Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.
Born the day after “The Web Planet” was shown on TV and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was at number one. Descendant of warriors, slavers and opium traders. Have lived in Abingdon over half my life which actually means I can say I’m from somewhere.
How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I always had to write, the same way that some children just have to draw on the walls. As my reading solidified into sf, that’s what my writing became. The first piece I can remember giving a title was called ‘The Hidden Hurricane’, in which a hurricane kept coming out of a hidden base at the bottom of the sea floor and sinking ships until – I couldn’t think of any other ending – Captain Kirk and the Enterprise rock up and phaser it. At the age of 7 I had deduced the existence of spinoffery and shared universes from first principles.
I have always been able to retreat into my mind and have imaginary adventures there. As I read more and more of the stuff it occurred to me that I could actually write these adventures down. Asimov and Clarke often topped and tailed the stories in their collections with little essays on the genesis and afterlife of each story. This introduced me to the notion that such things as editors and sf magazines existed and that you could make money by doing it well enough yourself. And so I started writing down the ideas that were coming to me. I’m very much of the Interzone generation. Just the fact of its existence gave a point to writing because now there was somewhere I could plausibly send my efforts.
The next necessary step was learning that ideas and plots are two very different things – and to this day, actual plotting is my least favourite activity. I love to be surprised, and so if I can work out a plot then I immediately assume it’s no good because, well, I worked it out, so why shouldn’t anyone else?
Poor David Pringle was bombarded daily with manuscripts which, with practice and polish and feedback, grew steadily better. Eventually I sent him a short story which distilled the Marxism module of my Philosophy & Politics BA into science fictional form; he rejected it as being too similar to Sterling & Gibson’s The Difference Engine, a chapter of which he was about to reproduce – but, he suggested I send it to David V. Barrett who was putting together an anthology of A.I.-themed stories. David B. also rejected it on the far sounder grounds that it wasn’t good enough – but he did take the next thing I sent him. So, to answer the question, ‘Digital Cats Come Out Tonight’, Digital Dreams, David V. Barrett (Ed.), NEL 1990.
David B. it was who got me invited to my first Milford.
What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?
The sky is the limit. You can go anywhere and do anything. Whether you should is of course another matter, but hey. I just glanced at my bookcase for inspiration in answering this question, and my eyes settled on the row of Miles / Barrayar books. Okay! How else could you write inspiring stories about a guy with a physical disability, and social analysis of tradition vs progress in a hidebound society, and clever mysteries and whodunnits and spy stories, and scientific speculation (physical and biological), and politics, and family relationships, and amazingly strong female characters, and religion and superstition, and exploding spaceships?
What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?
I suppose I notice things, especially sensory data, and I try to get that into my writing. Feelings, tastes, smells.
If I have a character doing something I’ve not done then I draw on the nearest comparable experience, and also try to make it harder and more uncomfortable for the character than it otherwise might be. I’ve never been in a spacesuit – but I have scuba dived, so I’ve been weightless in a very hostile environment, depending on a specialised and slightly claustrophobic piece of kit to keep me alive. I can use that. I’ve never sailed on a Hornbloweresque ship of the line – but I’ve been to H.M.S. Victory and I have sailed a modern yacht. I’ve never time travelled to nineteenth century London or ancient Rome but I’ve been in some pretty unsavoury Third World locations. I’ve flown a glider solo, I can drive car, I’ve pot-holed, I’ve been for walks in forests and jungles and up mountains … It’s all there and it’s all available for use.
There’s also the importance of attitude. I don’t think I’m obsessive, but one thing I’ve learnt as a grown-up is to be organised. At work you get nowhere if you’re unorganised, unreliable, unprofessional. So why should your writing be any different? You stick to deadlines, you turn in good material, you don’t be a git … and guess what, people like you enough to keep giving you work. It’s, like, magic or something.
Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project
This is where it gets complicated … because in 2015 I accidentally became a ghostwriter.
Actually that had happened a few years ago. My previous point about not being a git and people keep employing you – well, an editor I had worked with changed jobs, inherited a series ‘by’ a Well Known Celebrity that needed a writer, and thought of me. Since then I’ve never been able to shake it off: they keep turning up and giving me money. At first it was handy pocket money but in 2015 it accidentally became enough to live off.
What this means, though, is I can’t actually talk about most of my writing. Not without having to track down everyone who reads this and kill them.
However, no one need die to hear about my most recent publication. A couple of years ago my first publisher, David Fickling, began the First Names series – a series of biographies of famous people (at least, people David finds interesting) written for children. The first few titles have included Emmeline Pankhurst, Amelia Earhart, Harry Houdini, Malala Yousafzai, Elon Musk, Ferdinand Magellan and … um … Beyonce. From the available list, I chose Ava Lovelace, about whom I actually knew very little except that she was Byron’s daughter and she wrote the first ever computer program, so just doing the research was fun. This included the awesome The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, which I cannot recommend enough; and also Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers, edited by Betty O’Toole, which is all the letters we have from her, written to her mother and Babbage and fellow scientists like Faraday and all sorts of other people. What was also fun was I got to think up jokes and funny pictures for an artist to interpret.
Ada Lovelace was recently chosen by the US National Science Teaching Association as one of the Best STEM Books of 2021, which was nice.
Whether I’ll ever write another sf novel, I do not know. I have most of a historical fantasy about Napoleon sitting on my hard drive – this was the one I brought to my most recent Milford in 2015, which was literally a week after I quit the day job. I have no idea how it ends and still haven’t found the time to sit down and think about it. Like I say, I find plotting really, really difficult.
Well, if only people would stop paying me money to write and give me a moment to myself … I actually feel quite liberated, no longer regarding myself as purely a science fiction and fantasy writer. There are several other projects I would love to tackle. If David Fickling continues the First Name series then I hope to do some more of those: Brunel, for one, and – if we can make his private life appropriately child-friendly, which is the killer as far as the essential American market is concerned – Alan Turing. There are various non-sf novel ideas buzzing around – if I can work out the plots.
Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be quite easy (it isn’t) and save him from having to get a real job (it didn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of several novels and short stories, he is also an experienced ghostwriter, journal editor, book publisher and technical writer. His most recent book is a biography of the amazing Ada Lovelace for children, published by David Fickling Books. His novels to date are: His Majesty’s Starship; The Xenocide Mission; Time’s Chariot; The New World Order; Phoenicia’s Worlds; The Teen, the Witch & the Thief; The Comeback of the King; and H.M.S. Barabbas. His short story collection Jeapes Japes is available from Wizard’s Tower Press (https://wizardstowerpress.com/). He is now a full time ghostwriter, writing stuff for other people which annoyingly makes more money than his own does. His website is at www.benjeapes.com.