I met Chris Roberson briefly at the BookExpo America held in New York City in 2007. It wasn’t a planned thing, more of what I would come to think of as fortunate circumstance.
I was attending with two purposes in mind: the first to touch base with my then prospective, now current comic publisher Mark Smylie of Archaia; the second reason was to meet Lou Anders, the editorial director of Pyr, who happened to be one of Chris’ publishers. Lou introduced us and had nothing but praise for him. Before went parted ways Lou, excited about Chris’ work, made sure I and my companions had copies of the ARC for Set the Seas on Fire and the chapbook for the novella Line of Dichotomy, both being books not even published by his company—but that’s just how Lou Anders rolls, I’ll have more on him in another, future entry. The two stories represented his two major series, the Bonaventure-Carmody sequence and the Celestial Empire universe respectively. Chris graciously signed all of our copies, with a note to read Cordwainer Smith—a subject of conversation at the Expo, and he’s is on my reading list, really, I’ll get to him—and we were shortly on our way.
Not too long afterwards, intrigued with the setting of the Celestial Empire stories (in brief, an alternate reality where China has become the major superpower on Earth and vies for control of the stars with challenger the Aztecs), I finally sat down and read a few of them available online. I quickly fell in love with the concept and the storytelling and have been a fan since.
I had set up an interview with Chris for earlier this year for his YA novel Iron Jaw and Hummingbird, but unfortunately that fell through due to reasons on my part. Chris has been kind enough to agree to second interview, this time to talk about his latest offering, Book of Secrets from Angry Robot Books. Fueled by a lifetime love of all things pulp, cartoon, comic and stuff that’s just plain cool, Chris Roberson is an intriguing mix of influences, with a style and voice wholly his own.
We talk about Book of Secrets, of course, but I also wanted to get a broader picture of the man behind the words. With that in mind I touched on a few other topics, including his recently announced creator owned comic book series with artist Mike Allred called I, Zombie from Vertigo, a brief note on his own publishing company MonkeyBrain Books, and the cutest little blonde kid on the web, his daughter Georgia (pictured below with dad).
Manakalita Manifesto: As the title of this interview series implies, I haven’t read your book yet (‘cause that’s the gimmick here), and know little about it beyond the description on the Angry Robot site and the few reviews I’ve read. I’ll be linking to the Angry Robot page for Book of Secrets, but can you expand a little on what readers can expect?
Chris Roberson: Book of Secrets is a murder mystery combined with a secret history of mankind, wrapped up in a story about a man coming to terms with his heritage. Oh, and there are gangsters, masked avengers, highwaymen, mythological beings, cat-burglars, and more, to boot!
MM: Books of Secrets began life as a novel called Voices of Thunder. Was this a part of your output during the publishing era of your writing group Clockwork Storybook?
CR: It was indeed. I actually started working on the story that ultimately became Book of Secrets shortly after I graduated from college in 1992. I’d written two novels in college (which thankfully will never see the light of day), and when I began working out the story of Spencer Finch, the Black Hand, and the secret history of mankind I figured I’d have it written in another year or two, at most. As I continued researching and outlining, though, the story kept getting bigger and stranger. Over the course of the next decade or so I wrote bits and pieces of it here and there, but it wasn’t until I was part of the Clockwork Storybook writers group that I decided it was time to finish the damned thing. That version of the story was published as Voices of Thunder through the CWSB imprint, and probably sold a dozen copies, if I’m being generous. I was never entirely happy with that version, though, and kept noodling with it over the following years, until finally a year or so ago I got it to a point where I was willing to let the world see it in its finished state. Angry Robot got in touch to see if I had anything to submit, and things took their natural course.
MM: Does Books of Secrets tie into any of your other fiction or is it a stand alone? I’m thinking specifically of the Bonaventure-Carmody sequence.
CR: Book of Secrets is entirely standalone, but you’re not wrong in thinking that there might be connections between it and the Bonaventure-Carmody novels, though most of the connections are from the other direction. That is, in several Bonaventure-Carmody novels there are references to characters and situations from Book of Secrets (most notably in End of the Century, published last spring by Pyr), some obvious and some less so.
MM: I read a bunch of reviews in preparation, and perhaps my favorite quote from the lot is the Random Musings review: “This tremendous modern fantasy is like The Da Vinci Code rewritten by the Coen Brothers.” That’s quite a mash up there, what was your reaction upon reading that?
CR: It’s not a formulation I would have come up with on my own, probably, but I think it fits the book as well as any “It’s This meets This” formulas. My conscious models in writing the novel in the first place were people like Umberto Eco, though I’ve since recognized fellow travelers in reading the novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Hal Duncan.
MM: How did you become a slave to the metal overlords at Angry Robot? What enticed you to join the ranks? Is the “angry” part of their name just for show and they’re really just a bunch of mellow mechanical constructions?
CR: I’d worked with Angry Robot publisher Marc Gascoigne in his days at Black Library and Solaris, and the scars had all healed by the time he contacted me in the early days of Angry Robot. Honestly, he had me at the words “Angry” and “Robot”—everything else after that was gilding the lily.
MM: Being that Book of Secrets was originally self published, I wanted to know what your take on that aspect of publishing was. In pretty much every other form of entertainment the DIY method of getting your work out there is no longer looked down upon—if, indeed, it ever was in some of them—yet in the literary field it is still considered bad form and that strikes me as such backward thinking. What are your thoughts on this?
