Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Brenda Clough
by Darrell Schweitzer
Brenda Clough lives in the suburbs of Washington, although she lived in many parts of the world
when she was growing up. She is mostly a novelist. Her books include The Crystal Crown
(1984), The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), The Name of the Sun (1988),
An Impossumble Summer (1992), How Like a God (1997), Doors of Death and Life (2000),
Revise the World (2008), and Speak to Our Desires (2011). She has also published seventeen
shorter works, including the novella "May Be Some Time," which was a finalist for the Hugo
and Nebula awards in 2002.
SCHWEITZER: So, tell me something about your background, and what you were doing
before you started writing.
CLOUGH: In a nutshell, I am a State Department brat and have lived all over the world -
excellent training for writing in the genre.
As to when I began, I cannot remember. I've always been very, very creative. I do remember
when I was about 11 or 12, and my parents had a large party. It was the Mad Men era, the 1960s,
and all the adults were upstairs drinking martinis, while we kids prudently stayed downstairs in
the family room to watch TV. A woman came down to see us and asked us what we wanted to be
when we grew up. I said, "I am going to write novels." She thought this was very funny and
went upstairs to tell the other adults. I still do not recall this incident at all (it was one of those
things that grown-ups did that do not linger in the mind), but twenty years later I ran into this
woman on the Metro. She immediately recalled this, and before the train pulled out I was able to
assure her that yes, I had become a novelist.
SCHWEITZER: Were you already writing at that age? And was it science fiction? When did
you first discover science fiction? And did anybody tell you "That's not for girls"?
CLOUGH: I have always read enormously. I remember reading three books a day (the max they
would let you take out of the library in elementary school) in fourth or fifth grade. I do remember
my father insisting that paperback sword and sorcery was trashy and unlikely to do me good, and
see! He was right.
As I recall, the first true SF novel I read (if you put aside all talking animal books like Narnia or
the Freddy the Pig series by Walter Brooks) was The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key. I do
remember the first SF novel I purchased for myself - it was Sylvia Louise Engdahl's The
Enchantress from the Stars. I mailed the full sum in cash to the publisher in New York City, and
I still have it.
But it was in the base library in Manila that I really got going on the classics of the genre. Like
all Embassy settlements in the 1970s in Asia, things were set up to accommodate floods of
soldiers on their way to or from Vietnam. So all the fiction was geared for young men. The
tolerant librarian guided me past all the stuff that would be unlikely to interest a young teen girl
- the military fiction and sexy stuff - and let me wander at will with Bradbury, Asimov, and
My father worked for the State Department, and so we lived in Asia and Europe for years. Until
we get an off-planet colony going, living in a foreign country is as good as we're going to get,
meeting aliens. There are still places on this planet where you can go and it's as foreign as Mars.
SCHWEITZER: Foreign to whom? I am cribbing now from the blurb about you in Derwin
Mak and Eric Choi's anthology of science fiction by writers of Chinese descent, The Dragon and
the Stars. It says your parents came from China. So did you also have the experience of being
something of an alien in the United States? This can't help but have affected your writing
CLOUGH: I am first generation - the first generation born in the US. My parents both came
over on the boat from China. They always planned to go back (the Communists put paid to that
idea) so for the first five years of my life I spoke only Chinese. I am told that I started
kindergarten without a word of English. I can remember nothing of this, and now only speak
Chinese at, you guessed it, a five-year-old level. Use it, or lose it. I am sure this had an effect.
SCHWEITZER: Did you know that you were going to write SF and fantasy from the start?
When did you actually start doing it?
CLOUGH: As I recall, my first science fiction was a short story written for a college creative
writing class. It involved feng shui lines and causing earthquakes in Hong Kong, where we were
then living. (I was in college in Pittsburgh, no earthquakes there.) My roommate Laurie Mann, a
budding SMOF even then, insisted that I submit it to the fiction contest that Boskone was
running at the time, and I won - I forget what prize. I took it as a sign. So if you really wanted to
blame somebody, you could say that it is the Boston Mafia's fault.
SCHWEITZER: I take it, then, that your parents stopped using Chinese at home once you went
to school? I am sure readers still wonder if your background gives you any sense of a particular
insight into other cultures, that someone with a purely suburban, middle-class American
background might not have.
CLOUGH: You know how many writers complain (or simply feel) that they are outsiders,
Misunderstood By Everybody? If there is anything I got out of my background it is that
everybody feels that way. (Except possibly prom queens and high school football quarterbacks,
but even there I have my doubts.)
SCHWEITZER: It's one thing to write a story for a class. At what point did you realize that
you could write and sell novels? How long were you trying before you did sell one?
