Please welcome Christopher Brown to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Tropic of Kansas was published on July 11th by Harper Voyager.
The Qwillery: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Christopher Brown: Thank you for having me! I’ve been writing professionally since I was in college, but my early work was mostly journalism. It wasn’t until I moved to Austin and got involved in the Turkey City Writers Workshop run by Bruce Sterling that I started to seriously write sf. I write because I love language. And I love speculative fiction as a laboratory for exploring the world we have and the worlds we could make—a lab where none of the subjects get hurt because they are all imaginary.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
CB: I write the same way I explore—go way off the trail, see what discoveries you can make, and then find your way back. I usually have an ending in mind when I start—it was the first thing I wrote for Tropic of Kansas, and about the only thing that survived serial revision. But I get the best results when I send the characters out with that destination in mind but no maps for how to get there. The surprises that occur when you take that approach are the real engine of a character-driven novel, for me. I have friends that map out elaborate narratives in volumes of notebooks, but that doesn’t work for me. Too bad, since my approach takes a lot longer!
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
CB: Language comes easily to me, but story is harder. I’m interested in writing a realist science fiction, one grounded in description of the observed world, and propelled by character more than plot, which tends to produce episodic, picaresque narratives more like real life. But I also love the satisfaction of building a compelling page-turner. So those things are at odds, and the process of letting character-driven lyricism find its way into plot takes a lot of time—two or three deep rewrites of the whole thing before what I want really emerges.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
CB: The work I dig all starts with a love of language, writing that paints with words. I like fiction that uses the power of brevity, economy as a design principle, versus the self-indulgent meanders of much contemporary literary fiction—with exceptions, of course. The writers I have learned the most from are probably Joan Didion, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, Doris Lessing, Walker Percy, Renata Adler and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s an eclectic set, one that includes some writers better known for their journalism, which probably reveals much about how my science fiction wants to engage with the problems of the “allegedly real world.” I also have a background in law and politics, and I imagine the influences of those experiences shows. I’ve learned to be deeply suspicious of power—having worked as both its butler and adversary—and deeply sympathetic with people who have none.
TQ: Describe Tropic of Kansas in 140 characters or less.
CB: A dark road trip through an Americana-infused dystopia, as brother and sister seek sanctuary and redemption in a nation torn apart by revolutionary unrest.
TQ: Tell us something about Tropic of Kansas that is not found in the book description.
CB: It’s not really meant as a vision of the future, even though that’s how many people read it. While the book has no timestamp, I imagined it as a dark mirror of the present. It’s an effort at a realist dystopia, taking things I have witnessed in the real world and bringing out the emphasis, remixing the proportions. Turning the world upside down in fiction is not only a fun way to tell an engaging story—it’s also a great way to see real-world problems with fresh eyes.
TQ: What inspired you to write Tropic of Kansas? What appealed to you about writing a post-apocalyptic novel?
CB: I never really thought that was what I was doing—Tropic of Kansas just tries to report on the world I see around me, through the speculative prism of a repurposed adventure novel. If there’s an apocalypse in Tropic of Kansas, it’s the combined ecological, economic and social failures happening around us that we tend not to notice—maybe because we aren’t the ones most affected.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Tropic of Kansas?
CB: I did a lot of travel on the back roads of middle America, from the Southwest borderzone to the upper Midwest. I explored a lot of edgelands on foot, including the place where I live in Austin, on a former brownfield lot between a row of factories and the urban woods they hide. I met people living in those woods, and learned about their lives. I saw how wild nature exists in the “empty lots” of the city, and how quickly it reasserts itself if we let it. I worked as a volunteer in my community, lawyering for people who often do not have access to legal services, serving on a grand jury, and learning how unevenly distributed justice often is. I read a ton of source material—American folklore, obscure cartographies of pioneer trails, scholarly studies of bandits and revolutions, and the invisible literature of the war on terror. I tried to pull together all this material from the fabric of the world we live in and remix it to show the worlds it could be—both the worse one, and the better one lurking on the horizon.
