Interview with Keith Brooke

Can you give the quick summary of Genetopia?

Genetopia is the story of Flint, a young man in search of his missing sister in a far future where nano- and bio-technology have gone feral, influencing and accelerating the evolution of humans and their strangely-altered surroundings, so that the world has become a kind of condensed genetics lab. In this world, illness is always to be feared as symptoms can be a part of the transformation process: re-engineering active genes; mutating germ cells; migrating traits from species to species through plague and fever. It’s a world where organic AIs grow in the jungle, either worshipped or feared, where trees sing to each other and new houses are grown to order. To find his sister, Flint has to travel through communities and wild-lands no normal person would brave, and naturally enough he learns a lot along the way. Flint’s story is the story of the last true humans, and of the struggles between those who want to defend their heritage and those who choose to embrace the new. And if that sounds a bit weighty, I did my utmost to make sure it’s a cracking adventure story, too!

Genetopia looks great, with impressive blurbs on the back from Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Swanwick, and Peter F. Hamilton. In addition to the positive peer response, there has been good critical response, too.

Yes, the blurbs and reviews have been great – Locus called it a ‘minor masterpiece’, and it’s even getting noticed outside the genre, with a review in Entertainment Weekly and Pyr’s first ever starred review in Publishers Weekly. It’s getting far more attention than I’d really anticipated.

You have a great deal of experience as an editor and writer. Which of the two do you find more challenging and which is more enjoyable?

Writing is what drives me, what I want to do above almost everything else. When you hit the groove it’s like getting lost in reading someone else’s story, only hugely magnified. I love that raw excitement of exploring and capturing a world and characters no-one else has encountered; I love the craft of taking that raw draft and shaping it, trying to re-work the words until I’ve done all I can to help readers get that rush of discovery I had when I wrote the first draft, and even earlier, when I was scribbling down the half-formed ideas and scenes in a notebook.

Editing came along later, although it was always something I wanted to do. To a large degree it’s an extension of the arrogance that all writers have: the self-belief that the words we write deserve to be seen by others; as an editor, you’re making a statement about what you think is good, and what you hope other people will agree is good.

The most challenging? Hard to say. Both activities have their phases when you just have to knuckle down and keep going. Both have their administrative toll, which is often the least interesting part of both editing and writing, although even in running the business of being a writer/editor there are satisfactions and enjoyable aspects.

Okay, that paragraph bought me a little time to think… Writing has to be the most challenging, because you never (or at least I never) manage to write the story you aspire to. When you finish a story, no matter how good you might think it, you’re always aware of aspects that just don’t quite gel, where you haven’t quite expressed what you wanted, where you haven’t pushed your abilities hard enough. So you go back and fix them, of course, but … I’ve never hit the heights I aim for. That’s exactly how it should be, of course: over a twenty-year career I think I’ve improved steadily, but I always want to do better.

(And I suppose the above applies just as much to editing, or any other activity, but the fact that I applied it to the writing part of the question gives you my answer: I’m a writer who edits, not the other way round.)

Genetopia is like a puzzle, with clues laid out for the reader,  hinting at the backstory of the civilizations you present. Do you plan on revisiting the world or the characters?

I almost always finish a novel wanting to go back and explore its settings and characters further, but I’ve only ever committed a sequel once, and that was part of a planned duology. Perhaps Genetopia is a bit different, though, as that world has been with me so long: it seems inappropriate to draw the line now that I’ve actually written the novel. It’s such a rich milieu that I might well revisit it, for short fiction, at least. I’m wary of filling in the back-story, though: I know how the world reached that point in its future, but the people of that time don’t know, and I don’t see much point in plotting it out. I’d rather move forward, or outward, from Genetopia than fill in the back-story.

Genetopia is your first major release in the US, from what I’ve gathered on your Web site. However, you’ve had a number of YA book released in the UK. Will Genetopia be released in the UK or did you intentionally only publish with a US publisher?

If only I could claim that my writing career was actually organized and planned in any way! Genetopia came out in the US first simply because Pyr were the first company to make me an offer and I liked what they had to say — above all else, their sheer enthusiasm for the book was encouraging. I’m hopeful for a UK edition at some point, but that all goes through Pyr — there have been positive sounds, but I haven’t signed up for anything yet.

The structure of the story, with the pastiches from different character’s points-of-view, provided for greater depth. Did you initially plan on this structure/style or is it the result of the long gestation period of the story/novel?

For a long time Genetopia was going to be a mosaic novel, composed of stories, vignettes and all kinds of odd snippets, from a variety of viewpoints. That seemed to be the best way to illustrate the world I’d created. But for a long time (and I’m talking years here) I just carried on accumulating notes, never quite feeling ready to start writing it. I think I hit a critical point when I realised I didn’t want to write some kind of anthropological overview but a novel — I wanted to tell a story, not paint a world. From that point, the thing began to take shape as a far more linear story, centring tightly on Flint and his journey to look for his missing sister. That seemed just a little too claustrophobic, though, and I decided to incorporate a handful of stories from other perspectives, partly as a carry-over from my original plan, and partly to go deeper: sometimes you see more through another’s eyes.

