I like doing interviews, especially when the questions are both thoughtful and taxing. Carl Slaughter presented me with an intriguing set of questions way back in 2016. I thought I’d revisit them.
CS: Your first series is cyberpunk space opera. Your second series is alternate history swashbuckler magic fantasy. Is it safe to say you haven’t settled on a genre or subgenre yet?
JB: I’ve always written both science fiction and fantasy and would prefer not to be pinned down. I don’t really want to settle on a specific genre or subgenre because there’s so much that interests me. The first book (more space opera and not so much cyberpunk despite the cool brain implants) was not actually the first book I wrote. In fact it wasn’t even the first book I sold. It just so happened that DAW had a gap in their science fiction schedule earlier than the one in their fantasy schedule, so although the historical fantasy was the first one they bought, the space opera was the first they published.
CS: Both of your series involve vast expanse and epic adventure. I also noticed that the main characters in both series are on the run from oppressive, all controlling authority. And pirates, lots of pirates. Is any of this a coincidence?
JB: Yes, I think it is pretty much a coincidence though underdog and rebel stories are always interesting to write. Stories are all about conflict. so main characters sometimes need something to kick against to give them momentum. What better than something big and oppressive? That might be the society they live in or invading aliens or simply an overbearing family. The ‘kicking against’ might be central to the plot, it might be in the background. The Psi-Tech universe has megacorporations which have a bigger economy than your average planet, but that’s not dissimilar to today where companies like Wal-Mart have a gross value larger than some countries. It’s just scaled up a notch. As for pirates… they just sprang into being, fully-formed, along with the first scene which was more or less dictated by my ‘muse’ – whatever the hell that is.
CS: Your Psi-tech series involves 2 types of rather complicated hard science. How do each of these work and how are they integrated into each other, integrated into the character development, and integrated into the plot?
JB: I presume you mean the neural implants that enhance my characters’ natural psionic talents, and also foldspace and jump gates. Let’s take the latter first. To quote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Space is big.’ Let’s face it, the distances between solar systems even in this arm of our spiral galaxy are immense – too vast to contemplate journeys between worlds without a shortcut. If writers had to stick to real science, then no one would be writing science fiction that involved interstellar space travel, or at least not without taking into account time dilation and generation ships. So there are only a few ways to shortcut the immensity of space. Either you have to use FTL, such as Star-Trekkian warp drives, or you find wormholes that act like snakes on a Snakes and Ladders gameboard (Chutes and Ladders in the US, I believe), or you have to have to fold space-time in some way. Einstein’s equations indicate that’s possible, but, of course we haven’t a clue how to do it yet. In my Psi-Tech universe, we fold space, entering and exiting via jump-gates, but there’s something between the gates. The Folds are not like anything we’ve ever encountered before. The physics of foldspace are convoluted and unpredictable and there may be more there than we think. (More on that in the third Psi-tech book).
Now, as to the neural implants… just writing about telepathy would make it fantasy, right? There’s nothing in medical science as we know it that can measure a tendency toward psionic powers, but we still keep writing (and reading) about telepathy as if we’re refusing to believe it’s all pure hokum. Perhaps we like to think that there might be something in it, some tiny but immeasurable thing that would turn us into post-humans and let us talk to each other in our heads. (Whether that’s your idea of heaven or hell is up to you.) I’m not going to spoil it like midichlorians spoiled the power of the Force for a generation of Star Wars fans, but hey, don’t you think it would be fascinating if you could have some kind of magical wifi that enabled you to make brain-to-brain phone calls and control machines with your thoughts? That’s what my guys have got – and more. Whatever slim tendency towards psionic powers is lurking in their brain my neural implant will amplify it. Of course, they have to learn how to control it, and there are some people who try it and are instantly driven bonkers, but that’s the risk they take.
CS: How does religious fundamentalist Neo-Luddism fit into the big picture?
JB: There are always going to be people who think it was so much better before tech ‘ruined’ the world and in some ways they might be right, but technology is a genii you can’t put back in the bottle. Whether it’s the alphabet, the wheel the printing press, the vacuum cleaner or the silicone chip, technological advances have shaped the way we live. So I figured the just like the Amish today, in five hundred years time there will be groups of people who are wary of technology. Maybe it’s from a religious standpoint, or maybe from a social one, but those folks will still resent changes and want to live without them. It’s ironic that the very thing that will give my Ecolibrians the opportunity to create their new Neo-Luddite world is the very technology they are trying to escape. So their big question is, do they give in to technology now in order to secure their desired future, or do they just continue to sit where they are and grumble ineffectively about it? My guys decide that they’ll compromise their principles (just once) in order to make a fresh start. Of course, it’s not as simple as that.
CS: In the Rowankind series, how does the war between King George and Napoleon fit into the plot?
