AN EIDOLON INTERVIEW WITH SIMON BROWN
Steven Paulsen talks to the author of Privateer
Since his work first began to appear in print, Simon Brown has garnered an enviable reputation, among readers and critics alike, as a talented writer of fine science fiction stories. To date some seventeen of his stories have seen publication in Australia's leading SF magazines.
Now, with the publication by HarperCollins of his first novel, Privateer, and with a second novel, Winter, planned for publication in April 1997, Simon is poised to reach an even wider audience.
When he is not writing science fiction, Simon works as a journalist with the University of Western Sydney.
Your first professional short story sale was to Omega in 1981. Did you have any stories published prior to that?
No. That was the first story I ever had accepted by any publisher anywhere.
Had you been writing for long?
Yes, I had been writing for a long time and getting lots of rejections, mainly submitting overseas. Then when Omega came along it just seemed like a perfect opportunity. It was glossy, it paid well, it was very professionally produced. It was an Omni clone; basically a science magazine with some fiction in it and some small articles about science fiction. They rejected my first story, I can't remember what that was, and they accepted my second. So it was fantastic. That was my first professional sale.
Then you went on to sell another five stories to them?
Yes, six in total. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Philip Gore (the editor of Omega). He had to sell Omega professionally, because he worked for Consolidated Press, and he thought my stories were good enough to help sell the magazine. So it was good ego-boo, and it really builds up your confidence making a sale like that. I think it was important to other writers too; people like Terry Dowling and Sean McMullen.
Yes, Omega's stories were very well presented with good artwork.
I'm really happy with the way virtually all my stories were presented. There was one exception, and for legal reasons it would be difficult to talk in detail about it. While it was a lovely painting, it was basically a rip-off from an American artist who had published a book with that cover a couple of years before. The idea was taken, a lot of images were taken, and it was all uncredited. It was very embarrassing.
All your subsequent magazine sales have been to Aurealis and Eidolon. Do you still submit stories to the overseas magazines?
Yes I do, so far without success. Every story I write always first goes to Omni. Basically, if you sell a story to Omni you pay your mortgage for a month. Traditionally, you also had a large number of readers; now it's not so big, of course. I don't know if it's terminal decline or what, but it seems to be suffering a fair amount. I've been trying to sell stories to Omni since 1978. So it's no longer the honour of selling something to Omni, it's just that I've been trying to do it for so long I'm determined to finally get there. [laughs] I won't die peacefully unless I sell a story to Omni.
What about magazines like Interzone and Asimov's?
I've sent stories to them, but without success. Omni's always my first choice and I tend to have a cycle so that whoever is next on the list is the next one to get the story. But I also try to get stories to Australian publishers, either Eidolon or Aurealis, fairly regularly because I want to keep a fairly high profile here in my own country.
We are in a situation now where a lot of writers who have been around for a long time are seeing the fruits of their effort. Where do you think this growth in science fiction in Australia began?
I think the really crucial beginning point is Omega and the work that Philip Gore did with local writers, getting them professionally published in a great format with amazing presentation for a very wide readership. For reasons beyond the control of Omega, it disappeared because of what was happening to the American magazine it was tied up with. But fortunately, by the time Omega disappeared, we were lucky enough that Peter McNamara was here with Aphelion to carry the flag a while longer.
Then as Aphelion moved towards book publishing, the next miracle was that Aurealis and Eidolon suddenly appeared to continue the struggle, introducing some amazing new writers to the field and providing a market for established writers like Sean McMullen and Terry Dowling and myself. For me this happened at just the right time because my short story writing had dropped to almost nothing, I was concentrating on books and poetry and some other stuff, and I really needed to get back into it. Then Aurealis and Eidolon both wrote asking me to Submit Stories and it was the kick in the bum I needed. I do not, like a lot of people, believe this boom or the genesis of the current situation in Australian SF began with the Worldcon in 1975. I think that if it hadn't been for Omega we'd be in the same boat now as we were before 1975. The real boom came with Omega and then the good fortune of that being followed by Aphelion and then Eidolon and Aurealis. I think without that sequence we'd be up the creek still.
Your stories cover a diverse range of styles. You seem equally comfortable writing in the tradition of the classic SF adventure yarn as well as the more literary, character driven story.
I grew up reading a lot of space opera and adventure-oriented science fiction. I guess that's what got me hooked in the first place when I was a teenager. I still like reading it and so I want to write it as well. I want to write really thrilling, grab-you-by-the-balls sort of fiction, and I enjoy doing it. But I don't find it satisfying doing that all the time. I also love the character stuff, because you develop a lot more as a writer, I think, than if you are just writing the straight adventure material. Also, the things you learn there you can then apply to the fast and shiny sort of fiction.
Certainly there are a lot of very good writers who write space opera with really strong characters, but there are also a lot of people who can write purely character-driven stories which keep you riveted from page to page. I'd like to be able to get to that stage one day. I don't think I'm there yet, but I will be. Winter is certainly moving in that direction. Winter will be fast paced so people will keep turning pages because they want to know what happens next, not just because they care about the characters, but because they get so involved with the action they can't get off the train, so to speak.
