Juggling Reality: An interview with Keith Brooke

[ This interview was done for Futurismic by Mike Revell, and sent in literally about three months ago; thanks to the chaotic events of my personal life around that time, it never got added to the publication schedule when it should have been. I present it now with my thanks – and profound apologies – to Mike, and to Keith as well. Thanks for your patience, gents. ]

Thirteen months ago, in a creative writing seminar at the University of Essex, Keith Brooke walked into the room dressed in jeans and a faded shirt, and sat behind his desk at the head of the class. The murmur of idle student chatter fizzled and faded at a brief smile, a ruffling of notes.

He didn’t look the sort of man to have invented a time machine. But now, one year and two novels later, it would certainly explain a lot if he had done.

As well as teaching at the university, Keith runs their website, too; he created, and for many years maintained and edited infinity plus, a vast online home for speculative fiction that has since spawned a number of printed anthologies; and he has written a plethora of short stories and novels. His most recent book, The Accord, was published in March last year and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, while the eagerly anticipated The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie is due out was published in April.

I caught up with him last week and talked the internet, storytelling, and managing a myriad of different realities.

MR: I recall you saying Lord of Stone, which you published online, was one of your favourite pieces of work. Looking back on it, are you glad you decided to publish it as careware?

KB: Lord of Stone is one of my favourites – certainly of the earlier novels. I’m very pleased to have published it as careware. Given the choice I’d have had a major publisher bring it out with a lot of hype, but when that didn’t happen and I was forced to look at alternatives I think the careware route was an excellent choice. When I put it online I thought that if I picked up a dozen readers and even one or two of them gave some money to Oxfam then it would be a success. It ended up with thousands of downloads, and I received some lovely emails from readers who had given money to charity as a result. Presumably even more gave money without actually telling me, so I regard it as a big success and a Good Thing to have done.

MR: What inspired the Keith Brooke of 1997 to start infinity plus, and how much has it evolved since then?

KB: I’d been on a course with my day-job on how to write HTML, and decided that one good use of it would be to create a website (this was in the days before most authors had websites). I realised that a Keith Brooke website would have a very specific target audience, but if I got together with a few fellow writers we could add those audiences together, share readers around and maybe see something interesting happening. Steve Baxter, Eric Brown and Mike Cobley were keen, so I put the site together – a few short stories and novel extracts, some author info, some reviews – and thought that was it, job finished. When other writers heard about it I started to get approaches and the thing just picked up momentum: new additions every week, a wonderful range of big name writers plus wonderful writers you just stumble across and then have to seek out everything they’ve ever written. By the end of the site’s ten year run we had more than two million words of fiction, 1000 book reviews and 100 interviews, with up to 200,000 visitors a week.

MR: What do you think was so appealing to those writers—and still is so appealing to writers and readers alike—about having fiction published online, as opposed to in print?

KB: When I approached writers to contribute to infinity plus, one of the points I made was that most short stories have an incredibly short lifespan: they appear in an issue of a magazine, then when the next issue appears they’re gone; some get reprinted, but most vanish. Some of the best SF and fantasy is written at shorter lengths and infinity plus gave writers an opportunity to give favourite stories a second audience. One of the other great attractions is the immediacy: I get far more feedback on stories published online than I do with those in print – if it’s easy for people to contact you, generally they will, and it’s usually really interesting and rewarding when that happens. It’s nice to be appreciated!

MR: From an online world of fiction, to an online virtual reality: did the magnitude and freedom of the infinity plus project plant the seeds of The Accord, or did that idea come from elsewhere?

KB: Not directly: it was very much a separate strand. The Accord began when I was driving to work one morning. For some reason I started thinking about a character trying to deal with his unrequited love for a woman who was out of his reach. As I drove, the idea developed: the woman had to be the wife of someone powerful, someone dangerous… the protagonist would be a trusted adviser, maybe some kind of wielder of magic who could conjure up some kind of parallel reality where the two could be together. For a while I stuck with this kind of fantasy, or science-fantasy take on the idea, but it just didn’t take off.

While I’d say that was probably the starting point for the novel itself, I’d already written the short story “The Accord” (which, rewritten, forms the closing section of the novel). That was a standalone story, toying with the idea of would people living in a virtual heaven actually know they were in heaven or not? At some stage I tied this story in with the unrequited love idea and the whole thing shifted to becoming a virtual reality story. As soon as this happened I was hooked on the possibilities – virtual selves living out parallel lives where they weren’t constrained by the real world. Once I realised that VR could make them effectively immortal and I started to toy with ideas of feuds lasting for eternity, I just had to get writing.

MR: It’s storytelling on a very grand scale…

KB: I wanted to explore the transition from small and personal to cosmic in scale: how apparently insignificant decisions at the outset can play out over generations, how a personal feud might grow and transform if we could live forever. Immortality and virtual worlds have been done over and over in SF, but there’s still plenty to explore, and this was my take on it, exploring the balance between the need for structure and rules in a world where anything could be possible and the inevitability that those rules will creep and blur and evolve over time. I think it was the hardest novel I’ve ever written—so many technical challenges—but one I’m hugely proud of.

MR: What, with the shift between not only a virtual world and reality, but different points of view, and a number of different narrative styles—I’m not surprised it was challenging.

KB: It was both hard work and one hell of a lot of fun. Originally there were three pieces of short fiction that ended up being incorporated into the novel in one form or another. For each of these I just chose the appropriate voice, as you do. In my proposal to the publisher I said something throwaway along the lines of “And of course I’ll tackle the different viewpoints and perspectives used in these stories.” But rather than tidying up and going for a single, consistent narrative voice I took it to an extreme. There was a point about halfway through the first draft when suddenly it fell into place for me: up to then I’d been choosing the appropriate voice for each section but hadn’t really got my head around the rationale; then suddenly I just saw what that rationale was, and looking back I realised that I’d been entirely consistent with that. But yes, the variations of first, second and third person, I/we, past, present and future tenses did do my head in at times!

MR: It seems that, even with the biggest of ideas—perhaps even especially with the big ideas—something needs to be rooted in reality. Does the science come into your writing process before or after that initial spark of an idea?

Very hard to say. Sometimes the initial spark is a scientific what-if?—driving up to Newcastle on Saturday I had an idea for a possible series of short stories and the spark was a science-based one. Trying to think… The spark for Genetopia was a scientific what-if? too—what would life be like in a world where evolution had been speeded up? The Accord was a character-based spark: what if a man who couldn’t pursue in a relationship in the real world could do so in a virtual one?

Character-based, but still revolving around virtual realities… Maybe all the sparks for my SF are scientific what-ifs?—questions about the nature of the world and what if this particular bit of it was different?

MR: How do you balance all the writing with web work and teaching?

KB: With difficulty! The teaching takes up a lot of time, at least partly because of the way I run the classes, with lots of workshopping and trying to give as much feedback as possible to my students. The downside of that is that it eats into writing time and I haven’t found much time at all recently to do my own work. I’d planned to do some last summer, but ended up getting immersed in preparing the new novel-writing course. I have, however, just hit a patch of new ideas that are really grabbing my attention. I think I’ll be writing again soon!

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