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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]

Interview: Brenda W. Clough

Brenda W. Clough is the author of The Crystal Crown, The Dragon of Mishbil, The Realm Beneath, The Name of the Sun, An Impossumble Summer, How Like A God and The Doors of Death and Life, as well as numerous short stories and articles. She was born in in Washington, DC, where she now lives with her husband and "the natives" (their two children), although she has travelled widely in the interim, including graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, with a major in English and Creative Writing. Brenda took part in the list in January, 2005. Diane Joy Baker, Donna Farley, Patrick McGuire, Shannon McNear, Greg Slade, Rae D. Stabosz, and Tony Zbaraschuk asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. You can learn more about Brenda from her web page at www.sff.net/people/Brenda.

GS: Where were you born?

Washington DC, not far from where I'm living right now. For some reason you meet very few people, even in the Washington area, who were born in Washington. Everyone comes here from somewhere else. And what happens to all the babies who are born in Washington DC? I don't know. Maybe they all move to Minnesota.

GS: Where did you go to school? What did you take in school, and why?

I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh PA, with a major in English and Creative Writing.

GS: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

I am married and have two children and four cats. My son is in high school and my daughter is in college. The cats are not educated but pretend to be very wise.

GS: How did you get started writing?

You mean, how did I begin? I sat down with a yellow pad and a pencil and began to write. Or do you mean, how did I get the idea that I could write? I have always known I would be a writer, from quite an early age.

GS: What books have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF titles)

I have seven novels out, plus a large number of short stories and articles. A fairly complete bibliography is up on my web page.

GS: Of your books, which one is your favorite? (including works in progress)

Right now I'm shopping around a dark fantasy set in 1969 that really is the book of my heart. It was difficult to write but turned out great.

JN: Can you tell us more about this series? And please tell us what, as a Christian, inspired you to write something "dark."

Nothing has happened to it yet, so far as I know. It is a single novel, languishing in an in-box somewhere in a publisher's office. I don't think of it as 'dark', but my agent and everyone who has read it assures me that it is. It is a book in which the hero acquires self-knowledge, at great personal cost. Also on the last page but three he shoots the girl that he loves with a .38 and kills her dead, which is dark in and of itself. But it was entirely necessary, forced by plot and character – there was no other way for the book to end.

GS: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?

Like most wordsmiths I'm a terrible ragbag this way. I am influenced by everything. However, I deliberately select influences for various books – it is a good way to give them unity and cohesion. How Like A God was my C.S. Lewis book. I even named the hero after C.S. Lewis. I consciously set it up, plot and theme and character, to be a book that Lewis would really enjoy reading. (It is only a very small postulate that he can get his hands on a copy. Heaven by definition must have an open and bottomless account at Amazon.com, so that when we get there and finally have enough time to read all the books we want to read we have access to same.)

GS: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF as a genre?

Depends on how broadly you define SF. I remember clearly puzzling over an issue of Superman comics, puzzling out the hard words like "kryptonite". There's another powerful influence on my work – comic books, and all the allied superhero tropes. The idea of a secret identity, the importance of costume, the absolute necessity for action and lots of it – and every now and then my villains insist on pontificating, too.

GS: What is your personal all-time favourite SF work, and why?

There are too many for me to fix on one. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series is always enjoyable even after many re-reads. After viewing all the movies I have to re-read Lord of the Rings again real soon now. Jasper Fforde's "Tuesday Next" books are my most recent favorites, more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

GS: How like a God and The Doors of Death and Life have a character who is articulate, sympathetic, and unambiguously Christian. Given that there is a fairly strong and vocal anti-Christian camp in SF fandom, I would have expected those to be a fairly hard books to pitch to a secular publisher. Can you tell us how those conversations went?

Nobody at the publisher was particularly exercised about the Christian element one way or the other, but I think that factor worked against them in the marketplace. Tor was unwilling to pick up a third volume, and my best bet now may be to get the rights for the first two back from them and sell the whole package to another publisher.

RDS: This is now the fifth story I've heard of Tor picking up two volumes of an author, then the sales were only middling, and so they didn't pick up the third volume. I wonder if they have some kind of "two strikes and you're out" rule of thumb? I get the impression that with non-genre publishers of fiction, it's even more rigid – they back you for your first novel, if that's not a blockbuster, it's hard to get a second contract. Can you speak to that?

I am sorry to report that I know far too much about the business side and can talk about it until everyone has dropped dead from boredom!

RDS: Are you your own agent or do you have one?

