Setting the pages on fire – Chris Roberson interviewed

Chris Roberson’s excellent novel, Set the Seas on Fire, is to be published shortly by Solaris. I’ve just reviewed it for Interzone and really cannot recommend it highly enough. His novella, Voyage of Night Shining White was reviewed a little while ago.
In The Voyage of Night Shining White, I got the sense that you focus on the silences of space rather than the exuberance normally found. Was this a deliberate choice?

It just seemed natural, I suppose. A large part of the inspiration for the novella, in addition to the proximate inspiration of the K:19 story, were accounts of naval exploration I’d read when researching for Set the Seas on Fire, in particular the details of Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour. What struck me about those voyages was the incredible isolation they must have felt, spending weeks or even months onboard their ships, out of sight of land for long stretches. Transposing that kind of voyage into space, using fairly realistic levels of technology, and the isolation would just be that much worse, like a submarine voyage in which you could never surface for air.

Another aspect, I think, is the fact that these Celestial Empire stories seem to have a certain narrative momentum of their own that I can’t shake. With a timeline that covers a thousand years, the stories I’ve written in it tend to focus on the quieter moments, on people just a little bit off to the side, right before or right after some larger and louder event has taken place. Not the larger-than-life heroes and villains, but regular people caught in the wake of extraordinary events. Even when I try to write about the more pivotal moments in the history, I find myself gravitating to those at the sidelines, for some reason.

What inspired you to create the Celestial Empire?

The short answer is “Lou Anders.”

The slightly longer answer is that at the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, I met editor and anthologist Lou Anders in the bar. He was queuing up his Live Without a Net anthology and invited me to submit a story. On the flight home I worked out a mash-up between an incident in Richard Feynman’s autobiography and the story of John Henry and the steam engine, set in a world heavily inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. I wrote the story a few days later, “O One,” sent it off to Lou, and he ended up buying it.

A little more than a year later, Lou and I were both at Lunacon in Westchester county, New York (home of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters), and we were once again in the bar. He asked if I would write a novella for a magazine he was editing at the time. Specifically, he wanted to know what happened after “O One,” in which the emperor of China initiated a space program. Hardly pausing to think about it, I answered that the Chinese went to Mars, and found the Aztecs had beaten them there. “Great,” Lou said. “Write that.”

The only problem was that I hadn’t really worked out the history of this world for the initial story. The only research I’d done had been to rewatch The Last Emperor. So in getting the novella off the ground, I had to work out more about this Chinese-dominated world and its history. In doing so, I discovered all sorts of great stuff about this altered timeline, and was inspired to write other stories in it. “Red Hands, Black Hands” was the next to see print, in Asimov’s, and then “Gold Mountain” in PostScripts. I worked out a timeline that covers a thousand years of history, diverging from our own in the early fifteen century, and stretching to the early days of interstellar colonization, with stops along the way for terraforming Mars and a few wars along the way.

As it happened, for one reason and another, Lou ended his association with the magazine, and I withdrew the novella he’d commissioned, “The Voyage of Night Shining White”. Nick Gevers came to the rescue and bought it for Pete Crowther’s PS Publishing, who released it in a standalone edition last fall. In the meantime, though, the other stories had come to the attention of a few editors, namely Sharyn November at Viking and George Mann at Solaris, both of whom were interested in novels set in that world, which I’d come to call the Celestial Empire. The results were Iron Jaw and Hummingbird and The Dragon’s Nine Son, both due out in 2008.

Set the Seas on Fire features the Bonaventure family. They owe something to the von Beck, Begg family of Michael Moorcock. What made you want to a similar family to them and what challenges does this bring in keeping the strands working rather than colliding?

Along with the von Beck family, the other inspirations for the Bonaventure family (more properly the Bonaventure-Carmody family, though the Carmody side of the clan hasn’t much appeared in print, as yet) are Kim Newman’s Diogenes Club stories, and Philip José Farmer’s Wold-Newton stories. I’ve got a real weakness for stories that mix genres, or at least blend different subgenres, and I’ve always been a sucker for heroes.

