Usually when someone decides to become a writer, they dedicate themselves to one type of writing or another. Whether it’s nonfiction, writing plays or short stories, nine times out of ten, it’s one or the other.
Then there’s Philadelphia writer Chris Braak.
He obviously couldn’t decide what he liked best, so he writes all of it. From novels to short stories and plays, he is a man of many and varied talents. Chris talked with me via email about when he started writing, his work and what’s coming next in the Corsay Books.
First, give everyone the lowdown on Chris Braak.
I, Chris Braak!, am a writer living in Philadelphia. And by writer I mean: I have written some novels, several plays, a few short stories, and heaps of sarcastic criticism. I edit and contribute to Threat Quality Press, a website that is best-known for having produced the world’s first and most thorough Hierarchy of Monsters, thus establishing for posterity the definitive Order That The Monsters Go In.
I am a contributor to spec-fic website io9, and also the website for Black Gate Fantasy Magazine. I also invented a beer based on a Neil Gaiman short story, and once I worked as a professional freelance theologian. An old man on a bus once told me I looked like George Harrison, but I don’t really think that’s true.
When did the writing bug first bite you?
I typically say it was around 2005, when I wrote my first real work – the first short story I ever sold (“The Hangman’s Daughter”), followed closely by two plays (“June Thirteenth” and Phallotrex) that were actually performed, instead of sitting half-undone in a folder on my computer. That’s when I sat down and committed myself to writing as an artistic endeavor, instead of just a hobby. But the more I think about it, the more I think I’ve been writing, or trying to, since I learned to type.
I have a distinct recollection of being nine and having my mother help me to edit a seventy- or eighty-page story that I’d written back when WordPerfect was still a thing that people knew about. The story was this weird knockoff of Back to the Future and My Science Project, a movie that I’d never seen but a friend of mine had once told me about, and I think it’s a pretty good thing that the internet age as made it very easy to permanently lose juvenilia like that.
You have written just about every type of story there is, from novels to short stories to plays to nonfiction. What do you enjoy writing the most?
That’s always a tricky question, because different forms have different things about them to like. Novels are hard (and often, the writing process is actually kind of boring, when you know what you need to say and how to say it, and there’s nothing left to do but sit down and spend ten hours typing it out), but deeply satisfying when you get to the end.
Plays are easier and can be just as satisfying, but they rely very heavily on getting other people together in order to make them work. And at the same time, there are certain kinds of stories that you just can’t tell except in certain forms. The Translated Man is really meant to be a novel, you couldn’t ever make a play out of it (though it is under option to be made into a movie – something that, if it ever happens, I will probably have very little to do with, and am very interested to see).
Angry screeds, of course, are typically the most satisfying of all, but at the end of the day, how much does a person want to be known as someone who primarily deals in angry screeds?
I’d say it’s a toss-up between the novel (which, despite its hassles, really permits a level of depth that you don’t get to play with in other forms), and the in-depth criticism that we’re sometimes able to get into on Threat Quality – really talking about the nuts and bolts of story, structure, things like that.
As if that wasn’t enough, you’re also contributor to io9. What do you cover for them?
Interestingly, I actually, along with a handful of other people, started out as just a prolific commenter in the early days of io9, before I started making such a nuisance of myself that Annalee Newitz (EIC at io9) finally just figured she ought to give me something to do. Typically I do book reviews for them, but I’ve also done a few longer articles about “Geek Culture” – something that I find pretty endlessly fascinating – and the occasional theatrical review. Surprisingly, there are not many plays that fall into the purview of io9.
So far you have published the first two novels in the Corsay Books. What inspired the series?
Around about 2006, when I was in graduate school for theater, I took a course over in England during the summer. And the course was boring, so I dropped it and instead hopped on a bus and went to Edinburgh, a city that I’d always wanted to visit. This was sort of early on in the movement towards what we now definitively recognize as “steampunk” – there’d been a couple steampunk books before, but it wasn’t really a defined and popular genre at the time, so I kind of wanted to sink my teeth into it. The combination of the dirty, close, Victorian mess of Edinburgh and this burgeoning idea I had to look at steampunk in a way that cast a critical eye on the filth and oppression and the racism and misogyny that really characterized the Victorian era, and that the lovingly-recycled tropes of Victorian adventure fiction were so often anodyne, sanitized references to, is what sparked The Translated Man.
I’m actually really ambivalent about the idea of Victoriana as an aesthetic for modern fiction. There are parts of it I like – the costumes, and (like everyone else) there’s something I find fascinating about gigantic, complicated machines. And the suffocating morality of polite society makes a pretty good counterpoint to the ideas of personal identity and freedom that the associated kinds of adventure fiction are usually about. But you know, that was a racist era. The British Empire (and, let’s not forget, the American “empire” of the same time – American industrialization, the Wild West, &c.) was built on the back of some pretty bald-faced and reprehensible colonialism, genocide, bigotry.
Really, the guiding idea behind the series is to look at this kind of Victorian fiction that lionizes the Imperialism of 19th century British / American history in a way that’s cognizant of it as being really a messy, often mean and miserable time.
What made you decide to add three short stories to the new edition of The Translated Man that came out in 2010?
The Corsay Books, which I always figured would be a series of about four, wasn’t exactly intended to start with the setting and characters that The Translated Man starts with – I had in mind a kind of broad story that was spread out over several characters, with each book having its own plot and themes, and then also a larger story that only starts to come into view a little later. And these ideas all came about while I was in the process of working on them, and so I didn’t have the whole thing in my head and ready to go when The Translated Man was first published – just a sort of vague idea about it.
The three stories added to the second edition – “Beckett’s Job,” “The Hangman’s Daughter,” and “Cresy and the Sharpsie” – are all part of this much larger story, designed to fill in some of the gaps, and flesh out some of the characters, and all in all provide some of the background that’s going to help Book Three both 1) make sense, and 2) not seem over-laden with back-story.
So I have to ask: when can we expect Book Three?
Book Three moves the action to the colony city of Corsay – the city from which the series takes its name – several years after the first books, and follows Alan Charterhouse and Cresy Gyre as protagonists. It actually moves along a plot that’s been lurking in The Translated Man and Mr. Stitch, but hasn’t ever been made explicit yet. I don’t want to get too into it, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can say that almost everything that seemed weird or superfluous or that didn’t quite fit right in the first two books comes to a head in this one, in which the fate of the world rests on the back of a mathematician and an angry street thug. Is that too much to say?
What makes being creative in Philadelphia so great?
Philadelphia is enjoying an artistic renaissance, I think. Some of the other big cities for arts – New York, Chicago, LA – I think there’s a sense of the cultural scene there being a little calcified. Like it’s all been around for so long, and so many people just pack up and head there when they want to get to work, it sometimes just doesn’t feel like there’s as much room. There’s something about Philadelphia’s flexibility as an arts culture, and about that ebullience of new growth, that makes it very appealing to me.
Chris Braak’s website