Hello dear readers! Today, I am so happy to introduce Ben Jeapes, author of five sci-fi novels.
Ara: Hi Ben! Thank you for being “here” today. I am so glad to have this opportunity. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ben: Well, there’s the five novels; there’s also a collection of stories (most originally published in Interzone), Jeapes Japes, available from Clarion Publishing and Wizard’s Tower Press; and I’ve perpetrated considerably more ghost writing, mostly because the swine keep paying me more money to do it than I make for my own stuff. I’ve been writing since my teens and started getting published in my mid-twenties, which was mumbly-cough years ago. Since graduating in 1987 I’ve worked in academic publishing, with only a minor detour into sf publishing (the short-lived small press Big Engine, 2000-2003, RIP), then technical writing. And I have a website at www.benjeapes.com.
Ara: Did you always want to be a writer? And why the sci-fi genre?
Ben: You know, I think I did. I certainly knew I wanted to be creative, hence the career in publishing, because when I was starting out and nothing was certain I thought that I could at least be with books even if I couldn’t write them (though, as it turned out, I can!). And why science fiction - well … because. Because of Doctor Who and Thunderbirds and Star Trek. Because of Countdown, a comic that essentially reprinted old TV21 adventures from the worlds of Gerry Anderson, but which taught me that you can make up your own adventures. Because it’s a lifelong love, and after a life of reading it, I had ideas in my head that I had to get down.
Ara: Do you have any advice to bloggers out there who wish to be a writer someday?
Ben: Well, if you’re blogging then you’re already writing, aren’t you? That’s a good start. If you’re finding it hard to find the writing time ... think about it.
There’s not a lot I can say that you can’t find with any Google search on writing tips, but here’s stuff that has helped me.
Start each scene as late as possible, end it as soon as. Start with two people in a room talking rather than having turn up, then they talk, then one leaves … Unless of course it’s very important that we get to see those other bits. Which is my next point: try to make your scenes do double duty. Let them be subtle ways of feeding your readers with atmosphere and information and character without actually saying so - without us even noticing, if you do it right, until suddenly we realise that, of course! We knew that! It was … hang on … page 61.
Try to imagine your dialogue actually being spoken out loud. Or, as I once heard it (it might have been from David Langford), try to imagine it being shouted across a room. If you can’t imagine it, rewrite it until you can. Sometimes I write a scene that is purely dialogue, not even with inverted commas and formatting and “he said, she said”. Just the words, letting it flow and making it sound right. Then I go about the work of actually transforming that into a scene. I might even write a conversation that way which doesn’t actually take place until way later in the novel, but the words are in my head and I want to get them down while they’re fresh. I love watching it bob about at the end of the Word file for weeks, or months, until finally the rest of the novel catches it up and engulfs it.
Read lots, read widely; try to encompass the full range of human experience in your input so that at least you have plenty to draw upon in your output. If you’re an atheist, read C.S. Lewis. If you’re a Christian, read Philip Pullman. Know how people you disagree with think and feel. And know your stuff. One reason that I’ve never got into, say, crime or romance writing is that I’ve read so little in those areas that I would have no idea whether I was just re-inventing the wheel. But I’ve read enough sf/f to know exactly how the tropes I’m juggling ought to work. That’s one of the things that gives me confidence to go on.
Ara: Thank you! "Know your stuff" -- I agree. This is very important. Let’s talk about your recently published book, Phoenicia’s Worlds. Please tell us more about it.
Ben: Well, funny you should say that because this very day Solaris kindly retweeted a comment from a reader who had just finished it and thought it was the best sf novel he had read all year … So there you have it.
Oh, you want more?
Phoenicia’s Worlds is character-driven space opera. Characters first, hardware second - though the hardware is quite prominent, given that most of it is in the form of the starship Phoenicia, without which the story couldn’t happen. We’re some centuries in the future. Earth has one extrasolar colony, La Nueva Temporada, which was settled by humans from the slower-than-light Phoenicia after a 40-year journey. But, Phoenicia brought with it a wormhole terminus so that travel between Nueva-orbit and Earth-orbit is now almost instantaneous. Nueva’s climate is extremely hostile and the Nuevans are totally dependent on resources being brought in through the wormhole - which, one day, snaps shut.
