Please welcome Chris Beckett to The Qwillery. Dark Eden was published on April 1st in the US by Broadway Books. You may read a guest blog by Chris - The Sunless Planet - here.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the most challenging thing about writing for you? Are you a plotter or pantser or a hybrid plotser?
Chris: More of a pantser - I don’t understand how some people can work out a detailed plot before they’ve got to know their characters! – however the best description of the writing process I’ve come across was from the poet Ted Hughes, who said that for him it was a matter of ‘evading his mental policeman’ (or words to that effect). I think that’s the tricky part, allowing oneself to let go and trust one’s imagination and intuitions.
TQ: Does being a social worker (and lecturer in social work) influence what you write?
Chris: My second novel Marcher was certainly influenced a great deal by my background in social work. It’s less obvious in my other work. But if I was to say that my career in social work often involved dealing with unhappy, dysfunctional, and sometimes abusive or incestuous families, I guess this may ring a bell for readers of Dark Eden! (Also: I’m interested in outsiders, and I think this drew me both to social work, and to the kinds of topics I write about.)
TQ: Dark Eden is your third novel after The Holy Machine and Marcher . You've also written numerous short stories. Do you approach novels and short stories differently?
Chris: Very differently. A short story is a complete little object and requires just two or three core ideas to drive it forward and bring it to a conclusion. Once I have those ideas, I can write a short story fairly quickly, but I have to wait for the ideas to come of their own accord, and until they do there’s no story. (I’ve got a lot of half-written short stories waiting in a file in my laptop for that second or third idea to come along and bring them alive. Sometimes this takes ten years.)
A novel is easier in some respects, since it requires a similar number of core ideas to get started, but then you run with them for a lot longer, and they spawn new ideas as you go along. Dark Eden is the equivalent of, perhaps 20 short stories in terms of length, but once it was under way, it had its own momentum, whereas 20 short stories would have required starting all over again each time.
On the other hand, a novel has got to convey a sense of people growing and interacting over a long period of time and that is challenging. Just as with real people you live your life with, you have to allow them to change, to do unexpected things, to mess up your cherished plans! Unlike in life, you also have to be willing to go back and start again, sometimes many times.
The ideas for all my novels to date began in short stories, actually. The essential ideas for The Holy Machine were contained in two short stories from the beginning of my writing career. Marcher grew out of six short stories. Dark Eden began in a short story called ‘The Circle of Stones’ first published in 1992. I knew I hadn’t finished with that world at the time. I even started, and abandoned, a second story at the time, and a decade later I wrote another short called ‘Dark Eden’ which is really the back story of the book: how the planet Eden was first found, and how a man and a woman came to be stranded there. (The story can be found in my collection The Turing Test). Finally, the better part of two decades after I’d first envisaged this sunless, luminous world, I wrote Dark Eden the book.
TQ: Tell us something about Dark Eden that is not in the book description.
Chris: You will find detailed advice in it on how to catch a slinker. All you need is some wavyweed string, a club and... a slinker.
TQ: In Dark Eden which character surprised you the most? Which character was the most difficult to write and why?
Chris: The characters that surprised me were the ones who weren’t even in the book when I started off, but just slowly appeared. Hard to pick out one, but maybe Sue Redlantern (Jeff and Gerry’s mum, and John’s aunt). I didn’t know at the outset that she was going to be in the book at all, let alone one of the narrators of the book (she narrates three chapters, which is more than anyone else except for the two main characters, John and Tina), but she really came alive for me.
Hard to write? To be honest, I didn’t find any of the main characters hard to write, once I’d got going. What I did find hard – something which isn’t a problem in short stories - is keeping track of the minor characters and maintaining some sense of who they were across the span of the book. I’ve never written a book before with anything like this many characters in it.
TQ: How did you develop the language spoken by the inhabitants of the world in Dark Eden ?
Chris: These people have been cut off from Earth for 160 years, and the way they speak would certainly have changed in that time.
One of the original couple was American and one British, so I gave them a mixture of British and American words. For instance they say ‘bloke’ (which I think of as a very British word) but also say ‘smart’ in the American way, to mean ‘clever’. (In the UK, when we say ‘smart’ we mean well-dressed).
The first generation born in Eden would have lived in a family where there were just two adults and a bunch of kids. I’ve noticed that the language of new parents tends to become more childish, even when they talk to one another, and I thought the overall effect of this (in the absence of a community adults around to draw the language back towards adult norms) would be to entrench some childish ways of speaking into the language. Hence the doubled up words for emphasis (‘big big’) and the tendency to drop articles and other short words here and there.
Otherwise, I tried to bear in mind that words that hadn’t been needed for generations would have been lost (they’ve forgotten the word for ‘sea’ for instance), and that the people who first found the planet would have had to coin new words for things only found in Eden, typically naming things after vaguely similar things on Earth. (A bat on Eden is not the same as a bat on Earth, but has a superficial resemblance to it, just as an American robin is a completely different kind of bird from a European robin, but both have a red breast.) One of my favourite parts of the book is the story that people in Eden tell about how Michael Name-giver gave names to the animals and plants.
TQ: Dark Eden is set on a planet very much unlike Earth. What sort of research did you do to create this planet? In general, what kinds of research did you do for the novel?
Chris: I did very little research for this novel at all – none worthy of the name really - but I thought about it a lot, and drew on my existing knowledge. I knew that there are life-forms on Earth for instance, that get their energy from the heat of the planet’s core, rather than the sun, and I built on that. I am one of those people who are mines of useless information, but in my case, being a writer allows me to find a use for it all!
TQ: Please give us one or two of your favorite lines from Dark Eden .
Eden was all I knew, all my mother knew, all my grandmother knew, but sometimes I longed and longed for the bright light that shines on Earth – as bright everywhere as the inside of a whitelantern flower – and the creatures that lived there, with red blood and four limbs and a single heart like us, and not the green-black blood and two hearts and six limbs of bats and leopards and birds and woollybucks.
TQ: What's next?
Chris: My next book will be a sequel to Dark Eden, set some two centuries on, when the followers of David and the followers of John have become, in effect, two nations. The main character is a descendant of Jeff Redlantern. Her name is Starlight Brooking. It’s called Mother of Eden.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Broadway Books, April 1, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 448 pages
On the alien, sunless planet they call Eden, the 532 members of the Family take shelter beneath the light and warmth of the Forest’s lantern trees. Beyond the Forest lie the mountains of the Snowy Dark and a cold so bitter and a night so profound that no man has ever crossed it.
The Oldest among the Family recount legends of a world where light came from the sky, where men and women made boats that could cross the stars. These ships brought us here, the Oldest say—and the Family must only wait for the travelers to return.
But young John Redlantern will break the laws of Eden, shatter the Family and change history. He will abandon the old ways, venture into the Dark...and discover the truth about their world.
Already remarkably acclaimed in the United Kingdom, Dark Eden is science fiction as literature: part parable, part powerful coming-of-age story, set in a truly original alien world of dark, sinister beauty and rendered in prose that is at once strikingly simple and stunningly inventive.
You may read an excerpt from Dark Eden on Scribd here.
CHRIS BECKETT is a university lecturer living in Cambridge, England. His short stories have appeared in such publications as Interzone and Asimov’s Science Fiction and in numerous “year’s best” anthologies. In addition to the Arthur C. Clarke award for Dark Eden, he won the Edge Hill Prize, the UK’s premier award for short story collections, for his collection the Turing Test.