A few years ago, I was working on a novel about a kind of modern-day pulp hero, Jon Bonaventure Carmody, and I wanted to provide a bit of backstory about him and the world he inhabited. I worked out that his parents had been occult spies in the sixties, his father for the US and his mother for the British. And that his grandfather had been a pulp adventurer in New York, with his headquarters atop a skyscraper and a team of able assistants at his side. His great uncle had been a jungle lord, orphaned in the wild and subsequently raised by lions. And so on. The idea was that I would literalize the characters inspirations and influences by making them his actual ancestors. So that rather than saying that he was a little like James Bond, a little like Doc Savage, a bit like Tarzan, he was instead the son of Jake Carmody, the grandson of Rex “King” Carmody, the great-nephew of Lord John Carmody, and so on. His mother, Diana Bonaventure, secret agent of MI8, had a similarly heroic lineage, including Victorian explorer Peter Bonaventure, and WWI flying ace Jules Bonaventure.

When it came time to start my next novel, about a young woman who discovers that she can travel in space and time, it just seemed natural that she would be part of the same family, and so she became Carmody’s cousin, Roxanne Bonaventure. Then when I wrote Set the Seas on Fire, it was almost a given that the protagonist would be another branch on the same family tree. And when Hieronymus Bonaventure then turned back up again in Paragaea, I added a few more branches on. I’ve just this spring handed in End of the Century, due out next year from Pyr, which explains a little bit about the in-story reasons for why there are so many adventurers and explorers in these two families.

As for challenges, I really can’t see any, actually. I just see it in terms of opportunities. Each new Bonaventure-Carmody story I write, whether there is a Bonaventure in it or not (in many cases, the connects are a little more subtle), helps map out a little more about that world and its history, and I’m continually surprised at the things I discover about it. While the Celestial Empire has a certain kind of narrative momentum, the Bonaventure-Carmody stories do as well, but quite a different kind. The Bonaventure-Carmody world is a remix of everything that I love from superhero comics and pulp novels and adventure fiction of all kind, all mashed up together. I seldom have as much fun writing anything as I do working on those stories.

At the heart of Set the Seas, I found that it thought about the Other and coming to terms with it. Why did you use the settings the Oceanic civilisations and China? Does it pose an issue in being a Western writer of the fantastic? Can writers ever truly deal with alternate civilizations on an equal term or will there be that gap between the two?

There’s been a lot of talk the last few years amongst a segment of genre writers and readers about cultural appropriation, but to be honest it’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about. In one sense, at least, I approach writing about China or Polynesian culture in the same way that I approach writing about London or France or New York. In one way or another, unless I were to write about the experiences of a middle class white kid in suburban Dallas growing up in the seventies and eighties, I’m going to be appropriating from someone, somewhere. And even if I only wrote about the town where I grew up, unless I were only to write from the perspective of a character just like me, I’m going to be extrapolating to some degree to get into someone else’s head, whether because they’re another gender or orientation, or another ethnicity, or another age, or what-have-you.

The main reasons I write about an island in the South Pacific and about a world dominated by the Chinese is that I have been influenced by those cultures, in one way or another, and wanted to examine them more deeply. In the former case, it was a collision between reading a lot of Herman Melville and watching Lee Tamahori’s very excellent Once Were Warriors, which got me thinking about Polynesian cultures and the various ways in which they survived (or didn’t) contact with Europeans. The genesis of the culture of Kovoko-ko-Te’Maroa in Set the Seas on Fire was as the background to a series of stories set in the modern day, about a group of displaced Te’Maroans living on the west coast of the United States. I’d worked out their history and culture as part of the backstory, and then realized that I was even more interested in writing a story set in that world. Even having worked out their culture in some detail, though, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable inhabiting that culture, if that makes sense, and hence the point-of-view character being Hieronymus Bonaventure, someone from a cultural background somewhat closer to mine that could act as a point of entry.

Of course, a writer from outside a culture is never going to write about it with the same level of understanding as someone from inside the culture would, but it isn’t to say that a writer from outside can’t approach a culture with a different level of understanding. There are things about a culture that those brought up in it might not be able to see at first glance, like fish not noticing the water, than an outsider might more easily be able to pick up on after careful study. So far as I’m concerned, both perspectives are valid, and valuable.

I think it can be really instructive to look at things from a different perspective. As I said, much of fiction writing involves getting into someone else’s head. In researching the Celestial Empire stories, I read quite a lot about the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States, particularly in the nineteenth century, post-gold rush. I was amazed at how much of those history was not common knowledge these days. In approaching that information in fiction, I took the tact of simple role reversal, casting Westerners in my alternate history as immigrants to China, in my story “Gold Mountain,” but putting them through all of the travails faced by Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

How did you come to use the sea-faring worlds and the Napoleonic wars in Set the Seas on Fire?