CLOUGH: I am one of those really annoying writers. I completed my first novel in my early
twenties, the first work that exceeded 60,000 words. I selected a publisher by surveying my
collection and picking one that put out that sort of fantasy - it was DAW. Donald Wollheim
bought it, and there you are. It was The Crystal Crown, which is still out from Roger MacBride
Allen over at FoxAcre.
SCHWEITZER: Well, tell us something about that first novel. It sounds as if as a writer you
sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus.
CLOUGH: My first novel, The Crystal Crown, was in retrospect like many of the fantasies that
appeared in the 80s from writers who had devoured Tolkien. We were all wandering around
creating worlds de novo and having epic combats. I may hold the record for being fast out of the
gate, at least within the genre.
SCHWEITZER: Were you one of those writers who grew up on not just Tolkien but the
Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series? In any case, I note that your later work is not much like Tolkien
CLOUGH: I did indeed read the Ballantine fantasy series when I could get my hands on them
(there is nothing like living overseas to limit book supply). But I read everything, you know.
Aside from Tolkien I don't remember anything particularly exciting. I actually enjoyed Puffin
books much more - the British children's PBs. They were cheaper and more available where I
was. I remember going into the bookstore in the shops level of the great Mandarin Hotel in
downtown Hong Kong, and buying Alan Garner novels, or visiting the one and only English
newsstand in Vientiane, Laos and purchasing Narnia books in paperback.
SCHWEITZER: You remark regarding your story "The Water Weapon" in The Dragon and the
Stars that you were "feeling steampunkish" when you wrote this story of a steam-powered
bamboo dragon. So, what about steampunk? Does it have much appeal for you?
Ultimately, though, isn't science fiction more profitably concerned with the future rather than
with alternate pasts?
CLOUGH: The fascination of steampunk is that it allows you to have fun doing research. There
is nothing like climbing into a period and rooting around, stealing bits. The cosplay/design stuff
is actually the core of the genre, and has less appeal for me. Sarah Zettel is to blame for my
forays into steampunk. She decided that Book View Cafe should write a shared-universe
anthology, and that it should involve the plans of George Gordon, Lord Byron, to Rule The
World. This was so demented that we all instantly climbed on board. An alternate history, and so
SCHWEITZER: At a Philadelphia Science Fiction Society meeting not all that long ago, you
read part of a novel in progress and then were soliciting suggestions from the audience for where
the story should go. I have to admit that as a writer I found that odd. I would not want anyone
messing with my creative process when the story is still forming. But does this work for you?
Are you one of those writers who likes to talk out the story before writing it? In any case, how
did that particular novel work out? Did you finish it?
CLOUGH: The novel I discussed at the PSFS meeting will be The River Twice, which I finished
writing about a year ago. I am still in search of a publisher for it and its sequels, which I wrote at
a white-hot heat in nine months. I have never brainstormed a work in progress before, but the
thing was stuck and desperate measures were called for. And PSFS was a particularly suitable
venue for this: a large number of devotees of the genre who had never heard of the work before -
I must be sure and thank them in the end notes.
When you (or at least I) write a novel there is a beginning period of gathering the horse manure
together into a pile. This is tedious and highly variable in length - sometimes it takes years. Then
as with compost heaps there is a low-level microbial ignition, and the thing is cooking along.
You can feel the warmth, if you put your hand on it, but nobody would call it alive.
But then with enough complexity the work (ideally) makes a leap, right off the ground and into
low-earth orbit. It evolves, and grows wings. I can put my finger on the place in my books where
that happens, and if it doesn't happen it's not a book. That was where I was at with The River
Twice. I was in search of the major plot twist, the complete revamping of the work, that makes
everybody cry out, "Oh my god! Is she crazy? How are they going to get out of this? Where the
hell is she going to go?" I knew it was there, I just couldn't find it. So I told PSFS about it, and
nobody had any useful suggestions at all, so I went with Lee and Diane Weinstein and ate cheese
steak subs. And there is something about totally unhealthy food that is very inspiring. I went
home and cut my hero's throat with a straight razor, and all the problems were over. The first
book spun out of my keyboard in two months, and I wrote two more with no difficulty at all.
SCHWEITZER: You mean you killed off the hero suddenly in the middle of the narrative? Or
was that just a shaving cut? You sound like George R.R. Martin here, suddenly killing off major
characters . . . So, why don't you describe this book a little more?
CLOUGH: As to these current novels. You may recall from the PSFS meeting that it is time
travel, with lashings of political intrigue and a heavy dose of spiritual angst.
To save having to work with the real history of any given nation, I invented my own Southeast
Asian authoritarian regime - the country is between the Philippines and Vietnam, just where
those islands are that they're arguing about. The heroine is last survivor of a line of dictators, and
her life plans are changed when she meets a time traveler. He has arrived from 1860, and his
goal is to knock Charles Darwin off his perch.
