Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Writer Brenda W. Clough has stitched together an exotic quilt of a career and a life. She’s written classic fantasy, fantasy humor, fantasy for children, science fiction, steampunk, and even contemporary mystery. Her most recent novels are Speak to Our Desires, an unusual murder mystery that takes place in 1969 New York City, and Revise the World, a science fiction tale of time travel, FTL drives, and resurrected Antarctic explorers.
Clough has an unabashed enthusiasm for whimsy, black humor, and the wide universe of comic books. She’s been known to create original cover art, cook exotic meals for her family, and knit squids.
1) When I try to think of where to start asking questions, I return to the crucial question—have you finished the squid, and if not, will we ever see him complete?
A.) Alas, I had eye surgery this summer and everything involving close work has to wait. I did knit the entire body of the squid, six feet long in white yarn, and inserted the most charming light-green eyeballs. I need to gear up my knitting machine to grind out 8 six-foot-long tentacles and 2 ten-foot-long feeder palps. The sewing-up will be easy. We must have a contest to name him, and then he can start a long happy career at conventions, meetings, and so on, being photographed to benefit the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund. In fact, I will take him to the World Fantasy Convention in 2014, in Virginia.
2) Your writing has taken you all over the map, from 19th century Antarctica to New York City 1969. More than one world is involved. Now I follow your posts on Facebook, and you are gleefully tossing your hero (or is he the hero?) to the lions every time I turn around. The poor guy must have aged a decade in the last few months. And you’re having so much fun!
Do you write because you’re driven to tell stories, or do you write because you’re driven to see people’s stunned faces at what you’re doing to your characters?
A.) I am a fast person. I far prefer to read fast, learn fast, drive fast, knit fast. I can’t write a slow book. (Although I do not always write quickly, but I always WANT to!) There has to be incident, stuff happening, excitement, stress. In other words, you never ever want to be one of my characters. Writers need that little streak of sadism; Lois Bujold has said that she thinks of the very worst thing that could happen to her characters and then socks it onto them.
So this latest book, THE RIVER TWICE, is a time travel novel. Although I had to think about it for 25 years, I really began cooking on it around Thanksgiving; I finished it in February and began a sequel, MEET MYSELF THERE, the next day and finished it by the end of the summer. (190 thousand words in nine months, wow! That is fast even for me.) But I deliberately set out to write a fast book, a book where the plot has the pedal cranked all the way down to the floorboards and the car zips along at 85 miles per hour. So it is packed with incident, which for me does sort of involve character mayhem.
3) I’ve watched you chase research from hilltop to hilltop, reading far and wide, and your fiction choices are also wide-ranging. Do you do a lot of research before starting a story? Do you reach “critical mass” before plunging into the writing, or do you dive in and look for tidbits as you see a need for information?
A.) Did you know that Mary Renault, author of all those super historical novels about ancient Greece, never did research beforehand? Only after she wrote the book did she go out and do the research. This was to keep the work from turning into a treatise. I never do a thing beforehand. I do scurry around in process, sending up pathetic queries about which is stronger, the forehand stroke or the backhand in tennis (this determined which side of my hero’s throat got cut), or whether you need a court order to do a body cavity search (the answer is no).
4) The one thing I have come to expect from a Brenda Clough story is that it will turn unexpectedly. Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) I have learned to trust my process. I used to have to know how the book ended, before I could begin writing. No more! I just start out, aiming at a dummy ending. I know ho the work will end long before I get there, and in a far better place. The fake target is all I need to keep the book going until I get to the real ending. I used to make up a non-ending for each work, but I discovered that I don’t even have to do that. I just recycle the same dummy ending over and over. It is so short I can share it with you: every book ends, “…and then they all died.” Easy!
I have also learned to give the work the time it needs in rewrite. Mulling the complete work over for a couple months really gives it the depth that it needs.