The original inspiration was watching the Horatio Hornblower films featuring Ioan Gruffudd. Those led me to read some of Forester’s original novels, as well as a great deal of nonfiction on the period. Being somewhat addled, I quickly decided that what the world needed was a Napoleonic-era nautical adventure from me.

As I mentioned, I’d already worked out the culture and history of Kovoko-ko-Te’Maroa, having included a brief mention in another story about the first European contact with the island being with a ship commanded by a Northrop Ross, and was interested in writing a story set in the days of that first contact. The two intentions collided, intermingled with my mania for introducing new members of the Bonaventure-Carmody family, and the result was Set the Seas on Fire.

The main thrust of the action is in the conversation. Is this inherited from the Fantasy of Manners which was largely about what you said and how you said it?

I think it’s as much to do with the fact that I’m more comfortable writing dialogue than narration than anything. Of course, it’s a tendency that I’ve worked against for a long time, so that more recent works tend to be more narration heavy. It’s a constant pendulum effect. But I think much of it, too, comes from the kind of source material I was reading. Novels of the period, or at least novels set in the period written a century or so later (like Forester), do tend to lean fairly heavily on the dialogue.

What are your influences?

They tend to vary from project to project, but the chief influences on my development as a writer are Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, Philip José Farmer, and Kim Newman. Contemporaries whose work I’ve been devouring include people like Kage Baker, John Scalzi, Charles Stross, and Hal Duncan.

I believe that you were part of Clockwork Storybook with Bill Willingham amongst others. How did you come together and what did you achieve?

The short version is that Clockwork Storybook began life as a writers’ group here in Austin, meeting weekly and critiquing each others stuff. Bill started the group, and invited Mark Finn to join, who dragged me in, who brought Matt Sturges in. After a few months the group evolved into an online magazine (with all the stories taking place in the same shared world, the fictional city of San Cibola), and then a year or two later mutated into a publishing concern, which published novels and story collections by the four of us (including Any Time At All, which was the shorter version of Here, There & Everywhere, and the original and shorter version of Set the Seas on Fire). In the end, I think we achieved what we set out to do, which was that all of us became better writers, first and foremost. We wrote loads of terrific stories and published a few books that ended up in readers’ hands, along the way. And it was a lot of fun, to boot. We’ve recently reconnected, the four of us, and rekindled Clockwork as a mutual support network, which is even nicer.

I believe that you are a publisher as well as a writer. How do you feel about the two roles and does it give you a better view of genre?

I am indeed a publisher. My press is MonkeyBrain Books, which I co-own with my wife, Allison Baker. We’ve been publishing for the last few years, and average five or six books a year. By the end of this year we’ll have twenty-one (!) books in print. I started MonkeyBrain to publish the kinds of books that I want to read (which is one of the reasons that you’ll find so many of the names I mentioned as influences appearing on the spines and TOCs of our titles), but the experience has given me invaluable insight into the way that the publishing field works. By the time my first wide-release novel was published, Here, There & Everywhere, I knew more about the business side of publishing and distribution and sales than many writers ever learn. The downside is that I never got to experience the happy glow of “Hey, my book is in stores!” that new writers get, since I had access to the BookScan numbers and new exactly how it was selling on a weekly basis, and how many copies were in the distributors’ warehouses, and so on. But at the same time, I think it’s helped me formulate real and achievable career goals, both as a writer and as a publisher, that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do.

But that’s to do with publishing, I suppose, and not genre per se. As for my view of genre? It’s really the same view of it that I had at eight years old, when I first started getting serious about this kind of stuff. I like the stuff that I like, and don’t spend too much time worrying about the stuff that I don’t. All of the internecine debates in genre circles about what is and isn’t science fiction, and why science fiction is better or worse than fantasy, or why this movement or that is the wave of the future… they tend to bore me, I’m afraid. My criteria are quite simple: “Is it well done?” and “Do I like it?” If something doesn’t hit one or the other, and preferably both, I’m not interested, whether it fits someone’s rigorous definition of what is or isn’t genre or not.

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