Author Interview: Chaz Brenchley
Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
His writing is lush and evocative, but there’s something primal about the work of Chaz Brenchley. Whether he’s himself, Daniel Fox, Ben Macallan, or any of several other possible people, Chaz writes about obsession and transformation, families and friendships, identity and alienation. His characters start out not knowing who they are, or how they got where they are—but before an end is reached, they will know more than they counted on.
Chaz is known both as a suspense writer and a fantasist, and is the author of nine thrillers (including Dispossession) and two major fantasy series: The Books of Outremer, based on the world of the Crusades, and Selling Water by the River, are set in an alternate Ottoman Istanbul. He also has had a hand in crime and science fiction writing.
Daniel Fox, one of his recent incarnations, wrote Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water, a series born of an obsession with all things Chinese (up to and including learning Mandarin) while Ben Macallan was actually a character himself in the fantasy-horror novels Dead of Light https://bookviewcafe.com/book/light-errant/ and Light Errant. https://bookviewcafe.com/book/light-errant-2/ Ben later became the author of Desdæmona and Pandæmonium.
Chaz loves scratch cooking, cats, and obscure folklore, and is blessed with a wondrous wife, herself a writer. He’s not positive yet how he feels about California, being a displaced Brit, but sunshine goes far to mitigate a bruised ex-pat sensibility.
1.) When I think of your work, I think about strong themes and concepts seizing my attention and running away with me like a kelpie. If I’m lucky, I’ll merely get dumped in a lake at the end of things. Odds are, I won’t get away unchanged. Can you talk about some of those themes and concepts that leapt out at me, using your current favorite examples from your books?
Sudden violence intruding upon life
A.) This? Is the first story of my adulthood. Before I was twenty-five I’d had three friends murdered, including the boy I’d have married if we’d had that option then. It was my only idea of living, my whole experience, that brute violence came unpredictably from the world around; small wonder if that made the seed-germ of my fiction. Except that it was never really about the violence; I was always more interested in what came next, the surviving, the learning to live with damage. Damaged people are my thing. I’m currently checking the proofs of The Garden for a new edition from Lethe Press, and I think that’s the prime exemplar. It’s not a whodunnit, it’s not even strictly a whydunnit, though both of those elements are there. Basically, it’s a book about hurt and grief and recovery. Of a sort.
Primal, but not inherently violent, forces battering into what is suggested normalcy for time and place
Hunh. I was going to say “isn’t that the same question over?”—but of course it’s not. This I think draws from the second story of my life, where for ten years AIDS was a thief, and then suddenly it was a houseguest. One of my oldest friends & mentors decreed that he would not go back into hospital, so a dozen of us spent a year nursing him at home in a sort of tag-team DIY hospice movement. That was… intense, physically and mentally and possibly otherwise as well. I’d seen people die before, I’d seen them dead, but I’d never helped anyone along that road towards that end—never mind someone so intimately and bitterly close to me. Again, no surprise that I’ve been writing about it ever since, directly and otherwise. I’m building a sequence of ghost stories, some of which will reappear in a couple of collections we’re assembling now; there’s a short novel which is more tangential, which I should be announcing soon; there’s the full-blown how-we-lived-then novel with no speculative content whatsoever, which I am still convinced I ought to write some day. (Other people agree with me on this. Every now and then the subject comes up and we sit around and nod in complete mutual understanding. Somehow, the book fails to emerge from these so-useful noddings.)
Well, yes. That’s a classic trope of the stories I grew up with, one aspect of my idea of what fiction is; I love the sense of peeling masks away to find other faces underneath. It’s also a reflection of what real life is; that interchange between people as you move from strangers to acquaintances to friends, each step a new revelation, another skin peeled from the onion. Conversely, though, I really don’t like stories where we meet a character in their true guise and watch them don a mask to go undercover. I like to meet the artificial personality and dig through to the truth, not the other way around.