So the only thing to do is for some people to get back into the mothballed Phoenicia for a 40-year journey back to Earth with another terminus to try and open another wormhole. What happens to them? What happens to Nueva in the intervening 40 years?
It has very nice remarks by Simon Morden and Gareth L. Powell on the cover, which I consider high praise.
The thing that no one believes about Phoenicia’s Worlds is that it wasn’t inspired by 9/11. The basic idea goes back earlier than that. I just have a pretty negative view of how populations tend to react to emergencies; and also of the false dichotomy so beloved of a particular type of politician that There Is No Other Way. In the case of the latter, all too often they obsess about one actually not-so-bad thing and anything - anything - becomes acceptable as an alternative. Thus it becomes acceptable for Pinochet, for example, so determined that his country will not fall to communism, to torture and murder his own people rather than allow even a mild hint of social democracy. And his supporters applaud.
(I ranted at length on this in “How the SOE and Pinochet ended up in a space opera”.)
I’ve also always been intrigued about nature and nurture - how similar people placed in different circumstances can end up reacting very differently. There’s no necessary destiny that produces a hero, or an antihero. Would Hitler have ended up as Fuhrer without the nurturing environment of Weimar German, or would he just have lived and ended his days as a sad little anti-Semite with a moderate degree of artistic talent? And so I wrote about two brothers who are actually very similar in temperament and outlook, who end up as very different adults, even though they both manage to save their world - in their own way.
I mentioned juggling tropes earlier. I’m not the first author to have a hostile planet colonised by humans via a slower-than-light starship and now accessible through a wormhole … but just say that all those ideas and a few more fell into place in an intriguing order that I wanted to write about, and everything I was just saying about the characters gave me a cast with which to populate the story. More of that at “The story behind Phoenicia’s Worlds”.
The thing I find hardest about writing is plotting. I like other people’s plots to surprise me and keep me on my toes. This means that the moment I work out a clever plot point of my own, I promptly lose faith in it, because if I can see it, why can't anyone else? But every now and then something will come flying at me out of the blue, sometimes even while I'm writing, that takes me completely by surprise. It makes perfect sense, it follows with utmost logic from the plot so far, and I never saw it coming. Those are my favourite moments, and there's a couple of those in Phoenicia’s Worlds.
Ara: Thank you for sharing these details with us. "Characters first, hardware second" -- I think this is really interesting. Gosh, your book is sooo cool! I will definitely add this to my reading list. Also, I definitely love that cover. Did you design it?
Ben: I’d love to take credit, but no, my design skills are … no. It’s the work of Dominic Harman , by which I am greatly honoured. My editor asked me to suggest a couple of key scenes from the text that could be illustrated and the one he chose was the explosion of the wormhole terminus in orbit above our heroes’ homeworld.
Ara: Any ongoing / future projects that we should be excited about?
Ben: There’s nothing under contract at the moment, but a sequel to Phoenicia’s Worlds and a fantasy novel are currently timesharing whatever bit of my brain deals with creativity. There’s also something in the Solaris slushpile that I have high hopes for, and, in a complete change of scene, my agent is touting around book 1 of what we hope will become a historical adventure series.
Ara: Super! This sounds great! Before we end the interview, I really have to ask these. Coffee, sweet tea or hot cocoa?
Ben: sweet tea, without the sweet.
Ara: So, just tea? Awesome. :) :) If you have to choose one science fiction book as your absolute favourite, which book will it be?
Ben: Oh golly. He’s out of of favour nowadays but the book is still a cracking read, so I will plump for Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Unless I’m allowed one absolutely massive compendium volume of Bujold’s Barrayar series.
Ara: Got it! :) And finally, who is your favourite ‘friend’ from F.R.I.E.N.D.S.?
Ben: Janice, with Ross & Monica’s parents a joint close second.
Ara: Haha! Thank yooouuu so much for answering these questions! It was really fun, Ben. I appreciate everything you've shared with us.
Lovely readers, please check out Phoenicia's Worlds by Ben Jeapes. It sounds really cool, right? :) I'll be adding this to my very (and I mean really) long reading list. :)