Interview 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 (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 often 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, 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 and Light Errant. 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.)
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.