JB: It’s integral to the ocean-going part of the story and in the background all the time. Ross Tremayne’s ship, The Heart of Oak, is a privateer, not a pirate ship. It’s a thin (and sometimes very wobbly) line between the two, but it does mean that Ross has letters of marque which enable her to attack the ships of King George’s enemies legally (from the English point of view). She’s mostly chasing after French merchantmen, making a nice profit while disrupting Napoleon’s supply lines. The privateering trade is Ross’ livelihood and she’s used the profits to make sensible investments which mean she’s an independently wealthy woman, something fairly unusual in the Georgian era. Being a widow gives her a certain amount of autonomy that women who are daughters or wives rarely get in this period. It wasn’t impossible for a woman to have control over her own money, but it was fairly rare.
The wars between France and England run almost continuously throughout the story. There’s a very brief peace in 1802 which is actually pretty disastrous for the crew of the Heart (but that’s in a later book). The second book in the series, Silverwolf, is set (mostly) in England, so we see a certain amount of civil unrest developing due to shortages (the Bread Riots), and, of course, the government of the day is petrified of a French-style revolution happening here. But at the same time as all this is happening the Industrial Revolution is steaming ahead (literally), so that’s mixed in, to the second book, too. The big question is: how are magical events going to affect the industrial revolution, society and the Napoleonic Wars?
CS: Give us some insight into Ross’ character and predicament?
JB: She eloped with her late husband, Will, a sea captain, after a massive argument with her mother who was trying to go back on her late father’s promise that the Heart of Oak would be her dowry when she married. She was only eighteen at the time and as a result of the kerfuffle she ran away to sea and never registered her witchy powers with the Mysterium – the body that governs magic-users in Georgian Britain. That means she’s now outside of the law, an unregistered witch. That’s a hanging offence. She’s learned to use some of her magic, but she’s still largely untrained. When the story opens Ross has been a widow for three years and the ghost of her late husband is still with her. She’s clinging to him because he’s all she has left. Her crew of barely-reformed pirates have become her family. When her estranged mother dies, she inherits a magical winterwood box, a half-brother she never knew she had, and a task she doesn’t want. Ross isn’t ready for change, but she’s catapulted into it. She’s gutsy and resourceful and physically capable, but resistant to taking up the challenge until it becomes obvious that she can’t avoid it. Once she does take it up she follows it though and does her best to make some difficult decisions.
CS: Why is the Mysterium trying so hard to find Ross? Because they are so strict about regulating magic or because she has something they need/fear?
JB: The Mysterium in general are not actively hunting for Ross. She’s been on their wanted list for seven years. If she makes a mistake, however, and they spot her, they’ll haul her off to the cells in a heartbeat. The one who’s searching so hard for Ross is outside the Mysterium, but as an agent of King George, he can demand the Mysterium’s unquestioning cooperation. He is, in fact, above the Mysterium in all practical ways. He’s chasing Ross because of the box. What’s inside it could change the world, or at least the corner of the world known as Britain.
CS: Who would play Cara and Ben in a screen adaptation? Who would play Ross, Will, and Corwen? Who would play the supporting characters in both series? Especially the corporation/government agents?
JB: I’m not one of those writers who finds an actor to pin a character on. I have tried ‘casting’ the characters in retrospect, but never quite managed it successfully. I’m a big Pinterest fan and I keep a lot of photos on my Pinterest boards to give me visual clues. Sometimes I find a photo of an actor and think that they look perfect for a particular part, but then the next photo of them that I find I think… not so much. There was one photo of Charlize Theron with a pixie haircut that could have been Cara, but Cara’s probably not quite that pretty. Ricky Whittle (The 100) might make a good Ben, or maybe Ben could be a younger version of Colin Salmon if we could step back in time. I always thought that the villain of the piece in Empire of Dust, Ari van Blaiden, would look like a young Robert Redford – way too pretty for his own good, and Jason Isaacs could play Craike. Alexander Siddig could be Garrick, Katherine Hepburn, Nan, and someone not entirely unlike Jim Sturgess could be Ronan,
As for Ross, Will and Corwen, I have no idea. The cover picture of Winterwood is actually digital art using a live model. The young lady is an actress. Wherever she is, or whoever she is, she’s my Ross now. [Edit: The actress in question is Caroline Ford, who is currently playing Sophie Longerbane in Amazon’s Carnival Row. She’s definitely my Ross.] Corwen could be a young Barry Bostwick circa mid 70s, if Barry Bostwick had had silver hair at that age. We only ever meet Will as a ghost. Maybe Chris Hemsworth as he appears in the recent movie ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ would be a fair likeness. I hadn’t thought about ‘casting’ Will before, but that feels just about right.
CS: What’s is liking being a DAW author?
JB: It’s a dream come true. When you’re hunting for a publisher for your first book, you know you can’t be picky. Frankly you’d take the first sensible offer that came along. You couldn’t afford not to, right? But all along you have in mind that some publishers are better than others for you. I mean, yes, I’d have been happy to sell my first book to any of the major players, but when I look at my own bookshelves I have so many books that are published by DAW. Some of my favourite authors are in DAW’s stable of authors. I seem to resonate with their style. My editor, Sheila Gilbert, is a marvel, and everyone at DAW has been lovely to work with. It’s still very much a family firm and they support their authors in so many ways. I’m very happy there.