Actually I think it’s more than a trope, it’s almost the inherent shape of fiction in my mind: that characters present themselves one way and reveal or discover themselves to be otherwise in the course of the narrative.
Obsessive personalities are so interesting, don’t you think? Even if the obsession, the thing itself is not. I’m always engaged by engagement. Which plays another way too, that I love expertise. If someone knows what they’re talking about, I can listen to them all day, whether or not I’m engaged with the subject. I once walked into a cathedral where a choirmaster was drawing two dozen separate parish choirs into a single body for a choral service next day. I apologised for interrupting, sat in a corner and was entranced for two hours. It was a masterclass, in managing people as much as in music. I can’t sing a note myself, and for that afternoon it didn’t matter a damn.
Complicated and even threatening family interactions
It is not impossible that my own family history is… a little fraught. Every act of fiction is an act of autobiography; we give ourselves away with every word. Also, when my dad died, the nice humanist lady who ran his funeral said she’d never had to deal with a family so widespread within the UK: my kid sister in Cornwall, my brother in Birmingham, me in Newcastle and my big sister in Orkney. This is not exactly incidental. Also, I was the only one of us who made it to Dad’s funeral: again, not incidental. My parents divorced in the ‘60s, when it really wasn’t done, and we’ve been the epitome of the dysfunctional family ever since. I was several books in before I realised—actually, I think it was pointed out to me—that my main characters never had any family to speak of. Or indeed to speak to: as indeed I almost never speak to mine, even the ones I like. Thereafter I made efforts, token to begin with, more serious thereafter. A lot of my books do indeed treat with family directly—but it’s almost never in a positive way. If your family comes looking for you in a Chaz Brenchley book, you should probably run. Which indeed is what my characters do, mostly. (I think running away is a lot more interesting, fictionwise, than standing your ground.)
The rewards and dangers of friendship
This is linked to the previous interchange, deliberately or provocatively or otherwise. Your friends are the family you get to choose. It’s conspicuous that most of my characters have or develop strong friendships; it’s conspicuous that I’ve been surrounded and supported by good friends all my adult life. It would be invidious to suggest that I traded in my family for something better (I really do like some of my closest relatives)—but my friends are the bedrock of my life, and that does inevitably filter through into the fiction. When family relationships do work in a book of mine, it’s usually because they’re rebuilt as adult friendships. There’s a lot of male bonding that goes on: friends becoming brothers, brothers becoming friends.
And yes, of course it’s dangerous. Giving your heart is always dangerous, and ought to be.
People who are misunderstood and misunderstand the world, often until it’s almost too late.
Oh, this one’s easy. Other people bewilder me (“You want your steak cooked how? Why in the world would you do that…?”). I stagger from confusion to confusion, and it’s almost always almost too late to recover. More grandiose writers see their work as a way to explain the world to other people; my own writing is simply a desperate effort to explain the world to myself.
2.) Speaking of obsession–you went to Taiwan, fell in love with Taipei and many things Chinese, and then proceeded to slide the people and culture into not one, not two, but three different works, in three different genres. Is this par for the course for you? Once you’ve researched something, does it return again and again, throwing out a new leaf or branch, growing into something new and strange?
A.) Long, long ago, my then-accountant said, “Chaz, just remember, whatever you do is deductible. You want to go and spend a week at Royal Ascot? It’s research, it’s deductible…”
But the thing is, he thought he was being clever and saving money. Actually, he was shining a light bone-deep into the truth of me. Everything is legitimately deductible, because everything is research, and everything comes back up. Often more than once. Taiwan was a special case, but the principle holds good throughout. Anything I’ve absorbed, I’ll use: again and again, if it’s rich enough and deep enough and if I have the nerve to do it right. Everything’s material, but nothing comes cheap. I’d use my oldest friend’s most intimate confessions, if it would make a better book. (Actually, he knows that, but the principle still holds. It’s not that nothing’s sacred, it is that nothing is more sacred than the work. Books matter.)
PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW WILL BE POSTED NEXT WEEK November 20, 2022