Interview With an Author: Christopher Brown

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
book cover of Tropic of Kansas and author photo of Christopher Brown

Christopher Brown has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and his short fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies. He lives in Austin, Texas where he practices technology law. Brown's first novel, Tropic of Kansas, was published in July and he recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the Los Angeles Public Library. 

What was your inspiration for Tropic of Kansas?

I wanted to repurpose adventure fiction toward more emancipatory ends, to tell a political story that engaged with the issues through action more than talk. It evolved into a lot more than that, but that’s where it started.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I basically wrote three completely different versions of this book to reach the final story. It began in a world much more closer to our own, a globe-trotting post-9/11 adventure story with some fresh politics, structured as a mosaic of chronologically jumbled shorts that modeled the serial pulps. I realized that the ending I had in mind compelled a more remixed version of reality, that the setting needed to be entirely American, and that the level of character-driven realism needed to be dialed up. Along the way I discovered the relationship between Sig and Tania, and the way that telling their parallel stories could provide the core narrative cabling. There was more material excised along the way than I ended up keeping, including other segments of the adventure and scenes written from the point of view of other characters. My favorite character who got mostly written out was Donny Kimoe, the criminal defense lawyer who helps several of the characters evade the dystopian legal authorities. He deserves his own story, and I am working on that now.     

Are Sig, Tania, Newton Towns, The President or Maxine Price inspired or based on specific individuals?

All of the characters emerged as unique creations in the world of the book. There were plenty of inspirations—each character combines a mix of archetypes and selected qualities of real people I have known. I drew heavily on American folklore. For example, Sig has many of the qualities of the prototypical backwoodsman of the American frontier who embodies the liminal zone between wilderness and human settlement, as seen with figures as diverse as Mike Fink, Daniel Boone, Tarzan and Conan. Walker has many of the qualities of the classic Yankee peddler, the protocapitalist who sells people things they already own. Tania mixes archetypes from techno-thrillers with real lawyers and whistleblowers I have worked with, and even some members of my own family. The President has dark elements influenced by at least one living politician, one famous actor, and a lot of CEOs I have known. Maxine Price shows the traces of several living women writers of sf I know, and at the same time is a kind of fresh archetype of an intellectual matriarch. She’s one of my favorite characters in the book, embodying a dream of how radical imagination can build better real futures.

Tropic of Kansas covers a lot of ground historically and geographically. And you postulate some interesting aftereffects from altered historical events. How familiar were you with the periods and areas represented prior to writing this book? What is the most interesting thing you learned in the research you did?

I was pretty familiar with these periods when I set out, and did a good bit of research as well, generating a detailed alternate history backstory, only small portions of which were laid out in the book. For example, my notebook chronology included George H.W. Bush being killed in action when he was shot down in the Pacific as a WWII Navy pilot, an incident he survived in our history. Imagining what is essentially an alternate present was a good way to remix material from the observed world into a dystopian mirror—a post-9/11 America in which 9/11 never happened and all the dark energy of the war on terror is directed at home. Where I really learned a ton was researching other histories that informed the story that unfolds in the book—like Eric Hobsbawm’s work on social bandits, narratives from contemporary societies that endured authoritarian governments, and recent histories of successful revolutions. And there’s a sort of historiographical revelation that goes on as you think through the ways individual lives do and don’t direct the course of history—Hegelian historical forces versus the kind of effect Ray Bradbury nailed in his story “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a 21st century tourist travels to the time of the dinosaurs and accidentally kills a butterfly, discovering upon his return that a fascist has just been elected president as a result.

You also postulate some interesting uses of older technologies. Are any of those uses actually possible using those older signals and devices? Again, did you have to do a lot of research? What is the most interesting thing you learned in the research you did?

I think pretty much all of the analog technology used in the book—what one reviewer called “UHF-punk”—could work the way I imagined. One of the most thoughtful pieces of correspondence I have received the book came out was from a radio engineer who told me my outlaw broadcast networks were largely accurate and plausible. The idea of digital information being transmitted through the vertical blanking interval of television signals is something I actually worked on at a software company many years ago. The most interesting thing I learned from that research (other than the sheer cool fun of trawling libraries and used bookstores for weird tomes of television engineering) was how effective such technologies really could be to evade modern modes of surveillance.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A lot of different stuff at the same time, as always. The pile currently includes The Judges of the Secret Court by David Stacton, A History of Political Trials by John Laughland, Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson, Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen, An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King, The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, Soledad by D.L. Young, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist, Seeing Like a State by James Scott, Feral by George Monbiot, and a bunch of collections of old lawyer stories that are research for a new project—including some Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason cases, which I have never read before.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Probably D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. That book really had a huge influence on me, and was the book I most frequently re-read as a kid.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

J.G. Ballard, Walker Percy, Joan Didion, William Gibson and Hunter S. Thompson.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Crime and Punishment, in high school. I think my eyes actually passed over most of the words, but in a way that barely constituted “reading.” I should give it another try.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I buy a lot of books for the cover. But the one that comes immediately to mind is one I bought as a kid—Conan of Cimmeria, one of the revised volumes of Robert E. Howard stories edited by L. Sprague de Camp, which I bought on a childhood family vacation from a California bookstore entirely on the basis of the Frank Frazetta cover showing these longhairs sword-fighting in the snow with a Matterhorn-looking peak in the background. And I suppose my gateway drug to that were all the Bantam pulps I bought at an even younger age for their James Bama covers— Doc Savage and The Avenger—at the weird old bookshop called the Time Machine where I spent a substantial chunk of my childhood Saturdays. Tropic of Kansas tries to channel the energy of those kinds of book covers, but through a more realist prism.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. It was assigned by the same high school English teacher who turned me on to Graham Greene and Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports.” It was one of the first modern adult literary novels that I really connected with in a deep way, a masterful examination of American alienation, ethical and existential and at times transcendent.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard. In some ways it is more suited to our contemporary moment than it was on its publication close to fifty years ago.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. More specifically, I wish I could read all those stories in Spanish, without ever having read them in English.

What is your idea of THE perfect day?

It would be a day like most of the days I live now. Up before dawn, write for a few hours, walk the dogs in the urban woods at daybreak and have some unexpected wildlife encounters, do some legal work for my clients and a pro bono hour or two, eat lunch with a good book or a good friend, take a micro-nap, write some more, lawyer some more, talk with my son about life, go for a trail run or a paddle on the urban river, work in the yard, make dinner and talk with my brilliant and lovely wife and maybe some friends, watch a movie, read some more, and dream. That’s my daily routine, I have worked hard to get to it, and I love it.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a new novel about a criminal defense lawyer in a dystopian society—think Better Call Saul meets Nineteen Eighty-Four—and a speculative nonfiction project about urban ecology.