we write/think about alien cultures?

Well, it got the astonishingly bad Seven Days off our screens, since it proved to everyone’s satisfaction that there isn’t a time travel agency dedicated to undoing that kind of thing ... Go Osama!

Sorry, bad taste, and you asked about alien cultures rather than crap time travel. I think we can all safely say that dislike of the unlike has increased vastly amongst the unbrained since that particular date. But otherwise ... no, not really. In this country, at least, we have Northern Ireland and we’re used to the idea that the notional followers of a peaceful religion can do terrible things, without tarring their co-religionists with the same brush. (Though while the IRA had their faults, suicide bombing wasn’t one of them.) Anyone who came through the eighties is also used to the idea that from time to time a pea-brain can take charge of the White House and make his country do very silly things. So 9/11 probably did away with a lot of complacency, forced some heavy rethinking ... and ultimately we got back to living normally, knowing what we always knew but holding it more freshly in our minds.

It’s had a big effect on day-to-day lives, of course – but you asked about how we write/think, not what our governments do.

It also pricked a lot of utopian bubbles in making us realise how alien an alien culture can be. These people come from the same planet, era and genetic stock as the rest of us, yet look what they can do. And how many of them there are! Science won’t solve this. So, no one can be a Trekkie after 9/11. Another unexpected spin-off benefit.

What are you currently working on?

Back into space with the brothers book, though a different setting to His Majesty’s Starship and The Xenocide Mission. No title or publication date yet planned ... Also, my publisher has what will hopefully be the first of a series of slightly skiffy adventures in the contemporary world, for slightly younger readers – hopefully the Artemis Fowl sort of slot. Watch this space, or even better, watch


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