Many, many hijinks ensue. It is too complicated to explain how he gets his throat cut, but the
heroine saves him and (as they complain) nothing is ever really over with time travel - no defeat
forever, no victory permanent. As with all time-travel the plot gets cruelly complicated. Today
for my own edification I laid out a time line of all the events, and it runs from 295 AD in Gaul
during the Roman Empire, to 2028 in Los Altos, California. You know how Neil Gaiman always
winds up writing about story and the power of stories? I always wind up writing about power
and how to use it. The power of technology, and political power is what these particular books
SCHWEITZER: Do you find yourself more drawn to writing science fiction or fantasy? Given
that you (presumably) don't actually have to do this for a living, do market demands influence
CLOUGH: I wobble around between SF and fantasy - as you know it is a continuum, from
E.R.R. Eddison on the one side and, say, Hal Clement on the other. I am definitely in the middle.
I was a Nebula and a Hugo finalist for my purest SF effort, which clearly shows that I should
pursue hard SF. But one must write what the Muse gives you. I don't fit into boxes very well.
In conjunction with loading the electronic edition of How Like a God onto Book View Cafe, I
had to fill out one of those library forms. One of their favorite algorithm-building queries is,
what is this book like? What author is this author like? It stumped me, because I am really not
like anybody. I finally decided that the author I am most like is Charles Williams. Only easier to
SCHWEITZER: Charles Williams? I admit that never occurred to me, and I've read Charles
Williams. Care to explain?
Let me first explain to the reader that we are talking about the Other Inkling, the pal of C.S.
Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote rather dense religious fantasies, such as The Place of the
Lion, The Greater Trumps, and All Hallows Eve.
CLOUGH: Well, Williams was the closest cognate I could dig up. (You have better ideas?) He
tends to use contemporary settings, has a fascination for myth and history, and the plots tend to
revolve around salvific events. I also share his tendency to rattle on about internal matters, and
am prey to the pitfalls of theology. I do have the modern interest in slam-bang action and death-defying crises that I think he would find quite alien, and there's an entire being-a-chick and
being-Asian thing that he would probably have trouble with.
One thing about my current novels I know that Williams would dislike, is the action-adventure
element. I made a list of calamities that my hero undergoes:
Beat up by rogue policeman in a Southeast Asian jail (rescued). Lies neglected for three days
with severe malaria (gets better). Throat cut with single-edged razor blade (recovers). Dropped
into the South China Sea a hundred miles from land (rescued). Scheduled for crucifixion and
human sacrifice in a garden in York (escapes). Trapped in North Korean nuclear missile silo
which falls in on him (escapes). Forced to go to Chuck E Cheese in California (Has to endure.
He dislikes this fully as much as any of the other calamities). Trapped in 747 as it falls out of the
sky into the Pacific Ocean (escapes). Shot through the chest with spear gun (recovers). Aortal
dissection and cardiac arrest (This does kill him, but he gets better).
This, I don't think Charles Williams does.
The other possibility is C.S. Lewis, but only his adult works (not Narnia). I wrote How Like a
God specifically as a novel that Lewis would enjoy reading (assuming that there is a really big
library up in Heaven). It hits all his buttons: the mythic stuff, the spiritual crises, the save-the-world bit. I even named the hero as a little clue.
SCHWEITZER: I agree, that does not sound a lot like Charles Williams. Or Lewis, really.
How much does theology interest you as a subject for fiction?
CLOUGH: I guess theology is not actually a good word. (Not like Williams' poetry, or his The
Place of the Lion. Gosh, those are tough sledding.) Maybe it would be more accurate to say that
there are a lot of lenses with which to examine characters in fiction, and the religion lens comes
easily to my hand.
You will have noticed how very often I am paired with Jim Morrow on Philcon panels - we are
the go-to people for SF-and-religion paneling.
SCHWEITZER: Do you feel you're more able to be "not like anybody else" because you are
not dependent on your writing for a living?
CLOUGH: I would certainly love to be able to live solely upon my writing, but alas! It is not
really possible, especially if you have children. I tell my writing workshop pupils (over at the
Writers Center in Bethesda, MD) that if you are going to write what you do NOT want to write,
you shouldn't write fiction. There are far more lucrative things to write. You can not want to
write legal briefs, or advertising copy, or press releases for government bodies, and they will pay
you a salary! Benefits!
SCHWEITZER: So, what are you working on now?
CLOUGH: I am still prinking and polishing these three time-travel novels. I need a publisher to
snatch them away from me so that I can call them finished, and then move on to write something
else. I am hoping to write a first-contact novel, set in 1320. I did write the first chapter, but we
are still at the gathering-horse-manure phase. I will feel more comfortable with three or four
more chapters in the pile.
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Brenda.