5) Why writing, and not another form of artistic expression? Were you inspired by words to write words, or did something else demand written stories of you?
A.) I write, because I am a reader. In childhood I would pump through about three books a day, after school. I have read through the entire contents of some school libraries, every volume excepting only the reference encyclopedias. I don’t read quite so much now—there is just not enough time, alas.
6) You were blessed—or cursed—with a globetrotting family, and spent your childhood all over the world. In hindsight, did you enjoy it, or did you long for roots? Do you consciously mine cultures for the worlds you build, or is your subconscious busy without direction?
A.) When I was in it I longed to stay in one place, but now that I have lived in the same house for 25 years I am glad that I traveled widely in childhood. There is nothing better for an SF writer than to actually experience being an alien. There are still plenty of places that you can travel to today, for the mere price of a plane ticket, where the natives will look at you like you have antennae. Until we can go to Mars this is the best we can do.
I have specifically mined my life in Southeast Asia for the current work, which is set in an imaginary country in the South China Sea. It was easier to make one up than to wedge the novel into the actual history of the Philippines or Indonesia or whatever. I just shoved all the rocks and islands currently under contention between Vietnam and China together to form a land mass, and voila. My heroine is the president.
7) You are one of the few writers I know who got a degree in creative writing. How did you end up teaching fiction writing? What about teaching fiction is rewarding for you?
A.) It is enormously stimulating to teach writing. I always get new ideas from my students. I even try to do the exercises I assign. The last one, which involved writing about a fantasy setting, got me finally to emulate our own Nancy Jane Moore, and experiment with a totally different format. A fantasy short story in the form of an invoice, how else could I have done it?
8) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentionally or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers? (You are primarily an SF and Fantasy writer, and your spouse is a computer geek. Rumor has it you both like comic books a lot. Your children went another direction, and are career military. This makes me wonder about both the questions you’ve asked in life and the questions you’ve encouraged your children to ask.)
A.) Tolkien said of his Elves, that they put all that they love into all that they make. Everything I’m really interested in shows up in my books too—the making of things, the insistence on a larger spiritual dimension, the seriously flawed people. But on the other hand starting out on a project leads you to love the material. I will love, for ever, works about the exploration of Antarctica. Writing Revise the World hooked me for the rest of my life on narratives about British people freezing to death on the ice—kind of a specialized taste, I will admit. And it has occurred to me that, if I really wanted to know about, say, baseball I could set out to write a novel about it. (I do not. But perhaps if I combined it with something else? Say, Dante, who I have always meant to write about. One cannot imagine Dante playing baseball, the long red robes would be too hampering I would think. There must be something better.)
9) You like to draw, you cook with abandon, and you knit up a storm. If you could no longer write fiction, where would your creativity turn?
A.) I am suffering at the moment from some vision issues, which is cutting me off from close needlework. It is clear now that I will never get into beading or embroidery; knitting has to shift into the bigger gauges—no more socks. However, Matisse moved into paper cutouts. I could do that. I could probably dictate novels until they shovel me under—there are some fine voice-to-text programs out there.
10) Often, but not always, I detect a strain of humor running through your work. 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? What keeps drawing you back, and why?
A.) I am sorry to report that my Muse, at least, does not take life seriously. Even if horrible things are happening in the work, there’s a funny angle. As you say, this happens a lot in my longer work (not so often in the short) and I think it must be a part of my style or voice or whatever.
All of my work revolves around power: what it does to you, what you have to do to get it and manage it and live with it. This may be a relic of my long reading in comic books. Superheroes have cast a long shadow on my creativity. How Like A God (soon to be out as an ebook from BVC!) was written as an answer to John Byrne’s reboot of Superman in the ‘80s—Byrne didn’t do it quite right, so I had to fix it. And Speak To Our Desires is essentially the superhero origin of Ronald Reagan—did you ever wonder why the Gipper was so popular? The pundits never could figure it out, so I made up a reason.