CS: You’ve done an awful lot of workshopping. How has that contributed to your career?
JB: I can honestly say that I would never have got my book deal if it hadn’t been for the connections I made, and lessons I learned, while in critique groups and attending the Milford SF Writers’ conference in the UK. I didn’t even know what manuscript format was when I found my first online writing group (misc.writing – a usenet newsgroup). The help I got there enabled me to sell a short story which qualified me to attend Milford, a week-long get together for published SF writers in the UK. With a maximum of 15 writers at any one event it’s small but intensive. We get together to critique works in progress. Crits are stringent but fair, and are professional level. Everyone is offering suggestions to help improve the stories/books. There’s no snarky sniping. It’s all incredibly supportive but it digs deep for potential failings in order to make the pieces as good as they can be. And because we’re fifteen writers miles from anywhere in a not-so-secret location in the Welsh mountains we all talk about… writing. So you learn about publishers and markets and agents. I’m the current Milford secretary, so I invite you to find us on the web at http://www.milfordSF.co.uk.
CS: You recently discovered the convention circuit. What did you discover that kept you on this circuit?
JB: I love it. A lot of my writer friends go, so conventions are great social events with panels that can be both entertaining and informative. You can also volunteer to sit on panels which is not only a chance to indirectly publicise your books, but also great fun. The first panel I ever sat on also had George R.R. Martin. How cool is that? And it turns out that George is also a Milford alumnus.
I was really lucky that right after I sold my first novel both World Fantasy Con and Worldcon came to the UK within nine months of each other. Mostly I just get to do UK conventions, Eastercon and Fantasycon being my favourites, but I’ve signed up for Worldcon in Helsinki in 2017 and I’m hoping Dublin gets to host it in 2019. If it does, I’ll certainly be there.
CS: Your short stories are all over the place. How do you find and customize to so many markets?
JB: I have a friend, Deborah Walker, another Milford alumnus, who has a motto and that is: “Submit until your fingers bleed.” Debs is a great role model when it comes to submitting stories. It’s very easy to send a story out and then either not chase it up after the allotted time or maybe get it back with a rejection slip and fail to send it out again straight away. Debs always reminds me to send, send, send. And, you know what? When you send stuff out you have a much better statistical chance of selling it than you do when you let it languish on your hard drive. You do have to be fairly well organised, however. I have a database of what I’ve sent out and the response I got. You just have to remember that getting a rejection slip is not a personal insult. It just means that your short story wasn’t right for that market at that particular time. Maybe they’d just bought three cat-resurrection stories and didn’t need a fourth. Send it out again and next time, or the time after that, it might just hit the right desk at the right time. I’ve had stories that sold on the first submission and stories that sold on the twentieth.
As well as using my database to record submissions I also use The Submissions Grinder when I’m looking to see which markets are currently buying what. That’s http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com. Since the wonderful Duotrope started charging rather more for subscriptions than I – as a very occasional short story writer – thought was reasonable to pay, the Grinder has become my first go-to place. It’s searchable by stories of a specific length and style. Ralan at http://www.ralan.com/ is not quite as searchable, but it has some excellent market news for F & SF.
CS: When are the next sequels and how long will each series continue?
JB: Oh, that’s a good question. I have contracts for Silverwolf, the second Rowankind book, and for a third book in the Psi-Tech series, Nimbus, which is likely to be out in late 2017, though I don’t have a firm date for publication yet.
I think Nimbus will be the last in Cara and Ben’s storyline – for now at least – though I don’t guarantee I’m completely done with them yet. I also have a couple of books on a back burner which are set in the same universe, but hundreds of years in the future, when the planet Jamundi, where the Ecolibrians ended up, has become separated from the rest of the colonies. The Jamundi sequence could easily turn into a trilogy, plus I have an idea for a standalone set maybe fifty years after that when Jamundi is ‘found’ again. Essentially that will be a first contact story. That universe could run and run, but not necessarily with the same characters. I also have a sneaking fondness for Max and for Ronan, two supporting characters in Cara and Ben’s story arc, so they might end up with their own short stories or novellas, if not novels.
The Rowankind series is very likely to turn into a trilogy. I’ve just finished the first draft of Silverwolf (due January 2017) and there’s definitely enough unfinished business for a third book. I also have a children’s book which I wrote on spec a few years ago. It’s contemporary, but a couple of the long-lived characters from Winterwood pop up in it. I like making connections and building layers on top of already built worlds.
[Edit: Both trilogies are complete and available now.]
I do have other books in the pipeline. One I’m particularly keen to get on with is a second world fantasy set in an analogue of the Baltic states around 1650. Just for a change that’s not one where someone is on the run from an oppressive society. It starts with the aftermath of a royal assassination and has three main viewpoint characters, Valdas, the dead king’s failed bodyguard; Lind, the assassin; and Mirza, a landloper witch who has a connection to the spirit world.
Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Carl. I’ve enjoyed answering them.
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