With this in mind, do you think there is a big a difference in the reading tastes US v. UK readers, which despite the narrowing gap, is still present?

Not too long ago it was very hard for many UK writers to break into the US market, particularly the more interesting writers. People like Ken MacLeod took years to find a US publisher; John Meaney has only recently been published in the US (also with Pyr); Justina Robson took a while to break through; and so on. But in the last few years American publishing seems to have woken up to the better British writers, with people like Tony Ballantyne, Charlie Stross and others getting onto the major lists. I’m not sure if this means that US reading tastes have shifted in favour of the more innovative of British writers, or that US publishing has just woken up to it all.

Turning it round the other way, the British genre bookshelves have long been dominated by American authors, and I don’t think too much has changed there. Inevitably, there’s a filtering process: the US market is so much bigger than ours, so a lot of writers slip through the gaps – even people like Michael Swanwick don’t get published as well as they should over here.

What’s good to see, in the UK and the US, is the strength of all the indie publishers: PS Publishing, Golden Gryphon, Elastic Press, Monkeybrain, and all the others. Some of the best books are being published by the indies these days.

Do you feel a different anticipation about the response to Genetopia compared to the Nick Gifford novels?

I don’t think the labeling makes much difference to me: a Nick Gifford YA novel is just as much one of my books as a Keith Brooke SF novel. Genetopia has been special, though: partly because of the buzz of interest that has grown up around its publication, and partly simply because it’s so long since my last adult SF novel.

As owner/editor of infinity plus and your name visible in the genre, have you found yourself being tougher and more pressured with your own writing?

I think the impact of running infinity plus and also having two writing careers running in parallel (not to mention the part-time day job!) has had more impact on the process rather than the output. The pressure on my time has imposed a lot of discipline on my working routines, so that when I get time to write I do my utmost to get the best out of it: I write first drafts intensely, I revise intensely, and I find myself switching modes quickly – one day editing infinity plus, the next researching a story, the next revising a novel, and so on. I can’t afford the luxury of drifting between projects, and seeing where the muse leads. Mind you, I wouldn’t have it any other way: there are so many stories I want to write, I’d probably be putting this kind of pressure on myself anyway! I don’t really think that my visibility within the genre has much impact: I’ve always written what I want to, in the way I want to, and then worried about whether people will like it at a later stage.

Some writers have said writing for younger audiences proves more challenging than writing for adult audiences in that you don’t want to “dumb-down” the story too much. Have you found it difficult to achieve that balance in your YA fiction?

Right from the outset, I’ve tried hard not to dumb down for the littl’uns. In some ways, it’s even the reverse that applies: teenagers who read tend to read a lot, they tend to be brighter than average, they tend to re-read books that they like. One of the loveliest responses I’ve had to my work was from a girl who interrupted her third reading of one of my Nick Gifford novels that day to mail me. If someone’s reading your work that closely, you should be putting more layers of complexity and subtlety in there, not fewer.

There are differences, of course. Younger readers tend to be less patient with waffle and digression, and there’s usually more emphasis on storytelling – in many ways it’s rather like writing a novel (albeit a short novel) with the discipline more often associated with short-story-writing. And I think this has fed back into my adult work, too – it’s easy to lose discipline when you have 400 pages to tell a story, but give me a tight 250-pager any day!

Infinity plus has been one of the premier genre Web sites for almost 10 years. How much of an impact do you think the Internet has had on the FSF genre market and publishing?

I think it’s probably still too early to say. The net has evolved dramatically in that decade, and there have been lots of attempts to either harness it to the needs of publishing, or to adapt publishing to the possibilities of the net, but has publishing changed as a result?

At infinity plus we have an ever-growing showcase of genre fiction – kind of a magazine, kind of an archive, but definitely a thing that couldn’t exist in any other form. At places like SFF World you’re combining magazine-like elements (like, er, this interview) with a really strong sense of community – again, a new model made possible by the net. Over at Baen, and now with people like Cory Doctorow using the Creative Commons approach, we’re seeing complete novels made available online for free – either for moral/political reasons, or purely on the commercial judgement that this is the best way to encourage people to buy more books. Perhaps these new models are where the impact of the web has been greatest.

For me, the biggest impact has been the way the net makes communication so much easier. I can have e-mail conversations with other writers around the world at the click of the mouse. I spent one term sitting in on Kit Reed’s writing class at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Based in a MOO, all the interactions were real-time and it was a wonderful mix of each class being almost as if I was there but also each class being more than just another class, because we were writing to communicate – a kind of exchange that was both frantically chaotic and more considered than the “real” thing.

Before the net, I was the oddball who spent his days shut away staring at a computer doing something that most ordinary people thought was just a little strange; now, I’m still the oddball doing this thing, but at least I’m in constant contact with other similarly odd people!

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