Your first story sale, "The Return of Idomeneus", was also the first of what have become a series of thematically linked stories, your "Troy" stories. Can you tell me about these?
When I wrote "The Return of Idomeneus" I didn't realize I was starting something much larger. I just thought it was a nice story. Then in 1990-1991 Aurealis and Eidolon were buying stories and I wrote two stories very quickly. One was called "A New Song for Odysseus" and the other was called "The Dissections of Machaon". I wrote them because I was re-reading The Iliad at the time. Then I suddenly realized that the titles, with the name of the character or the event at the end, tied in with "The Return of Idomeneus". [laughs] I thought I could do this with a huge range of characters because the possibilities are endless. The next one I wrote was "Why My Wife Left Me, And Other Stories, By Diomedes" and that's a science fiction short story. After that came "The Mark of Thetis", which is set just after Hitler came to power in Germany.
The one I've just finished ["The Dreaming Seas Beneath Cassandra"] is to do with Cassandra and prophesies about a shark God. Cassandra in The Iliad seems to be a person no one listens to because she doesn't get angry enough to make people listen, or in a way she doesn't care enough. She's just overridden by a mixture of guilt and fear, and I've tried to make my Cassandra that sort of person as well. It has a happier ending than the original story of Cassandra, who was butchered when she was taken as a prisoner to Greece. We know a lot more about the characters in The Iliad because of stories written by other ancient authors or because of what happens in The Odyssey. So when I talk about Cassandra and the others, the information I'm getting isn't necessarily in The Iliad, but they're characters who first appeared there. So there's a lot of these to come.
Do you approach writing short stories differently to the way you write novels?
I don't think so. What I found with Winter, for example, was that it was obviously an idea that was too big for a short story or a novella, which is how it began. I didn't have the experience to realize that at the time. It was getting rejected, but I thought it was really good and couldn't understand why. I guess it sort of dawned on me that I wasn't exploring the idea properly. Maybe that's because whether it's a novel or a short story, I just sit down and I write this idea that's in my head. I don't plot really carefully, which is something I think I'll probably have to start doing for my novels. I found with Privateer, for example, that I had to keep on going back and changing a lot of the inconsistencies because I just sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote. I don't know if I can change that because it's the way I work and it works most of the time. But I think the more you write the more you develop-your habits change, and your traits and characteristics change-so it's possible I will eventually develop different ways of writing my short stories and my novels.
How did you come to sell your first novel Privateer to HarperCollins?
It was really quite strange. I got a phone call at work in January 1995 when I was working as a journalist for City Rail-it had been a really shitty day; we'd had trains stalled and people falling off platforms and getting run over-and the person on the phone said, "Hi, I'm Louise Thurtell from HarperCollins. Have you got a moment?" My immediate reaction was it was a publisher who wanted some information about the railways, and because it was a really bad day, I said, "It depends on what it's about". [laughs] Louise told me she had got my name from some people and asked if I had any novels in hand at the moment. I said, "Well yes!" In fact, the year before I had written a synopsis and a few chapters of Winter for a novel competition but it hadn't gotten anywhere, and when Louise rang I was in the process of re-writing Privateer, which I had first written in 1988. So I explained to her what I had, and said I would send the synopsis for Winter and when I finished re-writing Privateer I'd send that as well. She said, "Great". Her reaction to Winter seemed to be fairly positive and they were really keen to see Privateer, so I sent it to them and they bought it. I think it was a matter of having the right material at the right time.
How did you find working with HarperCollins and Louise Thurtell as far as the editing and production of the book?
Oh, really exciting. You hear all these horror stories about publishers, but Louise Thurtell and Fiona Daniels, the editors, and Philip Knowles, the reader at HarperCollins, have just been phenomenal; they've been really supportive. I had to do two major re-writes. The first time I was afraid of tampering too much with the story they already liked, so I didn't do enough. The second time, basically the same suggestions came back and so I worked a lot more at it. Later on Terry Dowling also had a go at it and gave me some really good ideas, but unfortunately at that stage I wasn't able to incorporate all of them. As I acknowledge at the front of the book, any failings the book has are still my own, but it would have been a much inferior work if it hadn't been for the efforts Philip Knowles, Louise Thurtell, Fiona Daniels and Terry Dowling made on my behalf. Louise was always there. If I had a question she was always available and always very supportive and so was Fiona Daniels. It was just a great experience.
Did you have any involvement with Greg Bridges, the cover artist?
Yes, Louise asked me to give Greg a call so we could talk about what I wanted on the cover. I had a few ideas which I had faxed to her and she had passed on to him. Greg and I talked on the phone for about thirty or forty minutes and he had these amazing ideas; it was just brilliant. He started out by asking me some general questions about what things might look like, my impression of the universe; for example was it more of a Syd Mead thing, a sort of retro-built universe, or was it more Bruce Pennington, sort of smooth and almost biological in shape? It was very much a hard sort of Syd Mead universe I was thinking of: it was very functional; there wasn't much mechanical beauty about it. And Greg Bridges came up with this stunning cover. Most people who'll buy Privateer won't know who I am-they'll buy it because the cover looks great. It's a good package. I bought the artwork from Greg and when I have a spare two hundred dollars I'll get it framed and put it up on a wall.
