The Call Back – Stephen Palmer


Welcome to the slightly grainy world of the Call Back Interviews, a chance for previous guests to return for a more detailed, in-depth chat. The word counts are off and the axe is back on the wall where it belongs – so why not relax and kick back in a patented, 50s-through-70s-styled green leather chair and get ready to talk about Life, the Universe, and Everything

as sometime ecoweird author Stephen Palmer recently did.

Stephen Palmer’s first novels came out shortly after I left university and, fleetingly, they made quite an impression on me. I remember them as challenging, weirdly ecological reads that stayed with me longer than the author did, because — after two releases in consecutive years — he dropped off my radar completely (perhaps not surprisingly: there was a five year gap before his next novel appeared).

I went on with my sf reading life and continued in my own early attempts to write, two interests which eventually brought me to, a popular genre site with a thriving writers community. There, a year-and-a-half ago, a forum member chipped in to our annual anthology project with a challenging, weirdly ecological short story… oh hey, I thought, it’s that guy!

That was 2015, and it proved a pretty busy spell for Stephen Palmer. He had three new titles published in the second half of the year, and now he appears keen to break that record as he prepares to release three novels in the space of just one month — so, Stephen, what’s the motivation for this flurry of activity?

Well, the publication of the trilogy is the result of three years very hard work. I had the original “Eureka moment” in September 2013, and since then I’ve written almost half a million words and kept a huge, complex scenario in my head. I must admit, the one aspect of all this that I wasn’t expecting was the exhaustion I felt at the end – which is why 2016 was a year off writing for me, with the exception of one short story which I was asked to do.

tgw2spromofrontSo, tell us about the Factory Girl trilogy.

It’s an alternate history/fantasy work set in the Britain of 1910-11 – definite elements of steampunk too! The main characters are Kora – illegitimate daughter of Victorian Britain’s greatest mechanic and industrialist Sir Tantalus Blackmore, and resident of Bedlam when the reader encounters her – and Erasmus Darwin, grandson of Charles.

One day Kora is visited by a mysterious gentleman, who gains her trust then makes off with her to his family home in Sheffield. Kora however suffers from a strange condition, that the Bedlam doctors believe is a second soul, Roka, somehow living inside her. But Roka is far less obliging than Kora, and soon she is caught up in street politics and protest – without Kora’s knowledge.

In the subsequent two volumes, Kora/Roka and Erasmus face a number of obstacles – some small, others impossible dilemmas – as they begin to uncover the reasons for Kora’s incarceration in Bedlam. A second book is threaded through the trilogy (which like Lord Of The Rings is really one long novel in three volumes) called Amy’s Garden, a work written by one Rev Carolus Dodgson…

Whoever could that be… The series’ cover art has quite a striking style. What do you look for in a good cover, and what was the process behind these specific designs?

Good covers are impossible to quantify. I approach most book covers by intuition. I knew the moment I saw the cover for the British edition of Perdido Street Station that it was a novel for me…

Sometimes I’m able to do my own artwork, but on other occasions – such as for Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox – I use the work of artists.
I was very lucky to have Steve Jones’ android images for those two novels.

For this trilogy I did the design work myself, using Photoshop, which I’ve used for 21 years and which informally I used to teach. I tried a couple of design ideas which were rejected by Infinity Plus Books, before hitting on a third design, which, in modified form, was accepted. Keith Brooke at I.P. was instrumental in getting my rough designs improved, particularly the placing of the text. He also acquired the beautiful cogwheel backgrounds.

And there’s a fourth novel to come, in 2017?

Yes. About half way through 2014 I realised there was a supplementary novel to be added to the trilogy. This work follows Erasmus Darwin into World War 1 during 1914-15, and is called The Conscientious Objector.

Speaking of sequences of novels, the relationship between your first two books, Memory Seed and Glass, is a strange one. Both focus on a lone city in a failing environment, each facing an encroaching threat — but despite the similarities they are not quite sequels, not quite standalones.

In retrospect, it was unfortunate that my unusual style of constructing novels was exposed to the reading public so early in my life. I was quite naïve at the time, although sincere in my experimentation – it wasn’t affectation. Glass was a thematic sequel to Memory Seed in that it followed the electronic entities of Memory Seed into a new environment, where they planned to follow their arts. But they took human beings with them and it all went wrong. Stylistically, my plan was to deliberately follow the structure of the first novel – a ploy I use a lot – but my fans saw that as mere duplication. Flowercrash, the third volume in the series, is the concluding work, set back on Earth where the entities, now named Zoahnone, Shonsair and Baigurgone, get their arts more or less correct.