I have an agent, but he is not a very useful person. The sad fact is that agents are really useful if you are pretty successful anyway. Like publicists, or managers, or shopping assistants.

RDS: Do you think the business is cut-throat, as we keep hearing it is, say, in comparison with when I was growing up in the 50's and 60's and editors would try to "grow" writers through long-term relationships? Or is it more that the pace is quicker in publishing as in everything, and everyone is busier, decisions are made more quickly, nobody has the luxury of time.

One of the main problems is that all the major SF publishers have been bought up. They are now but one small suction cup upon a tentacle of a gigantic publishing octopus. This publishing conglomerate is not interested in the state of SF, or in growing writers, or in the state of fiction in the US today. Their corporate goal is money, pure and simple. This forces the publishers to troll for best-sellers (J.K. Rowling may be solely responsible for keeping fantasy fiction alive as an economic entity). And this means that if you are not a best-seller with your first book, you get shuffled to the back of the publication list and fall off very soon indeed. The editors cannot afford to keep you on or nuture you until you are the next Stephen King. They need the next Stephen King right now.

TZ: One should note that Baen Books seems to be doing pretty well without being part of a conglomerate, and Meisha Merlin is rising to major status. I suspect that other publishing houses will rise in the cracks between where the conglomerates flourish. (Getting into the distribution chain would be the difficult part, but online sales & Amazon.com mean that if you can get the word-of-mouth going, people will buy the book even if it's not in your local bookstore.)

Do not sneeze at distribution. To get your book into a real bookstore (like Barnes & Noble) you have to get it to a distributor like Ingrams, and this can be very hard for the smaller publisher. The books sold from web sites or on only Amazon are a tiny fraction of the units moved by Borders or B&N. If you want to actually make any money you really do not want to go independent.

TZ: Meisha Merlin started out republishing a few OOP fan favorites, then branched out to adding new books by the same, and is now into the chain bookstores I frequent and offering their own line of original stuff.

They have had their problems, however. Has anyone ever read Sorceror's Son by Phyllis Eisenstein? Great book! Unfortunately Del Rey refused to pick up the second book, and we had to wait a decade for another publisher to reissue the first book and then push the second out. And then they dropped it, and finally Meisha Merlin was going to publish the first two as an omnibus volume and push out #3. Severe cash flow difficulties have held up this excellent plan, and I am still hovering around waiting for that third book. The problem with being a very small business is that if only one big creditor is late with payment it can just about sink you.

RDS: I guess I'm wondering if you think that publishers, editors, agents etc. are lovers of language and books, who also want to succeed in the business, or are they more cynical and focused on the bottom line?

Now that is a different angle. The actual editors and assistant editors do indeed love the genre. They are paid so very little (and they have to live in New York City, too) that they have to love it to work in it. They spend their days jousting with the corporate behemoth, trying to drag their favorite writers into the light before the accountants pull the plug. Most of the editors I know live like college students, on ramen noodles and with brick-and-board bookcases, even into their 50s and 60s.

RDS: Now, what about small publishing companies? Does anyone know if Multnomah is still independent? Is Randall Ingermanson publishing through Multnomah? I remember an interview with someone working with Multnomah last year or the year before. Now that Multnomah hit it big with The Prayer of Jabez, have they been bought up, taken over, or are they still doing their own thing as they were before? Did Prayer of Jabez put them on the map or does a small press need more than one jackpot?

What is more likely to happen, if a small publisher should happen to hit it big with a book, is that the hit-writing author is lured away to Random House or someplace like that. No small publisher can match the money that a megaconglomerate can offer, and a big outfit can sweeten the pot with book tours, publicity campaigns, inside track to movie deals, etc. Even the most unworldly and high-minded author can't afford to ignore income, and if they do they probably have a practical wife or husband. Faced with college tuitions or medical bills, loyalty to the original small publisher usually goes to the wall. One of the things that may happen to small publishers is that they will become the farm team for megaconglomerates.

GS: How are you treated (at cons, in reviews, etc.) when people discover that you are "religious"? Do you find that people use it as an excuse to dismiss your work as unworthy of their consideration, or do they treat it as just one more factor which goes into making you who you are? (Or, I suppose, do you get both reactions, from different people?)

I've had a couple carpy reviews, but never any hassle in person. I will say that SF cons are extremely laid-back places, and it seems to me that nobody ever criticizes anybody for anything. Also it is not a very large universe – I know just about everybody in the business, and it seems to me that every con I go to is a constant round of waving hello and greeting people.