What was the genesis and inspiration for Privateer?
In 1988 I was reviewing books for the Canberra Times-it was the 400th anniversary of the Spanish Armada and I was reading about it-and realized that at the time the British had a lot of privateers like Drake. And I thought, hmmm, wouldn't it be great to do a science fiction story where you had a Privateer doing commerce raiding and doing it for a higher cause, not just for the money. That was how Magpie was born. I guess people overseas might be a bit confused because a magpie elsewhere is about the size of a tit-willow and about as offensive as a cup of coffee. Whereas here in Australia, of course, it's a butcher bird and anyone who's been swooped by one knows just what arse-holes they can be. A magpie is a bird that takes on anything, no matter how big it is. Then, of course, I wanted a captain who was pragmatic, ruthless, and not very sympathetic to the enemy but at the same time dedicated to a cause, and that's Kidron. I can't remember why I started using Lynch-the character just sort of happened. It was someone I could relate to because I was pretty young at the time and I had been in fairly boring job, and it just grew from there. That's the genesis of Privateer, but it's grown and changed a lot since then.
Do you think it's been influenced by any writers in particular?
It would be very difficult to pinpoint any single writer. There's a great space opera tradition and I'd be afraid of mentioning any particular authors because I'm almost bound to forget some that were just as important. I'm influenced by all the space opera I read; the tropes and the motifs and that sort of thing.
Who do you like to read in SF in general?
The last couple of years, mainly Australian writers, because for a long time I didn't read much Australian SF. Now I'm catching up with Terry Dowling, George Turner, Greg Egan, Sean McMullen, Sue Isle, Phillipa Maddern, Lucy Sussex and a whole range of others. I'm just stunned at the quality of Australian writing at the moment, and I'm just really happy to be part of it. Overseas it's authors like Harlan Ellison, Tom Disch . . . Edgar Pangborn is a favourite; Frank Herbert . . . I could go on for hours.
So you've been a reader of science fiction for a long time?
Since 1968. I'm basically a product of the age of television. I got interested in science fiction because of all the black and white American science fiction movies that were shown on Saturday afternoons in the 1960s; I loved them. Then, of course, Dr Who and the original Star Trek. Then I started writing and I didn't realize I was writing science fiction because I didn't know it as a genre as such. I started reading my first books when I was about ten, they were the Captain W. E. Johns' 'Biggles' books, and in about 18 months I read all of them. I think there were about 45. Then I ran out and I looked for something else by Captain W. E. Johns, and I found his science fiction books. After Johns I was fortunate to discover an Australian writer called Ivan Southall who wrote Simon Black stories, which was wonderful because here was an Australian character whose name was almost exactly the same as mine. From there I moved from Primary School into Secondary School and they had this great juvenile science fiction section; they had Heinlein, Andre Norton, Alan E. Nourse, as well as the more adult stuff, and I was hooked. At the age of fourteen, when I had finished reading all that, we were given The Lord of the Rings to read as part of our school curriculum. So then I discovered fantasy and I read fantasy almost solely for three or four years; The Lord of the Rings, Michael Moorcock (who I still love), Edgar Rice Burroughs and Conan. Then round about the age of eighteen I rediscovered science fiction, the other side of it, the more literary, character-driven stuff.
Your next novel Winter is a very different book to Privateer. The prologue is based on your short story "Cannibals of the Fine Light" but I understand the rest of the book has also been evolving for some time.
Basically it started in 1985 when I was working for the Electoral Commission and they wanted me to do a proposal to help young people to enrol. For various reasons it was getting rather ludicrous because we had already put proposals up and they'd been rejected and I was so fed up with everything-I was close to the stage where I was going to quit anyway-that I wrote this proposal that was a Le Carre pastiche and it went down like a brick in water. I was called aside and asked to seriously reconsider my position in the organization and stuff like that. Fortunately my immediate boss had a good sense of humour. I kept the pastiche and turned it into a novella which I couldn't sell, reduced it to a novelette which I couldn't sell, and finally to a short story which was just ridiculous. So I just left it and promised myself I would come back to it. Later, in 1993, when I started reconsidering how to bring back the story, I was re-reading "Cannibals of the Fine Light" (1990) and discovered that both stories basically have the same characters. So I tidied up the story so they were the same characters and this universe of a near future dystopian Sydney was created. It's the characters which drive the story, I think. But it's also going to be very exciting because while it's not a traditional thriller it's still obviously very influenced by writers like Le Carre rather than SF writers, and it's based on some personal experiences I had in Sydney in the early '80s. So it'll be quite dark and gloomy, but what I hope is that there will be this real element of hope that is never completely extinguished no matter how dark things get.