I first encountered your writing in the mid-90s, but at the time I had no idea that you were a comparative newcomer. What was it like to begin a creative career at such a relatively young age?

I was picked up by Tim Holman at Orbit Books (now part of TimeWarner) and I was only 32 when he contacted me – a rather gauche 32 at that. I knew nothing about the literary world, and not much about the genre world, though I was known to British SF fandom through my membership of and participation in the BSFA – I reviewed novels and wrote articles for the BSFA magazine Vector.

My writing was powered only by instinct – I had learned just the basics of writing technique, and that mostly from writers’ guides and by getting it totally wrong when starting out. Like all novice writers, my main problem was not seeing my work from the point of view of a reader. It was my vivid imagination that fuelled everything, and when I got to meet Tim Holman he told me that basically Memory Seed (or Kray as it was then known) simply stuck with him over a long time – a combination of many factors, I suppose, which subsequent readers were to enjoy, although I had plenty of naysayers too. To this day I feel immense gratitude to Tim. I’ve been very lucky.

I also think myself lucky to be with Infinity Plus Books, since Keith is tolerant of my muse-following, and hardly bats an eyelid when such surreal monstrosities as Hairy London come his way. Looking back, he could easily have got cold feet about such a madcap novel – my debut for the imprint – but the fans really liked it. Keith is a highly talented author and a great editor, whose experience of the publishing business, experience I lack, is invaluable in our joint operation. I owe him lots.

You’ve now been a published author for over twenty years — many only dream of saying the same!

Well, as I said above, I count my blessings – I’ve been lucky. But I have learned a few lessons over the years, particularly since the fallow period in my career around the middle of the last decade.

I’m happy with a few of my books, less so with others. I think the highlights are Memory Seed (which a few years ago I had to re-read as part of an OCR/scanning process, and which I think still stands up as a good work), Muezzinland – a personal favourite – Hairy London and No Grave For A Fox. But I do feel uncertain about Beautiful Intelligence, which did well critically and commercially. The ending was amended quite a lot – rightly so, as my original ending was far too ambiguous – but it still doesn’t seem quite right to me. Also, the prose style had a bit of a hangover from the surreal fireworks of Hairy London, which maybe let it down. All this uncertainty led me to write the short novel No Grave For A Fox.

I feel that the Factory Girl trilogy is amongst the best I’ve ever done. At the time of writing I had a curious feeling that it was ‘different’ in some way, a feeling that at the time I couldn’t define. Only recently, when I read the whole thing during a copy edit, did I get a sense of its epic quality – which is an odd thing to say, given that mostly it’s set in Sheffield. But it is an epic tale in some respects.

As for life in general… well, like everyone, I have had some horrendous lows to get through, but also I’ve enjoyed a good few highs. The main lesson I learned from the lowest of the lows was not to sit back and imagine carrying on ‘til 90. You can get run over by a bus at any time. Even though in my thirties I’d discovered that life is not a bed of roses – and I truly learned from that period – what I didn’t realise was how, even if you are expecting bad stuff to happen, you never know what form it will assume. Even a terrible old cynic like me has been surprised by the horrible randomness life will occasionally take.

Is there advice you would give to the writer you were then, now you can look back not just on the early experiences but also those that have followed?

Never give up, even in periods of dejection and isolation – I know those feelings in regard to being an author, and they are horrible. But I got picked up by Infinity Plus, and here I am now. Also I would counsel avoidance of copying any other writer or even sub-genre (as far as that is possible), since readers smell insincerity a mile off. Although this strategy is difficult, and often unrewarding, it’s best to build up an identity that doesn’t reference anything else. Of course, this can be commercial suicide, but, well… isn’t artistic integrity better in the long run? I’d rather be known as “that author who wrote those novels which were totally unlike anything else” instead of “that author at position X in the annual earnings league.”

So, with the Factory Girl novels all done bar the screaming, what’s next on your plate?

As I mentioned, I’ve taken a year off in 2016, which has been enjoyable. I visited a lot of friends over the long summer holiday, and pursued a few other ventures. I plan to write a new novel called Tommy Catkins over the coming winter. I’m not sure how it would be described… a mixture of fantasy and magic realism perhaps. It’s set in 1915, when a soldier returns in a shell-shocked state from the Western Front to a special island retreat. I’m really looking forward to writing it, and I’m already feeling the same excitement that I felt before writing The Girl With Two Souls.

Which is now available to buy — best of luck with the new series, and thanks for the chat!

You can find links for a multitude of Stephen’s books at Infinity Plus, Goodreads and Amazon, and more information about the Factory Girl series and his other writing at StephenPalmerSF.

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