AUTHOR INTERVIEW: CHAZ BRENCHLEY, Part 2
Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Part 1 of this interview appeared here at the Book View Cafe last week, October 13 2023
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.
3.) More than once, you’ve created characters who are unrecognized by their families or friends—people “outside the box” who may be strong or even brilliant in an unexpected area. Is there a particular reason you choose to examine this type of hero or heroine, other than lots of room for growth and change?
A.) Unexpected directions are inherently more interesting. I’m always a little bewildered by the notion of the family firm, that feeling that children ought to do what their parents did, or what is expected of them. When I was a kid, my best friend was one of seven children, whose father had wanted to be a doctor but didn’t have the education. He was a domineering man with very traditional views: all his sons grew up to be doctors, all his daughters nurses. Even back then, I found that really disturbing. There’s a phrase from a hundred years ago, a “hop-out-o’-kin”, meaning a child who seems irreconcilable with their inheritance. That would be me—I’m six inches taller than anyone in my family, and unexpected in other ways also—which might go a way to explain that tendency in my fiction. Or maybe I just like surprises.
4.) What have you learned from your own writing? Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) I learned that not all writers get rich. I also learned—eventually—that it really doesn’t matter. No, I’m serious. I always expected to be successful; I started commercial, writing whatever I could sell, and I assumed I’d always go that way. Only the more leeway my editors allowed me, the less commercial my work became—and the more important, at least to me. I shifted between genres, in a way that’s anathema to the marketplace; it’s been said that my mysteries are really horror, my horror is actually urban fantasy and my fantasies are too mysterious for their own good. There’s also an uncomfortable hinterland between genre and literary fiction, so of course I found my way there also.
On the other side of the learning curve, it’s surprising what skills you pick up as a side-effect of research. I wouldn’t be a gardener, if it hadn’t been for my writing The Garden; I wouldn’t have studied Mandarin if I hadn’t gone to Taiwan and written the Moshui trilogy; I wouldn’t now be absorbing all the astronomy my skull can hold, if I weren’t writing about Steampunk! Mars. I would probably have been a cook anyway, though. (More than one reviewer has opened with variations on “Chaz Brenchley is clearly obsessed with food”—which trips me up every time, because I didn’t know it showed. Not in the fiction.)
5.) To what concepts, intentionally or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers? (This can be grand and glorious metaphysical stuff, or cool mundane stuff.)
A.) Heh. I suspect it all pretty much boils down to “Other people: weird, hunh?”—which actually, readers could’ve picked up from any number of other writers or else from real life, but I may have needed to say it for my own benefit.
Seriously: it’s not really about the concepts. I don’t think I do metaphysics, and I really don’t do Stuff. Even my science fiction—which is meant to be a fiction of ideas above all—is really about the people. And the language, of course. Language is inherent. What else, after all, do we have? Language shapes the world, as much as it describes it.
6.) Do Ben Macallan, Chaz Brenchley, and Daniel Fox write differently, right down to their styles? Do they have different interests, different things they want to talk about in their work? Or are they games you play with marketing people and computers tracking book sales?
A.) Yup and nope, really. I’ve always published under different names; my first career was in romance, where a man’s name on the cover was supposed to be the kiss of death. Then I wrote the first thriller, and my publisher wanted to call me “C R Brenchley” because “Chaz” was too weird-looking and possibly unpronounceable. Only he forgot to tell the art dept, and the cover came through with Chaz firmly in place, so we stuck to it; but my then-agent was already scheming with another publisher to have me write horror in my copious spare time, and so the Daniel Fox name had its first iteration. Only then my first publisher decided I was writing horror already, so that second branch never grew; but the name was there when I needed it, when the computer-tracking thing meant that every bookstore in the land said “Chaz Brenchley? Writes good books that don’t sell.” That really is the kiss of death.