CR: I essentially self-published four novels, and don’t recommend that anyone try it. There are the occasional success stories, but for every one person who sells a healthy number of copies of their self-published book there are literally thousands of writers who manage to sell only a handful to their friends and family. One of the inherent problems with self-publishing prose, I think, is that it takes time to judge the quality of a novel or story. You have to read it to see if it’s any good. (You can often tell if something is horrible in the first sentence, but the difference between “good” and “mediocre” can often take pages and pages of suffering to determine.) If a musician self-publishes online or on CD, you can tell within a minute or two if this is something you’re going to be interested in. A self-published comic? Glance at the cover and one or two interior pages. Independent movies can be trickier, but there’s an example where they’ve managed to established a process for self-produced and self-financed films to reach a wider audience through the various film-festivals and such.
In the days of Clockwork Storybook, we had this utopian vision that if we simply produced good work and put it out there, the audience would find it. We did a monthly webzine with original stories and art, and published novels and story collections by the members. But though we managed to get some good reviews from “mainstream” genre outlets, the books themselves were just lost in the sea of crappy POD and self-published titles. (There’s often a reason why those thousands of self-published authors never sell any copies.)
If someone has already established a large following, whether through being published before by high-profile mainstream publishers or by having a heavy-traffic blog or something like that, then I think self-publishing might be viable. But for a writer just starting out, it’s an absolute waste of time. If your goal is to have published a book, it’s fine, but if your goal is to actually have people read that book, or maybe even have a career in writing, then it’s the wrong row to hoe.
MM: OK, so the last question has kind of shifted us off topic a bit, but since we’re tackling a slightly off topic subject, perhaps we could jump on a few more. You can consider it a lightning round if you like. Though you’re more than welcome to give more than a one word answer. Here we go:
According to Wikipedia, there are two other Chris Roberson’s out there of note, both athletes. What do you know of them and are they worthy of your name?
CR: All I know about them is that they show up constantly in the automated Google searches I do on my name, and that I can’t help but feel a nonsensical bit of pride that I’m still the top couple of hits on Google for “Chris Roberson.”
There are a few other Chris Robersons, though, including an artist in Chicago, an academic, and a musician. I think we should form a League of Chris Robersons and take over the world.
MM: You have an adorable little girl named Georgia to whom you devote a lot of space on your site. What’s the best thing for you about being a dad?
CR: My daughter is an antidote to depression. It’s just impossible to be down when I’m around her. In addition to being beautiful and a genius (objectively speaking, of course) she’s also hilarious, and can always manage to crack me up. We spend a lot of time together watching cartoons, reading comics, and drawing pictures of monsters, robots, and aliens. What could be more fun than that?
MM: You’re a publisher as well as a writer, guiding MonkeyBrain Books with your wife Allison. Often you call your publishers your “masters” or “overlords,” do you make your authors do the same for you?
CR: Ha! No, and I wouldn’t let them if they tried. Many of the writers I’ve published are people I admired even before I started the publishing company, and one of the main reasons I started MonkeyBrain was so that I could publish more books by them to put up on my shelf. My novel End of the Century is dedicated to three writers who have been particularly influential on me—Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, and Kim Newman—and it’s no accident that I’ve published books involving each of them.
MM: All right, the lightning round is over. I just want to wrap this up with a couple of congratulations and then give you the final word.
You’ve been nominated for a Sidewise Award, which honors works of alternate history, for your novel The Dragon’s Nine Sons. This is your second nomination—a wonderful achievement in itself—and hopefully your second win, since you took the short-form prize home in 2003 for “O One” a short story also set in your Celestial Empire universe. I know this news has been out for a while, but with the presentation of the award coming up soon at Anticipation, the 67th Worldcon in early August, I figured it was a good time to remind people.
CR: Actually this is my fourth nomination, if I’m remembering correctly. I’ve been up three times in short form, and once in long form. I don’t have any expectation of winning this year at all, given the contenders I’m up against. The only way I’m taking that plaque home is if the jury somehow mistakenly believes that Terry Pratchett is spelled “C-H-R-I-S R-O-B-E-R-S-O-N.” Nation is arguably the best book he’s written in a long career filled with great books, and deserves all of the accolades it can get. (Though I wouldn’t mind seeing my pal George Mann win for his novel The Affinity Bridge, though, come to that.) [MM: UPDATE - Apparently the jury did see fit to misspell Mr. Pratchett's name, Chris won the Sidewise award for his novel The Dragon's Nine Sons. Congrats, Chris!]
MM: The more recent, and equally exciting news, was the announcement from Vertigo of your creator owned comic with Mike Allred called I, Zombie. The details were laid out at the Vertigo panel at San Diego Comic Con this year and expanded upon in a very fine interview at Comic Book Resources, so rather than rehash those particulars, how about you tell us just how cool is it to have your own comic book?
CR: It is ridiculously cool. I’ve been a comics fan my whole life, and been to the comic shop every week for new release day for the last thirty years or so. And I’ve been a fan of Allred’s work for nearly twenty years (has it been that long?), since the days of Grafik Musik. Getting the opportunity to write comics was already mind-blowing enough, but having the chance to work with Allred as a collaborator? On an ongoing creator-owned book from Vertigo? Unbelievable.
(I just hope this is my karmic reward for all of the bad shit I’ve had to endure the last few years, and that I’m not racking up a karmic debt that I’m going to have to repay sometime down the road!)
Where to find Chris and Book of Secrets
Book of Secrets is out now in the UK, and available October 15, 2009 in the US and the rest of the world (because there are just too many of you countries to name).
For more on Chris Roberson, visit his website.