GS: What is your faith stance, and how does it affect your writing?

I have been a Christian for about 30 years now, and attend an Episcopal church. I don't know that it particularly affects my writing, except that anything that really interests you turns up in your work. You remember that Tolkien's elves "put all that they love into all that they make."

GS: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

Dorothy Sayers The Mind of the Maker – the best synthesis you will ever see of theology and creativity.

GS: When you write, have you ever come across theological "puzzles" you had to sort through to your own satisfaction before you could continue with the story?

I'm not sure what you mean. Can you give me an example?

GS: The story I have in mind when I ask that question is "The Foundlings." Having introduced my human characters to my alien characters, I suddenly realised that I had to work out, at least to my own satisfaction, the relationship between the aliens and God, before I could finish the story. I hadn't originally set out intending for it to have any theological content at all, but I realised that I couldn't be satisfied with it until I knew the answer to that question.

I don't think I've ever done anything exactly like this, but I do make an effort to shove my poor characters into trying circumstances and in general ratchet up the agony as much as possible. If a crisis of faith would do them good, they get it.

GS: Would you consider your work to be "Christian"? (And, whether you do or not, what, in your opinion, would make a book "Christian"?)

It is Christian, but some of my product is not very overtly so. As someone once said about The Sandman, it's a long way to the center of town.

What makes a work Christian could be debated for a long time! It can't be simply a work that deals with spiritual matters, otherwise all those New-Agey books would count. It can't merely be a work in which the characters are Christian and discuss religious matters, otherwise An Account of a Trip to the Hebrides by James Boswell, which I am reading right now, would count. It must be that the plot turns upon some distinctly Christian hinge, or (which comes to the same thing) the characters are driven to grasp a Christian reality.

GS: How did you become a Christian? C.S. Lewis wrote about how literature led him back to God. Was literature (Christian or not) a part of your spiritual journey?

Oh, yes. Like Charles Colson I became a Christian by reading Mere Christianity.

GS: How did you choose the church you attend?

Some friends recommended it.

PM: Unlike many of the people on the list, I've had the pleasure of seeing Brenda on panels at DC-area conventions (and I think also at some Worldcons), and once I sat at a kaffeklatch with her (at which I came up with no brilliant questions to ask.) ("Kaffeklatches" at some conventions are discussions, that you sign up for in advance, between a writer and a small number of readers.)

It will perhaps be clear from her reply that, unlike many fans and writers, Brenda is very, very outgoing at conventions, almost verging on giddy. (I've never seen her away from a con, but I'm sure she can't be like that all the time, or she would not be doing something as ungregarious as writing novels.) She is also attractive-looking, which in an ideal world ought not to matter, but which in the real world probably does influence how one gets treated. Similarly, she is a fairly tall woman, which probably lends her a certain authority despite the giddiness. So she comes across as both very personable and as someone of substance. All in all, she is probably one of the last people anyone would want to put down to her face. (Not, of course, that I've ever seen any writer get anything more in the way of a face-to-face put-down about their work at a con than nit-picks about technical details and the like.)

OTOH, sf fandom is almost by definition a culture of geeks. People at cons are used to being the fringe element, the weird kid on the block, the only people in their circle or town or end of the state who can recite the dialogue in any given Star Trek episode or who can discuss in detail what was wrong with the tactics in Attack of the Clones (a terrible movie) or who can tell you who Batman's last five girlfriends were. (They were frustrated – by edict of DC Comics, Batman is celibate!) It would ill behoove them to be nasty to people who don't fit in.

RDS: You said you hadn't heard of this list until recently. I also had not heard of you until I read Greg's note about the interview. How did you find out about the list? Maybe Greg told us in his preliminaries but I can't find it anywhere.

Colleen Cahill, list member, told me about it. (I forget, Colleen, whether it was at a party or on line.) I have known Colleen for some years now and we have co-authored an article, about handling one's literary estate, which has enjoyed a modest esteem.

RDS: Do you have a day job? Are you able to support yourself with your writing?

When my kids were younger I combined full time writing with full-time mommying. Under the lash of college tuitions and health insurance, however, I have gone back to a full-time job. This has cut drastically into writing time, but I see no help for it.

DF: Who is the best, most helpful editor you've worked with (for long or short fiction) and why?

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, for sure. (She has a blog on the internet, so googling on her name should bring it up.) I wrote a short story (about the death of Odysseus) for an anthology called Starlight 3, and she edited it so helpfully and closely that it became a much better story. Her husband Patrick is the editor on the cover of the book, but she did a great deal of work on it as well.

