Getting into writing – an interview with Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett

I was born in Oxford in 1955.  My mother was a doctor and my father was a soil scientist (something which I always found a bit embarrassing: why couldn’t he have done a science with a proper name like Geology or Zoology?)  I have lived in Bristol and North Wales but have spent most of my life (rather unimaginatively) in Cambridge.  I am married to Maggie and have three beautiful grown-up children.  I was a social worker, a social worker manager and a social work lecturer.

I published my first short stories in Interzone in the 1990s, and then in Asimov’s SF and various anthologies.  I have to date published five novels and two short story collections.  My collection The Turing Test won the Edge Hill Prize in 2009 (from a short-list including collections by a Booker Prize winner and two Booker shortlisted authors: I’m afraid I’m still very chuffed about that!)  I won the Arthur C. Clarke award for Dark Eden in 2012.

When did the writing bug bite?

I started writing stories as a child, and began to think of being a writer as what I most wanted to do with my life when I was in my teens.  I think for me it meant I could avoid having to be any one thing: it seemed preferable to create a world and put characters in it, than to be just one character in the world myself.  (A bit odd, I know.  I wonder if other writers feel that way?)  It took me a long time to find my own writing voice, though, and I didn’t publish anything until I was in my thirties.

What are your happiest memories in your writing career?

A couple of times a story has come to me all at once, and just poured out of me.  Once I got a whole story while queuing in a shop and listening to the sad, dreamy muzak.  That felt pretty good.  The nearest thing to that with my novels was Dark Eden, but generally I find starting a new book pretty challenging and uncomfortable, not to say downright unpleasant, and I have to overcome a lot of self-doubt and self-loathing.  It’s only during the later stages, when the book has started to come together, that I would describe the process as a happy one.  And probably the happiest part is when the book is done and I get feedback from people who like what I’ve done.

Your stories are full of originality and depth – where do you find your inspiration?

Many years ago, I had a conversation with someone during which I was very conscious of holding back a big piece of information which (I had no doubt) they would very much like to know.   That night I had a dream about a brontosaurus trying to tiptoe unnoticed through a forest.   My sleeping brain had found a concrete way of representing what I’d done.  (Language itself often represents abstractions in just this kind of way: my dream was pretty similar to the idea expressed by the term ‘the elephant in the room’.)  And I think that sort of process is the starting point of all my stories: I get shapes or images or scenes that represent something for me that itself is rather intangible but which I feel a need to explore and try to understand.

So, for instance, my Eden books are set on a sunless planet where people have been marooned for centuries, longing for a sunlit Earth.  The idea caught hold of me because it serves to represent a feeling that I think everyone has sometimes that there is something missing from this life, something missing that ought be there but we don’t know how to reach.  The Biblical story of the expulsion from Eden (on which, obviously, I drew), deals with that sense of permanent loss.  (But in my version, people are exiled to Eden not from it.)

Some of these ‘shapes’ I come up with in a conscious way (i.e. I know what I want to write about and I try and think of a way of expressing it), but it’s better if they emerge in an unconscious way, like the brontosaurus.  The unconscious ones are richer.

I find I need several of these ‘shapes’ for a story to take off.  Another one that appears in my Eden books is the Circle of Stones, whose significance is harder to explain in a few words because it contains several different contradictory ideas, but plays an important role in the first book, and is absolutely at the core of the final one, Daughter of Eden.

Stories come alive when a group of these ‘shapes’ starts to generate situations and characters which kind of take over, burying (or clothing?) those original shapes so they simply become the story’s background or world.

Or something like that anyway!

When do you write?

Writing is my main job these days so I aim to write every weekday and sometimes in the evening and weekends.  I say write.  There’s a lot of faffing around involved.  A lot of going over and over things.  A lot of displacement activity.  I’m amazed that I ever finish anything!

How do you handle success and failure?

One kind of failure is rejection by editors.  This can be pretty painful, and I was lucky in the early days because at that time, Interzone’s rejection letters always included helpful feedback, and I could treat the whole thing as a learning experience.  I think that is the way to deal with rejection if possible.  We are too involved with our work to be the best judges of it, and we need to listen to outside perspectives.  When I can’t sell a story, I always end up seeing why.  (Sometimes it works the other way, though, and others can see merit in a thing that I myself can’t until it’s pointed out to me.)

Another kind of failure –or at least it feels like failure– is when a story stubbornly refuses to come alive.  That can be pretty grim, and can make me feel that I am simply empty.   I’ve set aside short stories many times in that situation, sometimes coming back to them months or years later, sometimes not.   When it’s a novel that I’m committed to write, there’s nothing for it but to slog on trying different approaches until, by a process of trial and error, I eventually stumble on a way of telling it that works for me.  It always happens eventually (touch wood) but it can take months. An example is Daughter of Eden. It would not come alive, and I began to feel that the whole idea of a third Eden book was a stupid mistake.  But finally I did find a way into it, a new angle, and it has ended up being one of my favourites –if not the favourite– of all the things I’ve done.   (Like all the Eden books it’s a story about stories: I’ve always liked the idea that stories themselves have stories.)

As to success, well my prizes were successes and that felt great.  The downside (if you’re me) is that you wonder if you can ever top that achievement or whether it’s going to be downhill from there.

What is your advice to young and new writers?

Persevere, listen to criticism, however painful, be prepared for the fact that you may have to write a lot of stuff that no one will want to publish or read, maybe for many years, before you find your own voice and your own subject.  You also need to be prepared to live with the risk that you may never get published.   If you were a piano player, the first thing would be to practice practice practice.  You wouldn’t immediately try to get yourself on the stage at the Albert Hall, and you’d know that might well never happen.  I think we writers sometimes forget that the same applies to us.

Another thing I always say is that it can be very important to network.  In the SF world there are conventions to go to which makes this easier.  My big break was thanks to a man called Andrew Hook who ran a small publishing company (and I mean small: it was just him!), and him publishing my short story collection, The Turing Test, and entering it for a prize.  On the back of winning the prize, my agent, John Jarrold was able to get me a book deal for two novels.  I would not have met either Andrew or John without going to conventions and getting to know writers and others in the field.

Are you a traditionalist or a digital? (paper or eBook)

Both.  But I prefer the more sophisticated of the two technologies –by which of course I mean paper–  because it works so closely and smoothly with the human brain.   I can be an absent-minded reader, but I find with a paper book that, even if I forget who exactly Tabitha Squerkins is, I usually have a pretty precise spatial memory of whereabouts in the book she first appeared, and can flip back to it in seconds.  Can’t do that with an ebook.

How did you gain a publisher?

Selling stories to magazines for many years so as to build up at least some kind of reputation.  Networking so as to make useful contacts (see above).  Working at my writing.  Having something to say.   And, let’s be honest, a lot of luck.

When can we expect another Chris Beckett book?

I have two new books coming out.  My new novel America City is out on November 2nd.  (If in Cambridge, come to the launch at the Locker café on King St: see my website for details.)  And my new short story collection, Spring Tide, will be out in January.  It’s a new departure for me, because it’s not SF, just plain F.

Thanks very much for the interesting questions!

My website: www.chris-beckett.com

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