TQ: In Tropic of Kansas who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
CB: The character of Sig, whose journey really defines the book, was both the easiest and the hardest. He was easy in that he draws on a deeply familiar archetype—the backwoodsman who can be found at the edge of the American woods from Cooper’s Hawkeye to Conan, Rambo and even Katniss Everdeen. But an archetype is not a real character, and writing the true personality and point of view of someone who has spent their adolescence surviving off the land, who doesn’t even have the preoccupation with self that is the basic characteristic of almost all characters in the modern novel, was much harder than I anticipated. You have to learn to show feeling without interiority, vulnerability through toughness—a hard undertaking with a great payoff, I think.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Tropic of Kansas?
CB: I can’t seem to get on the subway without grabbing the third rail. When I set out to write Tropic of Kansas I really just wanted to write an entertaining adventure story with a contemporary setting—and ended up starting a revolution in dystopia. Oops! I think writing is inherently political, and you can’t report on the world without showing it as it is. I also think you can deal with tough issues and still tell an entertaining, fun and big-hearted story—and sf is a great way to achieve that.
TQ: Which question about Tropic of Kansas do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
CB: Q—Where is the Tropic of Kansas?
A—It’s not a real place, but you can see it from here.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Tropic of Kansas.
CB: The emerging consensus is that the best line in the book is the last one, and it’s not really a spoiler, but worth waiting for.
This passage is a pretty good encapsulation of the world of the book, from Tania’s pov:
“Back east they called it the ‘Tropic of Kansas.’ It wasn’t a specific place you could draw on a map, and Kansas wasn’t really even a part of it, but you knew when you were in it and you knew just what they meant. Which wasn’t a compliment. The parts of the Midwest that had somehow turned third world. They tried to return the Louisiana Purchase to the French, the joke went, but it was too damaged.”
TQ: What's next?
CB: I have three longer works in progress: a book of speculative nature writing, a story about a criminal defense lawyer in a dystopian society—think Better Call Saul meets 1984—and a novel about capitalists in space. As divergent as they sound, they are all concerned with similar issues—and both easier and harder to write than Tropic of Kansas (but just as fun). Thanks for asking!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Tropic of Kansas
Harper Voyager, July 11, 2017
Trade Paperback and eBook, 480 pages
“Futurist as provocateur! The world is sheer batshit genius . . . a truly hallucinatorily envisioned environment.”—William Gibson, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author
“Timely, dark, and ultimately hopeful: it might not ‘make America great again,’ but then again, it just might.”—Cory Doctorow, New York Times bestselling and award winning author of Homeland
Acclaimed short story writer and editor of the World Fantasy Award-nominee Three Messages and a Warning eerily envisions an American society unraveling and our borders closed off—from the other side—in this haunting and provocative novel that combines Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, Philip K. Dick’s classic Man in the High Castle, and China Mieville’s The City & the City
The United States of America is no more. Broken into warring territories, its center has become a wasteland DMZ known as “the Tropic of Kansas.” Though this gaping geographic hole has no clear boundaries, everyone knows it's out there—that once-bountiful part of the heartland, broken by greed and exploitation, where neglect now breeds unrest. Two travelers appear in this arid American wilderness: Sig, the fugitive orphan of political dissidents, and his foster sister Tania, a government investigator whose search for Sig leads her into her own past—and towards an unexpected future.
Sig promised those he loves that he would make it to the revolutionary redoubt of occupied New Orleans. But first he must survive the wild edgelands of a barren mid-America policed by citizen militias and autonomous drones, where one wrong move can mean capture . . . or death. One step behind, undercover in the underground, is Tania. Her infiltration of clandestine networks made of old technology and new politics soon transforms her into the hunted one, and gives her a shot at being the agent of real change—if she is willing to give up the explosive government secrets she has sworn to protect.
As brother and sister traverse these vast and dangerous badlands, their paths will eventually intersect on the front lines of a revolution whose fuse they are about to light.
Christopher was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the anthology Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including MIT Technology Review’s “Twelve Tomorrows,” The Baffler, and Stories for Chip. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Aside from his writing, though, Brown has lived a varied life in which he has, among many other things, taken two companies public, restored a small prairie, worked on two Supreme Court confirmations, rehabilitated a brownfield, reported from Central American war zones, washed airplanes, co-hosted a punk rock radio show, built an eco-bunker, worked day labor, negotiated hundreds of technology deals, protected government whistleblowers, investigated fraud, raised venture capital, explored a lot of secret woodlands, raised an amazing kid, and trained a few dogs.