DJB: Where do you write? What's your daily writing schedule like?

I try to write a little bit on weekends, but all my days are sucked up by the full time job.

DJB: Do you listen to a. music b. silence c. NPR? If you listen to music, which musicians spark your interest?

When I'm writing silence is imporant. Music is for the car. I am a fan of Broadway show music – something very fascinating about plot combined with music.

DJB: What is your favorite word? Your least favorite word?

At this moment I am sure the world's least favorite word is tsunami. My favorite current word is feline, because we've just acquired a new one – a rescue.

DJB: Do you recall the first SF book you ever read?

Probably The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key – it was one of those thin Scholastic Press paperbacks that you could get through the school book club. I didn't get it at school, but read it in the ship's library of the USS Woodrow Wilson, a passenger ship on its way from Los Angeles to Hong Kong (in the days when you took ships across the oceans instead of taking cruises.)

DJB: Among your own characters, who is your favorite, and why?

I love characters that take on a sufficient life of their own to alter a book. I wrote a book once in which a minor character stepped onto the stage about page 200, and essentially took it over, becoming the hero. I even had to rewrite so that page 200 became page 1. Edwin Barbarossa (from How Like a God) was the same way. Originally he was set up to become the villain of the piece, the Lex Luthor to my hero's Superman. But, like the fairy at Sleeping Beauty's christening, I bestowed some qualities on him that totally altered his destiny. I allowed him to be fond of food and music, and I gave him a great laugh. And how can you be a villain if you are a food maven and love music and make people laugh with you? So he had to become a hero too, and I had to spin off all the negative things I needed him to do and load them onto another character in the next book.

DJB: What's the most interesting place (or city) you've visited?

I have traveled very widely indeed, so this is a difficult question indeed. There are a number of cities I ought to spend more time in (London, Paris, Florence) and a number that have rarity value (Vientiane, for instance.) The most interesting city I've been to recently is Shanghai, a booming metropolis.

DJB: What sound do you especially like? Which sound do you hate?

I have difficulty with loud feedback from sound systems. On the other hand the sound of popcorn popping is a very pleasant and anticipatory sound, with a powerful olfactory component too.

DJB: Which is the most significant experience of your life?

I suppose the most formative experience of my life was living overseas for many years. There is nothing like being a stranger in a strange land. And you really only know a foreign country by living in it for a while.

DJB: If you could ask God one question, what would it be?

Ooh, I don't know! It would depend on whether I was still on this earth or not.

DJB: If you could throw one book (by another author) into the river, which would it be and why?

Oh, I've actually done this! It was Decision at Doona by Anne McCaffrey – a highly sentimental first-contact novel. The book was so depressingly bad that I tossed it (a paperback) into the trash, even though I am usually very frugal and will resell used books.

GS: What sense do you get from people in the secular publishing business about their attitude towards CBA literature? Are they even aware of this "parallel market"? If they are, do they take it seriously, look down on it, or what?

I am sure that hits like the "Left Behind" series have ensured that nobody ignores Christian literature any more. Remember that the bottom line is all-important at the corporate levels!

GS: Have you had any contact with CBA-published authors? Randy Ingermanson has said on the CHRISTSF list that CBA speculative fiction authors have about one degree of separation between any of them, because there are so few of them, so I am curious as to whether you have any contact with that crew, or if publishing through secular publishers puts you outside that circle.

I don't think I know any of those writers. Publishing is astonishingly fragmented – romance writers have their own little universe, and right next door is another one for mystery writers, and so on. I don't go to any of their meetings (if any) and I'm not a member of their organization, so it is hard to imagine how an acquaintance could be made. The very large publishing get-togethers like the American Book Association convention are so huge that it is a wonder you meet anybody at all, since thousands and thousands of people surge through.

GS: For that matter, do you have closer friendships with certain other "secular" authors because they share your faith? Is there any sense of fellowship you have with other believing pros?

I know several other believers within SF pro-dom, but our faith is not the fulcrum of the relationship. Usually we are doing stuff.

PM: You seem to have a number of things in common with the late Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger.) At some point you both respectively are/were:

To be sure, there were also significant differences: Smith was of another generation, sex, and race from you, and came from a moneyed, WASP-y background. And I don't see a lot of similarities in your fiction. (Some of your early fantasies do seem to have a quasi-Oriental setting, as do some of Smith's stories.) But there are enough parallels to make me wonder if you'd given any special thought to him.