Ben Macallan is the narrator-character in Dead of Light and Light Errant. After two memoirs, it seemed obvious to me that he would turn his hand to writing fiction; which was deeply convenient for me, when I needed one more name for one more direction.
He and Daniel write very different kinds of books—Chinese-derived historical fantasy and contemporary urban fantasy, irrespectively—but I suspect there’s a commonality of style. They and Chaz too share the same interest in words, and the same underlying rhythms. I’m fairly sure it shows.
7.) And, to look at that question from a Chaz-based place—Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story–or can you already see themes that reoccur in your work?
A.) Even when I was writing teenage romance, my flatmates used to say they could spot my work “because it sounds like you, Chaz.” Thirty-five years on, I suspect that is even more the case; voice just goes bone-deep in me. Elmore Leonard says that if a piece of work reads like writing, he rewrites it; I am at the opposite end of whatever spectrum that is, because I love the sound of writing, the sense of authorial presence that permeates a book. I used to say I had a young man’s love of thunder and lightning and big dramatic effects; maybe I never grew up, or out of it, or whatever.
Themes observ’d in my oeuvre: fey boys and sensible girls; physical damage which may or may not be a metaphor; deracination (any act of fiction is an act of autobiography, remember? We give ourselves away with every word; and I have lived my life as a stranger in a strange land. Even before I moved to California). I have also been heard to say that all fiction is about betrayal; mine certainly is. And there is a tendency for surviving characters simply to walk away at the end, rather than assume very clear powers and responsibilities. That’s very me. When someone says the word “duty”, I reach for my walking-boots.
8.) What are you working on now? Why this particular work, of all the ideas tumbling around in your head?
A.) Steampunk! Mars. Tho’ my agents say it’s not really steampunk. Essentially, I’m starting from the position that old Mars, Lowell’s Mars—yes, with canals and atmosphere and Martians and all—is a province of the British Empire. So many ways to go from there: I have a YA to write, and a mystery, and more. Right now I’m working on a novella: “With Kipling On Mars”. Of course Kipling would have gone to Mars, if it had been feasible…
I’m still not quite sure how all this happened to me: something to do with Kim and Dorothy L Sayers and finding myself in exile and so forth, but I’m also going to the SETI Institute every week to hear planetary scientists talk about new theories and discoveries and so forth. That’s one of the advantages of living in the Bay Area: SETI is a short walk from my door. So is NASA. And there are a lot of very well-informed people hereabouts, and we seem to know most of them…
So, yeah, Mars. And the game is to include as much as possible of what we know now, actual science, in among the fantasy of canals and breathable air and remarkable creatures with bizarre life cycles (and sandcats, gotta have sandcats) and imperial attitudes and Englishness abroad and, and, and…
9.) With your marriage, you have relocated to the USA. The major thing I’ve heard you speak about with your transition is recipes—making old favorites when you can’t find ingredients, and learning all about new foods and new cooking methods. It sounds like you are having a blast! Has it been more fun, or more frustrating? And can we expect this aspect of culture change to show up in a future work?
A.) Oh, it’ll show up, one way or another. There may even be an actual non-fiction book about this whole transition, Stranger in a Strange Kitchen: at the moment they’re only blogposts, and irregular at that, but who can say? Mostly at the moment I’m living it and doing it, more than writing about it. I love Californian farmers’ markets with a passion; and I’m baffled by how hard it is to find simple, ordinary things; and I am in equal parts intrigued and infuriated at being squeezed into an alien cuisine. Culture shock expresses itself ongoingly and in various ways, some more clear than others, but food is a constant. Of course it is; I cook for an American, on a daily basis.
10.) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
A.) It more than shapes my life; it is the shape of my life. A writer is what I am, more than a man or an Englishman or an exile or a husband or whatever. Writing is my definition and my criterion, it’s the filter I can’t remove, the way I see the world regardless of how the world sees me. And it matters, and not only to me. I’ve done important things on a personal level, for people I love; writing is important on a different level. Collectively, writers shift the world.