Well, Cordwainer Smith was one of the great ones in the field – it's a pity his work isn't more widely read. (I think that they are too complex to make good movies, which has worked heavily against them. Look at how successful Philip K. Dick still is, years after his death.) What he was really good at, and what I've always been interested in, is really getting into a totally alien culture. Probably travel does that for you – you realize that there are some awfully strange places right here on Earth, and all you need is a plane ticket to get there, no starship necessary.

GS: I know you are appreciative of the late Dorothy L. Sayers. Is that more in the way of respectful-admiration-at-a-distance, or do you sense a spiritual kinship there? Beyond your both being women writers, partly of genre fiction, belonging to the Anglican Communion, there aren't a lot of obvious biogrpahical parallels between you, but that isn't always decisive in forming an affinity.

Sayers has always been one of my favorite writers! One of her best books for writers is The Mind of the Maker, the most perfect melding of theology and writing that you will ever see. I feel sure though that she was smarter than I am, and much more focused.

SM: How do you pronounce your last name?

On this one I can blame my husband. It rhymes with "enough".

SM: Do you outline a story first, or just plunge in and write by the seat of your pants?

It depends. A short piece usually doesn't call for elaborate planning, but for a long work it is helpful to at least know the major nodes the plot line must pass through. When Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, she began by writing all the major plot nodes: the engagement to husband #1, the death of Frank Kennedy and rebound to Rhett Butler, and so on. Only after she had these points set up did she write the bits that got the heroine from Point A to Point B. You can still see, in the text, the signs that she had not quite decided how poor Frank was going to die until he actually did. The fact of his passing was set in stone; the method was kind of up in the air.

OTOH, it is a good sign when a book or a character comes to life sufficiently to develop a mind of its own. When Dorothy Sayers got tired of writing Lord Peter Wimsey novels, she decided to marry him off and get rid of him. So she invented Harriet Vane, thrust her into mortal peril, and waited for him to rescue and triumphantly wed her at the end of the book. To her annoyance, however, Harriet absolutely refused to fall into Peter's arms, because it would not be in character. Sayers had to write several more books before she could lure them to the altar.

SM: I notice in How Like A God you have what seems to be a double climax, Rob's confrontation with Gilgamesh and then Edwin's journey to Rob's inner landscape... Was this something that just sprang from the nature of the story, and has anyone ever nitpicked over the structure?

A multiple climax is a fairly modern thing – the most annoying proponent of them is Stephen Spielberg, who insists on wedging at least a couple or three into each of his movies. It is actually better, more classically Aristotlean, to have everything come to a head at the same time and place with just a few characters. However, this necessarily calls for a very tight focus and sometimes it just does not work out. In that case it is important that the climaxes echo or reflect upon each other. A good example would be Lord of the Rings. The big bang is when the Ring goes into the volcano and Sauron is defeated. But the smaller climax revolves around the cleansing of the Shire, when the hobbits bring home the skills and lessons they derived from the big one and apply them to local issues.

In the case of How Like A God there is an inner battle, and an outer one. Which is more important? For Rob Lewis it is the inner battle – the outer one is just a step along the way.

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[David R. Beaucage][Kathy Tyers][James BeauSeigneur][Jefferson Scott][Walker Chandler][Alton Gansky][Ray Hansen]

[Emily Snyder][Randall Ingermanson][Theodore Beale][Steve Laube][Laura Lond][Frank Wu][Donita K. Paul][Brenda W. Clough][Bryan Davis][John Granger]

[Karen Hancock][Miles Owens][Robert Liparulo][Bryan Davis, part 2][Chris Walley][Kathryn Mackel][Gene Wolfe][Sharon Hinck][Wayne Thomas Batson][Lars Walker][Christopher Hopper][Jeffrey Overstreet]

Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]

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[David R. Beaucage] [Kathy Tyers] [James BeauSeigneur] [Jefferson Scott] [Walker Chandler] [Alton Gansky] [Ray Hansen] [Emily Snyder] [Randall Ingermanson] [Theodore Beale] [Steve Laube] [Laura Lond] [Frank Wu] [Donita K. Paul] [Brenda W. Clough] [Bryan Davis] [John Granger] [Karen Hancock] [Miles Owens] [Robert Liparulo] [Bryan Davis, part 2] [Chris Walley] [Kathryn Mackel] [Gene Wolfe] [Sharon Hinck] [Wayne Thomas Batson] [Lars Walker] [Christopher Hopper] [Jeffrey Overstreet][Rich Christiano][Jeff Gerke]